Prison Board hit by new resignation

Jails controversy: Non-executive director quits in protest at Lewis sacking but Howard passes Commons test
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Home Affairs Correspondent

A second member of the Prison Service's management team yesterday quit in protest over the sacking of Derek Lewis, the director-general.

Urmila Banerjee told the Home Secretary she thought the dismissal of Mr Lewis was not in the best interest of the service; nor did she agree with many of the recommendations in the Learmont inquiry into the escape from Parkhurst prison, which led to his sacking.

The resignation from the Prison Board of Mrs Banerjee, a director of British Telecom, came as Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, described the Learmont report as "flawed and dangerous". The judge said the report's primary conclusion that security should override all other penal policy considerations was "quite wrong".

The current Prison Service statement places security alongside humanity and rehabilitation. But Sir John Learmont has concluded that custody must come before consideration of care and control. Judge Tumim said: "I strongly disapprove of placing security above humanity. What kind of message is that giving to those in the service? It is extremely dangerous. Would it mean that anything was justified to stop someone going over the wall?"

The departure of Mrs Banerjee follows the protest resignation on Wednesday of Geoffrey Keeys, a director of the Prudential insurance company. And a question mark hangs over the future of a third - and arguably most influential member - Sir Duncan Nichol, the former chief executive of the NHS.

Angry letters fired off last week by Sir Duncan - reprinted here - warned the Home Secretary that to sack Mr Lewis would be "severely damaging" to the service. He also questions the "bias" of the Learmont findings and says its summary of his involvement is a "serious distortion".

Sir Duncan is currently working in Spain and last night was not available for comment.

The fourth non-executive board member, Bill Bentley, has said he will not resign but he did express his support for Mr Lewis.

Their vacancies will be filled by Mr Howard who appoints all the directors of the board - the six executive, operation directors and the four advisory, non- executive.

In her letter to Mr Howard, Mrs Banerjee wrote: "I am writing to advise you that, after careful consideration, I have decided to resign my position as a non-executive director of the Prisons Board. After five-and-a-half years this has not been an easy decision.

"However, as I indicated in my letter to you of October 12, I cannot support the view of the performance of the Prisons Board taken by General Sir John Learmont nor many of the recommendations in his report.

"Also, I feel that the dismissal of Mr Lewis was not in the best interest of the Prison Service."

Concerns over the Learmont inquiry were echoed by Stephen Shaw, of the Prison Reform Trust. He said yesterday: "The Learmont report neither could, nor should, command respect. It is impressionistic and reliant upon anecdotal evidence supplied by anonymous members of staff."

He said Sir John, the former Quartermaster General, listened too intently to the "front line troops" and believed too little credit was given in the report for change that was taking place within the service.

"That is not to say that everything was fine with the Service, and would have been if Derek Lewis had been allowed to continue for two or three more years. Fundamental problems that Mr Lewis was bequeathing to the service were a climate of fear in industrial relations and an undue emphasis upon incentives as a tool of prison management," he said.