HC Deb 04 March 1992 vol 205 cc313-9 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Brooke)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on Lord Colville's report on the management of paramilitary prisoners in Belfast prison. Before dealing with the substance of his report, which is published today, I should like to express my thanks to my noble Friend Lord Colville for the thoroughness and speed with which he carried out a very difficult task.

The House will recall the tragic events which gave rise to his review. On 24 November last a device exploded in the dining hall in C wing in Belfast prison. One prisoner was killed outright, another mortally wounded, and several others less seriously injured. The efforts of staff in rendering first aid immediately after the explosion were in the highest traditions of the Northern Ireland prison service and earned the thanks of the relatives of the prisoners who died. On 26 November the Provisional IRA admitted responsibility for the outrage.

Three inquiries were established: a murder investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which continues; and an internal and necessarily confidential review of security procedures in the prison by a senior official of the prison service. Most of its recommendations have been implemented and decisions on the others will be made shortly. The third strand was Lord Colville's inquiry into the operational policy for the management of prisoners of opposing factions in Belfast prison.

The central conclusion of his report is strongly against further segregation within the prison system. It also recommends: that, in Belfast prison, numbers in A wing, the only wing at present housing exclusively paramilitary prisoners, should be reduced; that, out of concern for visitors' safety, those prisoners should have separate visiting arrangements; and that time on remand in custody awaiting trial should be reduced, his preferred method being that the powers in section 8 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 should be used.

I accept the report. I shall comment on each of the recommendations in turn. First, the question of segregation. Lord Colville brings out very clearly the increased risks posed to security by segregation. He says: All the lessons from history suggest that segregation facilitates escapes, and escapes will give freedom to paramilitary fanatics, of both factions, who will kill and maim outside prison. On security grounds 1 am satisfied that Lord Colville's recommendation is right.

Moreover, I am also satisfied that segregation would make it more difficult to offer constructive regimes for inmates, as it already has at the Maze. It would constrain the flexible and effective use of the available accommodation. The opportunity which segregation would provide the paramilitaries to reinforce their cohesiveness within the prison would have an adverse effect on the morale and self-esteem of staff.

I turn now to the reduction of numbers in A wing. There are obvious advantages in keeping untried prisoners together in a more central location. I am pleased to tell the House that the governor can implement this recommendation within the next few weeks, when the necessary construction work will have been completed, without the need to move those prisoners out of Belfast prison.

The recommendation on separate visits is not free from difficulty, but Lord Colville believes that the change is justified in the interests of the safety of visitors, and I have concluded that it should for that reason be accepted.

The case for cutting down remand times has always been strong. Lord Colville concludes that it is now unanswerable and I accept that conclusion. Delays in these cases are, of course, inextricably linked to the terrorist situation, which gravely complicates the investigation of crime and the criminal process as a whole. But it is not acceptable that people should remain for long periods without a trial. Together with my ministerial colleagues, I am urgently considering how the very real problems which exist might best be resolved so that those unacceptable delays can be overcome.

Segregation remains a key objective of the paramilitaries. In resisting campaigns by both factions, prison governors and their staff have implemented the policy of successive Administrations. There now have been three major reports by respected and independent figures which say that segregation is wrong. Lord Gardiner, in his report published in January 1975 on measures to deal with terrorism, recommended that special category status—segregation writ large—should be ended and that the influence of the terrorist leaders must be reduced. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir James Hennessy, in his 1984 report into the Maze escape of the previous year was in no doubt about the increased threat to security posed by segregation. Lord Colville, having taken evidence from a wide range of people, has come to the same conclusion.

My predecessors accepted the recommendations of Gardiner and Hennessy and I, in turn, have concluded that I should accept the recommendations of Lord Colville. I do not believe that it would be acceptable to this House for the clear stand which has been taken over the years against segregation to be set aside as a result of paramilitary violence and in the face of unequivocal advice from three such distinguished sources and the powerful arguments that they have deployed.

The bomb explosion in C wing in Belfast was an act of terrorism no different from the murder of workmen at Teebane or the killing of people who happened to be in a betting shop at the wrong time. None of those events will deflect the Government from what they believe to be in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I thank the Secretary of State for coming quickly to the House to make this statement.

Before I deal with the content of the statement, my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) has asked me to convey his apologies for his absence this afternoon. He was on his way to the airport this morning when he came upon ,the scene of the foul murder of one of his constituents, who was known to him. He has asked me to express his horror at such a vicious killing—a horror tht I know the House shares. My hon. Friend was looking forward particularly to making his observations on Lord Colville's important report.

Lord Colville was asked to produce his report in the aftermath of another vile act of savagery within Belfast prison. We owe him our thanks for the thoroughness and rigour of his report—qualities which we have come to expect from him. We welcome the fact that the Government have been prepared to accept his recommendations so quickly and largely in full. Our only regret is that the Government have been unable to follow a similar course with many other recommendations that Lord Colville has made about other issues associated with prisons in Northern Ireland.

