Sacked prisons chief 'presided over waste'

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Indy Politics
Conservative MPs yesterday re-opened the row over the sacking of Derek Lewis, the former head of the Prison Service, accusing him of having presided over an "unacceptable" breakdown in financial controls which led to an overspend last year.

Mr Lewis was sacked by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, after an inquiry into prison escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst - although the Home Office in effect accepted he had been wrongfully dismissed when it paid him pounds 220,000 earlier this year.

David Hunt, the former Cabinet minister, seized on the damning findings of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), published yesterday while Mr Lewis was giving evidence to another select committee. Commenting on the PAC report, which detailed an unauthorised surge in Prison Service spending breaching limits set by Parliament, Mr Hunt accused Mr Lewis of failing to put financial systems in place quickly enough.

Mr Lewis replied that when he took over the service in 1993 "taxpayers' money was being wasted on a gross scale", but that control systems could not be brought in "overnight".

Mr Hunt said: "I am not talking about overnight, but over two years."

Mr Lewis was defended by Jim Cousins, Labour MP for Newcastle Central, who said that, although he had been subjected to the "pressure of relentless ministerial interference" from Mr Howard, ministers had taken no interest in financial matters, despite being warned about "inadequate" controls.

Asked about the areas of prison management in which Home Office ministers had "meddled", Mr Lewis said they ranged from "the form that a search of an individual prison should take . . . to matters of the disciplining of individual members of staff".

Mr Cousins said that Michael Forsyth, then a prisons minister, had been warned in a minute dated October 1994 that "financial controls in some establishments are inadequate".

Mr Lewis, giving evidence to the Public Services Committee on his clash with Mr Howard over the difference between policy - for which ministers are accountable - and operations, was also backed by one of the Tories on the committee, Sir Peter Lloyd, MP for Fareham. Sir Peter said Mr Lewis was the victim of a "surfeit of shock-horror reports" about escapes and the general state of prisons.

Mr Lewis told the committee that the chief executives of government agencies should be freed from political interference and made directly accountable to Parliament. He suggested they should be made independent of ministers, on the model of police chief constables.

He said that he had been "constrained" by the rules governing civil servants when he gave evidence to MPs immediately after the Parkhurst break-out, which required him to stick to his minister's line.

"Fears that a licence to speak publicly on policy matters would bring destructive and intolerable conflict between agency chief executives and their ministers are unfounded," he told the committee.

"It does not happen in the case of the police or the Bank of England and one of the signs of a mature democracy and sound government is that it can survive and thrive on reasoned public debate."