HC Deb 09 July 1965 vol 715 cc1985-9

11.6 a.m.

Mr. Sharples

May I raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I regret I have not been able to give you previous notice owing to the time? Last night I put a Private Notice Question to the Home Secretary about a matter which I think is known to the House. This Question, as I understand, has been blocked by the device of putting down a Question for Written Answer. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] I should be most grateful if I could have your help as to how an Oral Answer to this Question can be obtained. I rang the Home Secretary as soon as I heard of your Ruling. He has very kindly come to the House and I understand that he has a statement with him which he would be prepared to make. I should be most grateful for your help.

Mr. Speaker

The answer is that the proper course is for the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary to ask my leave to make a statement which instantly would be granted.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Frank Soskice)

Would you give me permission to make a statement, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

I certainly will.

Sir F. Soskice

I greatly regret to have to inform the House that yesterday afternoon at about five minutes past three four prisoners escaped from the exercise yard at Wandsworth Prison, among them Biggs, one of the train robbers.

I ordered an immediate inquiry, which is in progress. Initial reports give the following information. Fourteen men on the escape list were being exercised separately in the exercise yard under the supervision of four officers. The exercise began at 2.28 p.m. At 3.5 p.m. one of the officers saw a man's head appear from the outside of the prison over the wall adjoining the yard. The senior officer immediately gave the alarm. The outsider shouted and two ladders were immediately dropped over the wall. They were suspended from outside by ropes. The officers rushed towards the wall to prevent the ladders from being used but were obstructed by some of the prisoners. Four prisoners reached the ladders and escaped over the wall. Outside the wall there was a removal van with a high platform to which the ladders were attached. First reports suggest that the outside people helping in this escape were armed and masked. The escapers are believed to have got away in three cars.

Mr. Sharples

Arising out of that statement, I should like to ask the Home Secretary three questions. First, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether or no the special arrangements for the security of certain prisoners who were involved in the train robbery, which were initiated by his predecessor in office, were being carried out at the time of the escape of the one particular prisoner? Second, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say whether it yet appears at this stage that the methods used for effecting this escape, clearly organised from outside, were similar to those which were used in the escape which was organised of the prisoner Wilson? Third, are immediate additional precautions being taken to prevent the escape of others who might be involved in attempts of this kind.

Sir F. Soskice

As I have said, I ordered an immediate inquiry by the Director of Prison Administration. I myself visited the prison last night and discussed the matter with the governor. In answer to the first question the hon. Gentleman put, as at present advised I can find no reason to think that any blame attaches to the prison service at all, and, if I may say so, as regards the further points which he made, I think that the right course would be to await the reports of the inquiry which I have ordered and the outcome of very intensive police inquiries which are at present in progress.

As regards security precautions being taken at the moment, I am quite satisfied that all possible and reasonable security precautions are being taken.

The hon. Gentleman's final question was whether there seemed to be any similarity between the methods used in the case of Wilson and in the present case. While I should not like to commit myself, as at present advised my answer would be, "No".

Mr. Lipton

In dealing with these clever, desperate train robbers, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider two weapons: one, exemplary punishment of those prisoners who, by impeding the warders, help the escape so that whatever bribe they may be promised out of the missing £2 million will not compensate them for having helped the conspirators; second, exemplary reward, even up to immediate release, for any prisoner who advises the authorities beforehand of any impending escape in time to prevent escape taking place? There is almost always someone inside who knows about it beforehand.

Sir F. Soskice

I shall, of course, take note of what my hon. Friend has said and bear it in mind. As he knows, there are at present regulations which already deal with all those matters, and I have no doubt that they will be applied in the ordinary way.

Mr. Kirk

Is any routine watch kept on the outside of prisons? Is it not almost incredible that a large pantechnicon can, apparently, stand outside a prison wall and no one notice it at all?

Sir F. Soskice

On that, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to await the result of the inquiry. I do not think that it would be in the public interest to go too far in detail into the sort of watch which is kept.

Mr. Dalyell

May I press the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton)? Could my right hon. Friend take some immediate action regarding those who obstructed the warders in carrying out their duties?

Sir F. Soskice

That is a matter for the governor, and I have no doubt that he will at once take whatever are the appropriate disciplinary steps.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Is the Home Secretary aware that there were rumours of a coming goal break from Wandsworth several weeks ago? Was there a re-intensification of the security measures as a result of the rumours which were published in the newspapers? Second, is the right hon. and learned Gentleman satisfied with the security vetting over prison staff in the prisons where these train robbers are kept? If he is not, will he reintensify the procedures in the other prisons where those still in custody are being kept?

Sir F. Soskice

At this stage, it would not be in the public interest to go into all those matters. I have ordered an immediate inquiry which I wish to be as far-reaching as can possibly be said to be necessary in the circumstances. Obviously, the inquiry will cover all the sort of things which the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.

Mr. Hale

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that this is a matter of grave public interest and the public will not be satisfied with any private inquiry? They are entitled to know. They know now that this man, a very distinctive personality, 6 feet 2 inches tall, is at large, after great assistance and great planning, much of which has been talked about a great deal beforehand. This is really a very shocking thing to have happened. The public are entitled to know why it came about, and by whose carelessness so obvious steps were being taken to permit this escape without anyone, apparently, communicating or giving a warning.

Sir F. Soskice

I can only express regret that my hon. Friend should use the expression "obvious carelessness". It is very far from obvious that there was any carelessness, and I do not accept that at all. I should most certainly not wish to prejudge the result of the inquiry now being undertaken. If there is any carelessness shown by the report of the inquiry, the appropriate steps will be taken. At the moment, I have no reason to think that there was carelessness, and I have been on the scene.

Obviously, one can prevent the escape of any prisoner if one keeps him locked in a cell day and night. But one has to maintain a reasonable balance between absolute maximum security precautions of that kind which can be taken and treating a prisoner, however dangerous he may be, in a way which is not altogether too inhuman. A balance has to be kept, and the inquiry is obviously directed to find out whether the proper balance was kept and whether anything was not done which reason would indicate ought to have been done.

I fully realise the deep public concern about this case, and I share it to the full. Certainly, it will be thoroughly and fully probed.

Mr. Buck

Will the Home Secretary assure the House that now that the birds have flown everything will be done to try to catch them, even going to extraordinary lengths, calling out troops or taking any other emergency measures which may be necessary? In this connection, has the right hon. and learned Gentleman made any representations to the Government of the Republic of Ireland concerning the question of getting these fugitives back if they should succeed in getting that far? Has he made any representations about the legislation which, we understand, is before the Dail corresponding to our proposed legislation, the Backing of Warrants (Republic of Ireland) Bill, which has already been delayed in being brought before this House? Would it assist if this Measure were brought before the House next week in order to expedite things in Ireland?

Sir F. Soskice

We are pressing on with our own legislation as fast as we can. I have no right to indicate to the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland what it should do with regard to its own legislation. I have no doubt that it will press on with that as well.

As regards the steps which the hon. Gentleman suggested might be taken to recapture these people, I have already been in consultation with the police authorities and have fully discussed with them the steps which are taken. I am quite satisfied that at the earliest possible moment every indication and every alert was given to make it as certain as possible that these people can be recaptured.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate the matter now.

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