HC Deb 16 October 1995 vol 264 cc30-44 4.11 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about prison security.

I am today publishing the report by General Sir John Learmont into prison security. I am extremely grateful to Sir John and to his two fellow assessors, Sir John Woodcock and Mr. Gary Dadds, for their comprehensive and authoritative report.

Let me begin by reminding the House of the circumstances which led me to ask Sir John to conduct his inquiry. In September 1994, six exceptional risk category A prisoners escaped from Whitemoor prison. I asked Sir John Woodcock to conduct an inquiry into the escape and I presented his findings to the House on 19 December last year.

I also asked General Sir John Learmont to conduct a comprehensive and independent review of physical and procedural security in the prison service in England and Wales, and to make recommendations.

On 3 January this year, two category A and one category B prisoner escaped from Parkhurst. All three were recaptured on 8 January. I pay tribute again to the police for that successful operation. An immediate inquiry was carried out by the Prison Service director of security. As I told the House on 10 January, this immediate inquiry highlighted very serious deficiencies in procedural and physical security at Parkhurst.

I asked Sir John Learmont to extend his own inquiry to include an independent assessment of the events surrounding the escape. The report makes the most serious criticisms of Parkhurst and its management. On security procedures, Sir John found that the prison service's own security manual was disregarded and that the most basic security measures were not observed. Sir John also makes a number of criticisms of the physical security of Parkhurst, including the failure of the prison service to provide the prison with the full benefits of technology.

I am also publishing today the report of the inspection of Parkhurst by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim. The inspection took place in October 1995 and the report was submitted at the end of February 1996.

Judge Tumim also makes a number of severe criticisms of the situation at Parkhurst, including weak and inadequate security, unacceptable conditions in health care, and drug dealing which pervaded the whole sub-culture of the prison. There was a reluctance by staff to assert proper control in areas such as searching and accounting for inmates. The judge considered that the problems were so serious that he wrote to the Director General, before he left the prison, with a copy to me, drawing attention to the serious shortcomings that he had found. As I told the House on 10 January, I immediately spoke to the Director General and asked for a full report. He assured me that all Judge Tumim's recommendations had been implemented.

Sir John Learmont recommends that Parkhurst should be taken out of the dispersal system as soon as possible and consideration given to its replacement by a more appropriate establishment. I accept that recommendation. Parkhurst has not in practice operated as a dispersal prison since April, when all category A prisoners were removed from normal location. I have asked the prison service to identify another prison in the south-east of England to take Parkhurst's place in the dispersal system as soon as possible.

Sir John's inquiry was not a disciplinary inquiry. Sir John has recommended to me that no disciplinary inquiry should be undertaken into the escape from Parkhurst. He is of the opinion that such an inquiry could finally break the resolve and commitment of many of the staff at Parkhurst, with the very significant possibility that the secure running of the establishment could be severely compromised. He is also of the opinion that it is difficult to see what a disciplinary inquiry would achieve. In considering that recommendation, I have been influenced by the fact that more than one of those concerned will not be staying in the prison service. I have therefore decided to accept that recommendation.

The Learmont report makes it clear that responsibility for the Parkhurst escape was not confined to management and staff at Parkhurst. On the contrary: the report says that alarm bells should have been … ringing throughout the Prison Service". and that many of the ingredients can be traced along the lines of communication to Prison Service headquarters". In his covering letter, Sir John Learmont makes it perfectly clear that responsibilities ultimately reach the level of the Prisons Board and that that is where criticism stops. Sir John has not found that any policy decision of mine, directly or indirectly, caused the escape.

I turn next to the organisation of the prison service and its relationship with the Home Office. It is now about two and a half years since the prison service became a "next steps" executive agency. The decision to make the service an agency was taken on the recommendation of an independent inquiry conducted by Admiral Sir Raymond Lygo. Sir John Learmont does not recommend that there should be any change in the agency status of the prison service. He does recommend that someone with wide experience of the workings of agencies should undertake an in-depth study of the relationship between the prison service and the Home Office. That work is under way and I shall report on it to the House when it is complete.

