Prison chief returns to face early release crisis

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Richard Tilt, director general of the Prison Service, yesterday cut short his holiday in Italy because of the growing pressure over the "early release" crisis.

But Labour home affairs spokesman, Jack Straw, last night warned the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, against any temptation he might feel to use Mr Tilt as a scapegoat for his own failings.

"Even if Michael Howard's version of events is accepted," Mr Straw said, "the Home Office was told of the release of prisoners on Wednesday night.

"It stood back for two days and let prisoners walk free. Therefore any attempt to scapegoat Richard Tilt will be seen by the public as a classic Michael Howard tactic to pass the buck when things go wrong.

"The mismanagement follows directly from the farcical distinction between policy and operations designed to ensure that when things go wrong Michael Howard never takes the blame."

Mr Tilt, who had been on a walking holiday in northern Italy with his wife Kate, decided to return early because of the "difficult" week ahead. A spokesman for the Prison Service said: "He feels it is going to be a difficult week, especially if there is a court case."

Mr Tilt, who replaced the sacked Derek Lewis just four months ago, will be back at his desk today. As questions were being raised about which of the top jail officials' heads would roll, Mr Tilt told the Mail on Sunday that he had no intention of quitting over the fiasco.

There was speculation last night about whether Mr Tilt had been pressured into abandoning his holiday three days early. He had told the Mail on Sunday that he did not intend to return immediately.

But the Prison Service spokesman dismissed any suggestion that Mr Tilt had been forced to return. "Richard has decided to come back of his own accord. Perhaps he decided in the last 12 hours that it would be better to return."

The Prison Service has already confirmed that Mr Tilt knew about the "early" releases, based on a new interpretation of time spent on remand, before they began on the 16 August, but said his number two, Alan Walker, found out only when he returned from his holiday last Wednesday. Mr Walker, who has been acting jail chief since Mr Tilt went on holiday last Thursday, suggested he could step down if an inquiry found he had been "personally culpable".

A total of 80 prisoners were released before Mr Howard ordered a halt. He has demanded a full report into the affair.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "This has become the most extraordinary situation in recent penal history. It's gone from comedy through to farce."