Magazine article Public Finance

If at First You Don't Succeed

Magazine article Public Finance

If at First You Don't Succeed

Article excerpt

The Bichard Inquiry - into how the Soham murderer lan Huntley managed to work as a school caretaker despite a long history of alleged sex offences - has just issued its final report. Confused? Didn't Sir Michael Bichard report last year?

Before I explain, allow me a small digression. In early 1997 - when Michael Howard was still home secretary - I received a phone call from a senior manager in the Prison Service. He asked if I would be prepared to serve on the Prison Service Review, which was being established in the aftermath of the 'Derek Lewis' affair. Not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I agreed. The experience was instructive.

The then home secretary, Ken Clarke, had brought in Derek Lewis, a TV company manager, as director general of the newly 'agencified' Prison Service. Although Lewis had made a dramatic impact on Prison Service management and performance - including a substantial reduction in escapes - his misfortune was to be in charge when a couple of high-profile escapes from maximum security prisons happened.

The resulting political furore led to some of the most iconic moments of Michael Howard's career, including his famous grilling on Newsnight, where Jeremy Paxman asked the same question umpteen times, and Ann Widdecombe's 'something of the night' remark. Lewis was sacked (although he successfully sued for unfair dismissal) and, as part of Howard's 'not me guv' strategy, the home secretary announced to Parliament that he would order a review of the Prison Service. Everyone else quietly forgot about this obscure review - but not me, I was on it.

The review committee consisted of three Prison Service directors, including Richard Tilt, the new DG; one representative each from the Home Office and Cabinet Office; Sir Michael Heron (then chair of the Post Office); and myself. One of the first, and to me striking, things we did was to get a review of reviews - and we discovered that there had been no fewer than 14 over the previous 30 years. We eventually concluded: 'There is a striking repetitiveness about the findings of these reviews.' The same problems had been identified over and again. There was rarely a follow-up of previous reviews, no continuity and no accountability for what they had - or mostly had not - achieved.

As in prisons, so in child protection. In January 1973, seven-year old Maria Colwell died after being horrifically abused. There was an inquiry. Thirty years and countless other inquiries later, another little girl's legacy was yet another inquiry - this time it was Victoria Climbié. As with the 14 reviews of the Prison Service there has been a sad repetitiveness about such inquiries. …

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