HC Deb 11 June 1981 vol 6 cc555-64

4 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Humphrey Atkins)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on the escape from Her Majesty's prison Belfast. Eight prisoners escaped from that prison yesterday afternoon at about 4.15 pm. All of them were at the time on remand. The trial of seven of them had already ended, and the judge is expected to deliver his judgment tomorrow. Four of those were charged with the murder of an Army officer, Captain Westmacott, who was killed when the Army and police surrounded a house in the Antrim Road, Belfast, in May 1980. Two were charged with the murder, in April 1980, of Police Constable Magill. The seventh man, Ryan, was charged with the murder of an RUC constable, Reserve Constable Scott, in 1976 and a former member of the UDR, Mr. Fowler, in 1978. The eighth man, Gerard Sloan, was charged with being in possession of explosives. The trial in this last case has not yet begun.

The escape began while the eight prisoners were in discussion with three solicitors in three separate groups, each group in a cubicle in the visiting room, which is some 15 yds inside the main gate of the prison. The prisoners produced three pistols. Four prison officers were forced to hand over their uniforms, which were put on by four of the escaping prisoners. The escapers then made their way to the main gate of the prison, severely injuring a prison officer who attempted to prevent them from leaving the visiting area. The prison officer was struck on the head and is in hospital with a suspected fractured skull.

At the main gate, prison officers on duty were forced at gunpoint to allow the prisoners to leave. The eight prisoners then went immediately to two cars, which were apparently waiting for them. Up to this point they had not discharged firearms. The alarm was raised at the main gate, alerting other prison officers, and the Army and the police. At least one shot was fired by the escapers. Fire was returned by the Army and the police. Nobody appears to have been hit. The two vehicles were abandoned not far away. It seems that the prisoners then hijacked other vehicles to continue their escape.

The police and Army mounted a large-scale operation immediately after the escape. This is continuing, but so far none of the escaped prisoners has been arrested.

Immediately after the escape two solicitors and one solicitor's apprentice were arrested and are still in police custody, as are two other men subsequently arrested in connection with the escape.

I regard an event such as this as a matter of the utmost gravity, and I am sure that the House will agree. Apart from apprehending those who escaped, which is a matter for the police, the immediate essential is to find out what went wrong and to take steps to stop it happening again. To this end, at my request, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made available Mr. W. H. Pearce, CBE, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, to conduct an urgent inquiry into security arrangements at the prison relevant to the escape of the eight men and to report to me. The inquiry will begin immediately.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

The Opposition view with alarm the break-out by the prisoners and welcome the Secretary of State's assurance of a thorough investigation. A special word of praise is due to those prison officers who, for obvious reasons, are unarmed within the prison but who tried to stop these armed prisoners. I am sure that the House will wish a speedy recovery to those prison officers who were injured.

From my experience, it seems all too plain that the break-out succeeded only because the prisoners were somehow able to arm themselves. In my experience, I am assured that without weapons they would have been overpowered within the prison. The question to be answered in the investigation, therefore, is how the prisoners managed to arm themselves. Who were their last visitors? Were those visitors searched, and, if not, why not? Will the Secretary of State make it absolutely clear that if the investigation shows that the arms were smuggled in from outside the full rigour of the law will be applied, irrespective of who was responsible or why it was done? Those of us who have suffered seven years of intimidation from one source or another would not take too kindly to a plea of intimidation and I certainly believe that such a plea should not be accepted.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there has been no relaxation or change in the search procedures of late? If there has, will he explain why?

Finally, what about the Government's special relationship with the Government of the South, of whichever party it is today? Can the House be assured that that relationship will mean that if the escaped prisoners show up in the South they will be returned immediately to the authorities in the North?

Mr. Atkins

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the prison officers, who command every support. They do a difficult job very well. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join the right hon. Gentleman and myself in wishing a speedy recovery to the prison officer who was severely injured.

The right hon. Gentleman's other points are matters with which the inquiry will be particularly concerned. As he said, it is clear from what we know already that the prisoners managed to secure arms. For obvious reasons the prison officers are unarmed, but the prisoners managed to secure arms and it was those arms alone, that enabled them to effect their escape. I cannot yet tell the House how they secured them. It will be the purpose of the inquiry to see whether the procedures are correct. There are also, of course, the police investigations. I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that anyone who is found to have broken the law will be brought to justice in the ordinary way—and quite right, too.

