LEADING ARTICLE: Heat but no light in the Commons

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The Independent Online
Yesterday's furious Commons debate on the prison service produced a great deal of heat but little light. We are no nearer to knowing whether Michael Howard or Derek Lewis is telling the truth about what really happened in the aftermath of the Parkhurst break-out.

The Home Secretary gave a typically robust performance. He stuck to his position that he did not interfere in the operational control of prisons. In particular, he denied that he had tried to force Mr Lewis to suspend John Marriott, the Parkhurst governor.

Meanwhile, Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, backed up by Tony Blair, repeated Mr Lewis's claims that Mr Howard not only intervened daily in the running of Britain's prisons, but tried to bully Mr Lewis into suspending the governor. But it was not Labour's day. Mr Howard was the better swordsman: Mr Straw proved no match.

The debate was a miserable spectacle. Braying MPs did not bother to discuss this week's Learmont report, which represents a damning indictment of security in Britain's jails. All that seemed to bother Labour was whether the party could destroy the political career of Mr Howard. And the Home Secretary seemed to have, as ever, only one thing on his mind: protecting and enhancing his own and his party's prospects.

Labour's narrow agenda is depressing. But the source of the problem in this controversy remains Mr Howard. Yesterday's debate became obsessed with the obscure detail of what he did and when, because this Home Secretary is so determined to avoid responsibility for even the smallest action which might be judged embarrassing. In a torrent of self-righteousness, he will blame anyone but himself.

This style has characterised so many of the events that have taken place since the Parkhurst break-out. First there was the showy, unconstructive haste in removing Mr Marriott from the jail. Then on Monday there was the rush to sack Mr Lewis as director-general of the prison service. Letters we publish today from Sir Duncan Nichol, a member of the Prison Board and a highly experienced Whitehall operator, show the strength of support on that board for Mr Lewis and his achievements over the past three years.

They also demonstrate the urgent need in the prison service for clear leadership and organisational stability. The primary challenge facing the prison service, says Sir Duncan, "is managerial - how to close the gap between strategic intent and action on the ground. This requires further clarification at all levels of roles, responsibilities and accountabilities."

A Home Secretary addicted to the soundbite looks incapable of supplying that strategic direction. Last week, he turned aside without debate the objections by the Lord Chief Justice to fixed sentences, ignoring the pressures this would place on the size of the prison population. This week, responding to the Learmont report, he failed to offer a credible plan to house maximum security prisoners. Goodness knows what kind of brief Mr Howard has in mind for Mr Lewis's successor. Those of a logical disposition need not apply.