HC Deb 30 April 1986 vol 96 cc1028-33

10 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the situation in the prisons. There have been a number of serious developments during the course of the evening. At Northeye prison near Bexhill-on-Sea, prisoners this evening set fire to an office, the kitchen, the library and some other wooden structure. There have been no reported casualties. The staff on duty were obliged to withdraw to the gates for their own safety and some prisoners went on the rampage. Parts of the prison have been burnt out. The governor established a command post in the officers' club and, on my latest information, it is still unsafe for the fire brigade to enter the premises.

Off-duty staff have returned to the prison indicating that they are anxious to help restore the situation, irrespective of the present industrial action. The police are at the perimeter of the prison, although it appears that some prisoners have escaped. Some 60 prisoners at Lewes prison in Sussex are out of their cells in one wing and probably seven are on the roof.

In Bristol prison there is a serious situation. Prisoners have broken out of their cells. The governor has felt obliged to call in the police in order to maintain control of the prison. There are reports of minor trouble at three other prisons.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

This is a very serious statement. I make it clear right away that we shall expect another statement from the Home Secretary tomorrow afternoon and, if the situation is not in hand by them, we shall expect the Government to bring about another debate right away. If the Government do not do that, we shall be seeking your agreement for such a debate, Mr. Speaker, under Standing Order No. 10.

This is a very grave situation and it is right that the Home Secretary has given this statement this evening. It is on the record that we warned the Government—[Interruption.]—we warned the Government as recently as yesterday about the delicate and dangerous nature of this crisis, and we spoke of the nation's prisons as a tinder box. Yesterday, the Home Secretary saw fit to dismiss the warnings that we gave. We now face a position the consequences of which cannot be calculated or forecast. The decline of law and order has spread to the prisons themselves.

Yesterday I drew attention to the contingency plans for this dispute at the Association of Chief Police Officers. The Home Secretary responded by saying that it was right that there should be contingency plans. However, Mr. Jarman of the executive of the Prison Officers' Association said this evening that at Northeye prison contingency plans were not brought into operation. Can the Home Secretary confirm that, and can he explain it?

Before there are further disturbing developments, I appeal to the Home Secretary to abandon the preconditions for talks that he laid down yesterday. [AN HON. MEMBER: "That's right—give in to anarchy."] Give in to anarchy? The anarchy has been created by the intransigence of the Home Secretary—anarchy which I warned the Home Secretary about yesterday and which the Home Secretary rejected with disdain.

The prison officers at Northeye prison this evening have shown their sense of duty by returning to duty, to try to remedy the situation despite the dispute. Let the Home Secretary respond in the same spirit by accepting the offer of the Prison Officers Association, to suspend industrial action while talks take place. That would be the proper response in this dangerous situation. [AN HON. MEMBER : "It is called blackmail".] This dispute must be solved quickly. Let action be taken now to bring that about, or the responsibility will rest plainly with the Home Secretary.

Mr. Hurd

The only factual question that the right hon. Gentleman asked me was about the Sussex police. As I said in my statement, they have been in action in support of the prison authorities at Northeye through the evening, so their role in the matter has already proved extremely helpful. I think that the House will forgive me if I do not follow the right hon. Gentleman tonight into the rigmarole of contentious statements with which he finished.

My information is incomplete, but I thought it right to come to the House and say what I knew without embroidery and without any allocation of responsibility. There will and must be an opportunity to discuss these matters. It will be necessary for me to report again to the House tomorrow afternoon. I rejected no warnings, and I yield to no one in my desire, as I made clear yesterday, to bring this unnecessary dispute to an end at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

Will my right hon. Friend urge the leaders of the Prison Officers Association to follow the example set this evening by their members at Northeye, who were off duty and who all came in to see what they could do to help in this difficult situation? When it is under control, will my right hon. Friend immediately instigate an inquiry, bearing in mind the considerable anxiety that will be felt in the Bexhill community? Will he bear it in mind that for the past two years, concern has been expressed about staffing ratios at Northeye? In view of what has happened, will he include that aspect in the inquiry?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend, and join him in the tribute that he paid. The format of the inquiry into these events, which have been not just at one prison, is one of the things that I shall consider swiftly, as well as its scope.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

In commending the Home Secretary on coming to the House so promptly to make his statement, may I ask him, when he comes to the House again tomorrow, to explain why the Government have not heeded warnings given by the noble Lord Whitelaw when he was Home Secretary some five years ago about the dangerous situation that was being created by overcrowding in the prisons? Will he tell the House tomorrow why the Government did not take action to resolve the manning issues giving rise to the present dispute long ago? Will he confirm tomorrow that it is now recognised that the time has come for the dispute to be settled, and settled quickly on the basis of discussions without any preconditions on either side?

Mr. Hurd

My noble Friend not only realised the dangers of overcrowding but acted to prevent and cure them. That was the origin of the prison building programme that is now under way. I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman that the sooner this dispute is brought to an end, the better. I believe that the offer that I made on 22 April provides a basis for a fair resolution of the dispute.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Will my right hon. Friend accept praise from this side of the House for coming so quickly to the House, making a straightforward, honest statement, and giving a commitment to return tomorrow to elaborate on it? Will he also accept that there seems to be little link in Lewes between the prison officers' dispute and the illegal actions taken by the prisoners, which are all the more sad because of the recategorisation of many of the prisoners and the reorganisation of the regimes and of the staffing to meet those new regimes there? Therefore, when he institutes an inquiry, as I am sure he will, will my right hon. Friend please bring it clearly to the notice of the officers and everybody else concerned that this seems to be an illegal uprising which should be treated as such and no more?

