HC Deb 24 October 1983 vol 47 cc19-26 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James Prior)

I shall, with permission Mr. Speaker, take this earliest possible opportunity to make a statement to the House on the escape from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland last month and on the action taken since then. I should add that because of official business in the United States of America later today, I am making this statement before those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and I am grateful to him and to the House for allowing me to do so.

On 25 September, at approximately 2.45 pm, a number of Republican prisoners produced guns in H block 7 of the Maze prison. They overpowered prison officers and shot the officer in the block's central control room in the head. They put on the officers' uniforms. About an hour later, still in control of the block, prisoners took over a meal delivery van on its arrival, and the prison officer driver was forced at gunpoint to drive 38 of the prisoners to the main gate of the prison. On the way, the van passed through two manned gates without being searched. At the main gate the prisoners disembarked and a fight with prison staff ensued during which a number of prison officers received serious injuries and a prison officer was stabbed to death. I deeply regret his death, and know the whole House will join me in extending sympathy to his family. The prisoners opened the main gate, but the exit was immediately blocked by a prison officer's car. The 38 prisoners then sought to escape on foot and were chased by prison officers. As a number of the escaping prisoners were wearing prison officers' uniform and some of the prison officers were in civilian clothes, the Army sentry in the tower at the main gate could not clearly identify which individuals were prison officers and which were prisoners. He did, however, open fire and wound one escaping prisoner whom he had seen shoot a pursuing prison officer in the leg. Ten prisoners were quickly apprehended and returned to the prison. Immediately the alarm was given, the RUC and the Army instituted very extensive arrangements both in the immediate vicinity of the prison and more widely throughout the Province. Immediate contact was established with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland, who readily gave their full cooperation. Within the next few days a further nine escapers were recaptured, leaving 19 still unlawfully at large. The search for them continues unremittingly.

On the day following the escape, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I invited Sir James Hennessy, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, to conduct an inquiry into security arrangements at Her Majesty's prison, Maze, bearing on the escape on Sunday 25 September; to make relevant recommendations for the improvement of security at the prison; and to report to me as soon as possible.

Sir James is aided in his inquiry by a full team of inspectors and by other staff of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons, numbering 10 in all. It is not yet possible to say when the report will be completed. The House will understand that the arrangements at the Maze are inevitably complex and there are a great many witnesses to be interviewed, some of whom are still recovering from injuries. However, I know that Sir James and his team are pursuing the task with urgency as well as with a view to its being as thorough and searching as it can be. When the report is complete it is my intention to make public as full an account as possible of the matter consistent with the future security of the prison.

In parallel with the start of Sir James's inquiry, all governors of prisons in Northern Ireland immediately undertook urgent reviews of their security systems and procedures. Both in the Maze prison and elsewhere there has been additional searching of prisoners, cells, prison workshops and other areas. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army have assisted in searching prisons in line with long-established procedures. Certain additional physical security measures are being implemented, including the provision of protective screens for the control rooms of each H block in the Maze prison; and a more secure electronic locking system has been fitted to the main gate on a trial basis, which if found satisfactory will be linked to a specially constructed bullet-proof control post. Other security measures are also being taken.

The escape of so many prisoners and the killing of a prison officer represent a setback to law enforcement in Northern Ireland, at a time when terrorist organisations have been under increasing pressure. We are dealing with determined and violent men, and there can be no let-up in the measures that we are taking. The escape also adds to the already considerable difficulties in managing the prisons in Northern Ireland. I am anxious, in reporting to the House today, to indicate what action has been taken since the escape as well as to outline the facts of the incident as far as they can be established in advance of the Hennessy report. The House can be assured that we shall do everything possible to identify why things went wrong on 25 September, and will take all appropriate steps in the light of those findings.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

Right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches join the Secretary of State in extending sympathy to the family of the prison officer who met his death and to those others who were terribly injured. We thank the Secretary of State for making his statement and for the appointment of Sir James Hennessy to conduct an inquiry into security arrangements at Her Majesty's prison, Maze. I think that we should await the report before expressing our final views.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, on the face of it, the objective in building the Maze prison seems to have been eroded? I remind the House that it was built to end special category status, the compound system and the university of terrorism. No longer were prisoners to be segregated into their compounds, with free association, to do their teaching and plotting. They were to be kept in cellular accommodation in the legs of the H blocks. However, it seems from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that each of the H blocks is now reserved for groupings of prisoners, with a lot more association than was intended originally. We are back to the compound system and segregation. In my opinion this was asking for trouble if searches and other forms of security were not stepped up. I think that there are some people who pressed for this kind of segregation and who should keep their complaints to a minimum today.

