A battery of former cabinet ministers, including an ex-home secretary, have accused the government of wanting to abolish the independent post of chief inspector of prisons simply to remove "a thorn in the ample flesh" of successive home secretaries.
One former Labour minister warned the government that the idea has so angered its supporters that it almost certainly will be blocked by the Lords.
Lord Dubs bluntly told his former Labour colleagues: "I have yet to find anybody who supports the government and I say to them that many of their most loyal supporters will feel compelled to vote against them unless there is a change of heart. I feel utterly dismayed and let down ... they are being utterly silly."
Under the police and justice bill going through parliament the chief inspector of prisons is to be merged with those responsible for monitoring the police, the courts, crown prosecution and probation services into a single criminal justice inspectorate.
The new chief inspector of justice, community safety and custody who is to take over in March 2008 is to be subject for the first time to the directions of ministers and will be charged with ensuring the criminal justice system operates effectively. The move is part of a wider Treasury-led cull to reduce the number of public sector regulators from 11 to four.
The current chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, has warned that the new role of the merged inspectorate clashes with her duty to inspect conditions of detention and the treatment of prisoners. It will also mean that the "sharp focus and direct voice of prisons' inspection will be lost or muffled", she has told the Guardian.
Her predecessor, Lord Ramsbotham, who is leading a parliamentary revolt to block the move, described it as "a wilful act of extreme folly". He said the independent inspectorate had played a key role in exposing pregnant women in chains in Holloway, assaults and outrageus behaviour in the segregation units at Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs, and that conditions were so bad at Woodhill that the governor had to be changed.
"I just hope that the attempt to put the inspectorate of prisons into a merged group is not a deliberate attempt to silence it," he complained.
His fears were also voiced by the former Northern Ireland secretary, Lord Mayhew, and his successor, Lord Brooke, who said that for 20 years the prisons inspectors had shone lights into corners where none would otherwise have been shone and where too often horrible conditions of ill-treatment had been perpetrated.
Lord Mayhew said that was why the way the job had been done was celebrated at home and greatly admired abroad.
"The chief inspectors have gone where they wanted and spoken to whomever they wanted. They reported directly and publicly to the home secretary on what they found. In doing so, they have very often been a thorn in the ample flesh of ministers in successive governments."
The growing revolt has also been backed by the former home secretary, Lord Hurd, who has described the prisons inspectorate as "a fortress of good sense in the swirl of prejudice and ignorance" that surrounds the Prison Service. It was different in nature from the other criminal justice inspectorates because it was concerned with those deprived of their liberty.
The proposal has also been the subject of scathing criticism from parliament's joint committee on human rights which said its abolition would mean Britain no longer complied with a new protocol under the UN convention against torture.
The government cannot even be confident it will be able to overturn a defeat in the Lords when the issue returns to the Commons. Labour backbenchers Chris Mullin and David Winnick, who have both played prominent roles on the Commons home affairs committee, have warned they will oppose any dilution of the power of a separate chief inspector of prisons.
(c) The Guardian