Sir John's report makes 127 detailed and wide-ranging recommendations. I accept the broad thrust of Sir John's analysis. About half the recommendations endorse actions that have already been completed, are under way, or are already planned. I shall deal today with Sir John's key recommendations and I shall come back to the House with a full response in due course.

A key recommendation of the report is that there should be one maximum security prison to house the most dangerous prisoners in the system. That was a recommendation first made by the Mountbatten inquiry in 1966, and accepted by the then Home Secretary, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. However, the Radzinowicz report in March 1968 recommended against it and it was not implemented. Since then the policy has been to disperse such prisoners among a small number of high security prisons. Sir John concludes: The continuous development of explosives and weapons and their availability to criminals and their associates, pose a much greater threat to the security of our maximum security prisons than the Service has previously encountered. He believes, therefore, that the most dangerous prisoners should now be housed in a purpose-designed and built maximum security prison.

That is a very far-reaching proposal, which would represent a major departure in penal policy. The report makes a strong case for it. I have already asked the Prison Service to consider the feasibility, costs and benefits of building such an establishment and to report to me in six months' time. The prison service will also consider Sir John Learmont's proposal for a single control prison to hold the most unruly and disruptive prisoners. I should welcome comments on those proposals.

Sir John also recommends a fundamental review of the system under which prisoners are allocated to different security categories according to the threat to the community and the likelihood of escape. I accept that a review of that system should take place.

Sir John also recommends that minimum physical security standards should be set for each category of prison. Work is well under way on bringing the dispersal estate up to the standard of security recommended by Sir John Woodcock. National standards exist for all new prisons. Decisions on the appropriate security standards for non-dispersal prisons will be based on the outcome of the review of categorisation.

One particular aspect that I asked Sir John to consider was the extent to which visits should be closed. He recommends that there should be closed visits for exceptional risk category A prisoners other than in exceptional circumstances. That coincides with the policy that I introduced in June this year.

I turn, finally, to Sir John's recommendations on the ways in which physical security is enhanced by activities and incentives. I told the House in December last year that the prison service would introduce a national framework of privileges and incentives. That framework is already in place and implementation has begun. Sir John recommends that a system requiring early release to be earned, not granted automatically as at present, would be a significant additional inducement to good behaviour. Last week I set out proposals for ending automatic early release and for introducing a system of earned remission.

But there are two issues on which Sir John and I must agree to differ. I reject his proposal that in-cell television should be made widely available. That would not be consistent with my view that prison conditions should be decent but austere. Nor can I accept Sir John's proposal that home leave should be more widely available. In my view, the restrictions introduced earlier this year have an important role in protecting the public; and I have no plans to relax them.

Sir John Learmont has found a great deal that needs to be put right within the prison service, spanning leadership, structure, the management chain, and the ethos of the service. He says that responsibilities ultimately reach Prisons Board level—and that the criticism stops there.

Those comments, coming so soon after the Woodcock report on Whitemoor, cause me great concern. I must be able to assure the House, and through it the public, that the grave weaknesses in the service that have been disclosed will be put right.

I have come to the conclusion, with some sadness, that that requires a change of leadership at the top of the prison service. The present director general has served in his post for nearly three years. I pay tribute to him for what he has achieved, but I cannot overlook the serious criticisms in the report. I believe that the service requires a change of leadership to carry forward the programme of reforms that is needed and to increase public confidence in the security of our prisons.

The director general has accordingly ceased to hold his post with effect from today. The director of security will take over temporarily until a successor is appointed.

I believe that this report will be seen as a major milestone in the evolution of the prison service. I heartily endorse Sir John's conclusion that there is an abundance of excellent people within the Prison Service whose most fervent wish is to do a good and worthwhile job". The changes that I have announced today will help them to achieve that goal.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

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?

