Ministers will not deal with prison queries: New procedures on correspondence are attacked by Kaufman as 'buck-passing'

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Indy Politics
EVERY MP at Westminster was told yesterday that, from tomorrow, Home Office ministers will no longer deal with correspondence about the day-to-day management of prisons, or prisoners' individual cases.

The decision prompted an immediate and angry protest from Gerald Kaufman, a senior Labour backbencher, who deplored the continuing destruction of ministerial accountability.

Mr Kaufman cited a number of constituents' cases in which he had been passed from pillar to post by ministers, who had shrugged off responsibility to external agencies, particularly on cases relating to immigration and social security.

'I know the way the system works,' he said, 'and I thought I could operate within the system on behalf of my constituents. But now the system is closing its doors.'

He said that, in one case last October, he had been told that a constituent needed an operation, but the surgeon at the Manchester Central Hospitals and Community Care Trust had written to say that he could not find the necessary pounds 3,000 from his limited budget.

Mr Kaufman complained to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, on 8 October and waited more than a month for a reply. Her office wrote back to say that they did not seem to have received his initial letter, and Mrs Bottomley eventually replied on 11 December, saying that she had passed the case over to the chairman of the Central Manchester Health Authority.

On 14 January, Mr Kaufman wrote again to Mrs Bottomley: 'It really is extremely unsatisfactory that I write to you about a case, that you pass the letter on for someone else to reply to, that that someone else does not reply, and that meanwhile my constituent goes on suffering.'

A week later, he was told by the chairman of the local health authority that the surgeon had judged that if the pounds 3,000 was spent on Mr Kaufman's constituent, 'there would be less for other patients whose clinical needs are as great or possibly greater'.

Mr Kaufman complained about that response in another letter to Mrs Bottomley on 22 January - which she again passed on to the health authority early in February, asking for consultations on the case with the Central Manchester Trust.

The MP had still not received a reply yesterday. In a letter to Mrs Bottomley on 11 March, he said: 'I am, frankly, sick and tired of the sickening way in which you show neither interest, concern nor compassion for my constituents who are suffering because of your policies, but simply pass the buck to somebody who does not even bother to write to me about it. I suggest you either deal with this case personally or resign from the office which you increasingly discredit.'

Mr Kaufman told the Independent yesterday that the same pattern of buck-passing was being shown in immigration cases, and cases relating to social security. 'It's a curious mixture of the world of Kafka and the world of George Orwell. If it were laughable, it would be Lewis Carroll, but it's a pretty grim Wonderland.'

He insisted: 'This is nothing to do with the status of MPs. I don't give a damn about my status as an MP. What I give a damn about, more than a damn about, is the 63,000 people whom I am sent to Parliament to represent - and ministers will not even look at what I send to them.'

Yet Peter Lloyd, Minister of State at the Home Office, had told MPs in his circular letter about the Prison Service: 'These arrangements are intended to reinforce lines of accountability and to ensure that Members receive replies as quickly as possible.'

Mr Kaufman said: 'We really are now living in a world of Orwell. The words do not mean what they say. What we are seeing is the destruction of a large area of accountability - of ministers to Parliament.'