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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK
Anne Owers: Campaigner turned prison watchdog
Anne Owers
Anne Owers: a long time critic of home secretaries
Anne Owers' appointment as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has prompted much comment, and not solely because the human rights campaigner is the first woman to hold the post.

The adage about keeping your allies, and your enemies closer sounds too Machiavellian for modern politics, but the government's selection of Anne Owers CBE to succeed Sir David Ramsbotham as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons surprised many.

Not even the veteran human rights campaigner thought her application would make it past the home office ministers she has so persistently needled since Labour came to office.

PM Tony Blair visits inmates
Will Labour listen to Owers' criticisms of prison life?
"People have said it's a brave appointment," admitted Ms Owers, the former director of the all-party pressure group Justice - a body dubbed the "conscience" of the legal profession.

Under her, Justice (which boasts 300 judges among its members) proved a thorn in the side of Jack Straw, confronting the home secretary over his department's stand on immigration law and sentencing.

She became involved in the controversial James Bulger case, arguing that government ministers had no place in setting (or delaying) the release date of the child's teenage killers.

Asylum clash

The fate of immigrants who challenge unfavourable asylum applications also prompted the scorn of Ms Owers, who pointed out the danger of "hastily passed legislation" amid national furore over 'bogus' asylum seekers.

Having crossed swords, it was feared the working relationship between Mr Straw and his new prison inspector might prove strained.

Former home secretary Jack Straw
Anne Owers clashed with Jack Straw
For her part, 54-year-old Ms Owers said she hoped their new relationship would be "different" and was diplomatic enough to rebrand herself as a long time "independent commentator" on Home Office affairs - the word "critic" having been the one most often attached to her previously.

Fortunately, the departure of Mr Straw for the foreign office averted that potential clash. But the ride for Ms Owers may still not be smooth under David Blunkett.

Despite her formidable experience as a campaigner and human rights advisor to government, she lacks the peculiarly "establishment" background which served her predecessors so well.

Critical language

While Ms Owers is "constructively independent", Sir David Rambotham (a former general) and Sir Stephen Tumim (former judge) were both "buffers" with "awkward-squad credentials" according to the Observer.

The establishment backgrounds of the pair made their criticisms of prison conditions all the more stinging - and even then Sir David Ramsbotham complained of being "sidelined" by the Home Office.

The fear is that Ms Owers, while universally welcomed by reform groups, may see her views discounted with a "she would say that, wouldn't she".

Ms Owers counters this, saying her 'outsider' status is an "advantage", allowing her a fresh perspective.

Prison interior
Do prisons need Owers' fresh perspective?
She is, of course, no stranger to prisons - her work for Justice took her to see many inmates. Indeed, the lot of prisoners is at the heart of the group's work.

In 1998, Justice gave its annual legal award to barrister Edward Fitzgerald for, as Ms Owers explained, "his outstanding integrity, commitment and courage" in fighting for the rights of prisoners.

However, Ms Owers' greatest triumph during her time at Justice was to help secure the setting up of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

It was created to more effectively investigate possible miscarriages of justice, such as the case of Derek Bentley, executed in connection with a murder actually carried out by an associate.

Ms Owers said she hoped the CCRC would "uses these powers robustly and independently".

This may now possibly be the wish of those hoping Ms Owers can bring about reform of jails which even Prison Service head Martin Narey called "hell holes".

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