Mr. Howard

I shall deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) in turn. He began and ended with my position. I refer him to the covering letter which is published with the report. That sets out very clearly the steps which Sir John Learmont took to send what are known as "Salmon letters" to those whom he considered subject to criticism. In that letter he states: I have applied a liberal interpretation of these rules lo ensure, as far as possible, that absolute fairness has prevailed. Such procedures have touched as high as Prisons Board level illustrating that I have endeavoured to identify where responsibilities have ultimately reached and where the criticism stops. That is the answer to the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

I reject absolutely the hon. Gentleman's allegations of interference. It is essential, if I am to be properly accountable to this House and to the country, that I am properly and fully informed about what happens in our prisons. That is why requests are made to those who work in the prison service for information about matters that give rise to public concern. If we did not ask for information about those matters, I believe that we would be in dereliction of our duty.

As for ministerial initiatives, there have indeed been some ministerial initiatives affecting our prisons over the past year or two—initiatives to introduce mandatory drug testing, to introduce a regime of sanctions and incentives and to reduce significantly the number of home leaves and temporary releases, as a result of which there has been an 80 per cent. reduction in home leave failures. I make no apology for those ministerial initiatives; they were absolutely essential if we were to make our prison system the kind of system in which the people of this country could have confidence.

The hon. Gentleman referred to paperwork and the documents with which those in the prison service had to deal. The report deals with that. When the hon. Gentleman has had greater opportunity to study the report, I think that he will appreciate that it is quite wrong to suggest that that paperwork emanated from Ministers.

I made it clear when I made my previous statement to the House that what I said about the position of the former governor of Parkhurst was pending the results of any inquiry. If the hon. Gentleman looks at what the report says about the condition of Parkhurst and reads what is said about the failure to follow basic security procedures, the prevalence of drugs and the failure to supervise properly health care at Parkhurst, he will find that it is difficult to dissociate those criticisms from the position of the former governor of Parkhurst.

The picture of privatisation that the hon. Gentleman has given the House is a gross distortion of what is contained in the report. I refer the House to paragraph 3.137, which states: Potential involvement of the private sector and the prospect of competition promotes internal re-examination. It stimulates the adoption of modern best practice and business methods. Experience has also shown that competition is likely to cut the cost of services and increase their efficiency. That is what the report says about privatisation.

The hon. Gentleman was quite right to remind the House of the disclaimer that I made when I was last dealing with geophones to the effect that I have no expertise in geophones and that I was telling the House honestly and to the best of my ability what I knew about them then on the basis of my understanding. It is perfectly true that the Learmont report adds considerably to my understanding of geophones and probably to the understanding of many others as well.

I very much regret the step that I have had to take today. The former Director General of the Prison Service has achieved a good deal. It was with great sadness that I was obliged to take the step that I did, but I could not overlook the criticisms contained in the report—I had a duty to act on behalf of the public.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree, although there is a good deal of gloom and discouragement in the Learmont report, that the silver lining lies in the glowing tribute that the report pays to the conscientiousness and commitment of the great mass of the prison officers and public servants in the governor grades, demonstrating that the service is fundamentally and essentially well founded? Will my right hon. and learned Friend do everything possible to capitalise on the superb asset that we have in the staff of the prison service, and pay the closest attention to the calibre and quality of the individual whom he selects to become the new chief executive?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend says. I entirely agree with and endorse his tribute to the staff who work in the prison service. They carry out a very difficult job and, on the whole, they do it well. I am determined to do my utmost to put in place arrangements that will enable them to do it even better in future.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

We support the main recommendations in this report; but how is the sacking of Derek Lewis supposed to discharge all ministerial responsibility for the appalling state of affairs which the report has revealed? Who was he reporting to—sometimes several times a day—but the Home Secretary? Who but the Home Secretary was responsible for the stream of initiatives, privatisation proposals and policy changes that led to a mountain of paper "higher than Ben Nevis", in the words of the report, and which distracted attention from security? And who but the Home Secretary is now proposing so to add to prison numbers that overcrowding will create policies of appeasement just like the ones described in the report, in an attempt to keep control of overcrowded prisons? When will the Home Secretary start carrying the can? If Ministers do not take responsibility, just as before nothing will change.

Mr. Howard

I have based my decision on what is contained in this report. It was an independent report. I asked General Learmont to conduct an inquiry into security in the prison service, and he has made an independent assessment of what he found. I could not overlook that assessment, and that is what I have based myself upon.