If the Secretary of State decided to put all his bad eggs in one basket, could he say when H block 7 was last searched before the escape and how it was searched— that is important? If it was searched, what was found? Has the right hon. Gentleman any idea in which countries the 19 escaped prisoners are? If so, is he receiving the full cooperation of those countries to secure the apprehension and return of the escapees to the British authorities? Finally, will he assure the House that, when it is received, the report will be debated?

Mr. Prior

Whether the report is debated is a matter for the House, but I shall make a full statement to the House when the report is received. I want it to be published in full, save for any matters that might raise security problems at the prisons.

We do not know the countries to which these people have fled. It is suspected that some are now in the South, but we do not know. All that I can say is that we have had the maximum co-operation from the Irish Government, and I have no doubt that they are as keen as we are to capture these prisoners. The block had been searched wing by wing. The last search of a wing took place two weeks before the escape.

A number of the blocks are now segregated, because of the troubles that there have been, and also because there are many more Republican than Loyalist prisoners. The block in question was unsegregated until the Loyalist problems of October 1982. Since then it has been a Republican block. I believe that there are still seven wings in the Maze prison which contain both Protestants and Catholics. We shall do all that we can to keep as many mixed wings as possible.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Does the Secretary of State admit that the chief inspector's inquiry will be limited to considering the responsibility of prison officers and will take no account of the changes in the Northern Ireland Office's prison policies—which have already been referred to by the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon)— particularly those made under the regime of Lord Gowrie?

Is not the inquiry further limited by the requirement that prison officers' statements must be made in writing, and signed, with no guarantee of absolute confidentiality?

Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the financial considerations that led to delays even in the follow-up operations—which were not as immediate as the statement suggests—will also be excluded from the inquiry?

Mr. Prior

The duty helicopter was over the prison within 10 minutes of the alarm being given, and the brigade commander and the Chief Constable were in their operations room within 20 minutes of the alarm being given. It is therefore unfair to say that there was any delay in commencing the operations. The Chief Constable and the GOC will report to me on these matters in the near future.

Sir James Hennessy will have an absolute right to report on all aspects of the prison regime, including developments during the past two years I await his report with interest.

Following the end of the hunger strike, increased association between the wings was allowed in certain circumstances, but as the segregation policy pursued by both Loyalist and Republican prisoners resulted in the protest of the Loyalists in October 1982 there has been no free association in the block in question. That matter therefore does not arise. Any of these matters may, of course, be considered.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

On behalf of my colleagues, I should like to associate myself with the expression of sympathy to Prison Officer Ferris's wife and family.

Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that all the facts uncovered by Sir James Hennessy's inquiry will be made public? Why were the breaks in the perimeter fence, which were reported to the Northern Ireland Office before the escape, not dealt with? Can the Secretary of State say whether the steps that he has now taken will prevent guns from getting into the hands of prisoners? If no guns had got into the prison, the gaol break would not have occurred. Why were all the watchtowers not manned? Was it to save money that dummy soldiers were placed in some of the watchtowers? As this was the greatest gaol break in British history, does the Secretary of State not consider that there should be ministerial resignations?

Mr. Prior

In the past few weeks the hon. Gentleman has made a number of accusations, very few of which bear any relation to the truth. That includes his reference to watchtowers not being manned and to dummies in the watchtowers. There have never been dummies in the watchtowers at the Maze prison.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen Sir James' report?

Mr. Prior

There are no breaks in the proper fence of the prison. The hon. Gentleman is referring to a car park which has some protection but which in any case forms no part of the defences of the prison. All these matters will be considered by Sir James Hennessy and included in his report.

