HC Deb 27 November 1972 vol 847 cc29-34
Mrs. Shirley Williams (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if the situation at Gartree Prison is now under the control of the authorities, and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Robert Carr)

The situation at Gartree is now under control. Thirteen prisoners tried to escape yesterday afternoon. Eight were stopped before they got to the perimeter. Five succeeded in breaking through the perimeter fences but were quickly caught. At about the same time as the attempted escape three fires were started in the prison; these were put out by the fire service. Meanwhile prisoners in one wing became violent and disorderly; this spread later in the evening to a second wing. Cells and furniture in both wings were damaged and more fires were started. One wing remained barricaded by the inmates until this morning with some prisoners on the roof. All wings are now under control with the prisoners locked in cells. Twelve staff and five prisoners were injured; two staff and two prisoners received treatment in Leicester Royal Infirmary but have now been discharged from hospital.

This was a most serious incident and the circumstances are being fully investigated by the regional director. I am glad to say, however, that the emergency arrangements, including those involving co-operation with the police, worked effectively and that, as a result, none of these men made good his escape.

I should like to pay tribute to the governor and his staff for the way in which they dealt with a determined escape attempt and subsequently contained a difficult situation; and to acknowledge the speedy and valuable help given them by the police, the fire service and by other prisons in the area which sent in relief staff.

Mrs. Williams

We on the Opposition side also associate ourselves with the Home Secretary's congratulations to the governor, prison officers, policemen and firemen who managed to turn what could have been a desperate situation into at least no more than a serious one.

Will the Home Secretary say whether there is any evidence—I appreciate that he may not be able to say so at this point—of the affair having been organised from outside? Will he say anything about the rôle played by Mr. Sewell in this affair? He was the man who murdered a police superintendent at Blackpool. Can the Home Secretary say whether the electronic warning system, which was a crucial part of this modern prison's security provisions, was put out of operation by the lighting of fires, which would suggest that it was hardly an ideal system of security?

Is there any truth in the Press stories that the riots were associated with the very strict discipline imposed from the summer onwards when there was trouble previously at Gartree? In other words, are the rules being so closely obeyed that there is virtually no flexibility? Will he consider whether he and the House in debate should now look more closely at the provisions made for the trouble makers in the prison system, especially those with very long sentences, to see whether they can be segregated more effectively from men who, although not themselves dangerous, can be led all too easily into a dangerous situation.?

Mr. Carr

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks about the work done last night by the prison governor and his staff and by the police and fire services. Many of the first group of questions can be answered only when I have the regional director's report. I do not know at the moment about any evidence regarding outside organisation or precisely what rôle Mr. Sewell played in organising the attempt, if any. I am informed, however, although this will be checked of course, that the electronic warning system was not put out of action by the fires.

I cannot say at this stage whether strict discipline since August had an effect. I gave no orders that there should be an unusually strict discipline. In August and September I told the governors that they could count on the full support of myself and the Home Office if they felt it necessary to take firm measures to deal with these things. But I have no evidence of any kind to suggest that there was any connection between some change in the regime since August and yesterday's event.

As for segregating trouble makers, I said in a statement following the August troubles that I certainly intended to consider how the techniques and facilities for containing violent and dangerous men could be improved. That review is continuing inside my Department. I cannot give an exact terminal date for it but I hope to reach conclusions early next year—by that I mean early rather than at the end of next year. I shall, of course, wish to make a statement as soon as I can and I think that the question of a debate could be left more beneficially until that time.

Mr. Farr

May I associate myself with the congratulatory remarks about the governor and the staff who handled these matters very coolly last night? The prison is in the middle of my constituency. Will the Home Secretary take another look at a letter I wrote him not very long ago after a recent visit that I paid to the prison? I stressed then the general dissatisfaction with the standard of catering in the prison. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is looking into that but there was, I felt, a general undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the prisoners for that reason.

Will my right hon. Friend Friend now give further consideration to the Mount-batten recommendations that there should be a special security prison for troublemakers, who should be segregated until they cease to become troublemakers? My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Mountbatten report said that a purpose-built prison should be provided for this specific purpose. Has he considered using the existing Leicester Prison for this purpose? It is centrally located and it could be converted easily. Will he assure me that he will do his best and will he reassure my constituents by ensuring that the Gartree officers are brought up to full complement at the earliest possible date?

