HC Deb 24 October 1966 vol 734 cc649-56
Mr. Hogg (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the escape from Wormwood Scrubs Prison of the prisoner George Blake.

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

At 7 p.m. on Saturday, 22nd October, George Blake was found to be missing from Wormwood Scrubs Prison. The circumstances are still under investigation, but my present information is that he made his escape from the prison wing through a landing window, a bar of which had been broken. He escaped over the outside wall of the prison with the aid of a ladder, which appears to have been supplied from outside.

Blake had been in Wormwood Scrubs since his conviction in May, 1961, in a wing for long-term prisoners. He was taken off the escape list in October, 1961, but remained subject to a number of special restrictions—for example, he was allowed no visits except in the hearing of a prison officer.

This and other prison escapes are necessarily causing widespread concern. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I have, therefore, decided that, in addition to the measures to improve perimeter security, which I initiated in June, but which have not yet had time to take effect, two further steps are urgently required.

First, I have given instructions for an immediate review, within my Department, of the allocation between prisons of all prisoners, who for any reason at all, require special security. This has begun today and should be complete within little more than a week.

Second, I believe that an independent inquiry into prison security is now called for. I have asked Lord Mountbatten to head such an inquiry and he has most generously agreed to undertake this important task. I hope that his report will be available in a few months.

Mr. Hogg

While I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the information which he has given, and while I am glad to hear that he acknowledges that these escapes, of which the one referred to in the Question is not now the last, have given rise to very widespread public alarm, can he say what are the terms of reference of the Mount-batten inquiry which he has set up?

Is it to be general, and what are its powers? Is it to be a one-man inquiry, or is it to include other persons? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider a fuller report into the particular case to which the Question relates, since an escape of a prisoner of this kind is a matter which must necessarily cause widespread concern quite outside of ordinary questions of security in the prison service?

Mr. Jenkins

I am not in a position to give the exact terms of reference. I am seeing Lord Mountbatten this evening and will decide them with him. But it will certainly be perfectly competent for the inquiry to look into the circumstances of this particular escape and to report anything which it thinks should be reported on that. I also wish to discuss with Lord Mountbatten what assistance he should have, but my idea is that he should perhaps have two expert assessors to assist him in this matter. However, I want it to be a speedy inquiry, as I believe he does.

Mr. Tomney

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the correspondence between his Department and myself relating to the shortage of staff at Wormwood Scrubs. Unless he is prepared to deal with first principles first, he will never get the conditions in the police force or the Prison Service which we all urgently require. This prison is grievously understaffed, most of the prison officers having only one day off every three weeks. My constituents are alarmed at the number of escapes. This is the sixth this year.

Quite frankly, this escape is the worst in terms of importance ever known. The bank robbers are one thing, but to free a man like Blake, in view of what he did to the security forces of Europe, a man who is responsible for sending to their death an unknown number of British agents, is lamentable. He should never have been at Wormwood Scrubs.

Will my right hon. Friend, from now on, address himself to the recruitment of police and the recruitment of prison officers and the protection of both? It is on the last point that he is falling down.

Mr. Jenkins

I must point out to my hon. Friend and to the House that he has raised a number of wide issues. I in no way underestimate the lamentable nature of this escape. I in no way seek to escape from that. But while there is a certain shortage of staff at Wormwood Scrubs, as at other prisons, the full complement was on duty in the wing concerned on Saturday evening. Were the desired total number of prison officers available, there would not have been more prison officers on duty in relation to this escape at that time.

While I am in no way complacent about the position, I must point out that the rate of recruitment of prison officers for the 10 months of this year shows signs of reaching a total of 700 for this year as against 450 for last year.

Mr. Deedes

Would the right hon. Gentleman tell us who now decides on the allocation of prisoners of this kind and where they should go, and the distinction between the security block at Wormwood Scrubs, to which he referred, and what is generally understood by the public to be security wings recently completed at other prisons?

