From private sector to a public row

THE PRISONS DEBACLE: Jails chief under fire: The pounds 125,000-a-year director general who presided over escape fiasco hits back at Home Secretary
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The Independent Online
Few were surprised when it emerged earlier this year that Derek Lewis had not been the first choice to head the Prison Service. A career manager, whose previous charges had included motorway services, television rental and Granada Television, he had no prison or public work experience when he was appointed in 1993. More importantly, he had had no experience of dealing with ministers.

Mr Lewis's tenure did not take place in the easiest of times and many feel that he has been an "unlucky" director general. In his two years in the service, the prison population has jumped from 40,000 to 51,600, and four months after his appointment he inherited Michael Howard as Home Secretary, a man with a very different view of the prison regime.

Detractors admit that he has improved many parts of the Prison Service. But Mr Lewis, who was paid an unprecedented pounds 125,000 a year, was also unpopular for following ministers' advice which went against research, and for implementing privatisation reforms and market testing which demoralised staff and overwhelmed governors with administration.

He also presided over some of the worst lapses in security, and it was the furore surrounding these that led to his dismissal yesterday.

Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire has been one of his greatest bugbears. Five IRA terrorists tried to shoot their way out of the prison last year and semtex explosive was later discovered inside.

Mr Lewis was also criticised over the transfer of IRA prisoners; Brighton bomber Patrick Magee was sent back to Ulster on the day the Northern Ireland ceasefire started. The escapes from privatised security firms, the Everthorpe riots, the death by hanging of alleged multiple killer Fred West while on remand, and the murder of a Woolworth's shop assistant by murderer Ian Kay while on prison leave compounded the pressure.

But it was the escape of three dangerous prisoners from Parkhurst in January this year that ultimately made Mr Lewis's position untenable, especially once a leaked copy of Sir John Learmont's report singled him out for criticism.

The report said the policy of appointing business executives and civil servants without operational experience to run the prison service had been "a disaster". Mr Lewis, renowned for his planning and cost-evaluation skills, was reported to have been appointed over more obvious candidates because of his fervent backing of prison privatisation. By early this year, however, there were reports that he was poised to quit; that he had told close colleagues he wanted out of the hot seat and a return to industry.