Then and Now

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September 1996: Following the premature release of hundreds of prisoners from British jails, the management of the Prison Service is under attack. The director-general, Richard Tilt, and his staff are accused of failing to take adequate legal advice and failing to liaise sufficiently with ministers. While the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, denies responsibility, Mr Tilt fights off pressure to resign.

October 1995: Just 11 months earlier, the Prison Service is in the dock following escapes from Parkhurst and Whitemoor jails and a damning report by General Sir John Learmont, specifically complaining of lack of leadership and "lax and unprofessional" management. The then director-general, Derek Lewis, and Mr Howard engage in a public row over who is responsible. Mr Lewis writes:

"Dear Michael, I am responding to your statement given to the House this afternoon ... You proposed that we should both agree that it would be in the best interests of the Prison Service for me to give up the director- generalship ... I must reiterate the basis on which I was appointed by your predecessor, Kenneth Clarke. He and others had identified severe weaknesses in both the performance and the operation of the Prison Service ... On my arrival, it was clear that the extent of the performance, organisational, structural and cultural weaknesses were far greater than had been described to me ... I have considered your suggestion in the context of this and against the background of the unanimous confidence expressed in my leadership by the whole board ... I was, therefore, unable to accept your proposal that I should resign ... Whitemoor and Parkhurst have both been severe blows and embarrassments to the Prison Service, which the service has been determined to put right. What the service most needs at this juncture is continuity, consistency and genuine ministerial support. It is a matter of great regret that you have not chosen to give it that support ..."

Mr Lewis is promptly sacked.