Leading Article: No more freedom for the Prison Service

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The Independent Online
The Harry Houdini of the Home Office does it again. A wave of buck-passing, confusion and administrative anarchy engulfs the Prison and Probation Services but one man stays dry, building his sand-castles of political ambition. It's Michael Howard, the minister who makes such a fine distinction between responsibility and accountability but who, when the flak flies, turns out to show neither.

As they say among the criminal classes, Michael Howard is a man with form. Attempted IRA escape from Whitemoor, breakout at Parkhurst, the expensive sacking of Derek Lewis, the head of the Prison Service, a succession of reversals at the hands of the judges ... they hardly describe a Home Secretary who is well-advised and in competent command. Yet until last week Mr Howard had been having a good summer, in party political terms. The voluntary-until-the-police-and-Home-Office-deem-it-compulsory identity card was finally unveiled. While colleagues sunned themselves, the Tory Stakhanovite was fielding Labour's seasonal onslaught. But too busy with the politics, he did not seem to notice that a flood of prisoners was being released without warning or preparation or concern for their care (not that Mr Howard is keen on after-care).

And this was happening not because the Home Office had said so; not because the hard men of the Prison Officers Association took unilateral action. It happened because unnamed officials pressed the exit button. They overturned a 30-year understanding of what the law said about concurrent jail sentences and how time spent on remand should count towards total time in prison. Why did their legal advice (gathered on whose authority?) differ so much from Mr Howard's latest opinion, hastily written by David Pannick QC? It amounts to a cock-up, yet Mr Howard's accountability seems once more to be taking the shape of saying "not guilty" because he did not know.

Which makes the case for his dismissal even stronger. A home secretary should know. Were the Prime Minister more wedded to sound governance than petty party ie, Euro-sceptic balancing, he would long ago have given Michael Howard his marching orders. But oddly enough this is not an occasion for rehearsing the case against the man. A new home secretary installed tomorrow would confront structural problems which Mr Howard may have exacerbated but is certainly not the author of. His successor, regardless of party, would need to buckle down to a reform of a public service the head and limbs of which do not seem to connect.

Reform of prison management has come and gone. Six years ago prisons were lodged in an "executive agency", supposedly at arm's length from the Home Office. This turns out to have been a bureaucratic farce. (This failure has nothing to do with contracting out parts of the service, about bringing the private sector in, about bringing the Prison Officers Association to heel - all moves which have something to be said for them.) The naivety of the executive-agency concept was a belief that management could be divided from politics, executive from operational decisions.

Indeed, the most damning thing that can be said about the release fiasco is that it would have happened in much the same way had Derek Lewis been retained. There is something rotten in the secretive relationship between prisons and Home Office and it seems to have got worse, not better. Some in Whitehall had high hopes that Richard Wilson, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, would improve communications but his reputation, too, must suffer in this latest debacle. Derek Lewis, who had been appointed to run the service from a private-sector background, was replaced by a civil service insider, Richard Tilt. Yet he seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of keeping the minister informed. Mr Tilt has some searching questions to answer.

The management of prisons will always be political. Depriving people of their liberty is the ultimate expression of the state's power. Public concern about prison conditions and the nature of sentences, about escapes and releases, will always be high. Some do-gooders might wish the public to care less so that more prisoners might be transferred into less exacting regimes or released altogether. So, in prison, the line between what can safely be left to managers and what ministers need to know is never going to be fixed hard and fast. It was not when Merlyn Rees was Home Secretary (the last Labour example); it will not be when and if Jack Straw takes over. The Government's mistake - which is better laid at the door of Kenneth Clarke than Michael Howard - was to imply that prisons could be managed out of sight, out of mind. They cannot. The Home Secretary has to be in continuous contact with those responsible for the jails day to day. This is a fact of prison life, and will remain so regardless of how sentences are fixed or of how much flexibility courts and criminal justice system are given in disposing of convicted offenders.

Michael Howard - assuming the great escapologist gets away with it again - has two urgent tasks. One is to get behind this latest cascade of error. Who ordered the releases and why? If he can bring in retired army generals to conduct inquiries into escapes from Parkhurst, he surely needs to make a priority of establishing the line of command in his own backyard. The second is to abandon the flimflam of "executive agency" status, reabsorb prisons into the mainstream of Home Office administration and establish traditional reporting lines. Home secretaries cannot and should not be held responsible for every creak in the prison door nor even every disturbance on E wing. But they need to know, within an instant of that disturbance occurring, why and wherefore. Only then can they begin to perform the task of accounting to Parliament and public.