Magazine article The Spectator

Derek Lewis: Big Job, Little Man, Inaccurate Book

Magazine article The Spectator

Derek Lewis: Big Job, Little Man, Inaccurate Book

Article excerpt

If a book were to be written on declining standards in British public life during recent decades, Derek Lewis would deserve a chapter to himself. Mr Lewis was entitled to defend his record as director-general of the prison service, and he could have done so by making a serious, dignified contribution to the debate on penal policy. Instead, he has produced a bitter little book (Hidden Agendas, Hamish Hamilton, 20), as superficial as it is spiteful, and full of inaccuracies.

The worst of these concerns Michael Howard's wife, Sandra. According to Mr Lewis, while a new code of prison standards was being prepared: `One of [Mr Howard's] special advisers, David Cameron . . . asked to see me in private . looking a bit sheepish, Cameron mentioned that . . . Sandra . . . thought that the code's prescription of a balanced and nutritious diet was giving today's offenders much more than they deserved.'

To those who know Mrs Howard and Mr Cameron, that account was immediately implausible. Sandra Howard is no more likely to play the Beadle in Oliver Twist than David Cameron is to sound sheepish. If Mrs Howard had attempted to influence the diet of prisoners, it would have been in the direction of greater liberality. She made no such attempt.

David Cameron, however, did. In his opinion, the early drafts of the code of standards went into far too much detail about prison catering. Mr Cameron proposed a tighter draft, in which it was simply stated that prisoners were entitled to a healthy and balanced diet. Mr Lewis responded enthusiastically, adopted most of Mr Cameron's changes, and sent a minute to the Home Secretary in which he thanked Mr Cameron for his valuable contribution. `Changes were made,' Mr Lewis tells us, after the passage in which he invents false opinions for Mrs Howard, `but the balanced diet had to stay.' The phrase `balanced diet' came from David Cameron.

Mr Lewis makes the absurd claim that deputy secretaries in Whitehall never speak to permanent secretaries or to under-secretaries (whom he confuses with assistant secretaries). He also maligns individual civil servants, especially the Home Secretary's former private secretary, Joan MacNaughton. Mr Lewis accuses her of enjoying `power a little too much', of `making a virtue out of stress and hostility' and of being too tough on her underlings. Others give a wholly different account. They describe an outstanding civil servant, who demanded high standards from her staff, but who also led by example. She probably did not share Michael Howard's views; he once said that working for him was the supreme test of her civil service professionalism. But she never let her own opinions impede the performance of her duties, and won the admiration of several men who are not easily impressed.

She does, however, have one deficiency, which wrecked her relationship with Derek Lewis. She is hopeless when it comes to massaging vain men's egos - and they do not come any vainer than Mr Lewis's. The book is full of the most trivial details of his daily life: how he got from a to b, where he slept, who paid for lunch, or, in the case of Stephen Tumim, the chief inspector of prisons, who never paid. To judge by this book, Mr Lewis was far more interested in fussing over late taxis than he was in hard thinking about the tasks he faced.

They were formidable tasks. By the 1980s, the prison service was in need of comprehensive reform. There was an utter confusion of objectives. …

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