HC Deb 04 July 1974 vol 876 cc732-40

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Lyons

It seems to me that parents will be less inclined to have their children participate in this kind of operation if they know that when they are caught they will not easily walk out while on remand.

Crumlin Road is the place to which it is suggested that these young persons should go. I am not happy about Crumlin Road. I am familiar with prisons in this country, but there is about Crumlin Road a most terrible air of depression.

There is one wing for the UDA and another for the IRA Provisionals. It is for the Provisionals because the Officials have been driven out by the Provisionals. In the middle are the criminals known as "good honest criminals" because they are non-politicals. But in the centre where the good honest criminals are, there is another section known as the "protecteds"—men who live in terror of the IRA and the UDA, being suspected by their own side. They are like rabbits in hutches, virtually fenced in. One shudders to think what sort of existence they have. It is to this prison that it is proposed to send some young persons over 14 years of age and under 17 years of age.

Armagh Prison I have heard referred to as a "cardboard box." The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) says that children of 12 and 13 years old are now involved. I should like to hear from my hon. Friend what arrangements are being made for that kind of young person.

For those over 14 and under 17, prison is far from the ideal place. My instinctive reaction on hearing the proposal was one of opposition. But one knows that with serious offences akin to murder in this country, one does not normally allow bail and puts young people involved in a secure place. I wonder how many youngsters between 14 and 17 in this country are in prison awaiting trial. We have heard no figures about that. If there is such a situation in this country, it is sad, but in Northern Ireland we cannot have young persons accused of very serious offences escaping with ease so that they can walk about in triumph in their neighbourhoods again, saying, "I did this three days ago and they arrested me, but here I am back again. I am an example. Follow me."

With such considerations in mind, and with the consideration that persons of this kind may also corrupt what have been called the "honest young criminals of the ordinary type", one has to look at the accommodation offered in Crumlin Road. One has to bear in mind that, under the emergency provision, no court in Northern Ireland is entitled to give anyone bail for a scheduled offence without leave of a High Court judge. It is not a question of young persons being put into custody who otherwise would not be there, but of persons remanded for a scheduled—that, is a serious—offence having automatically to be put into custody awaiting trial. The only question is where they should spend that time in custody. What is being suggested by the Bill is that they spend it in Belfast Prison—that is, the males; we have still not heard what is to happen to the females.

I looked at those premises. Those premises which have been converted for young persons will take only 12 in comfort. When I saw the premises there were already four young persons in them. They had been convicted. It does not need a special Act by this Parliament to send into that prison persons over the age of 14 and under 17 who have already been convicted. Four were there awaiting allocation. They had been there for some weeks. They were receiving education. Each had a textbook of a different type at a different level. It was clear that they would be allowed to pursue some kind of education. Those to whom I spoke had the intention of doing exactly that.

The remarkable thing was that the four young men were mixed—Protestant and Catholic. We have a prison divided between Catholic and Protestant for adults, but when it comes to those under 17 years of age, they are mixed. Although the four young men had been found guilty of kidnapping, car bombing or similar offences, there they were, mixing quite happily and in a friendly way. That struck me as being utterly astonishing in a prison in which the adult members of their religions had to be kept strictly apart for fear of the most terrible bloodshed.

I have come to the conclusion, regretfully, that I must support the Bill, as little as I like to see young people in prison. I support it, however, with this reservation. There are complaints that it is taking many months to bring persons to trial in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Bar is small. The new weight of work is too much for it. There ought to be provision for barristers from England to go out there to help with the case burden so that people do not have to wait in custody for too long. However, that is not happening at present, with the result that people are waiting many months for trial. There ought to be special provision that when the person awaiting trial is under 17 years of age the trial should be speedy.

In the Bill it is said that the direction to be given by the Secreary of State will last for only two months unless it is renewed. It should not be necessary to renew any such order if absolute priority is given to trials involving persons under 17. That is what I should like to see. The hospital wing of the prison will take only about 30 people a year. If youngsters are there for six months and there is comfortable accommodation for only 12 people, only about 24 people will pass through the place annually. If it is said that the trials will not be hurried and that more young persons will be taken in, those young persons will be herded into very difficult conditions, which will be very bad for them. It is wrong that any one should be kept herded in that way.

If there are to be many juveniles charged with scheduled offences—that is, serious offences—it is essential that they be tried swiftly. My appeal to the Secretary of State tonight is that he ensures that that happens.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Moyle

I have been asked a number of questions and, with the leave of the House, I should like to reply to them.

We have had a thoughtful and a sad debate because, first, none of the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate likes what is being proposed. Secondly, although we do not like what is proposed, we cannot offer an alternative solution to the problem, at least within the foreseeable future.

Having said that, I should like to thank the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) and other hon. Members who have offered me congratulations and felicitations, and sometimes sympathy, on my acquiring my post, and I thank them for wishing me well.

Perhaps I should answer the questions first by dealing with two points raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons). It is interesting to note that in 1973 4,323 young persons were received on remand into prison service establishments in England and Wales, so it is not unknown for young offenders to be received into prison establishments, even on this side of the water.