On the question of resignations, I have made my position abundantly clear and I shall stick to it.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

We on the Liberal Benches express our condolences to the family of the prison officer who lost his life. From my personal knowledge of prison officers in general, and in particular those in Northern Ireland, I believe that they are upright men doing a fairly lousy job with distinction.

Will the attention of Sir James Hennessy be drawn to the problems caused by the concessions on the wearing of civilian clothing in the prison? When I was last in the Maze prison I could not tell the difference between prisoners in civilian clothing and the civilian instructors. Some confusion seems to have been caused.

Mr. Prior

Sir James Hennessy will consider, and give his views on, the wearing of civilian clothing by prisoners. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about prison officers. Some of the prison officers acted with extreme courage and heroism, and deserve the utmost credit for what they did. The prison service in Northern Ireland has a very difficult job, and we should recognise that before we lay any criticism at its door.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House why so many terrorists were concentrated in one place at one time?

Mr. Prior

There are three prisons in Northern Ireland, and there are terrorists in all three, but until now the Maze has been considered to be the most secure. No fewer than 250 prisoners in the Maze, out of a total of 830, are serving either life sentences or are detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. The presence of so many life prisoners of a fairly young age makes necessary a form of prison regime which at the moment is available only at the Maze. That is why there are so many rotten eggs in one basket.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the foul murder this morning, less than three miles from the border with the Irish Republic, of my constituent, Mr. Cyrus Campbell, was the inevitable result of the boost given to Republican terrorism by the Maze escape? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether, as 19 terrorists are still on the run, many of whom are convicted murderers, he has ordered any significant increase in the number of troops along the frontier with the Irish Republic, where terrorists have invariably sought refuge?

Mr. Prior

We all share the distress caused by the murder of another member of the UDR in the hon. Gentleman's constituency this morning, but it would be wrong to say that the murder resulted from the outbreak of prisoners from the Maze. Regrettably, there are many other reasons why people in Northern Ireland have been murdered in the past few weeks, months and years.

There was an increase in security activity on the border immediately after the outbreak and both the GOC and the Chief Constable know perfectly well that if they require additional resources at any time they have only to ask for them.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most disquieting aspect of this incident is the fact that there were firearms in the prison? Can he assure us that that aspect will be considered? Can he also assure us that, as well as reporting what happened, Sir James Hennessy will prescribe what should be done for the future?

Mr. Prior

Where they would be of use to anyone wishing to escape, suggestions about what should be done will obviously not be published. For the most part, everything else will be published. Recommendations applying to all the Northern Ireland prisons, or elsewhere, could certainly be contained in the report. I agree with my hon. Friend that the fact that pistols were in the prison is perhaps the most disturbing aspect.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Given that the events described by the Secretary of State this afternoon are grave and calamitous, and are far more serious than he described them when he said that they have set back law enforcement, will he accept that if the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is to have any meaning in this country his personal position cannot turn on the mere findings——

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The hon. Gentleman would not resign his seat to fight an election.

Mr. Maclennan

—of the Hennessy inquiry, when 38 of the most dangerous prisoners in his custody have escaped?

Mr. Prior

If I had felt that ministerial responsibility was such that in this case I should have resigned, I certainly should have done so. It would be a matter for resignation if the report of the Hennessy inquiry showed that what happened was the result of some act of policy that was my responsibility, or that I failed to implement something that I had been asked to implement, or should have implemented. In that case, I should resign. The IRA may have had something of a success to relate about the escape, but it would be as nothing compared with the success that it would have to relate if it forced the resignation of the Secretary of State under such circumstances.

Sir William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I appreciate the wisdom of my right hon. Friend's advice to delay judgment until after Sir James has reported, but is there not one deceptively simple lesson that we can draw in the meantime from this and other events? That lesson is that however sophisticated the mechanisms—and in the Maze they are highly sophisticated — security ultimately rests on the constant reiteration of security procedures and drills by human beings. One of the results of the great successes that my right hon. Friend mentioned — successes for which the Government can certainly take credit—is that in some places in Northern Ireland there may have been a lessening of the will to maintain security and constantly to reiterate security drills.

