HC Deb 02 April 1990 vol 170 cc903-12 4.11 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Waddington)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the serious violence in Manchester prison.

At about 11 am yesterday, some 300 prisoners attending a service in the chapel attacked the staff present and took keys from them, and the staff were then forced to withdraw. The prisoners broke out of the roof of the chapel and gained access to the main prison, where a large number of inmates had been unlocked from cells to be served with their midday meal. These joined the chapel rioters, and violence spread quickly to the remand wing. Staff then had to be withdrawn from all the living areas in the prison, for their own safety. Some 120 prisoners in the hospital, who were taking exercise at the time, were, however, secured and took no part in the disturbance.

Meanwhile, prisoners in the living area began to destroy the roof and internal fittings. Staff were forced back away from the buildings by volleys of slates and other missiles, and fires were lit inside the prison. The emergency services were quickly in attendance and police were deployed outside the prison. No prisoners escaped. During the afternoon about 500 prisoners gave themselves up and during the evening and night more surrendered.

My latest information is that some 119 prisoners have yet to surrender, while 69 prisoners remain in the hospital and other parts of the prison, safe and under control. Prison officers regained control of the remand wings of the prison this morning. Some 1,363 prisoners have been sent to other prisons, and 95 are in police cells, as a result of most remarkable work by the prison service and the police.

There have been widespread but conflicting stories from surrendering prisoners about the violence which took place in the early afternoon and claims that a number of prisoners are dead. It has not been possible to confirm these stories and, to date, no bodies have been discovered, but the possibility that fatalities have occurred cannot be ruled out. The general picture is of prisoners indulging in violence on other prisoners, the full consequences of which remain to be discovered.

Nine of the surrendering prisoners claim to have been forcibly injected with drugs, and eight admit to having taken drugs voluntarily. Twenty-four prisoners are in outside hospitals, one with serious head injuries and one with a punctured lung. None is considered now to be in danger. I say again that those injuries seem to be the result of violence meted out by prisoner on prisoner. Twelve prison officers were injured and had to be taken to hospital. They have all been released.

I pay tribute to the commendable bravery shown by the prison officers, who were faced with a fierce and savage onslaught, and to the courageous leadership of the governor and his senior staff. I also express our gratitude to the police for their swift response and their help later in moving prisoners from the gaol. I thank also the fire service and the ambulance service for their help.

This is clearly a dreadful incident, all the more serious in the light of all that we have been trying to do to reduce the pressures on the prison system and to improve conditions.

The prison population nationally is now more than 2,100 lower than at the same time last year, and total expenditure on the prison service has risen by 20 per cent. in real terms in the past 12 months. As the House knows, we are engaged in a policy designed to keep out of prison those who do not need to be there, a programme of refurbishment of existing establishments, and a building programme, in which eight of the 28 prisons in the programme have already been completed. By 1992–93, we shall have provided more than 10,000 new prison places and, but for incidents like this, overcroding would have been a thing of the past.

Judge Stephen Tumim, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, wrote in his recent report on Manchester prison published last week: life at Manchester is a great deal nearer what it should be, both for staff and inmates, than it was some two years ago", and he commended the governor and staff for the improvements that they were achieving. He concluded his report by saying: There was much more to praise than to decry in an establishment clearly going in the right direction and with an optimistic momentum". Sadly, the short-term consequences of this incident will be to worsen conditions elsewhere just when real improvements were flowing from the combined effects of our policies on criminal justice and the prison building programme.

By a cruel irony, negotiations have only recently been concluded with Manchester city council for the purchase of land for a major redevelopment of the prison. A new hospital was opened last year and the first 28 cells have been fitted with integral sanitation as part of a rolling programme. The population of the prison has dropped significantly since mid-1988. Last year, the number of prisoners held three to a cell had fallen by over 300 to only 123 out of the total population of over 1,600.

Clearly, there will have to be a thorough inquiry into this extremely serious incident. Because the incident is not yet concluded, I do not believe that the precise nature of the inquiry or who should lead it should be determined now, but 1 will inform the House as soon as I have reached a decision.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

May I first offer our sympathy to the prison officers, police officers and firemen who were injured during the Strangeways riot, and congratulate those public services on the invariable bravery and occasional heroism with which they discharged their duties yesterday?

