COMMONS

Inspection in Home Affairs and Justice report published

29 March 2015

There is a risk that the independence of the inspectorates is undermined by the current arrangements for appointing Chief Inspectors and setting their budgets according to the Public Accounts Committee's report published Monday 30 March 2015.

Chair's comments

"Independent inspection is essential for enabling Parliament and the public to hold government to account for the performance of vital public services, and identifying areas at risk of failure. It is therefore crucial that inspectorates are, and are seen to be, genuinely independent.

However, in our view, current arrangements for appointing Chief Inspectors and for setting their budgets potentially pose a significant threat to their independence.

Chief Inspectors are reliant for their appointment, the length of their tenure and the size of their budgets on the very same Ministers who are responsible for the sectors they inspect.

There is a risk that Departments could use these controls over inspectorates as levers to influence Chief Inspectors.

The Chief Inspectors from whom we took evidence told us that they do not believe the independence of how they conducted inspections was in doubt.

However, we believe that the Cabinet Office needs to conduct a full review of the appointment, budget allocation and reporting arrangements for Chief Inspectors. This should include considering a form of direct reporting to Parliament, such as annual reports to the appropriate select committees.

We were shocked by the Ministry of Justice’s mishandling of an entirely foreseeable conflict of interest in its appointment of Paul McDowell – whose wife held a senior position in Sodexo Justice Services, a private provider which subsequently successfully bid for 6 out of 21 probation contracts – as HM Chief Inspector of Probation. It is particularly disappointing that the Ministry failed to keep Parliament adequately informed about this conflict as it developed.

It must ensure that it learns from this experience, that the proper processes are now in place, and that in future it is fully transparent with Parliament about potential conflicts of interest.

We are also concerned that the independence of the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is undermined by the fact that the Home Secretary now decides when to publish his reports.

Since the Home Secretary took control of publishing the Chief Inspector’s reports, there have been significant delays – up to 163 days — which can undermine genuine accountability by blunting the impact of reports. The Home Office has now made a commitment to publishing his reports within eight weeks of receipt, and we will hold them to account for that, but this is still longer than the four weeks it took previously.

The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office do not hold inspectorates themselves properly to account for their impact, with no formal requirements for inspectorates to demonstrate their impact and effectiveness.

The Chief Inspectors accepted that they needed to do more to follow-up and make sure their recommendations were implemented by inspected bodies.

Inspectorates are not yet working together effectively to tackle serious and complex issues of common interest across departments – such as sex crime, rape, reoffending and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

We welcome the acknowledgement by the inspectorates that, to maximise the benefits of their work, they need to do more to exploit their findings, by identifying and disseminating common lessons and good practice, and do more to learn from each other, share good inspection practice and joint training, and minimise the burden on inspected bodies."

Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 53rd Report of this Session which – on the basis of evidence from Mark Sedwill CMG, Permanent Secretary, Home Office, Dame Ursula Brennan, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Justice, Sir Thomas Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Nick Hardwick CBE, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and John Vine CBE QPM, former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration – examined inspection in home affairs and justice.

No guard against threats to independence

Inspectorates need to be, and be seen to be, independent. However, in our view the existing arrangements for appointing Chief Inspectors do not adequately secure, or guard against potential threats to, genuine independence. For example, the appointment of Chief Inspectors is subject to approval by the Secretary of State who is responsible for the same bodies to be inspected, and departments control the budgets available to inspect the same bodies for which they are accountable.

There are also inconsistencies in current arrangements for publishing inspectorates’ reports, and conflicts of interest can easily arise when making appointments or towards the end of an inspector’s tenure; these also contribute to a sense that independence may be compromised.

Inspectorates not held to account

We recognise that the prospect of regular inspections and the existence of inspection standards is a strong cultural driver to maintaining and improving performance of inspected bodies. But the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office do not hold inspectorates properly to account for their impact. We also welcome the acknowledgement by the inspectorates that they need to do more to maximise the benefits of their work and exploit their findings, by identifying and disseminating common lessons and good practice, and doing more to tackle cross-departmental issues through joint inspection.

Inspection plays an important role in providing objective information about performance and people’s experience of public services. It can provide independent assurance on the delivery of public services and identify where service performance is at risk of failing or could be improved. In the home affairs and justice sector there are five main inspectorates, together employing around 370 staff, with a combined annual spend of around £35 million: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (both sponsored by the Home Office); Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (both sponsored by the Ministry of Justice); and Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (sponsored by the Attorney General’s Office). In total, around £20 billion of public money is spent each year on the areas these five inspectorates examine.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There is a risk that the independence of the inspectorates is undermined by the current arrangements for appointing Chief Inspectors and setting their budgets. Chief Inspectors were clear that the independence of how they conducted inspections was not in doubt. However, decisions on the appointment of Chief Inspectors, the length of their tenure, and the size of their budgets, are taken by the relevant secretaries of state responsible for the sectors under inspection, rather than by bodies independent of that responsibility, such as the Cabinet Office or Parliament. Current arrangements potentially pose a significant threat to inspectorate independence.

For example, although Chief Inspectors considered that the departments had made sufficient resources available to provide effective inspection, departments could potentially use their control over inspectorate budgets as a lever to influence Chief Inspectors. Similarly, the requirement to re-apply for their posts towards the end of their tenure created a clear conflict of interest for Chief Inspectors, while a short tenure could allow Ministers not to re-appoint a Chief Inspector they did not like.