There has been no official relaxation of the search procedures. It will be for the inquiry to determine whether those procedures are adequate and, if they are not, to recommend to me how they can be improved.

I do not know where the escaped prisoners are at the moment, but I hope and believe that they will be recaptured. If they are in the South, I hope and believe that the authorities in the Republic of Ireland will assist in their return to hear judgment—they have stood trial already—and, if there are other charges to be laid against them, to stand trial in the North.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of the defending solicitors, Mr. Kelly, is himself a former Republican internee who qualified in law while serving in the Maze prison? Will he also confirm that two of Mr. Kelly's brothers are at this moment in very senior positions in the IRA? Will he comment upon the real fear that IRA agents have infiltrated the legal profession in Northern Ireland in order to promote anarchy and subversion? Finally, does he agree that the security authorities would be most unwise to assume that certain persons who have access to prisoners can be trusted not to organise their escape?

Mr. Atkins

I can confirm that one of those arrested by the police and currently held in custody is Mr. Kelly. I am not personally aware of his training, nor am I personally responsible for the conditions which admit solicitors into the profession in Northern Ireland. However, the hon. Gentleman may be assured that if anybody whom the police suspect of having broken the law can be proved to have done so he will be brought to court, whoever he is.

As regards whether people visiting prisoners can be trusted, the whole regime of searching visitors to prisons is designed to ensure that this kind of thing cannot happen. Nevertheless, it happened. Something went wrong. That is why I am very glad to have the assistance of Mr. Pearce to find out what went wrong so that we may take steps to see that it does not happen again.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I join the Opposition spokesman and the Secretary of State in wishing the injured prison officer a speedy recovery.

I wish to put some questions to the Secretary of State on this matter, which has appalled the people of Northern Ireland. First, will he say where the cubicles were located? Were they on the first floor of the prison, immediately opposite the prison gate, or were they in the basement?

The right hon. Gentleman said that three solicitors had taken part in three separate consultations. Was the third solicitor arrested? The right hon. Gentleman's statement referred only to two solicitors and a solicitor's clerk. Would it not be most unusual if a solicitor's clerk alone were allowed to hold consultations in the prison?

Is it not a fact that the Mr. Kelly referred to was twice interned and that he is married to Alish McDermott, whose brother was shot dead by the RUC—

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As an inquiry has been announced, which we welcome, and presumably as criminal proceedings will take place against certain accused who have been mentioned in my right hon. Friend's statement, should not we in the House be extremely careful about what we say about individuals and their records? I do not know how the sub judice rule applies in this case, but should we not be very careful?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We must always be careful. However, the Secretary of State has made a statement, and, having heard it, the House is entitled to ask the most thorough questions of the Secretary of State.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the Secretary of State confirm or otherwise that the wife of that solicitor is Alish McDermott whose brother planted a bomb in the Conway hotel and was shot dead by the RUC? Will he also confirm—

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Was not the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) justified in raising his point of order? Surely it only prejudices matters if names are used in the House in this way. The Secretary of State has not mentioned names, nor have we. Surely no other hon. Member should be entitled to mention names. I should have thought that the appeal made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest would have the support of the whole House.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman may think so, but the Secretary of State referred to solicitors. All that he omitted was their names. He said that two solicitors had been arrested, but he did not give their names. I know that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) will not want to prejudice the inquiry any more than any other hon. Member would want to do so. I hope that he will now bring his question to a conclusion.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I shall comment no further on that matter, but I must place on record the fact that the people of Northern Ireland think it very unlikely that the Taoiseach of the Republic will want to help us, as the brother of this solicitor is one of his election agents who has appeared on television with him night after night. It is right that the House should know these facts, because they concern the people of Northern Ireland.

I have twice served in the prison and know a little about it. I visit it regularly to conduct services, and it is a fact that solicitors, clergymen and doctors are not searched when going into the prison. Those are the facts and the right hon. Gentleman must be pressed on them. Will the House have an opportunity to debate the report of the inquiry?

Mr. Atkins

I undertake to keep the House informed of the results of the inquiry. The hon. Gentleman said that he believed that priests and solicitors are not searched. They should be. However, the inquiry will direct itself precisely to that sort of point.

