Prison Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 16th October 1995.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 4:11 pm, 16th October 1995

I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in arranging for me to see the report earlier than is usual. We accept the recommendation of the Learmont report in respect of the super maximum security prison and we shall look at the recommendations of the departmental study when it is available to the House in six months' time.

The Secretary. of State's statement today goes to the heart of ministerial responsibility to the House for the protection of the public and the safe and secure administration of British prisons. By every principle of democratic Government, the Secretary of State must accept that he is both responsible and accountable for the state of the prison service, yet today we have been treated to the spectacle of the Secretary of State demeaning his office, failing to acknowledge those responsibilities and instead going in for his now familiar and tawdry practice of scapegoating anybody and everybody to ensure that the buck stops anywhere but with himself.

The Home Secretary has sought consistently to evade his responsibility by invoking a wholly artificial distinction—though one very convenient to him—between policy and operational matters. He did it again in his statement to the House just a moment ago when he said: Sir John has not found that any policy decision of mine, directly or indirectly, caused the escape. I cannot find any quotation in the report which, directly or indirectly, backs up what the Secretary of State said. [HON. MEMBERS: "The covering letter."] The covering letter has no such words.

It is clear that the Learmont report—like the Woodcock report before it—shows conclusively that the Secretary of State and his fellow Ministers have interfered daily in the running and operation of the prison service and that so grotesque has that interference become that, as Learmont himself complains, on the very day set aside for the director general, Mr. Derek Lewis, to give evidence to the Learmont inquiry, and while he was actually giving evidence, he was called out on a number of occasions—I understand that it was no fewer than five—to give advice to and no doubt receive instructions from Ministers.

If the Secretary of State was not interfering with the day-to-day operations of the service, will he explain why, as the report shows, during 83 working days, 1,000 documents were submitted to Ministers, including 137 full ministerial submissions? How many of those submissions were in response to requests from Ministers and how many came within the Secretary of State's definition of operations? How many were policy?

What led to a climate in which members of the Prisons Board knew that they had Ministers breathing down their necks on the smallest detail? Is not the Learmont report right to point out a high level of operational involvement in prison service matters? Is the Secretary of State aware that the report comments on the personal pressures which the competing demands of politicians, the media and successive operational incidents must have inflicted on the director general and states that the director general needs, but certainly has not received minimum political involvement in the day-to-day operation of the service?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the director general is now issuing a letter in response to his sacking in which he says: It is a great disappointment to me that in the thirteen months since the Whitemoor escape, you"— that is the Secretary of State— have required so much paper but have paid so little attention to prisons themselves, with only some six visits to prisons—fewer than in the preceding thirteen months"? Is not the reason, as Sir John Learmont records, why the board rarely discussed operational matters that it was snowed under with one so-called ministerial initiative after another?

As the report comments in withering terms: any organisation which boasts one statement of purpose, one vision, five values, six goals, seven strategic priorities and eight key performance indicators without any clear co-ordination between them is producing a recipe for total confusion". As Ministers were interfering so much and so much pride themselves on their experience in government, why has the Secretary of State allowed that total confusion to continue? Why has he allowed "the proliferation of paperwork", as the report describes it, to reach epidemic proportions so that the then governor of Parkhurst, Mr. John Marriott, had—to quote the report—regularly to spend more than 50 hours a week coping with the blizzard of paper, leaving him only two or three hours to go around the prison?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the appendix to the report estimates that, in the 83 working days studied, a typical local prison would have received 72,000 sheets of A4 paper from the Prisons Board, thanks to the proliferation of paperwork and the overburdened bureaucracy over which the right hon. Gentleman has presided?

I will deal with the Secretary of State's first and disgraceful scapegoating of Parkhurst prison's governor, Mr. Marriott, who was removed from his post just two hours before the right hon. and learned Gentleman made his statement on 10 January. In the House and in evidence to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State repeatedly claimed that the decision to suspend Mr. Marriott was an operational one for which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not responsible. Will the Secretary of State confirm that on or about 10 January, he let Mr. Lewis know that, if Mr. Marriott was not suspended, Mr. Lewis's job would be at risk?

Is not one of the so-called initiatives bearing down on the service that of prison privatisation, which the report suggests is a factor consistently identified as contributing to low morale? What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comment on the report's conclusion that the number of staff on duty in privatised prisons is lower than in public sector prisons, which in turn raises serious questions about the ability of private prisons to cope with major incidents"? I want to ask the Secretary of State about geophones, about which he was wholly silent in his statement. The Learmont report makes it clear that if geophones had been in place, the Parkhurst escapes could not have occurred and that, despite building works, geophones could have been operational. Given that conclusion, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman regret that the advice that he gave the House on 10 January—that geophones cannot be installed when extensive building works are under way because they do not work effectively in such circumstances—has turned out to be wholly inaccurate? While the Secretary of State's disclaimer to the House that he does not claim any personal expertise in geophones has proved stunningly correct, does not he think that he should have been much more careful before passing on such inaccurate advice—not least since it was well known that geophones were kept operational in the similar circumstances of building works at Wormwood Scrubs?

Does the Secretary of State accept that this is the third report in 10 months to present chapter and verse for the view of the outgoing chief inspector of prisons, Sir Stephen Tumim, that there is a crisis of confidence in the prison service? Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party has been in Government 16 years, during which time that crisis has developed, why was there not a single line of apology for that appalling state of affairs in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement? Why was there no recognition by him of the responsibility that he and his predecessors must bear for that situation?

In eight years on the Opposition Front Bench, I have never called for a Minister's resignation. It would be highly irresponsible for anyone to call for a Minister's resignation simply because prisoners had escaped. However, the report and the right hon. and learned Gentleman's response, highlighting as it does his stewardship of his high office, raises fundamental questions about the Secretary of State's fitness for that office. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has sought power over the prison service while continually evading his responsibilities. He was right to say that a question of leadership arises from the report—but it is his leadership. Given the state of the prison service today, the way in which it has been run ragged by continual ministerial interference and constant policy changes, will the Secretary of State not now understand that if anyone is to go, it must be him?