Mr. Jenkins

In future, the allocation of prisoners will be decided as a result of the special review of all prisoners involving a security risk which I have announced is beginning from today and which will be complete within a week or so. Previously, it has been normal for the Prisons Department to make decisions, and the decision was made in 1961 to send Blake to Wormwood Scrubs and, again in 1961, to take him off the escape list.

I think that the distinction is that this wing in which Blake has been kept at Wormwood Scrubs is for long-term prisoners, but it is not the same as the maximum security wing which has been introduced at Parkhurst.

Mr. Heath

Will the Home Secretary recognise that the responsibility is that of himself and the Government alone? I was glad to hear him say that he was in no way trying to shirk this responsibility.

Secondly, will he recognise that the escape of this particular prisoner is a matter of the greatest national importance and international significance? It is, therefore, not sufficient that this matter should be within the competence of Lord Mountbatten's inquiry. Will the right hon. Gentleman make it a specific instruction to Lord Mountbatten to inquire into this particular escape?

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking that the conclusions of Lord Mountbatten will be published, except, of course, any matters of a security nature, which could no doubt be agreed in the normal way with the Opposition?

Mr. Jenkins

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, I accept full responsibility for what has happened recently. But, if he wishes to make a party issue out of it, I imagine that other right hon. Members accept full responsibility for what happened previously.

On the question of Lord Mountbatten's inquiry, what I am primarily concerned about, and what I believe the House will be primarily concerned about, is to improve our prison security. But Lord Mountbatten and his inquiry can look into any matter, including the escape of Blake, which they think is in any way relevant to this. It is my desire that the findings should be published so far as it is possible to do so.

Mr. Heath

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the last part of his reply, but it is not good enough to leave it that this is within the competence of Lord Mountbatten. There must be a specific inquiry into the escape, and responsibility for it must be pinned where it lies. That can be done only by a direct instruction to Lord Mountbatten to inquire into this and to publish his conclusions.

Mr. Jenkins

I have said that the conclusions will certainly be published. But what I think is required at present is an inquiry into our prison security as a whole. I do not think that it would have been in any way appropriate to ask Lord Mountbatten to conduct an inquiry into a particular escape on Saturday evening.

Mr. Shinwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that everybody on both sides of the House deplores the escape of these prisoners, particularly that of the most important prisoner of all? We do not know what repercussions will derive from it. Would my right hon. Friend ask Lord Mountbatten, in conducting this important investigation, to refer to the number of escapes from prisons which occurred during the 13 or 14 years that the Conservative Party was in office? Does he realise that the sentiment on this side of the House, at any rate, and, I believe, in many parts of the country, and even on the benches opposite, is that it is disgraceful that the Leader of the Opposition, because he is so hard up for an argument, should make political capital out of this issue? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I want to tell him so. He ought to be damned well ashamed of himself. I would throw him out of this place.

Mr. Jenkins

I think that the important aspect of Lord Mountbatten's inquiry is that it should be directed to the improvement of prison security. But I wish to reiterate that there is not the slightest intention of excluding anything which Lord Mountbatten wishes to look into in relation to the Blake case or any other case.

Mr. Sandys

Does the Home Secretary realise that his last reply was wholly inadequate? Does he not realise that, whatever may be the latitude allowed to Lord Mountbatten, the House wants to be assured that, apart from an inquiry into future security, there will be an inquiry into this particular escape and that the report will be published? That is what we want.

Does the Home Secretary realise how extremely dispiriting it is for the police, who are already pretty demoralised by the right hon. Gentleman, to see so many criminals whom they have arrested, sometimes at the risk of their lives, allowed to escape so easily?

Mr. Jenkins

Certainly, I am anxious that everything should be published, and nothing which I have said cuts against that. I think, however, that it is important to improve our general prison security as well as looking at the individual case.

