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Leading Article; Howard escapes justice again

Michael Howard must not be allowed to wash his hands of responsibility for the serious security flaws in Britain's prisons. Sir John Learmont's report, published yesterday, describes a long-running catalogue of failure. He speaks of sloppiness in basic precautions, of widespread drug usage among inmates at Parkhurst and of a prison service "in which morale is low with ordinary prison officers feeling devastated and unfairly treated". A home secretary who has made so much political capital out of toughening prison regimes and proclaiming such a clear personal commitment to a particular approach to prison management cannot simply absolve himself when so many things go wrong.

Sir John's report, which focuses primarily on the escape of three dangerous prisoners last January from Parkhurst, describes a shambolic security system, many weaknesses of which had been previously identified by the governor and by Judge Stephen Tumim, Chief Inspector of Prisons. The man who has paid the price is Derek Lewis, director of the Prison Service. No one who reads this report will doubt that his resignation is appropriate, despite his considerable achievements over the past three years in making jails more humane and more effective.

But what of Mr Howard? Yesterday, he was condemned by Mr Lewis, who accused him of paying insufficient attention to prisons. This public rebuke must in part reflect Mr Lewis's bitterness at being forced out. But it is a serious allegation, none the less, from a senior figure who knows the inside of Britain's jails. It also chimes with Sir John's report, which suggests that too little time is being spent on the active management of prisons and too much on processing paper generated by the prison bureaucracy and the Home Office.

Mr Howard takes comfort in not having been explicitly blamed by Sir John. But the Learmont report calls for an examination of the relationship between agencies such as the Prison Service and the Home Office. This raises serious questions over the roles that the Home Secretary and his officials have played in a management structure that has proved ineffective in keeping high-risk prisoners behind bars.

The Teflon-coated Mr Howard will no doubt survive this latest barrage of criticism, just as he did last week's attack by the Lord Chief Justice over plans to curb remission for long-term prisoners.

The problem with Mr Howard's approach is that it is one-dimensional. He accepts most of the report's recommendations which directly bear upon issues of security, although he has been unable to persuade the Treasury to cough up for a new prison for high-risk prisoners. But he rejects any proposals that might blur his image as the hard man of the penal world, such as the provision of more televisions and more home leave.

This is simplistic. The provision of decent facilities in jails is not only civilised, it is part of the mechanism for controlling bored and violent people. Sir John Learmont, like the Lord Chief Justice, knows that disturbances break out when prisoners feel abused, too confined and lose hope. That produced the Strangeways riot in 1990 and the subsequent improvement of prison regimes. The irresponsible Mr Howard is turning back the clock and laying up serious trouble for his successor.