I have always made it clear that security has to be the first priority of the service. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about overcrowding are far wide of the mark. Parkhurst was not overcrowded; indeed, the staff:inmate ratio there was higher than in any other dispersal prison.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that we Conservatives find the party political claptrap from the Opposition lamentable? Any reasonable person must accept the conclusions of the report, which place absolutely no blame on my right hon. and learned Friend and which say that the buck stops with the Director General of the Prison Service. They also say that prison security is so important for the protection of the public that my right hon. and learned Friend has absolutely no alternative but to require the person most responsible for it to resign.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. The decision that I came to today caused me a good deal of sadness. As I said earlier, the former director general achieved a good deal during his period of office, but I came to the conclusion that I could not overlook the report's assessment and criticisms. It was for those reasons that I reluctantly came to the conclusion that this was a step which duty required me to take.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

The Home Secretary, referring to the Learmont report, said that alarm bells should have been ringing throughout the prison service. Had not the governor of Parkhurst, Mr. Marriott, repeatedly requested the installation of geophones and a properly manned control room? According to a report in The Independent on Saturday, he had also predicted the escape route that was eventually used. Alarm bells were certainly ringing throughout the prison service; the problem was that the Secretary of State did not hear them.

Mr. Howard

I reject that criticism. The report sets out the requests made for geophones and goes into the history of that matter in considerable detail. It also makes it clear that money was available for geophones and was ultimately found for them. I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that the detailed allocation of capital funds within a budget—for which Ministers certainly have responsibility—is a matter for Ministers. The task of Ministers is to set the budget; the task for assessing priorities within that budget is for the prison service. Were Ministers to interfere in decisions of that kind, the problem to which the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) referred in his opening critique would be compounded a thousandfold.

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

Since he was appointed director general, has not Derek Lewis reduced escapes by three quarters, accommodated a huge increase in the prison population without more overcrowding and without the use of police cells, halved the costs of providing new places and drastically cut head office bureaucracy? Will the Home Secretary acknowledge these very real achievements—and others, particularly in the area of security, the subject of this report and a statement to the House?

Mr. Howard

Yes, my right hon. Friend, who speaks with experience from his period as Minister with responsibility for prisons, is right to draw attention to those matters and to acknowledge the part which the director general has played. It was those factors that made it especially difficult for me to reach my decision, but as I have said on a number of occasions, in the last analysis I felt unable to overlook the criticisms contained in the report.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

Now that the Home Secretary has announced the dismissal of the Director General of the Prison Service, can he tell us whether it will be his policy to appoint as successor someone who has management experience in the service?

Mr. Howard

I shall look carefully into the question of who should succeed the director general. A number of factors will be taken into account; the one that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned is one among those factors. I do not think it would be right to make it an essential requirement.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

The Home Secretary will be aware that many of the prison officers working at Her Majesty's Prison Whitemoor live in my constituency, and that the vast majority of them were appalled at the lax regime that led to the IRA breakout and to many of the other abuses that have taken place. Is it any wonder that the people at the ground level, far from supporting the vies of the hon. Member for Blackburn on penal policy, support my right hon. and learned Friend's ministerial initiatives and leadership? Will he listen more to what they say and less to what the so-called experts in the probation service, the judiciary and the Home Office say?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think it true that a number of the measures which I have introduced have support at grass roots level among those who have the responsibility of working in the prison service. I hope that that support will continue.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Is the Home Secretary aware that in my county of Gwent two defendants who were recently found guilty of serious offences were not sent to prison because their solicitors pleaded that if they went there they would be exposed to large-scale drug abuse? That is because, as one Minister has said, drug misuse is endemic in almost every prison in the country. Who is responsible for that: the prison service or the Home Secretary?

When the "next steps" agencies were set up the House was given a clear undertaking that ultimate responsibility would rest with the Home Secretary. Who is he responsible for; what policy is he responsible for; and should he not take the logical decision, given the dreadful mess in which the prison service finds itself, and resign today?

Mr. Howard

I agree entirely about the seriousness of the drug problem in prisons. It is a dreadful problem and we must take action to deal with it. I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what I have done in an attempt to deal with it. I have instituted a policy of mandatory drug testing—that is the first step towards bringing the misuse of drugs in our prisons under control. It is unrealistic to suppose that it is something that will be achieved in a day, a week or a month. It is something that will take determined action over a period to achieve. I believe that we have made a sensible start on a necessary series of changes.

