When Nick Hardwick resigned as chair of the Parole Board last month, there was no question as to whether he had jumped or been pushed.
Writing to justice secretary David Gauke after the High Court ruled that the Board should reconsider its decision to release convicted rapist John Worboys, Hardwick said: “You told me that you thought my position was untenable”.
Hardwick, who had chaired the Parole Board since 2016, did not play a part in the decision to release Worboys, a case the High Court judgment said had “many exceptional features”. Nor did the judgment find fault solely with the Board – many failings were pinned on the secretary of state and his department.
Hardwick is no stranger to ministerial meddling. During his time as chief inspector of prisons, for example, a previous justice secretary attempted – unsuccessfully – to influence the tone of his annual report. When he chose not to apply for a second term, Hardwick argued that: “You can’t be independent of people you are asking for a job”.
So we should take note of the “troubling questions” he raises in his resignation letter, about “how the Board’s independence can be safeguarded” in future.
Speaking to CSW, Hardwick says it is “not tenable any longer for the parole body to be an NDPB,” and that Parliament should pass legislation to establish it as an independent tribunal.
Hardwick also believes there is a “pretty strong argument” that the next chair of the Parole Board should be a judge. This would ensure they have the right expertise to exercise oversight in individual parole decisions, and also give the role the “status and protection” afforded to judges.
He accepts there have been mistakes, but Hardwick defends the Parole Board, citing recent improvements such as removing a large case backlog and entirely digitizing processes. “It would be very wrong if [that] work... was now trashed as a matter of political expediency,” he says.
He is clear that, regardless of direct involvement in decisions, as leader he bears accountability for mistakes made. But he also points to wider problems in the criminal justice system – the state of prisons and probation, and errors made by the police and on behalf of the secretary of state in the Worboys case. “I look around and I don’t see many other people accepting responsibility, and I think that needs to be challenged,” he says.
Calling for accountability does not mean mass sackings. In an interview two weeks after Hardwick’s departure, Gauke accepted responsibility for mistakes in the Worboys case, but said, after lots of “hard thinking”, that he’d be staying in post to reform the justice system.
It is entirely reasonable to express accountability by pledging to make changes following mistakes – but it was a response denied to Hardwick. And the manner of his departure does not bode well for Gauke’s reforms.
The last time a justice secretary sacked an official in a high profile media storm – Michael Howard sacked prison service chief Derek Lewis following security breaches in 1995 – the department was unable to fill the vacant post for a year. Headhunders said the treatment of Lewis had “hampered” the process. Hanging public officials out to dry may be nothing new for politicians, but it feels especially foolhardy at a time when the justice system is in a perilous state, badly in need of reform, funding, and good leadership.