Breakout adds to pressure on prisons chief Prisons chief: Home Secretary is called on to share blame for agency's failures, reports Heather Mills

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The Independent Online
THE ATTEMPTED breakout by IRA prisoners at Whitemoor jail on Friday could not have come at a worse time for Derek Lewis and the Prison Service agency. The dust had barely settled from the storm over the agency's decision to transfer four republican terrorists to jails in Northern Ireland just hours after the IRA ceasefire began.

In that incident of bad timing, Mr Lewis had managed to embarrass and incense both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, neither of whom had been informed of the transfer.

But while some may question the wisdom of hiving off such a politically sensitive department without ensuring regular monitoring by Whitehall, there is no doubt that the Prison Service agency is here to stay.

It is vigorously pursuing the government's drive for efficiency and, as with other agencies, it has proved convenient to have ministers one step removed from accountability. So yesterday the spotlight was on 48-year-old Mr Lewis, the agency's director general.

Home Office and Prison Service sources talked of his 'political ineptness' which could threaten the 16 months remaining on his three-year contract. But there have also been concerns about the persistent problems with prison privatisation - the job he was brought in to oversee when the agency was launched on 1 April last year.

It started off badly by losing prisoners in transit - Group 4 became a national laughing stock after seven prisoners in the security company's care escaped in two weeks.

The new private jails have been beset by troubles. Last week it emerged that the taxpayer would have to bail out Doncaster jail - run by a joint American and British company - three months after the low-staff/hi-tech prison opened.

Now Mr Lewis will have to answer questions not only about how at least two guns and a 'device' were smuggled into Whitemoor jail in Cambridgeshire - but how this could have happened when both the Prison Inspectorate and Board of Visitor reports had warned of the danger of losing control of the 500 high-risk inmates.

However, in spite of his lack of experience of government, public or prison service, Mr Lewis has silenced some of his greatest critics. He has started running the Prison Service as a business. He had taken on the Prison Officers Association and won and, until now, has had Mr Howard's backing.

Until the transfer of the IRA terrorists, Mr Lewis must have been impressing his paymasters too. He has earned pounds 35,000 in performance bonuses on top of his pounds 125,000 salary.

Both Labour and pressure groups yesterday talked of scapegoating and said Mr Howard should not avoid blame. Alun Michael, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said the agency was 'implementing government policies with government finances and instead of concentrating on running the prison service properly those resources have been diverted into privatisation'.