Mr. David Faber (Westbury)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall the case of the so-called bicycling rapist? Last year, a convicted rapist was allowed out on day release to bicycle unattended from Erlestoke prison to Trowbridge college, which is in my constituency, to attend a course. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the wider malaise that he has described this afternoon is symptomatic of such a decision being taken? Will he accept the grateful thanks of those of my constituents who were extremely frightened at the time of the bicycling rapist for reiterating his, my right hon. and learned Friend's, views on temporary release today?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I well understand the concerns that he expresses on behalf of his constituents. The changes that have been made in home leave and temporary release were essential if public confidence in the prison system was to be maintained. I believe that home leave and temporary release had become entirely out of hand and that we had to take steps to bring them under control. I was responding to the sort of concern that my hon. Friend has voiced in taking the steps that I took some time ago.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the implications of his pronouncements last week mean that there will be substantial increases in prison populations and that one maximum security prison may not suffice? Will there be sufficient funds to pay for this expansion? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept also that the changes in remission may mean increases in tension and violence in prisons and that there will as a consequence be public concern on a scale that will require his resignation? There cannot be any further buck-passing after this.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman's last point is misconceived. At present a good deal of early release from prison is entirely automatic. Other early release is determined not by good behaviour in prison but by the Parole Board's assessment of risk. One of the purposes of my proposal is to introduce incentives for good behaviour. That will be done by introducing earned early release by remission for good behaviour, which does not now exist. The hon. Gentleman's last point is thoroughly misconceived and entirely without foundation.

As for the net effect of the proposals that I put forward at Blackpool last week, we are engaged in making a careful assessment. There are many factors to be taken into account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will share my view that the certainty of sentences that would he one consequence of my proposals would increase deterrence.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I welcome the fact that the report endorses my right hon. and learned Friend's policy of earned early release, but has he noted that it does not seem to be so popular on the Opposition Benches? Will he accept, however, that those outside the House will conclude that Sir John Learmont is clearly a well-read man and, unlike some others, understands that historically these are matters for Parliament? It is Parliament that will decide these matters and no one else.

Mr. Howard

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He is right. It is a point that I made repeatedly after I announced my proposals last week. I would expect it to be a point on which all Members would agree.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

If the Home Secretary is to be as accountable to the House as he says he is, will he tell us when he was first properly informed of the repeated requests from local management at Parkhurst for geophones? Does he now think it outrageously irresponsible that from January to today he did nothing to find out about the success of geophones?

Mr. Howard

So far as I can recollect, I was first told about geophones after the breakout from Parkhurst. I do not recall the matter coming to my attention before then.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the swift and firm decision that he has made following the Learmont report? Does he agree that the removal of the Director General of the Prison Service was necessary and entirely appropriate in the circumstances? In looking to the appointment of a successor, will he set out his top priority, which is the ending of the lax enforcement of the regime that was evident at Parkhurst?

Mr. Howard

I have made it clear on several occasions this afternoon that the decision that I reached in respect of the former director general was reached reluctantly and with a good deal of sadness. I think, however, that it was necessary if the general thrust of the Learmont report was to be accepted, which I did. That is why I took the step. I shall take on board what my hon. Friend has said when we come to appoint a successor.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

The Home Secretary seems to believe in the principle that he should take credit for everything that has gone right within the prison service and accept no responsibility for anything that has gone wrong. Does he feel that he can share with the House any examples of mistakes that he might have made since becoming Home Secretary in dealing with the prison service?

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Gentleman reads the report and the covering letter he will understand how unworthy a question that was.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in the Royal Navy, when a ship goes down, the captain is court martialled and no one thinks of calling upon the First Sea Lord to resign? Is he aware also that his decision to abolish automatic reduction of sentence will be widely welcomed throughout the country? It was a fraud upon the public that a man sentenced to six years' imprisonment should be released after three. In any event, good behaviour is to be expected inside as well as outside Her Majesty's prisons.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the reported remarks of the Lord Chief Justice are rather too narrowly focused? Deterrence is one of the functions of prison but other perhaps more important ones are punishing criminals for the crimes, sometimes terrible crimes, that they have committed and physically preventing them from committing further crimes.