Mr. Carr

To answer my hon. Friend's last question first, I also said in my statement after the August troubles that part of the review I was making concerned ratios of staff to prisoners.

I should also like to reassure my hon. Friend, and therefore, I hope, his constituents, that recruitment for the prison officer service in the past few years has been moving upwards satisfactorily, and I hope that it will go on doing so. As far as I knew, that applies to Gartree as much as anywhere else.

As to my hon. Friend's first question, it is necessary to underline that we were not dealing with a disturbance yesterday; we were dealing with an organised attempt at escape. The disturbance was associated with that, but it was not a disturbance such as we had back in August. It was a determined attempt to escape.

As to the whole question of standard of catering, I am also examining diets and so on in prison as part of the review that I have talked about.

I am also looking again at the whole dispersal policy. My hon. Friend and the House should remember that the Mountbatten recommendation was not to segregate troublemakers but to segregate category A prisoners. They include troublemakers, but, alas, there are plenty of violent troublemakers who are not category A prisoners.

Mr. Hooson

May I also associate myself with the congratulations offered to the governor and those who helped to foil the breakout attempt. In view of the public disquiet about the matter and the dearth of information available to the Home Secretary, will he consider publishing parts of the regional director's report when he receives it? In particular, if there is any evidence that the attempt was organised from outside, will he consider even having a public inquiry into the matter?

Mr. Carr

I shall certainly consider all those things. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that I must receive the regional director's report first, but I believe in giving the maximum amount of public information that I can in these matters, because that is the best way to gain public confidence.

Mr. Deedes

Are not there aspects of the episode which merit very close inquiry? For example, can my right hon. Friend tell the House to what extent the special precautions that must be taken for the security block affect the life of the prison as a whole, and increase the likelihood of collective action on behalf of a violent minority?

Mr. Carr

That is part and parcel of the debate surrounding the Mountbatten recommendation and all possible variants of it. Gartree is, like a number of other prisons, one total top-security prison. The object of the dispersal policy was to have a limited number of top-security prisons in which there could be a reasonable freedom because of the overall security. Of course, I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is a very serious matter, not least the fact that, although they were prevented from escaping, prisoners got too near to it for my liking.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that by now he should come to a conclusion on the Mountbatten proposal for a Fort Knox, as it were, of highly dangerous criminals, rejecting the proposal, both on the ground of security and because there would be in such a prison a concentration of very vicious disaffection?

Mr. Carr

As the hon. Gentleman knows from his own experience, there are grave difficulties about the Mountbatten proposal, attractive as it looks at first, simple sight. I said in my statement in September, after consideration of the matter, that I was not so far persuaded that the policy of dispersal was fundamentally wrong, but I still believe that the whole matter needs to be re-examined very carefully, because the Mountbatten proposal itself may be wrong but there may be other alternatives to the policy we are now pursuing.

Mr. Rees-Davies

I hope that my right hon. Friend will entirely reject the suggestion of the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan). My experience tells me that grade A security-risk prisoners should be kept entirely separate from those in grade B and the others. Not only should they be kept separate, but they and the troublemakers who are not grade A should all be put into one fortress-like prison. That should not be in the United Kingdom as such. It must be in a place where the prisoners can lead a normal life but cannot escape—[An HON. MEMBER: "Australia."] Instead of the imperial legacy, they could go perfectly well to one of the islands in the Hebrides. Will my right hon. Friend consider a place which is seagirt where they can develop a life on their own without the danger to the public associated with the present system?

Mr. Carr

If I got into trouble with Scotsmen who are still here, as well as those who have left for New Zealand, Australia and Canada, I should be in more trouble than Home Secretaries are usually in. My hon. Friend puts forward a point of view that is strongly held by some, but it is a very difficult matter. I can only say that I am looking at it.

Mr. William Price

Can the Home Secretary confirm or deny that the staff at Gartree at the weekend were up to establishment? Will he make it clear to those who indulge in prison violence that they can expect to be dealt with much more severely than by suffering the seven-day loss of remission that we have seen imposed in recent months?

Mr. Carr

I can assure the hon. Gentleman on the second point. One of my purposes in meeting governors in September after the last troubles was that they should be in no doubt that they will receive full backing if they take strong disciplinary action. I am sure that the Governor of Gartree will be taking such action. As the House knows, and as is proper, the action he can take on his own is limited. I have little doubt that some of the cases will be put before the board of visitors.