HC Deb 07 June 1988 vol 134 cc717-20 3.31 pm
Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the riots and escapes at Haverigg prison, Millom, Cumbria and whether he will institute a public inquiry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

During the night of 5–6 June 1988, a serious disturbance took place at Her Majesty's prison at Haverigg in Cumbria, which is a category C establishment with places for around 500 inmates. It started at about 7.30 pm when approximately 40 prisoners began causing damage to buildings. Extra prison officers were deployed to duty and appeared to be containing the action. At about 11 pm there was an escalation and the officers were forced to withdraw and police were deployed to secure the perimeter. Prison officers later gained control of the prison, but for a time a total of 34 prisoners either escaped or were unaccounted for. All except three escapees, none of whom has been convicted of offences of violence, are now back in custody. In all, 28 buildings were damaged and 300 prisoner places were lost temporarily. Repairs are already in hand.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked Mr. Gordon Lakes, the deputy director general of the prison service, to conduct an urgent investigation into the disturbance. It will be a comprehensive and wide-ranging inquiry which will consider all the relevant factors that may have contributed to the incident. When he has received Mr. Lakes' report, my right hon. Friend will report his conclusions to the House.

Dr. Cunningham

Was not this the largest mass escape from any prison in England for more than half a century? First, I praise the work of the prison officers and the Cumbria police for reacting swiftly and, on the whole, effectively to the serious situation that developed.

Why did the Home Secretary reject my call in December 1987 for a review of security at Haverigg, following a series of escapes from the prison that year? What action was taken following my letter to the Home Secretary in January this year about a serious drugs racket in Haverigg gaol?

Is it not the case that on Sunday night there were only two fully trained and qualified prison officers on duty, supported by seven auxiliary officers? Is it not also the case that local prison officers believe that the prison is seriously understaffed and that the complement set by the Home Secretary is inadequate to ensure the safe management of the prison, and have they not made those views known repeatedly to the Home Office? Is not their view confirmed by the Home Office report on the prison service for 1986–87, a copy of which I have here, which shows that the average manpower cost per inmate at Haverigg is the lowest for any category C prison in the whole country and the second lowest for any prison in England?

Following the massive and extensive damage, including the loss of more than half the total accommodation, can the prison continue to be operated safely or should it not now be closed? Will the inquiry—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) does not take this seriously——

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question and the hon. Gentleman should ask a question, not a serious of questions.

Dr. Cunningham

Will the inquiry have the widest possible terms of reference and will the local authorities, which share my call for a public inquiry, have an opportunity to submit their views? Has not the cosmetic categorisation of prisoners as low risk to ease the massive strain on high security prisons led directly to these appalling consequences?

Mr. Hogg

This is a serious incident which we take seriously. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the kind words and support which he gave to the action of both prison and police officers. The inquiry will be wide-ranging and nothing relevant or credible will be excluded from it. Local authorities will have an opportunity to make representations if that is what they wish to do.

I do not think that manning levels are relevant to this issue. The Fresh Start complement is 92 discipline officers and now there are 94 in post, so manning is not relevant to this issue.

Drugs are a problem. We are aware of that and we are taking active steps to prevent the introduction of drugs into prison. The hon. Gentleman will recall the action that we took over the food for remand prisoners.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I add my congratulations to the police and prison officers for the way in which they dealt with the incident.

Will my hon. Friend answer two questions? First, will he confirm that when the incident happened the staffing level at the prison was proper to deal with it? Secondly, and more seriously, will he ensure that the inquiry deals with what has become a major local concern—that prisoners were deliberately given a lower category of risk in order that they should be sent to this prison which was not overcrowded? Will he confirm that that was a deliberate downgrading which, on reflection, perhaps should not have been done? Will he ensure that the inquiry deals with that point?

Mr. Hogg

There were about 20 prison officers on duty at the relevant time and I do not think that manning is relevant to this disturbance. However, the inquiry must be wide-ranging and questions of manning will inevitably be considered. I do not believe that anybody has been introduced to Haverigg who was inappropriate for that prison, but questions of categorisation must clearly be addressed and they will be during the inquiry which my right hon. Friend has set up.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Will the Minister ensure that among the material that the inquiry considers are the accounts of prisoners who have been at Haverigg, including one lurid account on the front page of one of the quality papers today? Does he agree that, whereas a few pin-ups on a dormitory wall are harmless, the use of cannibis and hooch as currency in Haverigg prison over a long period shows extremely lax discipline during that time?

