HC Deb 27 October 1980 vol 991 cc33-7

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the recent changes in prison rules in Northern Ireland and in the situation at Her Majesty's prison Maze.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Alison)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who for reasons which the House will understand is in Belfast today, announced on 23 October that, following a detailed study of the requirement to wear prison uniform in Northern Ireland, the Government have decided to abolish this uniform as such and to substitute civilian-type clothing. No amendment of prison rules is involved. The change will apply to all male prisoners. It will not affect the privilege accorded to those prisoners who obey the prison rules, of wearing their own clothes at weekends, and for recreation and visits. The new clothing will be introduced as quickly as the administrative arrangements can be made.

This change arises from the Government's determination that their attitude to prisoners' living and working conditions should be guided at all times by a humane and enlightened approach, and they will continue to keep the prison regime under review with this principle in mind.

Several prisoners at Maze prison claim to have started a hunger strike today in support of their demand for political status. The Government have made it amply plain on numerous occasions—and I repeat it—that they cannot and will not concede this issue of principle.

The situation at Maze prison is calm. It is too early to say whether the prisoners will carry out their threat of a prolonged hunger strike. The Government would still hope that they would heed the advice of Churchmen and many others not to do so. But, if they do, they must understand that the Government cannot give way to the view that those found guilty of some of the most vicious crimes imaginable are less blameworthy than others because of a political motivation for their crimes.

Mr. Powell

Is the Minister of State aware that on a matter as grave as this, whatever the circumstances, the Secretary of State personally should be at the service of the House?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this pretence that the change was made as a result of reconsidering prison conditions is transparent and will deceive no one. that the attempt to buy off blackmail not only encourages the blackmailers but destroys the credit and sincerity of the Government, and that so it will be in this case?

Mr. Alison

I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept from me that the question whether the Secretary of State should be here must turn on his judgment of the situation in a critical area of the United Kingdom in which security and other matters must have preeminence.

I entirely repudiate the allegation that we are giving in to blackmail. The question of a development or evolution in the prison clothing regime in the Province has been under discussion for some months now. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there have in the past been evolutions in the treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland of no less significance than the present one. There is no doubt that we have brought forward to coincide with the threat of a hunger strike, possibly ending in death, consideration of this matter, which had started much earlier. There is no question but that the attempt to save the face of a few crazy hunger strikers is a cheap price to pay if it will save lives all round.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The House must be absolutely clear on one point. I understood what the Minister was saying—that special category status, when it was introduced five or more years ago, was a mistake and that it was right to end it and that for anyone who murders or kills anywhere in the United Kingdom there is only one treatment, and that is to be treated as a criminal sentenced by a court of law.

One point arises out of what the Minister said. He said that it is not special category status, but I put it to him that if in one part of the United Kingdom it is right to treat sentenced prisoners in such a way that they can wear their own clothes, it will be seen to be special unless that treatment can be accorded to sentenced prisoners this side of the Irish Sea.

Mr. Alison

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for underlining the point that I made in my statement—namely, that there can be no basis for differentiating between crimes on the basis of motivation. There is no such thing as a political crime in Northern Ireland.

As regards prison clothing, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recall that since 1976 in a number of different directions—for example, 50 per cent, remission and the more liberal regime in the Province of wearing own clothes at different times for recreation and visits—there has been an extended differentiation in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, due largely to the exceptional numbers of prisoners, and long-term prisoners, in the Province.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the widespread outrage and deep anger among the majority of people in Northern Ireland at this announcement? Does he realise that it is an insult to the intelligence of the Ulster people to say that this package is the result of prison reforms when everybody in Northern Ireland knows that it is a shoddy deal to buy off the Irish Republican Army in its threat of this hunger strike? Has he considered the feelings of the relatives of the prison officers who have been done to death because they carried out the Government's wishes in the Maze prison? Will he tell the House about the other concessions that he mentioned to me as being on offer, through the Cardinal, to the IRA prisoners—concessions regarding extra visits, parcels, recreation and educational facilities?

Mr. Alison

The hon. Gentleman will have to remind me about the other concessions that I mentioned to him, because I have no recollection of them at all. If he cares to refresh my memory I shall be only too glad to discuss them with him.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I shall be glad to refresh the hon. Gentleman's memory.

Mr. Alison

The hon. Gentleman is over-stressing the significance of this latest proposal in the evolution of the prison regime in the Province in the context in which he has placed it. It is certainly far less significant than the decision, some years ago, to offer 50 per cent. remission to prisoners in Northern Ireland. In my view, it is certainly far less significant than the development of the use of own clothing for recreation and other periods of prisoners' own time, which is unique to the Province. It is a good deal less significant than the offer that we made of the availability of physical training kit for exercise and of special PT facilities for extra exercise that came forward in March and late summer this year.

There was no fuss about that. This is part of the evolution of humanising a regime in which there are more prisoners per head of population in the Province than in any other part of the United Kingdom, and in which there are more prisoners serving longer sentences. If it had had the effect of letting hunger strikers off the hook and avoiding further deaths, it would have been irresponsible not to have brought forward the development at this time. It is in no sense a concession or a giving in to blackmail. We are standing firm on principle.

Mr. Beith

Will the Minister confirm that there has been no change in the fairly recent policy that if a prisoner in full possession of his faculties decides to go on hunger strike it is his decision and no attempt is made to prevent him ending his own life by that means?

Mr. Alison

I can confirm that that is the position.

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call one more hon. Member from each side of the House.

Mr. Stanbrook

If this is not the disgraceful surrender to the IRA that most people think it is, when will the privilege of wearing civilian clothing be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Alison

It is clear that it is not the sort of concession that the IRA or the prisoners were looking for, as my hon. Friend suggests. The latest information that I have is that the hunger strike is going on, although we have no firm evidence that it has started. It is in no sense a concession to the IRA. Indeed, it is not a concession in any sense. I repeat for the benefit of my hon. Friend that the hunger strikers are striking on the ground that they are claiming the right to political status. We decline to concede that principle in any shape or form. Civilian-type clothing from within the prison system will become available in a matter of months. Much depends on the availability of administrative facilities and on the extent to which prison workers themselves can provide the clothing where necessary. It will not be less than a matter of months.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Is the Minister aware that his reply to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) is disingenuous? If the decision, which I welcome, has been taken on the ground of humanising prison conditions in Northern Ireland and the Government have not succumbed to blackmail, when will the same conditions be given to prisoners in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Alison

That is a different question, and one that I would not be competent to answer.