It is our long-standing belief that the recurring crisis in our prisons is the consequence of overcrowding, which results from too many custodial sentences and too little punishment within the community. As the Government, in their criminal justice White Paper, belatedly accepted that view, I shall do no more than set out that principle as the mutually agreed background to the Strangeways disturbance. My detailed questions concern prison conditions, available manpower and preparedness—about none of which the Home Secretary thought it wise to inform the House in his statement.

Much was made at the weekend, and again today, of the chief inspector of prisons' report, which complimented the staff of Strangeways on their dedication. I am happy to repeat that compliment, but does the Home Secretary acknowledge that the same report notes that the treatment of prisoners leaves much to be desired and describes the prison's buildings as "awful"? Eighty-two of the cells that the Victorians intended for single habitation are each occupied by three prisoners, and 296 single habitation cells are each occupied by two prisoners. Prisoners are confined to their cells for all but 11 hours each week, and are allowed only one shower and one change of clothing a week. On many occasions last year, not even that was possible. The cell blocks have no modern sanitation, and even men living three to a cell are required to slop out. If we treat men like animals, we ought not to be surprised if they behave like animals.

Will the Home Secretary confirm that there were 30 fewer prison officers on duty yesterday than would have been the case had new staffing levels not been imposed on prisons by the Home Office after the "fresh start" policy came into operation? How many officers were on duty yesterday? Does the Home Secretary regard that number, whatever it was, as adequate in the light of warnings of a disturbance that I understand the Home Office received?

Were messages passed to the governor warning that a major demonstration was likely to take place at the weekend? If so, what action was taken? Were demonstrators on the roof earlier last week? If so, did not the Home Office regard that a sign of trouble to come?

Were prisoners due to be taken to court on Tuesday kept in the prison because of the fear of disturbances? If so, why did not the Home Office regard that as an indication of possible future disturbances? Is it not a fact that the Home Office—not the governor or his staff—failed hopelessly in its management of the prison and neglected its duty to prepare for disturbances that it should have anticipated? Its failures are the direct responsibility of the Home Secretary and of his inadequate policies for staffing prisons and for the conditions within them.

Mr. Waddington

I do find it extraordinary that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) addresses those remarks to me without including a word of condemnation of the prisoners who have done immense damage, and thereby set back the work of improving the prison estate, and who indulged in an orgy of violence against their fellow inmates. The right hon. Gentleman might have addressed his mind to those aspects just for one moment.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to congratulate prison officers on their bravery and to echo my own sentiments, but I am not sure that he is entitled to talk about prison overcrowding when the Government of which he was a member did not lift a finger to do anything about it. The right hon. Gentleman is way off the mark when he talks as though our criminal justice White Paper dealt only with new thinking and not with the development of ideas that had been put into practice in previous years.

The range of non-custodial sentences has greatly increased in recent years. As a consequence, we greatly increased also staffing of the probation service, which now has 1,200 more probation officers than in 1979. Our White Paper was the culmination, not the start, of a policy that has resulted in probably the best community service regimes in the world. Incidentally, it has helped to bring about a large reduction in the prison population in the past two years.

What absolute nonsense it is to talk about us addressing ourselves to the criminal justice system just now, when back in 1982 we put through the House the Criminal Justice Act, which had a dramatic effect on the number of young people given custodial sentences.

I agree that the prison leaves much to be desired. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, much of our prison estate is composed of prisons built in the 19th century. I have already said that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues never addressed that problem when they were in office.

There were 10 prison officers on duty that morning in the chapel, and I gather that that is the normal number of officers to be on duty. The right hon. Gentleman made remarks about the regime for prisoners in Strangeways. In recent times, that regime has been greatly improved. In the week ending 17 March, the average weekly hours of activity for inmates in Workers Educational Association courses, and physical education was 22.73 hours for convicted adults, 10.61 hours for remands and 12.35 hours for convicted young offenders. For the equivalent week a year ago, the figures were 12.79, 5.28 and 9.19 hours respectively.

It is nonsense to paint a picture of no progress being made in Strangeways. It is because progress has been made that Judge Tumim was able to make his remarks in his recent report.

I know of no warning given to the prison staff of trouble. Two prisoners went up on the roof during last week, but they were not accompanied or encouraged by any of the other inmates, and no doubt the judgment made was that it was a minor demonstration by two prisoners. That was the end of it.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

But surely the Home Secretary and his predecessors must have been made aware by the Prison Officers Association that Strangeways prison was a powder keg that could explode at any time. After this bitter and tragic experience, does he now agree that the association has been proved right and that the Home Office is now accused of criminal negligence? The Government's policy on prisons, like Strangeways, is now in ruins.

