Jails chief's failure: 537 set free too soon

Click to follow
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, mounted a major damage limitation exercise last night after Richard Tilt, the director-general of the Prison Service, admitted that 537 prisoners had been freed early - six times as many as the 86 suggested last Friday.

In a startling admission, Mr Tilt accepted at a Westminster news conference that he had "gravely mishandled" the issue of sentence recalculation, and said he had offered Mr Howard his "sincere personal apologies" for his failures.

Unlike his predecessor Derek Lewis, however, Mr Tilt's head will not roll. "I have made it clear throughout that I regard this as a very, very serious event," a sombre Mr Howard said, but added he did not not view it as a resigning matter.

But such an abject public apology by a public servant suggests strongly that Mr Howard believes he cannot afford to sack another jails chief - and face refilling the pounds 90,000-a-year post - whatever the scale of incompetence that the episode has disclosed.

Mr Howard, who was not aware of the scale of the releases until yesterday evening, hopes that the highly embarrassing affair will draw to a close after tomorrow, when a prisoner from a Manchester jail will present a writ of habeas corpus in the High Court. The prisoner will challenge Mr Howard's decision last Friday to suspend Mr Tilt's instruction for the release of prisoners earlier than expected, which was in line with advice from Home Office lawyers on the interpretation of the 1967 Criminal Justice Act and the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, but over which no outside second opinion from counsel was sought.

In fact, the dispute could linger on for months if appeals are made by the losing party to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.

In the meantime, the true number of those already freed ahead of their previously anticipated release dates will fuel the concerns of victims and the probation service about the release of prisoners without warning or preparation, and of Tory MPs over the political embarrassment caused. The average length of time remitted for the prisoners, said to be from most of the service's 136 establishments in England and Wales, is around three months.

Jack Straw, Mr Howard's Labour shadow, said: "This is a most extraordinary shambles which exposes Mr Howard's profound mismanagement of the Prison Service." Mr Straw demanded a breakdown of the crimes and sentences of those released - which Mr Tilt was unable to supply yesterday - and that Mr Tilt's report into the affair, presented at a meeting with the Home Secretary yesterday afternoon, be made public.

The episode also reveals the failure of the Home Office monitoring unit within the Prison Service HQ to alert the Home Secretary to potential political problems. Mr Howard said: "It wasn't informed any earlier than ministers were informed." The affair also further undermines Mr Howard's insistence that there is a clear distinction between policy, a matter for ministers, and operations, a matter for the service.

Mr Tilt admitted that ministers had not been told until after releases had begun about the work being carried out by a Prison Service working party on the subject of consecutive sentences. The work led to new guidance on 12 August that time spent on remand before trial should be deducted from each of a series of consecutive sentences, not just the final one.

Despite emphasising the detailed work carried out by the working party, Mr Tilt said the failure to tell ministers occurred because officials had not fully appreciated the consequences of their actions.

He had at no stage offered his resignation, he said.

Polly Toynbee, page 12