Power without Responsibility

Article excerpt

THE Home Secretary, Michael Howard, came under attack last week from a man who had seemed a model member of the Conservatives' new establishment. Derek Lewis did not become director-general of the Prison Service because he knew about jails - the only jail he had visited before 1993 was on a Monopoly board. He got the job because he had the background ministers now consider vital in running public services: he was a businessman.

Once installed (at a salary double his predecessor's), he set to work with the familiar, bright-eyed conviction that he was "invigorating" an under-performing monopoly. In particular, he began implementing the Government's controversial policy of privatising jails.

And, despite predictions of disaster, he enjoyed some success. Under his workaholic direction, the prison service saw not a single serious riot, while the number of escapes dropped like a stone. The Government, it seemed, had every right to be pleased.

But on Monday, when he was fired after the damning Learmont report on the Parkhurst prison breakout, Mr Lewis revealed another side of business culture. Instead of fuming in private, he hired a public relations firm to put his case. Instead of keeping his head down and hoping his silence would be rewarded with another top civil service job, he fired off a writ for damages against Mr Howard which read like a charge sheet.

It accused Mr Howard of daily political interference, "extreme and unjustified" pressures and delays in making important decisions. Though they came from a most unexpected quarter, these charges went straight to the heart of a problem that is causing growing concern: ministers' responsibility to Parliament and the public for what goes on in their departments, and above all for what happens in the new "agencies" springing up everywhere in Whitehall.

Are ministers, as they insist, only accountable for "policy" and not "operational" failures? If so, does that mean they now wield power without responsibility?

IT IS no accident that this issue came to a head in the Home Office, even if Mr Lewis is an unlikely cause celebre, for Mr Howard's power is growing almost by the day.

Performance indicators set by his department will soon be used to determine police priorities across the country, giving him greater control over what used to be semi-autonomous police forces than any home secretary before him. At the same time, the extension of mandatory life sentences which he has ordered will erode the independent power of the judiciary. In such cases the Home Secretary decides when prisoners are to be released, so in effect he is fixing the true length of sentences, and not the judges.

And in the prison service, which has never enjoyed much freedom, Mr Howard and his ministers are still intimately involved in decision-making.

His power is increasing; what about responsibility? For some time he has been doing his best to restrain or silence the few independent bodies whose task is to monitor his department.

For example the efforts of the ombudsman, Sir Peter Woodhead, to ensure that prisoners are treated fairly and consistently have not brought him thanks. Last month Mr Howard "gave him a rocket",ed. His friends said he would have stayed on if Mr Howard had offered to extend his contract, but Mr Howard was only too happy to see him go.

Meanwhile boards of visitors, which inspect jails and issue public reports on their conditions, are being brought under strict Home Office control. Their scope for presenting the public with criticisms about a jail will be drastically cut.

So what happens when something goes wrong - or when everything goes wrong, as Sir John Learmont found everything had at Parkhurst in January? His critics say that the omnipotent Mr Howard - the Mr Howard who constantly wants to tell the police, the judges and the prison governors what to do - simply disappears. …