Mr. Howard

I defer to my hon. Friend's knowledge of naval regulations but what he says seems about right to me. I am grateful to him for his support for the proposals that I announced last week. I suspect that you might get rather impatient with me, Madam Speaker, if I made comments about the Lord Chief Justice's views this afternoon.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is it not remarkable that whenever there is a crisis the Tory Government, and now specifically the Home Secretary, always manage to find a scapegoat to carry the can? Will this well-paid fall guy, Lewis, who was on £125,000 a year, be handing back the £30,000 bonus that he was given last year? How much severance pay or what golden handshake will he get arising from the Home Secretary's statement?

Is it not true that when the Home Secretary was given his job there were three prisoners in every cell and that within four weeks there were three on every roof? The Tories were elected to set the people free and the prisoners got out. Why does not the Home Secretary get off?

Mr. Howard

No, the hon. Gentleman's last point is not true. Compensation for the director general is a matter for negotiation.

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in considering arrangements for running the prisons the Learmont reports states: Such arrangements raise the question as to whether the problems at Whitemoor and Parkhurst would have arisen if the prison service had the same monitoring and audit arrangements that exist in the private sector"? I seem to recall from a recent report of the Public Accounts Committee that the performance indicators that are demanded in the private sector are such that they are properly maintained. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a lesson to be learned here?

Mr. Howard

There are many lessons to be learned from the report. My hon. Friend has rightly identified one of the most important ones. I am sure that it is a matter to which both the acting director general and, in due course, the new director general will be paying careful attention.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North)

Of course, Sir John Learmont does not seek in his report to apportion political blame. He knows that that is the prerogative of the House. Is not this only the latest in a series of prison scandals that have taken place on the Home Secretary's watch? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that during a conversation at the Prison Service conference in November 1994—I understand that this was referred to by Mr. Derek Lewis in his resignation letter—Mr. Lewis suggested to him that his new definition of the difference between ministerial and agency responsibilities was that the agency had to accept difficult responsibilities and Ministers accepted only the easy ones?

Mr. Howard

That is not a matter for me. It was, I think, a throwaway remark made in answer to a question by the then director general at the Prison Service conference.

Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that Sir John Learmont made a fundamental criticism of the management of the prison service, in their failure to react quickly enough to the lessons learned from the Whitemoor breakout in time to be able to stop the breakouts from Parkhurst, and that he made criticisms all the way up the line of the whole management of the prisons, who failed to react quickly and failed to implement the changes that had already been pointed out to them?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend's analysis of the report is correct; those are the conclusions reached by Sir John Learmont, and are the conclusions that led me, with his general assessment and criticisms, to the decision that I have had to take.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on responding to the considerable public concern about security in our prisons, but also on having had the courage to appoint a strong-minded officer, such as General Learmont, who was always likely to bring out a very tough and critical report? Is not it worth reflecting that a hypothetical Labour Government would not have had the guts to have the report and, if they had, would have swept it straight under the carpet?

Mr. Howard

I shall not follow my hon. Friend on that hypothetical path. I chose Sir John Learmont to carry out this inquiry because I knew that he would produce an independent report that would investigate matters and reveal the truth as he saw it. I believe that that is what he has done.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the report by Sir John Learmont underlines that the prevailing ethos at Parkhurst was quite unacceptable, and that is why the governor had to go? Will he further accept the congratulations of most hon. Members and people in the country on being a Home Secretary who is willing to challenge the prevailing ethos in respect of prisons and sentencing?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. Decisions that have to be taken by the holder of this office are particularly difficult and I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Home Secretary give an undertaking that the financial arrangements for Mr. Lewis's departure will not be conditional on his not responding to the criticisms of his stewardship of prisons that the Home Secretary has articulated in the House? Will the price of compensation or severance pay be his silence?

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report, he will see that the criticisms that have been made are not those articulated by me in the House but are contained in General Learmont's report.