Mr. Waddington

The trouble with the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that they simply to not fit the facts. They do not fit with the improvements in the regime at Strangeways during recent times. If the hon. Gentleman is addressing his remarks to the allocation of staffing, I should say that there has been no difficulty in posting sufficient staff to Manchester. All the framework agreement staff required for a reduction in prison officers' hours for the beginning of this month have already been posted to Manchester. Further staff are due to be posted in the next 12 months.

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

Would not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we really must do something about such Victorian prisons? Does he not feel that it is inhuman to keep three prisoners cooped up in a cell all day? Although I admit that the Government are doing a great deal, we must give an even higher priority to getting rid of those old prisons. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is very sad that such a tragic situation has arisen under a governor who has done so much in his three years of office?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that there is any truth in the press reports that the scenes of violence we saw on Saturday, which must have been seen on the television screens in that prison, helped to spark off some of the violence there?

Mr. Waddington

I do not honestly know the answer to the last question, but it is certainly true that those who indulge in irresponsible violence may well encourage others to do so, particularly if what they do appears on television. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that the Government have embarked on the largest prison building programme this century. Of a total of 28 prisons in the programme, eight are already open, 14 are at various stages of design and construction, and it is planned for building to commence on another two between 1991 and 1993. That leaves a balance of four prisons, the location and commencement date for construction of which has yet to be decided.

The sadness of it all is that last autumn we were able to announce some diversion of resources from new prison building to refurbishment. I attach the greatest importance to a programme to get rid of slopping out as soon as possible, but when such an event as this takes place, it makes it much more difficult to achieve that to which we have bent all our efforts.

It is an absolute tragedy that this should have occurred now, because we were getting rid of overcrowding, as a result of a combination of fewer people being sent to prison and more prisons being built. At the same time, we were embarked on a big programme of refurbishment. We shall now have to do some new thinking, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we still attach a great deal of importance to improving this country's prison estate.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

How long does the Home Secretary expect the prison to be out of action, or largely out of action? What extra help is being given to the prisons to which prisoners from Strangeways have been evacuated? What is happening to those prisoners who were mentally ill and inappropriately accommodated at Strangeways? What additional help is going to the hospitals now trying to cope with those who were injured in the violence? When does the Home Secretary expect to make a further statement about the reports of deaths during this tragic and violent weekend?

Mr. Waddington

Obviously, I shall have to sum up the position when events develop. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman would expect me to say more than that now. I said in my statement that the police and prison officers had worked valiantly overnight to move a large number of prisoners to different establishments up and down the country. I was amazed to see the scale of the task which they had set themselves and the amazing way in which they had achieved the movement of such a large number of people.

I cannot be expected to say now exactly where all the people are, whether they should remain there or whether they should be moved to other establishments once the emergency has been sorted out. The fairest thing I can suggest is for the right hon. Gentleman to write to me and, if particular cases worry him, I shall ensure that he is kept informed about them as much as possible.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

As my constituency is only two miles up the road from Strangeways, may I say how appalled my constituents will be that, in this delicate and dangerous situation, the shadow Home Secretary should seek to make a political issue of the matter? I join my right hon. and learned Friend in paying tribute to the courage of the police and prison officers who have ensured that the matter has been kept entirely within the prison and not a single prisoner has escaped.

Mr. Waddigton

I am grateful to my hon. friend for his remarks. He is right to congratulate both the prison officers and the police on the work that they have done.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the answer which he gave his hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, suggesting that new thinking would be necessary, is right and welcome? Does he also accept that the brutalising vengengefulness displayed this weekend, and the suicidal despair in other prisons, shows that this event is part of a pattern of behaviour in Victorian prisons in inner cities, and that we simply must accelerate the penal reform to which he and his colleagues have set their minds? Does he also accept that he must undertake to move that reform into a higher gear?

