Prisons may be put up for sale in regional job lots

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Ministers are considering plans for wholesale privatisation of the prison service following the decision to put a television executive in charge of jails in England and Wales. Prisons could be sold off in regional batches rather than one- by-one if the plan goes ahead.

The scheme would sharply increase the pace and scale of privatisation. So far only three management contracts have been put out to tender - for the Wolds in Humberside, Blackenhurst in Hereford and Worcester, and Strangeways in Manchester.

'We are looking at flogging the whole lot off as a going concern,' said one senior official.

Senior Home Office sources said that one reason why Derek Lewis, a businessman who had never visited a jail, was appointed Director General of the Prison Service last week was to advise Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, on whether bidding for blocks of prisons could work.

If the present rate of sell-offs continues, the great majority of the 130 jails in England and Wales will still be under public control at the next general election. But asking private companies or staff groups to bid to run regional lots of 10 or more prisons could speed up the process.

'The option being considered is to do it in bits - giving each region to a different company - so Group 4 or another security firm does not end up with a national monopoly,' the official said. 'Mr Lewis will be expected to give his opinion fairly quickly.'

Prison reformers, officers and governors were appalled by Mr Lewis's appointment and the decision not to renew the contract of Joe Pilling, the present Director General, whose support for reform has won wide praise.

Mr Pilling, a career civil servant with a proven record in administering jails, was not ideologically opposed to privatisation, but he favoured allowing prisons to opt out of state control.

By contrast, Mr Lewis has spent his professional life in television and the motor industry. He resigned as chief executive of Granada 18 months ago when institutional shareholders blamed him for falling profits. Immediately before being given the prison job he was chairman of UK Gold, a satellite television station.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust pressure Group, said: 'Britain is embarking on a massive experiment which no other modern, Western country would contemplate.'