The new Prison and Probation Ombusdman, Sue McAllister, began work this week.
The eagle-eyed Rob Allen has spotted an anomaly in this appointment: the Justice Secretary makes the appointment on the recommendation of the the Commons Justice Committee, which examines candidates in public to give assurance of some independent scrutiny. The Committee did examine McAllister, on 17 July. But it did not send a recommendation to the Secretary of State or, if it did, preferred to do so in secret – which negates the value of public scrutiny.
This may seem a bureaucratic nicety, but governance arrangements relating to appointments (and for that matter, dismissals) are there for a reason. The failure to follow them here is serious, implying a casual attitude by the Committee to its duties.
This is particularly so, as there a couple of serious question marks about McAllister's suitability.
First, she is hostile to the private sector, as a matter of ideology, as she to her credit candidly stated at the hearing: she thinks privately run prisons are plain wrong, and has condemned privatisation of probation. To my mind, this must cast doubt on the appointment. She will be arbitrating between prisoners/offenders and the private operating companies – which she thinks should not be in business at all. The Committee asked about this and were satisfied by her statement that despite her views, she would be at all time professional. Too easily satisfied, in my view. It is not, of course, a question about her integrity, but about the need for absolute impartiality to be demonstrated beyond doubt in such a role. I don't see how it can be, given her views.
Second, there is a general issue about appointing former governors (or probation managers) to such a role. Prisoners/offenders want to be assured that the post holder is completely neutral between them and the management – that is the whole point of the Ombudsman. I don't think that requirement is fully met if the post holder has spent her entire career in prison management. It can be argued that that experience is useful background to the job. But it must also raise the question whether the post holder can really be expected to see the issues entirely independently. Sometimes you need an outsider to take the robust view that what seems sensible, right and proper to prison governor isn't, in fact sensible, right and proper, to the general public.
It seems agreed that the Chief Inspector should not be an ex Governor: how is this post any different?
I have, let me say, no reason at all to question McAllister's capacity and skills. And it is a miserable thing to sound such doubts just as she starts work. Indeed: that is exactly why such issues should have been properly considered during the appointment process. Now is too late. Neither the MoJ nor the Justice Committee have done an adequate job here.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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