Dispute over governor's removal key to the issue

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The Independent Online
Nothing better illustrates the difficulties of disentangling the rights and wrongs of aftermath of the Parkhurst and Whitemoor escapes than what happened on 10 January. It was on that day that, according to yesterday's writ, Derek Lewis met the Home Secretary and was put under "extreme and unjustified pressure" to suspend John Marriott, the governor of Parkhurst.

"Suspend", for the purposes of the prison service disciplinary code, has a specific and technical meaning. What actually happened to Mr Marriott was that he was moved to another job within the prison service - at the agency's London headquarters, as Mr Lewis had wanted. "Suspension" would have meant that he would have been sent home on full pay until such time as the inquiry was completed.

According to Labour sources in touch with Mr Lewis, Mr Howard wanted Mr Marriott suspended and at some point after the meeting it was made clear to Mr Lewis by a senior Home Office official that if he did not do so Mr Lewis's own job might be at risk.

The latest statement issued by Conservative Central Office last night, and cleared by Mr Howard, says bluntly: "The governor was not suspended and Mr Howard did not tell Mr Lewis to suspend him." On whether Mr Howard raised the question of Mr Lewis's suspension the CCO document is less illuminating. But it points out that he was perfectly entitled to discuss such matters since the Prison Service Framework Document says clearly that while "the Home Secretary will not normally become involved in the day to day management ... [he] will be expected to be consulted by the Director General on the handling of operational matters which could give rise to grave public or Parliamentary concern".

In the event, as Mr Howard explained to the Commons, he was "removed" from his current post and would not run a prison pending an investigation.

Mr Blair referred on Tuesday to the fax which was sent to Philippa Drew, operational director of the Prison Service, on 10 January. There is now general agreement that the fax merely gave Ms Drew the statement which Mr Howard was going to make in the Commons that afternoon, but Mr Howard's critics, briefed by Mr Lewis, say that this followed a disagreement about the terms under which Mr Marriott was to be transferred.

First, Mr Lewis allegedly wanted the word used for the transfer to be "moved" rather than "removed". Second, he wanted there to be a delay so that the replacement for Mr Marriott could be phased in. Thus the fax, it is alleged, amounted to a summary message that Mr Howard had not acceded to either of these changes and left Ms Drew and Mr Lewis with no alternative but to move him immediately.

One reason why there is still widespread support for Mr Howard on the Tory backbenches - apart from the undoubted enthusiasm they have for the tough new sentencing measures Mr Howard announced last week in Blackpool - is that most MPs expect him to be answerable for operational matters and frequently question him about them in the House.

But part of Mr Howard's problem is precisely that the more he admits to having been involved in such operational matters the less easy it is for him to pass the buck to the prison service and abrogate responsibility for its failures.

There are also some problems for Mr Howard's opponents as they confront him in today's Commons debate. First, Mr Lewis has yet to produce so far either the fax or any communication from a senior Home Office official which allegedly warned him that his own job was at risk if he did not suspend Mr Marriott - apparently because he is worried that to do so would be in breach of his obligations under the Official Secrets Act.

The other problem is that while part at least of the charge against Mr Howard is that he was less than wholly frank with the Home Affairs Select Committee on 25 January, so too, to judge by what he is now saying, was Mr Lewis.

He made it clear, in terms that now seem pregnant with meaning, that he had not instructed Ms Drew about when to transfer Mr Marriott. But when he was asked by the same select committee whether a politician "interfered with the operational matters on 10 January" and was that why Mr Marriott was treated in the disgraceful way he has been treated, Mr Lewis replied: "No that is not the case." And at an earlier stage of his evidence he said that "it was essential for operational reasons that the change in governor [of Parkhurst] took place immediately ..." - rather conflicting with the suggestion that he had fought to delay the transfer.

Finally, there is the point that Mr Blair appeared in his first question in the House on Tuesday to elide the distinction between transfer and suspension. All of this gives Mr Howard some ammunition today. He will need it; it may prove to be the most important Commons speech of his political career.

The Marriott case: Two versions of events

Evening of January 9: Prison Board and Derek Lewis agree that John Marriott should be removed as governor - but that there will be a

sensible hand-over period.

9.30am, January 10: Philippa Drew , director of custody, arrives on Isle of Wight to tell Mr Marriott the news.

At about the same time, there is a meeting between Derek Lewis and the Home Secretary.

At this point, versions of events differ

1pm: Ms Drew went to Mr Marriott's house for lunch.

2.15pm They returned to Parkhurst and were joined by the area

manager Peter Kitteridge and a hand-over period of three to four

weeks is agreed.

3.34pm: Ms Drew receives a telephone call and is apparently read

an extract of Mr Howard's statement to the House which details

Mr Marriott's immediate removal.

Shortly afterwards Mr Howard makes the statement to the House, that Mr Marriott would be unlikely to govern a jail again. Home Office sources suggest that the instant removal would be interpretted as a sacking.

Here again, there are two versions of events

Lewis's version: He maintains he had never agreed to an instant removal and the next day issued

a statement

praising the

contribution of

Mr Marriott (above) to the

Prison Service.

Howard's version: The Home Secretary says he did not tell Mr Lewis that the governor of Parkhurst should be suspended immediately. He did not threaten to instruct Mr Lewis to suspend the governor of Parkhurst. And He did not announce to the House of Commons that afternoon that the governor of Parkhurst had been suspended. Mr Marriott was moved to other duties in the Prison Service.

Lewis's version: He maintains he then came under extreme

pressure to suspend Mr Marriott immediately, which he refused. He says he was given a deadline by which to comply otherwise he would be overruled. He did not agree to the suspension. It is

suggested that during the interval there were discussion between ministers and civil servants about whether Mr Lewis could be sacked if he did not comply.

Howard's

version: The Home Office denies there was a conversation about suspending Mr Marriott and Mr Howard (left) later tells the Home Affairs Select Committee that the decision to remove him was the director general's.

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