HC Deb 26 May 1988 vol 134 cc505-7
4. Mr. Mullin

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how many people sentenced to serve prison terms at the Secretary of State's pleasure in Northern Ireland have been released, and under what terms, since February 1987.

5. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland under what terms prisoners serving sentences in Northern Ireland at the Secretary of State's pleasure are released; and how many have been released since February 1987.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tom King)

Fifteen such prisoners have been released since February 1987. The licence in these cases remains in force indefinitely, and may be revoked at any time if this course seems necessary in the public interest. The licence may also include specific conditions, but no such conditions were included in any of the 15 cases.

Mr. Mullin

I welcome the progress that has been made so far. Is the Secretary of State prepared to consider extending the review to people—such as Private Thain—who are over the age of 18 but pose no further threat to society?

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because in much of the discussion of this matter there has been scant recognition of the real progress that has been made or of the fact that there has been a significant reduction in the number of those being detained at the Secretary of State's pleasure by virtue of having committed crimes while under the age of 18. We seek to consider sympathetically those dragged into or implicated in terrorist crime at a very young age. That is one of the criteria that we take into account. We are also considering reviewing other sentences.

Mr. Bennett

Do the same conditions apply to people who committed offences in Northern Ireland but were convicted in England and are now serving their sentences in Northern Ireland? I refer especially to Shane Paul O'Docherty, who has now served 10 years of a sentence, and clearly comes into the category that the Secretary of State has referred to. He was drawn into terrorist activities at a very young age, but is now repentant of his activities and should be released.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not discuss individual cases in the House. I am aware of the significant number of representations that have been made on behalf of that prisoner.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said, and also what the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said about Private Thain. However, is it not the case that none of the prisoners whom my right hon. Friend has released has returned' to crime, which is in contrast to such cases as two of the three people killed in Gibraltar who had—under the remission system—served sentences of imprisonment and returned to the IRA ranks? Will my right hon. Friend look at the question of remission? Will he also look with vigiliance and sympathy at those cases of persons detained at his pleasure?

Mr. King

I confirm the first part of my hon. Friend's comments. My understanding is that none of those who were detained at the Secretary of State's pleasure, and then released, have been convicted of further offences. I understand the worry about remission and the re-involvement of people in crime. It is a matter of concern to us.

Mr. William Ross

Will the Secretary of State tell us how many released prisoners and how many who remain in prison were imprisoned for crimes committed for Loyalist or Nationalist terrorist organisations? Does he agree that many people in prison—in places like the Maze—are still under the influence of those terrorist organisations? Would it not be a good idea to move those people as soon as possible to the new prison, where the influence of terrorist organisations has diminished?

Mr. King

I shall give the exact figures to the hon. Gentleman of the division between the Loyalist terrorist organisations and the Republican terrorist organisations. However, I share his anxiety about the influence of those terrorist organisations that continues within the prisons. I am aware that a number of people in prison would dearly like to break free of such influences. I am very conscious of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. Alton

I welcome what the Secretary of State has told the House, but will he say how many cases he is actively reviewing? Will he look again at the mixed wings inside prisons, such as the Maze, and the incentives that are given to people to leave paramilitary wings to go into the mixed wings and be weaned away from terrorism and the terrorist organisations?

Mr. King

The House is aware that I am at this moment considering whether to conduct a further special review of prisoners who remain detained at the Secretary of State's pleasure. However, I have no comment to make on that, as no decision has been made. The hon. Gentleman is aware of our policy on moving people into mixed wings. We are anxious to promote it. We are aware that one of the tragedies of Northern Ireland is the number of people who find it difficult to escape the intimidation and the threats that the terrorist organisations impose on their members. One of the most unpleasant aspects of the present situation is the number of appallingly vicious punishment shootings and beatings that are taking place. That is clear evidence of the intimidation that is going on.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the right hon. Gentleman keep in mind that there is support in both sections of the community for the release scheme? Will he also keep in mind that if these prisoners had been of age and had been sentenced in the courts, many of them would have been freed long ago? It is unfair that, because they were then under-age, they are now serving long stretches of imprisonment, whereas if they had been over age, they would already have been released. What the right hon. Gentleman has done is welcome, but we should like him to go further and consider the proposition that I have put to him about the length of sentences.

Mr. King

I am aware of the support from both sides of the community. As we know, the prisoners in question come from both extremes of the community. I know that that concern is widely shared.

I do not accept in full the hon. Gentleman's point, which could be widely misunderstood, because whether those prisoners receive life sentences or are detained at the Secretary of State's pleasure—both categories are reviewed—the criteria of appropriate sentencing in terms of retribution and the risk to the public of release are taken into account in similar ways.

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