Writ will settle jail release row

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A rare writ of habeas corpus, challenging the authority of the Home Secretary to detain prisoners who were to have been freed early, is expected to resolve the dispute by the end of next week.

Michael Howard and the prisons minister Ann Widdecombe will meet Richard Tilt, Director-General of the Prison Service, at the Home Office this morning for a preliminary examination of the time-bomb Mr Tilt left behind when he left for a holiday in Italy last Wednesday.

One Home Office source told The Independent last night that Mr Tilt had not even mentioned the "early release" issue when he delivered his end- of-term report to the Home Office.

It was dealt with, almost as an aside, in a three- or four-page document, and according to one official who has seen the file, it was not even mentioned on the first page.

That could explain why it was not spotted by Mr Howard when it went to him in his daily box of official papers last Thursday and why he was caught unawares when approached by journalists after the first of 86 prisoners were freed.

Miss Widdecombe was on holiday, so the report was left on her desk to await her return. That suggests that Home Office officials were not vetting the papers of either the Home Secretary or the prisons minister.

Of more immediate concern to ministers, however, could be the complete breakdown of the political "radar" that had been placed within the Prison Service.

A monitoring unit of Home Office officials led by a senior, Grade 3, official, had been placed within its headquarters because of previous breakdowns in communications, with the specific task of spotting political problems on the horizon and alerting the Home Secretary.

Initially, encouraged by Mr Howard, the unit worked against the service, second-guessing almost every significant decision last year. Now it appears to have gone "native" and whatever happens as a result of the current inquiry, Mr Howard will have to come up with more tightly tuned orders.

While Mr Tilt might have been naive enough to believe that the early- release project would not cause any difficulty, Mr Howard will feel that his own officials might have had the political nous to challenge that view. If any heads roll, they can be expected to do so - quietly - from within that unit.

Mr Tilt's meeting today will be uncomfortable, if not recriminatory, but no disciplinary action can be taken against him until the immediate legal situation has been resolved.

Mr Tilt was holding talks at his offices in Westminster yesterday, having interrupted his holiday.

The 52-year-old Director-General, who has said he sees no reason to resign from his pounds 90,000-a-year post, is known as a man who delegates as much as he can, unlike his predecessor, and the latest crisis is seen as a product of that approach.

The new guidelines on calculating release dates were drawn up by a Prison Service working party, with advice from Home Office lawyers, after a series of court cases last year.

The working party found that the 1967 Criminal Justice Act, which allows time spent in custody on remand before sentence to be subtracted from a jail term, had been incorrectly interpreted for almost 30 years.

It decided that the Act allowed the remand period to be taken into account in each of a series of consecutive sentences, rather than being simply subtracted from the total time served. It was estimated that 500 prisoners could expect to be freed imminently and that a further 4,000 would have the time they served reduced.