Prison governors predict 'months of disarray'

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Prison governors warned yesterday that management of the service is likely to be in disarray for months following the sacking of Derek Lewis.

Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, said that as Director General of the Prison Service agency, Mr Lewis had developed a centralised power structure which could not work with anyone else at the helm. The service would have to be reorganised before it would work effectively, he said.

Mr O'Friel told the Independent: "Derek Lewis was working immensely long hours, and he had this immensely retentive memory for detail, and if you remove Derek, at one fell swoop all that goes."

Mr O'Friel said that in the week since Mr Lewis was sacked, his contacts with prisoners, prison staff, governors and service headquarters had shown the episode had "traumatised the service".

A letter from the Prison Governors' Association will arrive on the desk of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, this morning calling on him to stop interfering in Prison Service operations. It warns Mr Howard that intervention is causing both bad management and lapses in security.

Mr Howard resisted calls to resign last week in the wake of the Learmont report on escapes at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, saying that operational responsibility was not his, but solely Mr Lewis's.

Mr O'Friel's letter argues that Learmont itself actually blames ministerial involvement for the lapses of management which led to the Parkhurst debacle. He says: "Page 93 of the Learmont report itemises the extent to which those at the top of the service were spending their time on ministerial papers and briefings. ... There is substantial scope for immediately reducing ministerial oversight of minor operational matters."

A confidential Home Office document leaked to the Independent yesterday casts doubt on Mr Howard's claim that he left day-to-day running of the service to Mr Lewis. It shows that a group of civil servants set up by Mr Howard nine months ago to "monitor" Mr Lewis's agency had as one of its aims: "to work with the Prison Service so that working methods, priorities and objectives for the service reflect ministers' priorities".

Mr Howard faced further criticism yesterday. Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who is being forced by the Home Secretary to retire on 1 November, said Mr Howard seemed no longer to want any independent advice.

His views were corroborated by Home Office sources, who said Mr Howard had rebuked the Prison Ombudsman, Sir Peter Woodhead, after the publication of his critical first half-yearly report last month.

t One of the three men who escaped from Parkhurst jail accuses staff in the Prison Service of "incompetence, dishonour and a total lack of integrity" in a letter to the Times today. Matthew Williams, whose escape from the prison triggered the highly critical report which led to the controversial sacking of Mr Lewis, accused managers of shifting the blame.