Mr. Hurd

I thank my hon. Friend for his first remarks. I am aware, as he is, of the excellent work which has been done over the years at Lewes prison.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

In the face of this further breakdown in law and order and this dangerous state of affairs, may I say from past experience that in no way should any hon. Member support insurrection, arson and what has just gone on? My party does not do that. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Rees

But we are not prepared to take this stuff about the Conservative party being the only party concerned about law and order. The House is concerned, and we support the Home Secretary. But tonight he should call the POA into his office and should say, "Suspend your action. Come back in the morning and talk." Otherwise, the breakdown in law and order will become worse, and no amount of Saatchi and Saatchi words will deal with it.

Mr. Hurd

I am not dealing with the matter with Saatchi and Saatchi words, and I hope that the House will not do so either. My information is as yet incomplete, so tonight I do not want to enter much further into the details of what has occurred, or into the right steps to be taken in future. Tomorrow there will certainly be an opportunity to do that, but tonight I would rather not say things which in the light of fuller information may look odd or foolish.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Although I congratulate those prison officers who have rallied round, is it not the case that the average earnings of a prison officer are £15,000 a year, of which some 30 per cent. is overtime? Is the country not entitled to ask that such officers should be prepared to negotiate without preconditions?

Mr. Hurd

I confirm that figure.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we are in the middle of debate on an important Bill, and that the statement concerns insurrections in three prisons, not the general position.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

When was the last occasion that the prison officers of this country were in such bitter conflict with the Government of the day?

Mr. Hurd

There has been a history of discussion, disturbance and conflict. The House will remember the dispute five or six years ago. However, that is not relevant to the immediate problem before us, which is how to resolve the present position.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that the governor of Bristol prison has had to call in the police will inevitably lead to a disastrous decline in morale in that prison, whatever the outcome of the dispute? I hope that my right hon. Friend will encourage the governor of the prison to look not only to the POA but to individual members of staff, who may well hold different views, inresolving the dispute. Does he agree that the most immediate action necessary to ensure that Bristol prison once again works as a prison is to re-establish the morale that has clearly broken down?

Mr. Hurd

We need first to re-establish control in the prisons. After that, the question of morale becomes very important.

Mr. Eric S. Hafer (Liverpool, Walton)

I know prison officers well, because there are many of them in my constituency, which has one of the biggest prisons in the country. Does not the Home Secretary agree that they play an important role in maintaining law and order, and are dedicated to doing their job in the interest of the community as a whole? Should not the Home Secretary and the Government listen to what they say? They are on the spot, and have full responsibility for looking after the prisoners. Over the years, particularly in the past few years, they have warned that the situation was becoming critical. Is it not time that the Government decided to begin serious discussions with them instead of adopting the rather arrogant attitude that some Ministers have taken on the radio? Will the Government conduct their discussions properly so that a settlement can be reached and the problem can be solved as quickly as possible?

Mr. Hurd

I have twice had serious discussions with the POA. I agree about the importance of the work that prison officers do.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the vast majority of prison officers are honourable and decent men and women who are deeply shocked by what has happened this evening. I suspect that they will be utterly horrified to learn of the Opposition's cynical manipulation of events for party political reasons.

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) should not have leapt into his usual act without being in full possession of the facts.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Whether the Home Secretary likes it or not, he is the Minister responsible. When something for which he is responsible goes wrong, we are entitled to question and criticise him, if that criticism is justified. Given all that the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and their colleagues have said over the years about law and order, did he ever think that he would be standing at the Dispatch Box at 10 pm on a Wednesday night to tell the people of this country that the prisons are on fire and the prisoners are running riot? What sort of law and order society are the Government trying to cultivate?

Mr. Hurd

Of course I accept that I am the Minister responsible. If I did not accept that, I would not be standing here or volunteering a statement. If this debate is to do any of us any credit, its level must rise above that of rhetorical questions.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who are faced with the difficult task of restoring order in the prisons will not thank any hon. Member for making their task more difficult by stoking up the emotions? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Sir Eldon Griffiths

In so far as the police become involved, will my right hon. Friend ensure that they have all the necessary resources of mutual aid if that becomes necessary? Would not the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) have done better to appeal to that small minority of prison officers who are taking industrial action to go back and do their work quickly?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am in touch with the Sussex police about mutual aid.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

While in no way wishing to endorse the policies, some of the working practices or actions of the POA, is it not true that if the Home Secretary and some of his immediate predecessors had heeded the sensible and serious proposals put forward for some years by hon. Members on both sides of the House and by members of the public for a substantial reducion in the prison population without endangering the public, we would not be in such a dangerous position? Inmates, staff and the public are all in danger. In that sense at least, are not the Home Secretary and the Government fully culpable for the crisis that now exists?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about the subject and has consistently advanced the view that, in some way which is not clearly specified, we should prevent the courts from sending to prison people whom they think should be sent there. [Interruption.] That is a fair summary of the hon. Gentleman's clearly held and consistently expressed view. I understand the reasoning behind it, as he has expressed his view clearly, but I do not think that that is a possible course.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Warrington, South)

To the extent that the present problems are created by overcrowding in our prisons, does my right hon. Friend agree that the answer is not to change our penal policy but to accept that much of the responsibility falls on the Opposition because of their cut in the prison building programme?

Mr. Hurd

The fact is that there was no prison building programme when the Conservative party came to power. My predecessor before last instituted a programme which has been carried on steadily ever since.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does not the gravity of the situation demonstrate all too clearly how dangerous and foolish it was for the Government to break off negotiations this weekend in the face of an offer from the Prison Officers Association to suspend its action?

Mr. Hurd

That offer was not honoured. The industrial action continued. I gave an account of those proceedings to the House yesterday. I believe that the stance I took at that time was reasonable.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Home Secretary said that he would make a further statement tomorrow. I shall endeavour tomorrow to call those hon. Members who rose this evening but were not called.