Mr. Hogg

I am aware of the issues and allegations to which the hon. and learned Gentleman has referred. As I have already said, all relevant and credible allegations will be considered during the course of the inquiry and that will include any allegation of the type made in The Independent which, upon examination, appears both relevant and credible.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that category C prisons can contain prisoners found guilty of any crime if they are coming to the end of their sentence?

Mr. Hogg

That is correct. Category C is a judgment as to the risk that individual prisoners may pose to the community should they escape.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Does the Minister agree that the present problem, serious though it is, is simply part of what can only be described as a widespread crisis in our prisons—a crisis of overcrowding? It was not so long ago that the idea of a prison population of 40,000 was considered impossible, but now 50,000 is common currency. Is it not time that the Government considered not so much how to build prisons, but how those prisoners who could he more economically and effectively treated outside receive that treatment?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has asked a general and a specific question. On the general question, the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind what was said in the debate a few weeks ago. On his particular question, there was no overcrowding at Haverigg. The certified normal accommodation is in the order of 500 and at the time of the disturbance there were about 515 prisoners.

Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

As there is an admitted drugs problem at the prison, will my hon. Friend assure us that particular attention will be paid to the visiting arrangements for prisoners because that is often when drugs are smuggled in?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As part of the inquiry we will be considering the question of the presence of drugs in the prison and the methods by which they got in.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

As prison officers, both directly and through their association, had made representations about manning prior to the incident, will the Minister tell the House what happened when those representations were received by his Department? Was an inquiry carried out at that time or was no action taken based upon preconceived views as to what warrants proper manning of prisons?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman will know that, during the course of this year, we are recruiting 1,365 prison officers in addition to natural wastage. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Fresh Start came into place in early April this year. The discipline grades at Haverigg numbered 92 and that was the number fixed at that time. The number in post at the time of the disturbance was 94. Let us assume for the purposes of discussion that there was an under-manning of 50 per cent. It is an illusion to suppose that 30 officers on duty that night would have made the slightest difference to the type of disturbance that took place. The truth is that manning levels are, so far as I can currently judge, irrelevant to the issue.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

. Recently there was a packed meeting in my constituency to discuss Home Office proposals to set up a category C prison in an ex-RAF camp. What credence can be given to the claims of Home Office officials at that meeting that category C prisoners have neither the wish nor the ability to escape when no fewer than 25 of them forced their way through a perimeter fence two days later? What confidence can be placed in Home Office claims that those prisoners are harmless when a Prison Officers Association official has revealed that high-risk prisoners are being placed in low category gaols to save cash?

Mr. Hogg

On the latter part of the question, I do not agree with the suggestion made by an unknown source. On the former part of the question, disturbances of this nature are, happily, relatively infrequent. We are setting up an inquiry. We propose to learn all the lessons that we can from this incident and to implement them.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

Does the Minister accept that this is just the latest manifestation of the problems associated with the real crisis in our present prison system? Although this riot appears to have been triggered off by something relatively trivial, it must have been the result of a build-up of frustrations over many months, or possibly years. Has the Minister considered the specific suggestion of introducing staff prison committees to discuss grievances or the recommendation of the chief inspector of prisons that a prison ombudsman should be appointed?

I should like to press the Minister on two matters that have been raised and not satisfactorily answered by him. He was asked about drugs and bullying in Haverigg. If the reports and allegations are correct, it is a disgraceful state of affairs. Surely these abuses have implications for manning levels, because if manning levels are inadequate prison officers cannot take action to deal with drugs or bullying.

I should like also to press the Minister on the issue of downgrading. Can he categorically tell the House that high security prisoners have not been downgraded in order to go to category C prisons, thereby reducing the overcrowding in high security prisons?

In view of all the implications of this matter, may I reinforce the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) that the inquiry should be in public and should include details of why the warnings given by my hon. Friend were not heeded at the time?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Lady has asked a variety of questions, and I shall try to respond to them.

We acknowledge that we have a problem in the prison system and that is why we have put in place a very extensive building programme that is unequalled in this century. The hon. Lady asked about an ombudsman. Our present view is that the complaints procedure works perfectly well. If in the course of the inquiry it appears that that is not the case, we shall have to reconsider our position.

The hon. Lady asked about categorisation. There is no reason to suppose that by some artificial device inappropriate prisoners have been downgraded to category C prisons, either to this one in particular or to prisons in general. I repeat what I have said about manning levels. In this prison the manning levels are up to complement, and at the moment I do not think that manning levels have any relevance to the events that occurred two nights ago.

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