Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Mystery of the Prison Ombudsman and the Justice Committee

The new Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), Sue McAllister started work yesterday. It’s an important role which had its origins in the Woolf Report into the 1990 Strangeways riot. Its remit has extended over time – it now adjudicates complaints from people on probation and immigration detention as well as prisoners. Since 2004 the PPO’s office has investigated all deaths in prisons, probation approved premises, immigration detention facilities and secure training centres.

The terms of reference for the post say that the PPO is appointed by the Secretary of State for Justice, following recommendation by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee. In this case, for some reason there has been no recommendation by the Justice Committee, at least not publicly.

There was a pre -appointment hearing on 17 July, just before the Parliamentary recess. Ms McAllister was given a good grilling over her use of social media and attitudes towards private prisons amongst other things. Committee Chair Bob Neill closed the hearing by saying “We will consider our report”. But there isn’t one.

According to the Liaison Committee (whose membership consists of the chairs of the House of Commons select committees) one of the purposes of pre-appointment hearings is “providing public reassurance…. that those appointed to key public offices have been selected on merit”. Another is “providing public evidence of the independence of mind of the candidate”. Maybe these purposes could be said to have been achieved by the hearing itself, the transcript of which is available for anyone to read. But it’s highly unusual for a Committee not to publish a view about whether a preferred candidate is appointable or not. 

I have no reason to doubt Ms McAllister's capability to do the job- although in the future I do think there is a case for this post to be held - like the Chief Inspector post -by someone who has not worked for the Prison Service. The perception of independence is crucial.  

And I do think the process of appointment should have been done properly. Maybe the Committee forgot about the report over the recess and hoped no one would notice. Or maybe they couldn’t agree.  Whatever the case, failing to publish an opinion looks as if the MPs have not discharged their responsibility. Mr Neill should explain why.

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