Howard sacks Parkhurst governor

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The Independent Online
The governor of Parkhurst prison, John Marriott, was yesterday effectively sacked by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, following last week's escape by three prisoners.

Six of his staff, including a lower-ranking governor, are also being removed from their duties pending disciplinary proceedings that will follow the findings of the Prison Service inquiry into the affair. One of the six is Colin Jones whose discovery of the three prisoners led to their recapture at the weekend.

But Mr Howard was immediately accused by Opposition leaders, prison service staff, and prison reform groups of seeking scapegoats for his own failure to ensure the public's protection.

Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said Mr Howard had personally failed to act on a series of warnings about security lapses at the prison: "You compounded your failure to act on these warnings by a pattern of evasion and of misinformation.

"Your failure properly to direct and manage the Prison Service and to keep dangerous criminals under lock and key represents a failure of one of the most basic duties of any government to protect the safety and the security of the public."

He said that Mr Howard's conduct of his office "is now characterised by consistent evasion of responsibility, exceeded only by your readiness to scapegoat others".

But Mr Howard fended off calls for his resignation, loading blame upon local management and individual staff.

He said the inquiry, by Richard Tilt, the new Prison Service director of security, had not uncovered "any policy decision of mine which can be held to have caused in any way the breakout from Parkhurst". It had shown serious failures - including failing to check prisoners, pointing security cameras the wrong way, and using inexperienced staff in crucial areas.

He said Mr Marriott was being removed from his duties immediately and would not be allowed to run another prison. Mr Marriott is generally regarded as one of the country's most experienced governors.

Six other staff, including a governor who should have been on duty on the fateful night and was not, have also being temporarily transferred from the prison to duties at other jails.

Mr Howard was forced to make the statement to the Commons only three weeks after he admitted a litany of Prison Service failings which led to the Whitemoor debacle. Although he promised greater security in Britain's jails, riots at Everthorpe, the suicide of the alleged serial killer Frederick West and the Parkhurst escape have led to claims that his prison policy has led to a crisis in the jails. For a politician anxious to seize back the law and order initiative, Mr Howard seems increasingly accidentprone.

Nevertheless, backbenchers and John Major yesterday rallied round. Downing Street sources said the Prime Minister had "absolute confidence" in the Home Secretary.

In a clear indication that no senior prison staff would resign, Mr Howard in turn gave his support to Derek Lewis, the director-general of the Prison Service. Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP yesterday suggested Mr Lewis was a man who "no fish and chip shopor whelk stall would accept behind its counter".

Yesterday, the Prison Governor's Association said: "We feel this is a premature and vindictive action, designed to pillory the governor of Parkhurst who has consistently called for improved security measures." In a clear reference to Mr Howard and Mr Lewis, governors said there was an "appalling unwillingness from others to accept their responsibility".

The Parkhurst Prison Officers' Association secretary, Neal Mason, said the governor had not been given adequate Home Office financial support for proper security measures. "They have gone for heads, including my members. We have said all along they wouldgo for us and they have done," he said.

The Howard League for penal reform said: "Mr Marriott has been made a sacrificial lamb by the Home Secretary. The real issue is not security at Parkhurst but the fundamentaly misdirected policies that the Home Secretary has in relation to criminal justice. Sacking Mr Marriott will not solve overcrowding or the wasteful and counter-productive use of prison."

Rise and fall, page 2

Inside Parliament, page 8

Leading article, page 17