I shall not pursue what the hon. Gentleman said about those who have been arrested. The only thing that matters to the police, and I am sure to the House, is whether any arrested person is believed to have committed an offence. That person's family and relations have nothing to do with it. If he is believed to have committed an offence, he will be brought to trial—and so he should be—regardless of anything that his family may or may not have done in the past.

The cubicles which are part of the visiting area are located on the ground floor.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow questions to run until 4.30 pm, when we shall proceed to the Supply day business.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there seems to have been a great deal of expert planning surrounding this escape? It is essential that search procedures should be inquired into in the greatest detail. Does he also recall, as I do, the circumstances in which the murders with which these men were charged took place, particularly the brutal murder of Captain Westmacott, which occurred near my home? When those charged with his murder were surrounded, they acted in a cowardly way and sent for a Catholic priest to get them out in case they met the same fate as that visited upon Captain Westmacott.

Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that in the past such people in Northern Ireland have escaped from custody? A certain amount of glamour was attached to those escapes, like the glamour attached to the great train robbers. However, when those men went to the Republic they proceeded to murder Irish policemen and were subsequently convicted and sentenced to death. Therefore, in no circumstances should anyone attempt to glamourise this escape, because there was nothing courageous about it.

Mr. Atkins

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no glamour about murder. I am not yet able to say whether these prisoners were guilty of the murder of Captain Westmacott. The judge will rule on that tomorrow and we shall see. However, I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that this escape was carefully planned and, unfortunately, well carried out.

It is the business of the prison service, under my direction, to prevent such things from happening, but on this occasion it did not. We must prevent its happening again, and that is why I set up the inquiry immediately. When people are arrested and brought to trial, they must be kept in safe custody until the end of that trial. If they are found not guilty they go free, but otherwise they must be kept in safe custody. We did not do it this time, but we must do it in future.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I am concerned about my right hon. Friend's statement. One does not need to be a regular speaker on Northern Ireland affairs to be concerned about a mass escape of desperate men, which seems to have been planned like a military operation. My right hon. Friend hinted at that. We shall seek an assurance, following the inquiry, that in future the safeguards against such a military operation succeeding and allowing eight men to escape will be extremely watertight and secure.

I suggest that the inquiry should consider the possibility that in this prison, if not in all prisons in the United Kingdom, special equipment should be available to prison officers, such as electronic alarm equipment carried on their persons, to enable them to alert other members of the prison service that they are under attack or in danger of being overwhelmed.

Mr. Atkins

I agree with my hon. Friend. We thought that the arrangements at the Crumlin Road prison, which is the only remand prison in Northern Ireland, were adequate. They have proved not to be. We must take steps to ensure that they are, which is why I am glad to have the expert advice of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Mr. James A. Dunn (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

I join those hon. Members who have expressed regret and sent best wishes to those who have been injured.

I also express anxiety and concern at the terms of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. We have been told that two solicitors and a solicitor's clerk have been arrested, but we have not been informed whether any charge has been made against them. This is most unusual. If any statement were made to the House in similar circumstances about any other part of the United Kingdom, reference would be made to the fact that further inquiries were being made and that some people were being detained, without indicating who they were. Anything untoward that might happen in this House rests on the language of the statement that was given.

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman will remember, from his time in Northern Ireland, that when persons are detained under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act or the Emergency Provisions Act their names are not kept secret. The fact that they have been arrested is not kept secret. Of course it is known that persons have been arrested, because they have a right of access to their solicitors. It seemed to me to be right, therefore, to tell the House that five persons are being held under the terms of the appropriate Act. I cannot yet tell the House whether there will be charges, but I hope that charges will be preferred.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

In his statement the Secretary of State said that the alarm was raised at the main gate. Is it not a fact that the alarm was raised by three ladies who walked in off the street through the outer gate and then through the inner gate to the office where two prison officers were seated? At no time before they reached the two officers did they see any other prison officer. Is it not also a fact that there is a swivel camera which is manned on a 24-hour basis? Will the Secretary of State say what report was made by the person who manned the camera?

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is most unusual that prisoners whose case has already been heard, and who are waiting for the verdict, should have an in-depth consultation with their solicitors at such a time?

