HL Deb 19 February 1996 vol 569 cc863-5

3.2 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to replace the Director General of the Prison Service.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, this is an important and sensitive appointment which needs the most careful consideration. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will make an announcement as soon as possible. In the meantime, Mr. Richard Tilt is doing an excellent job as acting director general.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Baroness on evading the issue with her usual charm and skill? Is she aware that The Times tells us today that the job has been touted around all over the place without success? In view of the disgraceful treatment of Mr. Derek Lewis and the low esteem in which government policies are held throughout the Prison Service, is the noble Baroness surprised that no one will touch that post with a barge pole?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, this is not the first Question from the noble Earl which I have answered when he has accused me of avoiding the Question and not responding to his points. I have given the noble Earl an honest Answer, which is the only Answer that I can give. I must advise the noble Earl that I do not take my guide from The Times or from any newspaper. The post has not been touted around. We have not yet advertised the post.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend see this moment as an opportunity to give the administration of prisons a United Kingdom dimension? May I thank my noble friend for the most interesting information (which she gave me in Written Answers on 29th January) about the computerisation of the records of those in prison in the United Kingdom? I was astonished to find that the police forces in England have no direct access to prison computer records; that the same situation prevails in Scotland; and that there is no link between Scotland and England and Wales on this? The Minister wrote that a centralised computer register of all persons detained in Her Majesty's penal establishments in Northern Ireland does not exist. Has not the time come to give a UK dimension to the administration of prisons?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very important point. It is certainly true that a great deal of work needs to be done to make sure that one part of the criminal justice system communicates with another, using state of the art technology. I can give my noble friend the assurance that there is at present a great deal of activity on that front.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, without dissenting from what the Minister says about Mr. Richard Tilt, are not her earlier replies rather strange? The post became vacant last year, but the Minister now says that the post has not touted around—I assume that that means that nobody has been asked either directly or indirectly whether they are interested in applying for or taking the post—and that it has not yet been advertised. Why the delay?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there are people who are interested in the post. I know personally that people are interested in the post. That is a fact. As the noble Lord knows, there is currently a review within the department about the relationship between the agency, the Government and the Home Office. As I have already mentioned, it is a sensitive post which needs thinking about carefully. In the meantime, Mr. Richard Tilt is doing an excellent job, which means that the urgency is not quite as strong as the noble Lord suggests.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, does that mean that the Government are relaxed about allowing this "sensitive" position, as the noble Baroness described it, to remain open for several more months? When are we going to get a replacement for Mr. Lewis? Is the Minister aware that the reason that it is such a sensitive position is the deplorable way in which Mr. Lewis was sacked by the Home Secretary? Can the Minister say what stage has been reached in the action that is being taken by Mr. Lewis against the Home Secretary over the circumstances in which he was dismissed from his post?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I said that the Home Secretary will announce further progress as soon as possible. I also said that Mr. Richard Tilt, who is the acting director general at the moment, is doing an excellent job, so there is not the vacuum which the noble Lord suggests. It would be inappropriate for me to say anything at all about the progress that is being made with Mr. Derek Lewis. It is probably not correct to say that the matter is sub judice, but negotiations are continuing and it would be quite wrong of me to use this moment to say anything other than that the matter is in hand.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the Minister kindly indicate to the House what applicants will be told about the ministerial responsibility of the Home Office in regard to the post holder's activities?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is absolutely essential that any appointment is made on the basis of understanding the proper role of the director general and the post's relationship to the Home Office, recognising the responsibility and accountability to Parliament of the Home Secretary of the day.