HC Deb 14 May 1981 vol 4 cc875-7
11. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent consultations he has had about prison conditions in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Alison

Prison conditions are kept under regular review. As part of this process there are consultations from time to time with a wide variety of interested agencies both inside and outside Government.

Mr. Dubs

Is the Minister aware that he has the full support of the European Commission of Human Rights in resisting political status? However, it is in favour of a more flexible approach to the prison system in Northern Ireland. Is the Minister aware that there are still many misunderstandings about prisoners' rights in Northern Ireland? It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that matter. Will he consider further prison reforms as a way of counteracting adverse propaganda and as a way of encouraging prisoners to conform to the rules?

Mr. Alison

Prison reform is a continuing process in every part of the prison system in the United Kingdom. The privileges, facilities and rules applicable to the prisoners' lives have been published. They were published in the recent circulars which we issued for public interest. They were placed in the Library of the House. The hon. Gentleman can see in them exactly what the privileges and rules are.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us that the European Commission of Human Rights confirmed that there is no such status as political status in the international legal system. It made some recommendations about the need for flexibility. I remind the hon. Gentleman that in the last few months we have introduced no fewer than 12 individually distinguishable improvements and modifications in the detailed administration of the prisoners' lives.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Has my hon. Friend given any thought to rescinding those privileges which were first granted in 1972 to certain prisoners, from which the concept of special category status has grown?

Mr. Alison

The privileges that are accorded to any prisoner are naturally susceptible to withdrawal if the prisoner is in breach of prison rules or if an adjudication awards a penalty against him. Therefore, it is always possible for privileges to be withdrawn.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Do the Government recognise the importance of ensuring that any measures introduced in the prisons in Northern Ireland on humanitarian grounds are seen to be applied as soon as possible in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Alison

I am not convinced by the right hon. Gentleman's observation. In his recommendations about the administration of the prison system the late Lord Mountbatten suggested that it was right that prisons containing a large number of long-term prisoners should have a regime and administration which was distinguishable from prisons with a population which was neither so long-serving nor imprisoned for such serious offences. The Northern Ireland prison system has an exceptionally large number of young, long-sentence prisoners. A locally differentiated prison regime is reasonable and applicable in that environment.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Notwithstanding the efforts by Her Majesty's Government, does the Minister accept that unfortunately, and much as we may resent it, part of the world seems to think that we are running an oppressive regime in the Maze? There is a desperate need to make it clear—as I have seen for myself—that the facts are totally different. Every opportunity should be made to demonstrate to the Americans, the French, the Greeks and the rest that the Maze regime is a fair system of prison administration, probably better than anywhere else in the world.

Mr. Alison

The hon. Gentleman is a little pessimistic about the extent to which the prison system in Northern Ireland, and conditions in the Maze in particular, are regarded as sinister and unacceptable. We have a liberal regime—if I dare use that word—of admission for the media. Press correspondents and television crews—both sorts of public relations media—have regularly visited the Maze, apart from visits by the hon. Gentleman, other hon. Members and other people. The conditions of life in the prison for those who wish to hear and know the truth are readily accessible and well known.

Mr. Concannon

Is the Minister aware that in the present circumstances it is important on every occasion to impress upon everyone what the conditions are and what is offered to the prisoners? I suggest to the Government that they take every opportunity to spell that out so that the rest of the world understands.

Mr. Alison

No one in the House knows more about the conditions of the prison system in Northern Ireland than the right hon. Gentleman, who played a constructive role in establishing it. He will know of the recent publication of two simple popular guides to conditions in the prison. They have had a substantial circulation and show, pictorially as well as descriptively, how up-to-date and modern the prison facilities are there. It is among the most modern and humane prison structures anywhere in the Western world.