HC Deb 26 May 1966 vol 729 cc725-8

Mr. Deedes (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the escape of nine long-term Parkhurst prisoners in Hampshire on Wednesday.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

A party of 13 prisoners were returning by hired coach from Winchester Assizes after having been produced as witnesses for the defence at assizes in a case against a prisoner for the alleged stabbing of another prisoner. The coach was driven by a civilian driver and contained an escort consisting of one principal officer and six discipline officers in the coach itself, followed by a police escort car containing a driver and two constables. The prison officer escort was armed with staves and the prisoners were handcuffed in the following way.

Two men who were on the escape list were each handcuffed to an officer; the remainder of the prisoners were handcuffed in pairs to each other, except for one odd one, who was handcuffed to an officer. This left two officers and the principal officer in charge free for general supervision.

The case at the assizes concluded about 3 p.m. and the coach was near the village of Bishop's Waltham at about 4 p.m. when one of the prisoners shouted "Right", and immediately a melee broke out in the coach. Some prisoners threw themselves across officers and one struck the driver a blow across the back of the neck, and endeavoured to seize the wheel. The driver braked suddenly and with the jerk officers and prisoners were thrown off balance. Before the coach actually came to a standstill nine prisoners escaped The police escort car stopped and the constables joined in the pursuit of the escaping prisoners.

Four of those escaping were recaptured yesterday evening but I greatly regret to say that five are still at large.

The Governor has made a preliminary investigation of the facts, and I have instructed the Director of Prison Administration, together with the Security Adviser, to hold an immediate inquiry starting this afternoon at Parkhurst and report to me.

Mr. Deedes

While accepting the need. for a full inquiry into this alarming incident, will the right hon. Gentleman answer two questions? First of all, is it usual to move prisoners of this character in a coach, which was presumably unlocked, and, if not, why was it done on this occasion? Secondly, in view of reports about the unlocking of handcuffs, to what extent were they subject to close security arrangements?

Mr. Jenkins

On the first of the right hon. Gentleman's questions, yes, it has been the practice for some time to move prisoners in coaches. It is unusual for so many to have to give evidence in a case, but, if circumstances demand it, it is not unusual for coaches to be used. I will look carefully into the practice and see whether it calls for any change. None of the prisoners who escaped was among those kept in the maximum security wing at Parkhurst.

Mr. Hogg

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how the handcuffs came to be unlocked, if they were? We accept the need for a close inquiry into the matter, but will he not accept that the public are considerably concerned about it? Can he undertake to give the House any further information as soon as the inquiry is complete?

Mr. Jenkins

I accept that the public is deeply concerned about this incident, as I am myself and as I am sure the whole House is. That is why I have asked for an immediate inquiry. Until I get the result of that, I cannot say exactly what happened about the unlocking of handcuffs.

Mr. Manuel

Can my right hon. Friend say whether he has any knowledge as to whether handcuffs were unlocked before the escape? Were the prisoners who escaped attached to prison officers?

Mr. Jenkins

The prisoners who were attached to officers did not escape. Those who escaped were the prisoners who were attached to each other. I cannot say exactly what happened about the handcuffs until we have the results of the inquiry.

Mr. Woodnutt

Looking at the rather broader issues and bearing in mind that people living in the vicinity of Parkhurst are extremely worried about this occurrence, will the right hon. Gentleman not consider if it is possible, when a lot of prisoners are involved in a case of this nature, to hold the court in Parkhurst itself? Alternatively, could they not give evidence by some form of affidavit? It is a pity that the initiative shown in relation to the security block has not been carried on when prisoners are in transit.

Mr. Jenkins

I am aware of the concern that constituents of the hon. Gentleman and others will feel. However, to move the place of assize would raise difficulty, and it would also raise difficulty if someone who wished to call serving prisoners to give evidence for the defence was not able to call that evidence.

Mr. Ogden

Is it correct that the prisoners were in civilian clothes at the time of the escape? If it is desirable for them to be wearing civilian clothes in the court, surely they should change back into prison clothes before being transported back to the prison.

Mr. Jenkins

I will consider that point.

Mr. Thorpe

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions? First, will he not consider that criminals who have been convicted of felonies of violence should always be moved in an armoured police van and not a civilian bus? Secondly, are we to take it that what is apparently a breach of security, involving heavy costs, will be a charge which will fall on the unfortunate ratepayers in the area?

Mr. Jenkins

I will certainly consider whether the practice of moving prisoners, particularly those of this character, by a civilian coach is a desirable one, but it is not a new practice.

Mr. Thorpe

What about the cost?

Mr. Jenkins

I shall look into that.

Mr. Carlisle

Could the Home Secretary explain that part of his Answer where he said that two prisoners were on the escape list and handcuffed to prison officers, whereas, according to reports in today's papers, three of the nine who escaped had records of previous escapes? Secondly, could he say whether he feels that to take one police car and six prison officers is really an adequate force to carry nine dangerous criminals, three of whom have records of previous escapes?

Mr. Jenkins

There was a total of seven prison officers, including the principal officer, as well as those in the police car. But I will certainly consider all these matters very carefully and see whether there are some general lessons to be learned from this unfortunate experience by means of which we can avoid a similar occurrence in the future.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Heath. Business Question.