Although Derek Lewis, director-general of the service, said last night that the decision to move the men had been taken before the IRA statement, his officials will still have to explain why such a politically insensitive decision was taken - and then not changed in the light of the statement - without consultation with ministers.
The prisoners were transferred yesterday morning, nearly 24 hours after the IRA announcement, which suggests that the service's bureaucracy was at best slow in responding to the change of events. The inquiry ordered by John Major may not confine itself to this particular decision. The prime minister is understood to have been similarly taken aback three years ago when an angry Lord Tebbit informed him that republican prisoners were about to be moved from England to Northern Ireland. He blocked those transfers, but the inquiry may want to examine how many other transfers of republican prisoners have taken place without ministers' knowledge.
Last night Lord Tebbit was again aghast at the decision to transfer the four prisoners. He is a more than interested observer because one of the prisoners, Patrick Magee, is serving a sentence for his part in the Brighton bombing - he was seriously injured and his wife remains in a wheelchair. He said the timing of the move made it look like 'an early reward for the IRA, or an act of crass political incompetence'.
Until last night's row, the Prison Service has been more preoccupied with criticisms of prison privatisation, and in particular its poor record in losing prisoners while transporting them to and from court. In particular, Group 4 for a while became a national laughing stock for its seeming inability to keep track of those in its care.
Although a recent report praised the private security company for its prison escort work, a government investigation found that a prisoner had choked on his vomit while in Group 4 custody, reinforcing doubts about whether such a service should be contracted out to the private sector.
This latest row may well focus the Government's attention on the merits of hiving off a department and leaving it in a vacuum with little daily contact with Whitehall.
In this latest episode, Prison Service officials were acting under legislation in the 1992 Criminal Justice Act that provides for the transfer of prisoners between countries in the United Kingdom. Until then, the law catered only for the transfer of prisoners between the United Kingdom and 35 other countries, principally to enable families to visit.Reuse content