Mr. William Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the attempt to make political capital out of this incident in the most despicable and crude manner which we have heard in the last few minutes will be treated by all in this country, including criminals, with the contempt that it deserves?

Mr. Thorpe

May I ask the Home Secretary three questions? First, does he agree that it is highly—[Interruption.]—if I can make oneself heard over the Tory benches—relevant and material to the facts of this particular case to reach conclusions which will preclude this sort of thing from happening again?

Secondly, can the Mountbatten committee go into the general problem of security in relation to long-term prisoners, which presents a rather different problem? Finally, while everybody accepts the great distinction and public service of Lord Mountbatten, in view of the fact that he has not previously been associated with matters of prison reform may we take it that he will have two technical assessors at least who can assist him in these scientific matters?

Mr. Jenkins

To answer the last of those questions first, I have already said that Lord Mounbatten would certainly have assessors and that they should be scientifically or technically qualified to do this job, which I do not think is exactly a job of prison reform, as the hon. Member said.

Certainly, the inquiry can look into matters of custody of long-term prisoners. There really is no distinction here except in so far as the Leader of the Opposition is trying to make one. I am anxious for the inquiry to look as fully and as deeply at the facts of this case as it can, but I am anxious not merely to hold an inquest about the past, whether it be last week or 1961, but to get the position better for the future as well.

Mr. Roebuck

Is my right hon. Friend in a position to give the House the reasons for the 1961 decision to put this prisoner in this prison?

Sir C. Osborne

He did not escape then.

Mr. Jenkins

This was regarded in 1961 as an appropriate prison in which to keep this prisoner in view of the length of his sentence, the fact that he had not served imprisonment before and certain other matters which were discussed with the security service.

Mr. Hogg

May I not beg the Home Secretary to reconsider the attitude which he is taking in this matter? Are there not two quite separate issues here? The first is the general question of security in the prison service, for which the right hon. Gentleman has, quite rightly, appointed a general inquiry, and the second is the particular circumstances of the escape of a high-grade State prisoner. Will not the Home Secretary give us an assurance that there will be a specific investigation, with a report, into this specific instance, either independently of or as an integral part of the Mountbatten inquiry?

Mr. Jenkins

This can certainly be done, and, I hope, will be done, as an integral part of the inquiry.

Hon. Members

Order it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This has been a very grave Private Notice Question time, but I must protect business of the House. The Question is, That this——

Mr. Hogg

On a point of order. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the refusal of the Home Secretary to institute an inquiry into the specific instance of the escape of George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs.

Mr. Shinwell


Hon. Members

Sit down.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) must contain himself.

Mr. Shinwell rose—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Anger does not help at all. The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the refusal of the Home Secretary to institute an inquiry into the specific instance of the escape of George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs. Among the rules governing the acceptance or otherwise of an application under the Standing Order is that which prescribes that when a full day's debate has been arranged on a Motion for the Adjournment, the Adjournment under Standing Order No. 9 cannot be moved since a Motion to adjourn will already be before the House. [Laughter.] Order. I cannot, therefore, allow the application to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 today as the practice of the House prevents me from doing so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members will find an appropriate reference in Erskine May at page 361.

The Question is, That this day——

Mr. Bellenger

On a point of order. May I ask, nevertheless, Mr. Speaker, whether it would be in order for any hon. Member who catches your eye, and who wishes to do so, to make reference to this matter in the forthcoming debate?

Mr. Speaker

It is a simple fact that once the House is on the Adjournment, if hon. Members are fortunate to catch Mr. Speaker's eye they can seek to raise any matter for which any Minister is responsible.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Further to that point of order. May we be assured, Mr. Speaker, that notwithstanding that the Mountbatten inquiry has been set up, this matter can still be referred to by hon. Members, on either side of the House, in debate or otherwise, during the next few days?

Mr. Speaker

If we are debating the Adjournment, there is nothing, in whatever statements have been made today, to prevent hon. Members from referring to any matter for which any Minister is responsible.