Lewis heals his bruises to keep a healthy outlook on the public sector

Business Profile: Ousted prisons boss insists he has no regrets while steering Patientline's expansion

For a man famous for being painfully ousted from his job as head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis is remarkably upbeat about the public sector.

Though he returned to private enterprise after the three years of flak he took with the prisons, his business interests are strongly wedded to the state.

Mr Lewis is executive chairman of Patientline, a listed company that puts gizmos at the bedside of those in NHS hospitals, to keep them entertained and informed about their treatment. He also chairs a private business that provides services to further education colleges and he is treasurer of the University of Essex.

The latest Patientline terminal has a 12-inch TV, radio, phone, e-mail and internet access (it has a keyboard), offers pay-per-view movies, has video games and is an easy way to keep in touch with friends and family. It banishes, forever, the ward TV lounge and the pay-phone down the corridor - the boredom and isolation of a stay in hospital. The terminals are provided free but there are charges for use.

Patientline is based in Slough and it is about to move to a business park there but Mr Lewis is about as far from the boss portrayed by Ricky Gervais in The Office, the television series set in the town, as it is possible to get.

No management speak, no home-spun philosophising. Just sensible, plain talking, in measured tones, even when speaking about subjects that he finds emotive. So didn't the beating he took from Michael Howard put him off working with state? Mr Lewis was made to walk the plank, following a series of deeply embarrassing jail break-outs, in 1995, by the then Home Secretary, Mr Howard.

"It [the public sector] is a fascinating arena. It is very large and very complex. The motivation of people for doing things differs from the private sector. It's always a great challenge," he says.

His argument is that the public sector is simply a more interesting place to work, because of the variety and the complexity, where people are charged with multiple objectives that often conflict - such as punishment and rehabilitation in the criminal justice system.

He describes the three years he spent as head of the Prison Service, after he was plucked from the media industry, as "one of the most satisfying times I have spent" and that he has "no regrets". He concedes there are downsides, such as the politics, the risk-averse culture and the time you have to spend on administration, rather than "driving change".

Fair enough, but what about getting shafted by Mr Howard? Didn't that make him want to run as far from the state as possible?

"It's very bruising if you allow it to be bruising. You need to view things positively, satisfy yourself that you handled it as well as you could."

Yes, but what of the dangers of becoming a victim of politics? Of ministers saying that a failure is operational, and therefore a civil servant should pay, rather than admitting a policy failure?

Pressed further, Mr Lewis says: "I had support from within the Prison Service but Michael Howard had other views. He took the view that someone needed to go and it wasn't going to be him."

Mr Lewis says that one big difference between the public and private sectors is that in the public arena, one mistake will bring you down. There are no second chances. "The City is much more prepared to view performance in the round," he observes.

Mr Lewis, 57, had a successful corporate career before the prisons job, working for Ford, Imperial Group (Imperial Tobacco) and, from 1984 to 1991, Granada, the ITV television group which then also had a large catering business, where he was finance director.

While chairing UK Gold, a pay-television channel provider, Mr Lewis was approached by a headhunter about the prisons job. He was initially dismissive, knowing "nothing" about prisons, but learning more about it, he became "hooked" on the idea. So, he found himself, "by accident", in front of a civil service interview panel and short-listed, with the intervention of the then Home Secretary, Ken Clarke (later replaced by Mr Howard), who was keen to bring in someone from the private sector. Mr Lewis got the job in 1993.

Even the first few days were hairy when, having awarded Group 4 the first-ever private contract to escort prisoners on the move, things went disastrously wrong. Mr Lewis was soon before a press conference, with journalists shouting "when are you going to resign?".

But he says he achieved much to be proud of, once he settled down in the job, cutting the number of escapes from and assaults in prisons and to bring down costs.

The challenge at Patientline is no small matter either. It is a new concept, with a massive capital outlay required. The costs of terminals are borne by the company, while the payback comes in the form of patients choosing to use the services it offers.

The Government decreed, in the NHS plan three years ago, that all 250 major hospitals in England must have either the Patientline terminal or an equivalent from one of its competitors by the end of 2004.

Patientline was the only company in this market before the NHS plan was published and despite the fact that the equipment was free, hospitals had been reluctant to sign up.

"All of a sudden, what was quite a hard slog to sell was transformed [after the NHS plan]. We've had to gear up for the demand. The effect of the plan has been quite startling," Mr Lewis says.

Patientline had a huge head-start over rivals and still dominates the field - with its system operational in 85 hospitals and signed contracts with some 85 more.

Installing the infrastructure will cost Patientline some £140m and the house broker, Evolution Beeson Gregory, forecasts a pre-tax loss of £8m even in 2005.

Without the NHS plan, it would have taken until 2010 for the bedside terminal to be universally available in big hospitals, Mr Lewis says.

The devise can be linked up to a hospital's computer system, allowing clinical staff to access patient records on it, pull up information such as an X-ray and even scan the barcodes on medicines, to check that the right drugs are being dispensed. Hospitals pay for using these services.

The patient can use the terminal to order food or look up information on their condition. The company has staff stationed at each hospital to tackle any problems.

The company has a Belgian operation, and it is moving into the Netherlands. More overseas expansion beckons. "The big question mark for us is the US, where, amazingly, there is no comparable system."

In America, hospitals simply buy terminals and there, the device's ability to give patients information comes to the fore, given the ever-present threat of litigation. Playing medical videos and providing other material to a patient over the terminal will help to prove that informed consent for medical treatment has been given.

At its most simple, as a bedside communications centre, the terminals allow patients to stay in touch. Mr Lewis says that, for the self-employed in particular, being out of touch with the business and clients creates "enormous stress".

"We reduce the level of institutionalisation, give people more choices. This reduces anxiety, which must help the recovery process."

DEREK LEWIS MARCHING ON

Job title: Executive chairman, Patientline

Age: 57

Salary: £160,000

Career: Spent 14 years with Ford Motor Company and two years with the Imperial Group before joining Granada Group in 1984, where he was finance director until 1991. He led the team that created UK Gold Television, then became director-general of Her Majesty's Prison Service in England and Wales in January 1993. He was appointed chairman of Patientline in 1998 and became chief executive the next year, before reverting to the role of full-time chairman on the appointment of Jim Glover as chief executive in 2001.

Interests: Mountain walking (he has a holiday home in the Highlands), cycling, tennis, classical music.

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