Mr. Atkins

When prisoners are before the courts they are entitled during the course of their trial—the trial has not yet finished, because judgment has not yet been delivered in this matter and see their solicitors. I do not think that the House would feel it right to deny access to solicitors to people appearing before the courts.

As to the other details of precisely what happened and the movements of the escaping prisoners, that is precisely what I want the Chief Inspector of Prisons to study—to find out what went wrong, because undeniably something went wrong.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the high regard that my colleagues and I on the Liberal Benches have for the prison officers and prison governors in Northern Ireland? They have done a superb and very brave job in recent years. Does not the escape illustrate the impossible position in which we put people who are charged to maintain security in our prisons, when we advocate further concessions in places such as the Maze?

Mr. Atkins

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He said "when we advocate further concessions". I do not think that he is advocating them and I certainly am not. I agree that the prison officers have a peculiarly difficult and dangerous job to do in Northern Ireland. They do it in an exemplary fashion and they earn and should have the gratitude of the whole House.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

Are not the locks and gates of the prison controlled from a secure vantage point and if not, why not? That is standard practice in commercial and other premises in Northern Ireland.

What is the basis of the right hon. Gentleman's statement that he believes that if the prisoners should make their way into the Republic they will be returned?

Mr. Atkins

The precise details of how the escaping prisoners were able to force the prison officers on duty at the gates to open those gates will be a matter for the inquiry which is now under way. The fact is that the prisoners were able to force those in charge of the gates to open them because the prisoners were armed. As the hon. Gentleman very well knows, prison officers, for obvious reasons, are not armed.

I do not know where the escaped prisoners are at the moment, but I hope and believe that they will be brought back to Belfast to hear the result of their trial and to stand trial for any further offences that they have committed.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

In view of the widespread statements made by Republicans over a long period that Republicans have carried items in to prisoners in the Maze prison and into Crumlin Road prison, surely the Government are at fault if they have not acted to stop that carriage of messages, and articles such as drugs, into prisons, and the passing of messages from prisoners out of the prisons. Can the Secretary of State give an absolute assurance that henceforth all people will be thoroughly searched and that the authorities will install a metal detector—such as we have at the entrance to this House—which would have detected any gun being smuggled into the prison?

Mr. Atkins

The procedures in force at Crumlin Road prison in Belfast, and indeed at all other prisons in Northern Ireland, are designed to prevent people from bringing in arms to the prisoners. We had thought that the procedures were adequate, but clearly they were not, because those arms were brought in. As the hon. Gentleman fairly says, this was a failure on the part of the authorities, for which I am responsible. My immediate concern is to find out what went wrong and to take whatever steps are necessary to stop it happening again.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement about setting up the inquiry. Is he aware how shocked a number of people have been that this incident, in a public place where terrorists are held, should follow so soon after the incident at the Royal Victoria hospital, where a police constable was brutally murdered by terrorists who got in as a result of lax security? In those circumstances, does my right hon. Friend think that there is a case for setting up an inquiry into the security at all public buildings housing terrorists?

Mr. Atkins

I regret very much the murder of the police officer on duty at the Royal Victoria hospital the other day, but I must take issue with my hon. Friend on one point. I do not think that Her Majesty's prison at Crumlin Road, Belfast, is a public place within the meaning of the Act, whereas the Royal Victoria hospital is a place which is used and visited by people who are not in custody. The two places are very different. The purpose of the inquiry which I have announced to the House today is to ensure that people who are being properly held in custody and who are before the courts are not allowed to escape in the way that these people escaped.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the whole House will share his support of and kind words to the prison officers? As the incident may raise in the minds of some people the suspicion that one or more of those officers might have been involved in the break-out, may we be assured that the inquiry will also address itself to that aspect, not only to identify any prison officer, if such should prove to be the case, but, equally important, to defend the integrity of the prison officers and to indicate to people at large what a fine job the prison officers continue to do in difficult circumstances?

