Civil servant's move to jail firm under scrutiny

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The Independent Online
THE CABINET Office is investigating a senior civil servant's attempt to join the first private prison company amid growing concern that plans to 'market test' the jails could lead to unprecedented conflicts of interest.

Charles Erickson, number three in the Home Office remands contract unit, has had his case referred to Sir Robin Butler, Head of the Civil Service, after announcing he had been offered a job by the Group 4 security company.

The unit set the conditions to be met by companies wanting to run the Wolds in Humberside - the first jail to be privately managed under the Government's market testing programme - and assessed rival bids from nine companies. Group 4 was awarded the contract last year. It also drew up the tender for Blackenhurst prison, in Hereford and Worcester. Private bids to manage the jail will be considered next month.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that the decision on the Wolds contract had been made at ministerial level. Mr Erickson's case had been referred to the Cabinet Office because under his conditions of service he he could not take a private sector job 'if he could be perceived to have inside knowledge'.

The Cabinet Office could delay the move for up to two years if it found that Group 4 was trying to obtain inside information which would put rivals at a competitive disadvantage, she added. It would block the appointment if it could be seen as a 'reward for past favours'.

All senior staff at the Wolds - including Steve Twinn, the governor - were recruited from the prison service, the company said yesterday. It is understood that some have received pounds 15,000 pay increases and company cars.

The latest recruit is Walter MacGowan, governor of Strangeways Prison, Manchester. A Group 4 spokesman said that the company might put in a bid to run Strangeways next year.

Mr Erickson's referral to the Cabinet Office is thought to be the first case of its kind.

Unlike the Ministry of Defence, where there is a close relationship between manufacturers and civil servants, the Home Office had no outside contractors interested in its staff until privatisation began.

Harry Brett, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association, said he feared that many more would be 'poached' because lucrative opportunities would soon be opening up.

Next year the Government will invite the prison service and private sector to bid for contracts to run between 12 and 20 jails.

Central services from the running of canteens to the management of prison guard dogs will also be put out for market testing.

A Prison Officers Association meeting to consider whether to co-operate with the market testing of Strangeways ended inconclusively last night.