Prison drama ends in political farce

Heather Mills looks at the events leading up to this week's stand- off
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The Independent Online
It was a bizarre and complex drama involving a general, a disgraced prison governor, an unpopular Home Secretary and the prisons boss he sacked.

Television series have been written with more meagre raw material than contained in this week's "trial" of Michael Howard, which ended with him seeing off (yet again) attempts to sabotage his political career. But some questions remain.

It started on 3 January, when three lifers - two killers and an arsonist - put into action Colditz-like preparations and went, armed, through a fence and over the wall from Parkhurst top security prison on the Isle of Wight.

What made the escape so embarrassing for the prison authorities and the Government was that it happened only three months after the breakout of five armed IRA inmates from Whitemoor, Cambridgeshire, another supposedly impregnable jail. There was public and opposition outrage.

Losing five dangerous men from one supposedly secure jail maybe lax. Losing another three, so soon afterwards - and following a security audit - looks like negligence. There were calls for the heads of the two men responsible for the prisons, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and Derek Lewis, the director-general.

But a week after the escape, after the men's recapture and after a short inquiry, Mr Howard announced to the Commons that John Marriott, the prison governor, was to be the only fall guy. He would be removed from his duties immediately and would not govern a jail again. The words "scapegoat" and "passing the buck" were used in Mr Marriott's defence.

Mr Howard also announced a thorough inquiry into events at Parkhurst prison and into security at all jails. It would be carried out by Sir John Learmont, the former quartermaster general.

Nine months later on Monday this week, Sir John dropped his bombshell. His inquiry report was an indictment of the service from top to bottom. It was, he said, "a chapter of errors at every level and a naivete that defies belief". The fallout was swift, dramatic and quite unforeseen.

Mr Lewis was summarily sacked by Mr Howard. The Home Secretary, anxious to acquit himself of the blame, went out of his way to tell the Commons the buck stopped with Mr Lewis and the prison management.

But the former television executive was not prepared to become a sacrificial lamb. He fired off a broadside accusing the Home Secretary of interference with the running of the service and blurring the demarcation lines of responsibility. In other words, if Mr Lewis was to blame so was Michael Howard.

It was fodder for Labour. Coming so soon after Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, had launched his extraordinary attack on Mr Howard's penal policy, Mr Howard's credibility was seriously undermined.

Mr Lewis swiftly followed up his advance with a writ for unlawful dismissal, detailing 12 incidents of political interference including in the removal of John Marriott. Two highly respected non-executive members of the Prison Board resigned in protest over Mr Lewis' treatment - and to cap it all Mr Lewis and two board members also questioned the validity and accuracy of the Learmont report.

An outside observer might well think it reasonable for a Home Secretary to consider the removal of the man in charge of a jail from which three category A prisoners had escaped. Similarly a Home Secretary might be entitled to seek the resignation of the man whose management of the service had been thoroughly undermined by the Learmont report.

For that matter, they might expect that a Home Secretary responsible for law and order and criminal justice policy, could and should be involved in such a sensitive and important part as prisons.

But what Mr Howard has done is to build an artificial wall between himself and the service, so that he could take refuge behind it when events turned nasty. He says he on one side of the wall is responsible only for policy and Mr Lewis over the other is responsible for operations. Had he and his policies been found at fault by the Learmont inquiry, he would have gone, he says. Crucially, he reiterated this distinction in Parliament before the Home Affairs Select Committee - in particular he denied any involvement in the removal of John Marriott.

But this division really stretched credibility on two grounds. Learmont was highly critical of ministerial meddling in day-to-day events. Upwards communication to the Home Office had become the service's raison d'etre, he concluded. And could Mr Howard really argue that a "lock 'em up" criminal justice policy coupled with a prison privatisation programme are in no way connected to a demoralised, overstretched staff trying to cope with jails bursting at the seams?

That is what was really at the centre of this week's drama. Mr Howard was on the end of a hook he himself had baited. The Opposition and Mr Lewis were seeking to prove that Mr Howard's wall was built without foundation - and crucially that he had been "less than frank" about the division of responsibility for the Prison Service to the Home Affairs select committee. That is a potentially sacking offence for a minister even if prison escapes were not.

Hence the hints of "smoking faxes" and "smoking minutes" in the media leading up to Thursday's debate - did the evidence exist to prove Mr Howard had been "economical with the truth?". Labour, clearly thought it had with the minutes of the meeting between the Home Secretary and Mr Lewis when Mr Marriott's removal was discussed.

Mr Howard had told the select committee he had "no need to discuss" the transfer of any staff because it was operational and governed by the disciplinary code. In fact he clearly had discussed it, but under the lacklustre cross- examination in the Commons of the shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, he was able to side-step repeatedly the main allegation that he, Mr Howard, had insisted that Mr Marriott was removed that day against Mr Lewis' wishes - in other words that he involved himself directly in operations.

That was the admission the opposition were chasing and they did not get it. Labour, outclassed and outmanoeuvred, let Mr Howard off his own hook. They failed to pursue the bulk of Mr Lewis's other claims and they missed entirely the wider questions of who runs the prisons, the relationship between government and the semi-independent agencies, and, indeed, what, on the ground, is being done in response to the Learmont report.

Mr Howard, meanwhile, secured the backing of the Commons in a 280-231 vote and he secured his tenure at the Home Office by a robust and adept performance. But should a matter as delicate and important as the management of prisons and prisoners be decided by who performs best at the dispatch box and who shouts loudest from the benches. Starting with a dramatic escape, ending in yobbish political farce, neither the public nor the prison service are any better off.

'I would have resigned'

MICHAEL HOWARD

"On Thursday I comprehensively rebutted the unfounded allegations made against me by Tony Blair.

"General Learmont's report into prison security was highly critical of both John Marriott - the former governor of Parkhurst - and senior prison service management.

"In accepting the broad thrust of that independent report, I concluded that Derek Lewis's position as Director General of the Prison Service was untenable.

"Had such criticisms been made of me I would have resigned.

"I am responsible for prisons policy. The Director General for the day- to-day running of the service. As I made clear two days ago I am entitled to be consulted on operational matters which might give rise to grave public or parliamentary concern. I was consulted on such matters. I was not entitled to issue instructions. I did not.

"It is now time to look forward. I want to concentrate on the important work being done by the Prison Service: mandatory drug- testing; curbing the abuses of home leave; and ensuring that privileges are earned, not handed down as of right.

"As the Learmont report makes clear there are many excellent people working in the prison service who want to do a good job.

"I hope the changes I have announced this week will help them achieve that goal."

'He has no scapegoats left'

JACK STRAW

"This week's events have blown apart the Home Secretary's claim not to be responsible for operational matters in the prison service.

"The distinction between operations and policy was always a bogus one. It conveniently allowed Mr Howard to take the credit when things went well but to say 'Don't blame me I'm not in charge', if things went wrong.

"But on Thursday Mr Howard was forced to admit that, in the aftermath of the Parkhurst escape, he was deeply involved in operational decisions.

"It was he who pushed for the governor to be suspended. It was he who was worried that anything short of that would be seen as a 'fudge'.

"And it was he who refused on seven occasions to deny having taken the crucial decision that John Marriott would be removed on the day of his statement to the Commons.

"The damaging impression has been left of a Home Secretary who has something to hide.

"Caught between a rock and a hard place, he could not admit the full truth because of the responsibility which he would then have to accept the blame for the overwhelming crisis now facing the prison service.

"The problem for him now is that he has run out of scapegoats.

"Next time something goes wrong there will be no one else to blame."

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