Mr. Prior

I do not wish to prejudge anything that Sir James Hennessy may say on this subject, but constant attention needs to be paid at all times to all matters concerning security in Northern Ireland, whether they relate to prisons or to the relentless struggle against terrorism outside.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, after the Maze breakout, it was only following industrial action by prison officers that he increased the number of posts at Magilligan prison by 20 to improve security there? If that increase in the number of posts was needed, why was industrial action necessary to achieve it? If the increase was not needed, why did he allow it?

Mr. Prior

This is a very difficult matter. In the past two years the number of prison officers in Northern Ireland has increased by 10 per cent. There are 3,000 prison officers, for 2,500 prisoners, which is a far higher ratio for maximum security prisoners than in any other part of the United Kingdom. We must balance the proper requirements of an efficiently run prison system against reasonable grounds for expenditure. We do not know of any cases in Northern Ireland where sufficient resources have not been made available in the past two years. After such an outbreak there are bound to be demands from one quarter or another for additional resources to be devoted to a particular cause. They must be examined, and they are at present the subject of negotiations.

Mr. Alexander Pollock (Moray)

How much more compulsory overtime may be required of prison staff now, compared with, for example, a year ago?

Mr. Prior

In the past few months overtime has increased and amounts to 15 hours a week. That is far higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom. The amount of overtime is, of course, a matter of considerable concern, because of tiredness and its effect on prison officers. All those matters will need to be looked at and a balance must be maintained.

Mr. John David Taylor (Strangford)

I should like to associate myself with the Secretary of State in expressing sympathy to Mrs. Ferris and her two sons over the murder of Mr. Ferris, a prison officer and a constituent of mine.

Why have some of those who participated in the murder of the prison officer, who have been caught and returned to the Maze, not been prosecuted for the murder?

Mr. Prior

That is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions. The decision rests with him, not with me.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

How can the Secretary of State speak in such glowing terms about the follow-up operation when, one month after the escape, outbuildings and properties a very short distance from the prison have yet to be searched? What public scrutiny will there be of the report on the breakout from the Chief Constable and the GOC in Northern Ireland? What pressure can be taken off the Maze by the new prison planned at Maghaberry, and why is there such delay in opening it? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the remarks of the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) about segregation might well have been to the contrary, in that if there had not been segregation in the H block it is very likely that a number of Loyalist prisoners would have been killed?

Mr. Prior

There is certainly a strong view that had there not been segregation we would have known a good deal more about what was likely to happen. I personally think that segregation is wrong. Those who go to prison should be treated as prisoners, regardless of whether they are Loyalists or Republicans. It is a mistake to try to differentiate between the two. I want to place that firmly on the record.

My hon. Friend referred to the searching of premises immediately outside the prison. The forces of law and order in Northern Ireland have a very difficult job to do. They are constantly being attacked by people in Northern Ireland for being inefficient and for not searching this or doing that. We should be extremely grateful to them for what they do. At times their actions may be criticised, but we should bear in mind the overall standard and efficiency of both the RUC and the Army. We can all produce tittle tattle about what did not happen or should have happened, but the fact is that the security forces have a difficult job to do. They are responsible to me. I inquire into these matters, but I have no intention of allowing anyone to think that I do not have full confidence in them.

Mr. Tom Arnold (Hazel Grove)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he will have the overwhelming support of the majority of hon. Members for the manner in which he intends to proceed? Will he confirm that the security statistics for the nine months ending 30 September show beyond any shadow of doubt that there has been a marked improvement this year compared with previous years?

Mr. Prior

I am chary of making any prophecies about the security situation in Northern Ireland. At the moment there is an improvement, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said, but we shall not be satisfied until all terrorists have been caught and peace has been restored to Northern Ireland. At present, we are some way off that.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

What assurances can my right hon. Friend give the House that the security forces now have adequate contingency plans to deal with any future breakout? This issue cannot await the publication of the Hennessy report.

Mr. Prior

The security forces have contingency plans, which they practise from time to time, in case of a breakout. In the light of the breakout and what happened, they will immediately review those plans to see whether they can be improved in any way. One of the great problems was that the contingency plans involved both an inner and outer ring. It is thought, in the light of experience, that the inner ring was drawn in too closely. Prisoners had passed beyond it by the time it was set up. Those are matters that must be looked at urgently, and they are being considered by the GOC.

Forward to