Mr. Waddington

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was accusing us, or could accuse us, of having done nothing. We inherited a dilapidated prison estate on which not a penny had been spent for many years, and we embarked on this massive prison-building programme. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of our criminal justice reforms. I hope that a Criminal Justice Bill may be in the programme for the next Session, but that is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, although my constituents have considerable sympathy for the working conditions of prison officers and for remand prisoners who may be held for lengthy periods while unconvicted, they have scant sympathy for convicted prisoners who are, by and large, in prison because of their own actions? Bearing in mind the improvements that we have made in the prison in recent years, will my right hon. and learned friend assure us that prisoners who are identified as having taken part in the riot will be properly punished and disciplined; and will he ensure that sympathy for the conditions will not outweigh proper condemnation of the prisoner's actions?

Mr. Waddington

I think it is important to condemn their action. That is why I took up this matter with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). This is not a case of prisoners going on the rampage and destroying their own property; it is a case of prisoners going on the rampage and attacking fellow prisoners. The full history of this matter has yet to be disclosed, but clearly, serious offences have been committed. I agree with my hon. Friend that they must all be investigated and that the guilty people must be brought to justice.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

While one recognises all the difficulties of yesterday, will the Home Secretary recognise the anguish of many of the families of people who were in the prison? A 17-year-old constituent of mine was in the prison, and his parents were unable to obtain any information about him. Can the Minister assure the House that all the families of people who have been moved will know where they have been moved to, and that every effort will be made to ensure that families are put out of their anguish, especially in view of the concern caused by the unconfirmed rumours of deaths in the prison?

Mr. Waddington

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is right, in the sense that we do not want people to be unnecessarily anxious. We shall give as much information as we can as quickly as possible.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

My right hon. and learned Friend will no doubt appreciate Conservative Members' condemnation of the monstrous behaviour of the prisoners. Does he agree that one of the major problems in any prison is the segregation of sexual offenders from those who want to assault them and beat them up? Can he confirm this morning's press reports that many of the victims of the assault were sexual offenders who were under protection under rule 43?

Mr. Waddington

I cannot confirm that now.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

While recognising the great difficulties that there must have been arranging transfers to other prisons, may I ask the Home Secretary whether he is satisfied that a prison such as Armley in Leeds, which is already overcrowded and in which there have been many suicides in recent years, is equipped to receive the reported 100 prisoners who have been transferred there? Has he arranged for more prison officers to cope with the problem?

Mr. Waddington

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise that it has been quite difficult to keep up with events over the past 24 hours. I do not have an up-to-date list of where the prisoners who have been moved have gone. As I told the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), we shall give as much information as we can as soon as possible, and we shall try to accommodate prisoners where there is room for them and make the best possible arrangements in the difficult circumstances that have arisen.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

My right hon. and learned Friend said in his opening remarks that this incident would worsen conditions elsewhere. We have an exceptionally well run prison in Lancaster with high morale. When I rang it this morning, I was told that it has had no prisoners sent from Strangeways. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do his best to ensure that this excellent prison is not disrupted and mayhem created by the transfer of prisoners from Strangeways, who would undo the work of decades?

Mr. Waddington

Obviously I do not want to see the work of any prison disrupted as a result of this, but accommodation has to be found for these prisoners. If my hon. Friend will keep in touch with me, I shall do my best to keep her up to date. I do not know how many prisoners, if any, have gone to Lancaster.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Again, I have to say to the House that we have a very heavy day ahead of us and as the Home Secretary has said, a further report will be made on this matter. I will allow three more questions from each side and then I am afraid we must move on.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

May I draw the Home Secretary's attention to the main theme that seems to be coming through—that of overcrowding? He will know that, from time to time, we write to his Department about prisoners on remand who are often not guilty but awaiting trial. Some of them wait for weeks and sometimes months, and that is one of the reasons for the grave overcrowding. Will the Home Secretary do all in his power to bring about a speedier trials procedure?

We understand that millions of pounds' worth of damage has been caused to buildings, and that most of the prison will be out of commission for many months. The prison is located in the central area of Manchester, which is highly congested. Is it not time to reconsider relocating Strangeways away from that locality and getting rid once and for all of this Victorian pigsty?

Mr. Waddington

I have heard of the hon. Gentleman's last suggestion, but his language is rather exaggerated. One has only to read Judge Tumim's report to see the marvellous work carried out by the governor and staff, which over years has brought about significant improvements in Strangeways. I was a frequent visitor to Strangeways when I practised in Manchester, but I have not been there in the last few months.