Recommendation: The Cabinet Office should conduct a full review of the appointment, budget allocation and reporting arrangements for Chief Inspectors. It should address specifically whether inspectorates’ independence would be best served by independent appointment and sponsorship arrangements, and a measure of direct reporting to Parliament such as annual reports taken by the appropriate select committees.

Changes made by the Home Office to the publication arrangements for reports by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration undermine his independence and have delayed publication of his reports. The Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is in a unique position amongst home affairs and justice inspectorates of directly inspecting his own sponsoring department, the Home Office. The independence of the inspectorate relies on the actions of the Chief Inspector, principally through preparation of well-evidenced and thorough reports. But this independence is undermined by current arrangements whereby the Home Secretary now decides when to publish his reports.

Since the inspectorate was established in 2008, the Chief Inspector decided when to publish his own reports, but this changed from January 2014 to the Home Secretary in the light of legal advice sought by the Home Office on how to interpret the UK Borders Act 2007. Contrary legal advice suggests that the Home Office’s interpretation is neither the obvious nor the only interpretation. Since the Home Secretary took control of publishing the Chief Inspector’s reports, significant delays–up to 163 days—have resulted, which can blunt impact. The Home Office has now made a commitment to publishing his reports within eight weeks of receipt, and we will hold them to account for that, but this is still a longer timeframe than the four weeks which it previously took for reports to be published.

Recommendation: The Home Office should bring reporting practice for the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration into line with the arrangements for other inspectorates. In the meantime, the Home Office needs to stick to the eight week publication timescale it has agreed for the Chief Inspector’s reports.

The Ministry of Justice mishandled an entirely foreseeable conflict of interest in its appointment of HM Chief Inspector of Probation. The former HM Chief Inspector of Probation took up post in February 2014 and resigned in February 2015. A conflict of interest was apparent during his recruitment because his wife held the position of Deputy Managing Director at Sodexo Justice Services. Sodexo bid for, and subsequently won 6 out of 21, probation contracts from the Ministry of Justice. Leading up to this, the Ministry’s handling of the potential conflict of interest was not sufficiently transparent.

The design of the new probation system had been established well before the Chief Inspector’s appointment and it was always foreseeable that Sodexo was likely to win some of the contracts for the new probation system. Once Sodexo was awarded contracts, the arrangements the Ministry had made to handle the conflict of interest were unsustainable, with the result that the Chief Inspector resigned.

We were shocked that the Ministry stood by its view that nothing went wrong in its handling of the conflict of interest, despite it failing to keep Parliament adequately informed as the conflict developed. The Ministry did, however, accept that changes to ensure that Parliament was notified earlier of potential conflicts of interests would be helpful. We should make clear that our criticism is directed at the Ministry, not at the former Chief Inspector himself. The Ministry has assured us that he was completely transparent with it from the start of the recruitment process.

Recommendation: The Ministry of Justice should write to us setting out what guidance it applied, and how it has changed its procedures in the light of lessons from this situation, in order to be fully transparent in future with Parliament about potential conflicts of interest in cases like these.

Neither the Home Office nor the Ministry of Justice have adequate mechanisms to hold inspectors to account for their impact. The departments have set out no formal requirements for inspectorates to demonstrate their impact, nor have they carried out their own assessments. They claimed that it is too difficult to measure and evaluate the impact of inspections. Yet, at the same time the departments told us that practical and significant improvements had been made that they could attribute directly to the inspectorates’ work. The Chief Inspectors themselves were able to tell us about some of the key system weaknesses they had uncovered, and some of the important improvements introduced as a result of their inspections. We therefore find it difficult to understand the departments’ resistance to measuring the impact and, in turn, value for money of the inspectorates

Recommendation: The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice should set out how they will measure and hold the inspectorates to account for their performance and impact.

There is no consistency in the way in which inspectorates review implementation of recommendations and amplify learning from inspection findings. The Chief Inspectors accepted that they needed to do more to follow-up and make sure their recommendations were implemented by inspected bodies. They also accepted that they needed to do more to exploit their findings, by identifying and disseminating common lessons and good practice. For example, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons was keen to exploit his findings on prisons such as Oakwood and Thamesmead, so that other new prisons could get up to speed more quickly and avoid the same problems. More impetus would be given to the implementation of inspectors’ recommendations if departments’ audit and risk committees were more involved in monitoring implementation and invited inspectors to report progress to them.

Recommendation: Inspectorates, with departments, need to build a more consistent approach to learning from inspection findings, including identifying what works best, and improving how recommendations are implemented and followed-up.

Inspectorates are not yet working together effectively to tackle serious and complex issues of common interest across departments. Issues such as sex crime, rape, reoffending and trafficking for sexual exploitation are relevant to all five inspectorates and the sectors they inspect. We recognise the importance of a coherent approach to independent scrutiny, and the challenges of working across large numbers of bodies with different roles in, for example, prevention or punishment. But we were not convinced that the inspectorates were yet working together effectively when dealing with issues of common interest.

Both the Ministry of Justice and Home Office considered that the work of the Criminal Justice Joint Inspection Group had been valuable and had led to genuine change, for example, in tackling the sexual exploitation of children. However the impact of the joint inspection group was not immediately clear to us. HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, as the newly appointed lead for the Criminal Justice Joint Chief Inspectors Group, accepted inspectorates needed to do more to learn from each other, share good practice and joint training, and minimise the burden on inspected bodies by improving communication between inspectorates over the timing of their inspection visits.

Recommendation: The Criminal Justice Joint Inspectors Group should set out how it will develop its identification of multi-agency issues that require scrutiny, and how it will demonstrate the impact of inspectorates working together more effectively.

Further information

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