Another point is that the Bill makes no provision for young people under 14. We sincerely hope that the occasion will not arise, but if children of that age commit scheduled offences they will be dealt with under the normal remand provisions, which means that they will be put into insecure places. We are hoping, however, that there will not be a substantial demand from that point of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Central (Mr. McNamara) probably set the whole tone and feeling of the House in his thoughtful and, I think, compelling speech. It is worth noting that under the previous disposition the authorities remanded in prison those who were regarded as depraved and unruly, those who might have had a long career of damaging property, assaulting people, and so on. Now they can be remanded in prison if they are alleged to have committed murder or attempted murder and where that is their first-known offence. That is the difference between the régime which has operated hitherto and the régime which will apply in the future.

We have been asked what we are to do with these young people in the future. We intend to build a proper remand centre, hence the provision for confining people in a place other than under the terms of the Act, because we are hoping that if the Act is, unfortunately, in operation for another two or three years, there will be an alternative establishment to which these young people may be sent. It will provide 300 places and its site has been decided upon. It is in High Bank Road, Purdysburn, Belfast. We have bought the site and planning permission has been given and we are therefore going ahead. I hope that that news will serve to allay a number of the worries expressed at the beginning of the debate.

Mr. Deedes

Do I understand that the ages provided for in this new establishment will be from 16 to 21, not 14 to 21? Is the terminal date for building—which is 1977—about right, because if that is so, it answers many questions about how far this is a temporary measure and how long we shall wait for something better?

Mr. Moyle

The aim is to have this institution in existence by 1977. Obviously I cannot say that it will be in existence by then because building plans often get held up. I cannot be specific about the ages. I think the right hon. Gentleman is correct, but perhaps I may check that and let him know later in writing. These are the general outlines for the new remand centre.

We were asked about how the Secretary of State might proceed to make his decisions. In all probability he will do so personally. He intends personally to consider every proposal put forward for remanding these young people to prison or, possibly eventually, to the remand centre. He will do that on the basis of the information available to the court, on the basis of probation officers' reports, reports from the parents and reports from the Army. The Secretary of State's decision will be conveyed to the court once he has made it. The decision will not necessarily be announced in public, although there will be no objection to its being made public. That is the procedure upon which my right hon. Friend intends to act.

I was asked some specific questions by the right hon. Member for Ashford. The secure unit will be maintained at Lisnevin because it is regarded as necessary to the operation of Lisnevin as a remand home. It consists of a high wire fence. The main door is locked except when boys are allowed out, but it is not really secure. Any determined teenager could climb the fence if he had the time to do it, but the fence acts as a kind of disincentive, and it will be maintained.

With regard to the possibility of an epidemic in Crumlin Road Prison, the existing hospital wing on the ground floor, which is used as a detention centre for young offenders, still has 20 hospital beds and therefore the prison can deal with an epidemic of 20 cases at any one time. If the number went beyond that, people could be treated in cells which could possibly be isolated.

It is probably clear to the House that the Bill is a stop-gap measure. The question was raised whether the Bill applied to young women as well as young men. It does. If a young woman has to be remanded on a scheduled offence, she will be remanded to Armagh Prison. The accommodation at the hospital wing in Belfast is for about 17 young people.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will use the provisions of the Bill only in exceptional cases—

Mr. Dalyell

If young women are to be remanded to the women's prison in Armagh, may we have an undertaking. or at least a comment, on the proposal that either a senior education officer or a senior social worker from England or Scotland should pass a professional opinion on that establishment?

Mr. Moyle

I was coming to the points which my hon. Friend raised during the debate, but first I must tell the right hon. Member for Ashford that it will be possible to send 14-year-olds to the new remand centre, but there will be no minimum age of 16.

I turn to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). Being a Welshman, I take umbrage at being lumped with Anglo-Saxons in this country. I think he will take note of that for the future. It does not make much difference now; it is merely a personal point. But if I understood him correctly, it seemed that he was under a misconception when he said that the British military presence had caused the problem which we have been discussing. We could withdraw the British Army, but as long as this House has legislative responsibility for Northern Ireland we would still face the problem which we are now trying to solve. I assume that I have understood his point correctly and, if so, that is how I see it.

We were asked to look at the prisons. My noble Friend the Under-Secretary is responsible for prisons. He visits them continually and has carried out all the programme of visiting and consultation which has been referred to. Although I am not directly responsible for prisons I have seen this problem on the ground and I have taken the time to inform myself of the practical problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian mentioned social workers or education officers from this country. I am not aware that people of that sort have been to the prisons. I shall look into this and see whether arrangements can be made, if anyone is willing to visit the prisons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central referred to education. There is no doubt that the education of these young people will be disturbed. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland it may be more disturbed outside the Crumlin Prison than inside, by virtue of the areas from which they come. To some extent, the disturbance from which their education suffers is offset by the fact that, so far anyway, they are taught in classes of a size which would be the envy of most of my hon. Friend's constituents and my constituents and parents in other constituencies.

I think that that covers most of the major points raised in the debate.

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend said that he would give me some figures. If they are not readily available, a letter explaining the situation will be welcome.

Mr. Moyle

I apologise to my hon. Friend. Twenty-six per cent. of those arrested for scheduled offences abscond. I regret that I do not have the figures of the total of crime within Northern Ireland, and I shall write to my hon. Friend with that information.

The House seems to have been in regretful support of the measure. I am grateful for that support.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).