Inside Parliament: Howard heeds `Toad' policy to set turnkey heads rolling

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A lust for resignations pervaded the Commons yesterday with the Prime Minister coming to the defence of both Michael Howard over prison escapes and William Waldegrave, whose calves are said to have ended their short lives in veal crates.

To no great surprise, neither minister resigned, but the House was offered a sacking. John Marriott, governor of Parkhurst prison, was being removed from his duties following the escape of three inmates, Mr Howard, the Home Secretary, told MPs. Six officers would also be temporarily transferred to other prisons.

Mr Howard's action follows the advice on penal policy laid down by Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows. As the sergeant hands over the errant Mr Toad to the turnkey, he advises: "Watch and ward him with all thy skill, and mark thee well grey beard, should aught untoward befall, thy old head shall answer for his - and a murrain on both of them.''

But the Home Secretary did not consider his own head at risk. In his statement, he said Richard Tilt, the director of security of the Prison Service, who carried out an urgent inquiry, had not "indicated any policy decision of mine which can be held to have caused in any way the break-out from Parkhurst".

Mr Tilt's inquiry, however, had highlighted very serious deficiencies in procedural and physical security at Parkhurst, Mr Howard said. There had been serious failures by management and some individual officers to carry out basic security procedures in accordance with the Prison Service's own written instructions.

Prisoners had not been counted between the gym and their wing, and cameras had not be properly pointed.

"That this could happen so soon after the publication of the Woodcock report into Whitemoor and so soon after the Director-General gave a clear and repeated message to governors and staff that security procedures must be followed is a cause for dismay," he said, to derisive laughter.

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said Mr Howard was "continuing to refuse to accept proper responsibility for this saga of ineptitude'', and branded him as "the not-me-guv Home Secretary".

Calling for the abandonment of privatisation and market testing which he said had sapped morale in the service, Mr Straw said the Home Secretary's conduct was "characterised by consistent evasion of responsibility, exceed only by his readiness to scapegoat others".

But Mr Howard said that Sir John Learmont, who is reviewing prison security, and Sir John Woodcock, his assessor, would be entitled to look to what extent issues of policy, if any, had contributed to the Parkhurst break-out. "There will be no question ofany kind of cover-up whatever," he insisted.

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said the policy of delegating the operation of prisons to the Director-General, Derek Lewis, had meant a great deal of innovations but "no proper control of the security of the prisons. Is that not something for which Mr Howard should take responsibility?"

Earlier, at Question Time, Mr Beith prodded the Prime Minister over Mr Howard's culpability for the woes of the prison services. "Under this government, can any Cabinet minister claim he is responsible only for the policy of his department, not for its operation failings, however many they are and however many of them have been preceded by warnings from those in a position to know that things are going wrong?" asked the Liberal Democrat.

The essence of Mr Major's answer was "Yes". The Home Secretary was responsible for policy, but operational matters fell into a different category, he said. Over the last 20 or 30 years there had been a large number of jail escapes under governments of both major parties, and under one involving the Liberals, without the resignation of the secretary of state.

D efending Mr Waldegrave, the prime minister managed to implicate Labour in the veal trade. Jean Corston, MP for Bristol East, said it was "wholly unacceptable'' for the Government or an individual minister to hide behind Britain's laudable ban on the veal crate system while "turning a blind eye" to the export of British calves to the veal crates of France.

Calves from the farm owned by the Minister of Agriculture have been sold at market and ended up in Continental crates. But Mr Major said Mr Waldegrave had done more than most to try to change laws across Europe to deal with the veal trade.

Declaring that both he and Mr Waldegrave would like to see less trade in live animals and more in carcass form, he added: "There is a tradition of agriculture ministers having farming interests which they rightly stand back from...what Ms Corston didn't mention is that his farm is managed on a day-to-day basis by a farm management company headed by a Labour frontbench spokesman in the House of Lords."

Tory MPs roared their delight at the counterstroke while Labour MPs quizzed each other on who he could mean. It appeared a reference to one Lord Carter, a junior health spokesman and founding director of Agricultural Accounting and Management Co. (AKC Ltd).

Mr Waldegrave in turn had to face the House to explain his role in the European Union decision to allow Spanish boats into traditional British fishing grounds. David Harris, the Conservative MP for St Ives who had called for the emergency statement, saidlocal fishermen were "justifiably angry" and there was a warning of "anarchy" at sea.

C haracteristically, there was nothing defensive about Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, as he moved the Second Reading of the Jobseekers Bill, bringing in a money-saving replacement for unemployment benefit and income support for the jobless.

Those wanting work had nothing to fear from the Bill, he said, but warned: "There is no God-given right for any person to decide to be idle and live off others. The taxpayer has every right to expect that those seeking work will do so with vigour.''

But the measure, given a Second Reading by 304 votes to 269, was criticised as "too harsh" by Alan Howarth, MP for Stratford-on-Avon and former Conservative minister, and by opposition parties.

"This Bill widens inequality and deepens impoverishment," Mr Howarth said. It would cut benefits for the unemployed over a year by between 20 and 70 per cent and hit young families particularly hard.

"I wonder how people on income support can manage decently to feed their families and heat their homes. But under the proposals in this Bill, we would actually be requiring some people to live in yet deeper penuary.'' Declaring himself "dismayed'' by theauthoritarianism of the Bill, Mr Howarth asked: "Are the unemployed to be treated as criminals? They are our fellow human beings and they ought to count on our sympathy and support. Are the poor so undeserving that they deserve this?"