HC Deb 01 July 1982 vol 26 cc1033-4
11. Mr. Adley

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will, pursuant to his reply to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) on 27 May, Official Report, column 1043, make a further statement on the use of plastic bullets by the security forces.

20. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many people in Northern Ireland have died and how many have been injured by rubber or plastic bullets.

Mr. Prior

Although not all inquiries into recent incidents have yet been completed and a number of inquests have yet to be held, I believe that since 22 April 1972, when the first such death occurred, 13 people may have died from injuries caused by baton rounds. Since 17 March 1981, when we began to keep records of such injuries, 203 people have received some form of hospital treatment for injuries thought to have been caused by plastic baton rounds. Information from the police is not readily available as to how many people sustained injuries before this date.

As I told the House on 27 May, the Government are fully aware of the concern about baton rounds and deeply regret that their use may have resulted in a number of deaths and injuries.

However, I must also emphasise that baton rounds are used only as a last resort. Without them, there would be a grave risk that the security forces would have to resort to conventional firearms, with much greater loss of life. Without riots and mob attacks on the security forces, baton rounds would not need to be used—only three have been used in the past month. I remain in close touch with the security forces' commanders on this issue.

Mr. Adley

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, particularly his last remarks. Does he recall that the last time he answered questions on Northern Ireland he was subjected to considerable personal attack over the use of baton rounds by the security forces? Does he agree that the use of such bullets is an example of restraint in the face of almost intolerable provocation, in contra-distinction to what is happening in the Lebanon at the moment? Does he not further agree that most nations, faced with insurrections such as we face in Northern Ireland, would use real bullets?

Mr. Prior

My hon. Friend's last remark is correct. Baton rounds should be used only as a last resort. I am satisfied that that is the view of the force commanders. The obvious answer is for us not to have riots.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Secretary of State confirm that about half of the fatal casualties were children? Will he investigate reports that in some cases the bullets had been doctored by the insertion of blades, nails and electric torch batteries? Is it not high time that the Government, once and for all, implemented a complete ban on the use of those lethal weapons, which have been used to murder innocent children?

Mr. Prior

No, Sir. I am not prepared to place the forces of law and order at risk in the manner that the hon.

Gentleman suggests. What is more, I refute his allegations about the improper use of baton rounds. I can assure him that in every case where injury is alleged to have been caused by a baton round it is fully investigated. Rather than make such remarks as he has made this afternoon, I hope that he will encourage parents not to allow young children on to the streets, because that is the way to prevent them from being injured.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

What is the logic of the argument against the use of baton rounds? Is it that live rounds should be used or that there should be a surrender to anarchy?

Mr. Prior

I agree with my hon. Friend. The right answer is to reduce the tensions and rioting in Northern Ireland so that we do not have to use such weapons, so that there would be none of the consequences that their use has at times resulted in.

I am trying to do everything that I can to quieten the situation in Northern Ireland. I look for the support of the House, including that of those who have taken a contrary view to me on recent legislation that I have introduced.

Mr. Concannon

Does the Secretary of State agree that security forces in Northern Ireland have used baton rounds when they would have been within their rights, according to the yellow card provisions, to use conventional weapons? However, there is some disquiet—I put it no higher than that—that the strict criteria, equivalent to that imposed by the yellow card on the use of lead bullets, have on some occasions been relaxed. I am not saying that that is happening now, but will the Secretary of State give the assurance, implicit in his statement, that the number of occasions on which baton rounds have been used has continue to decrease since the peak during the hunger strike riots last year and that the strict criteria for the use of baton rounds are being followed?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir. I can give the assurance asked for by the right hon. Gentleman and the House. Of course I am worried, because I know the effect that the use of baton rounds can have on the general population. However, I am not prepared to leave the forces unprotected by the withdrawal of a weapon which they may need and the use of which I know the right hon. Gentleman respects.