The hon. Gentleman asked about remands in custody. He should bear in mind that in recent years there has rightly been a very big fall in the number of remands in custody. Advances such as bail information schemes have contributed to that. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General reminds me that there is now a time limit in Manchester, which results in people not having to wait as long as they used to for an appearance in court. There is a time limit of 112 days between committal and trial.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, from the moment our right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) became Prime Minister, we have had a most massive building programme for prisons? It was started by Lord Whitelaw and continued by successive Home Secretaries. [Interruption.] Well, at least the Prime Minister stayed through both statements, which is more than can be said of the Leader of the Opposition. Our Government have nothing to answer for in terms of prison building and improvements, and we take no lessons from the Opposition.

I congratulate the police service in Rochdale and Oldham on dispatching officers immediately. I was watching a police parade there at the time. The special constabulary covered for the officers who left. That was a good effort. I congratulate all the police officers, the prison officers and the members of the ambulance and fire services for their efforts.

Mr. Waddington

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his congratulations and I shall, of course, pass them on, together with those that have come from all parts of the House. Obviously he is right when he says that we have no lessons to learn from the Opposition about the state of our prisons.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

May I also express my concern about the possible implications of the situation at Strangeways for other prisons, such as Wakefield prison in my constituency, which has had major staffing difficulties since the introduction of the "fresh start" arrangement? Will the Home Secretary seek assurances as soon as possible that prisoners have not been transferred from Strangeways to other overcrowded establishments, and that prison officers from establishments such as that at Wakefield, which have staffing difficulties, have not been transferred to Strangeways?

Mr. Waddington

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait a day or two until we can see exactly how people have been distributed. I am sure that, if he rings my office, we will keep him in touch with events and give him as much information as we can.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that, when the inquiry that he has announced takes place, there will be a thorough investigation into the role of hard drugs in this disgraceful incident? Is it not an indictment of the present system that hard drugs are available? Will he undertake to introduce any measures to curb the availability of such drugs?

Mr. Waddington

I must make one thing absolutely plain to my hon. Friend. It is by no means clear that any of the drugs that were injected got into the prison illicitly. The dispensary was broken into, and we will of course have to investigate whether all the drugs used came from there. That may well be the case.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will the Home Secretary consider extending his inquiry into the prision riots to Durham gaol, where, over the past two years, four prisoners have committed suicide and I believe that one is the subject of a murder charge?

Mr. Waddington

Her Majesty's inspector of prisons is presently carrying out an inquiry into suicides in prison. This is an important matter, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to make any submissions to me I shall see that they are passed to Judge Tumim.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry that it has not been possible to call all those who wish to ask questions, but I shall certainly bear them in mind when we return to this matter. I call Sir Geoffrey Howe—

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am on my feet. We have a Standing Order No. 20 application.

4.46 pm
Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

I beg to seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 20 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the critical situation at Strangeways prison, Manchester. For a long time, concern has been expressed by prison officers, Members of Parliament and many other interested groups that unless the conditions of overcrowding, undermanning, bad sanitation and boredom were not drastically dealt with, the prison could face a crisis which the prison officers could not contain. Time and again devoted officers have drawn attention to the matter by appealing to the Home Office to face the reality and take a realistic view of the immense pressures and stress endured at Strangeways prison.

Against their better judgment, prison officers took industrial action by refusing to allow further prisoners to enter Strangeways. That was an attempt to highlight the severe problems of overcrowding at that gaol. The prison has always had the full support and good will of those officers, who have been badly let down by the Home Office. One senior officer once told me that one day, possibly at a weekend when the prison is most vulnerable, the prisoners would come through the walls and the prison would be lost. Yesterday in the area of Strangeways prison, I saw that sad prediction becoming a reality. The prison was lost, perhaps for ever.

For the sake of every other outmoded and outdated prison in this country, let us learn from the serious events at Strangeways and recognise that, unless the elements of riot are eradicated, we may again see distressing scenes like those that we saw in Manchester yesterday.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter which he believes should have urgent consideration, namely, the riot at Her Majesty's prison, Strangeways. I have listened with care to what the hon. Member said about this matter. As he knows, I have to decide whether his application comes within the Standing Order and, if so, whether I should give it precedence over the business set down for today or tomorrow. In this case I regret that the matter that he has raised does not fall within the requirements of the Standing Order and I therefore cannot submit his application to the House. Now I will take points of order.