Mr. Atkins

The inquiry will, of course, direct itself to those matters. There is no indication whatever, and no suspicion in my mind, that the prison officers did anything other than the best they could to discharge their duties. As I told the House earlier, one of them, in the effort to discharge his duties to the best of his ability, suffered severe injuries and may have a fractured skull. I hope, and the whole House will hope, that he will soon recover. All the circumstances of this unhappy event will be properly investigated by the inquiry.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

Clearly it is a matter of major and distressing importance that seven persons of the eight who escaped had been charged with murdering other human beings. It is clear that an inquiry is essential, but will the Minister make it clear to the authorities in Northern Ireland that there is a world of difference between arrest and charge? Until we know about the sub judice rule, and so that there is no trial by newspaper, does the Secretary of State agree that the authorities should, if they intend to bring charges, bring them as quickly as possible so that everyone may know what the position is? Otherwise, damage could be done to innocent persons.

Mr. Atkins

I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, and it is the objective of the police to charge people as soon as they possibly can. But the House has in the past renewed—and I hope will again renew—the emergency powers which enable the police, in these exceptionally difficult circumstances, to hold people for longer than is the norm in the rest of the United Kingdom. Of course the police will wish to charge those held by them as soon as they can.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) covered ground that we covered earlier. Otherwise, there is freedom of speech in this House.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the most modern electronic arms screening technology is available in this prison and to the prison service in Northern Ireland as a whole?

Mr. Atkins

The Government's position is that whatever is needed to secure the persons of those held in custody will be made available to the prison service. The most efficient equipment may go wrong. I do not know whether it did in this case. It may be that more and better equipment is required. This is what Her Majesty's inspector will advise me about. Whatever it is necessary to provide to keep in custody people charged with serious offences such as those with which these people were charged will be provided by the Government.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have sat through all the exchanges, and I should like to refer to some statements made by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), about which points of order were raised by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

It is right to say, Mr. Speaker, that you have to defend free speech in the House. Equally, we have a heavy burden upon us when we mention names and make allegations or suggestions and suppositions. May I suggest to you that when matters of the gravity mentioned here are raised, when an hon. Member names people who have suffered enough in the tragedies in Northern Ireland, who are not in a position to defend themselves and who are being put in a position of guilt by association or smear, a heavy duty rests not only upon the hon. Member who raises the matter but upon the Chair to try to cut short discussion of those matters. May I suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, with due humility, that this is a matter that should be considered seriously by you and your officers and, if necessary, referred to the appropriate Committee of the House?

Mr. Speaker

It is not for me to act as a censor of what hon. Members say in the House. They take responsibility for the statements that they make. The Secretary of State made it clear in his statement, to which I listened with care—indeed, I was reading it as he made it—that he referred to no charge having been made, or the matter would have been sub judice. This is not the first time that charges have been made against people outside the House. Members, not only in this Parliament but through the ages, have insisted on their right to make statements which they believe to be true. The hon. Gentleman who made the statement must take responsibility for it.

Mr. McNamara

On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to pursue the matter, but, with due respect to the Chair, those named were not the solicitors involved, but relatives of the solicitors and other people—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is well within the right of any hon. Member to make the sort of statement that was made when there is not a case before a court. If there were a case before a court, it would be entirely different. It is not for me to say—the House would soon resent it if I did—that hon. Members should not make statements like that because I do not happen to believe that they are fair or true. The hon. Member is responsible himself for the statement.

Mr. McNamara

I am sorry to seem to be persisting in this matter. I am not denying your right, Mr. Speaker, to protect free speech in the House, nor to point out the responsibility of hon. Members. What I was suggesting to you was that the matter might be looked at because it is affecting third parties.

There is a further point that we might have to look at in view of the change in the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other legislation. I refer to the distinction between a person being arrested and charged and a person being detained for a period of up to 72 hours. This is a grey area about which we are seriously concerned. Again, it is something which should perhaps be looked at by the proper authorities.

Mr. Speaker

It is a grey area, and of course I will look at it. I must remind the hon. Member that within this Parliament we have had examples of people outside the House having been named. It has happened on both sides of the House. There have been criticisms in the press and within the House. Every Speaker throughout my time in the House and long before has insisted on the right of hon. Members in the House, where we have privilege, to accept responsibility for what they say.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that this matter was not raised first by me? It was the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) who raised the matter about the relations, and that was allowed. Therefore, I took it that I was in order in proceeding along that line. Let me also emphasise to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) that it is important to note—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The point of order must be addressed to me and not to the hon. Member who raised the question.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that I did not make any charge. I made a statement of fact which is common knowledge in Northern Ireland. We are not living in an isolated world, like the hon. Member. We are living with the facts of the case, and everybody knows that.

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