It is also proper on such an occasion that we should pay tribute to the staff of Belfast prison. They have to work in very primitive conditions, in a highly charged and emotional atmosphere. The staff, at all levels, conduct their difficult task with bravery and dedication. We should pay them proper respect for doing a job that many in the House and within the country would not be happy to carry out.

A number of questions arise from the report and the incident that gave rise to it. The Opposition are glad that the Secretary of State has decided to accept the recommendations. In particular, we are pleased that he will use his powers to reduce remand periods, a course of action that we have urged on him and his predecessors for quite some time. What time limits is he considering? Will he flesh out what he said about the discussions that he will be having with his ministerial colleagues? The House and the country would like further information on this because the reasons for these long periods of remand in Northern Ireland give rise to many accusations.

Will the Secretary of State accept that the physical state of Her Majesty's prison in Belfast, despite recent improvements, is still very much a blot on the face of the Northern Ireland prison service? We know that much money is being spent and many improvements are to be made, but it is still an old, expensive, badly designed prison, which will always cause problems not only for the prisoners but for the staff.

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that prisoners will be kept in humane, secure, sanitary and safe conditions? Will he assure the House that he will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that this is the case? Lord Colville spoke about the best of private practice in Humberside. Will the Secretary of State be able to establish the same sort of regime in Belfast prison, as we shall ensure that it is maintained in the Humberside prison once it is brought back into public control?

Mr. Brooke

I know that the House would want to respond to the apology that the hon. Gentleman made on behalf of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). I am sure that the House will join the hon. Gentleman in his condemnation of the murder of Mr. Gray in County Armagh this morning.

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman thanked my noble Friend Lord Colville, as I did. I am particularly grateful for his tribute to the prison staff in Belfast prison and throughout the prison service in Northern Ireland. It was my privilege to meet a number of the staff who were directly involved in the incident after it occurred, and I join the hon. Gentleman in his admiration for the work that they do.

It will take a little time to conclude our examination of the various steps that we can take to improve the remand period. Some steps have been taken and we can take further steps, but I would not want to be drawn today on how we can determine the target times. I have accepted the spirit of Lord Colville's recommendation.

As to the improvements to Belfast prison, it is known that a rehabilitation of it is envisaged, but that is necessarily somewhat more for the longer term. As to Lord Colville's recommendation to which the governor has reacted, the consideration that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will have been taken into account in the rearrangements made.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The Secretary of State will know that we wish to be associated with his tributes to the prison staff and to Lord Colville.

On the basic principle of segregation, the Secretary of State will know that we agree with Lord Colville. Nevertheless, as the Secretary of State will also know, there is a de facto separation in A wing. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that prisoners there will not be compelled to mix?

As to the general position of the prisoners, the right hon. Gentleman will know of the general condition in the prison, and that the length of time that people spend on remand is crucial. I have seen plans for the refurbishment that the prison governor wishes to take place and for the restructuring of the cells, and I hope that the Secretary of State will accept the prison governor's ideas and implement them as soon as possible. When will refurbishment take place?

We accept Lord Colville's views on time limits for remand, and his view that the Scottish model is the best one to follow is right. What is the problem with regard to the length of time on remand? Lord Colville says that delays are not caused by lack of prosecuting counsel, that there is no shortage of court accommodation, and that delays are not caused by requests for a particular defence counsel. What, then, is the problem?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's tribute to Lord Colville and the prison staff. His first question related to the de facto arrangements within Belfast prison. Following representations in 1990 by certain public representatives, the Government introduced new unlock arrangements to reduce the possibility of confrontation between the factions. Those involve staff making an assumption about which faction will accept the offer of exercise or evening association. Those sensible and pragmatic arrangements fall far short of segregation, and I confirm that the position will remain as the hon. Gentleman asked.

The hon. Gentleman asked about remand times. When the enabling powers on the application of statutory time limits to which I referred in my statement were taken in 1987—they were renewed in 1991—the then Minister of State said that the Government would have to be confident that any scheme was unlikely to have the effect of procuring the release on bail, or even the discharge, of a person indicted for serious terrorist crime. That prospect was still a possibility when the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 was debated, and it remains so today. Therefore, that consideration will weigh with us in examining the issue.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the difficulty of raising the time limit. Several conditions will apply. He will know from his research that the number of weeks on remand had been falling and that the trend then reversed. One of the questions that we have been asking ourselves is why that change occurred. The upsurge in terrorist violence since 1989 greatly complicated investigations by the RUC and has resulted in a number of complex, multi-defendant trials, which largely negated the effectiveness of our initiatives.

There is no value judgment in what I am saying—I am simply being descriptive. Additional factors have been the increasing tendency of the defence to challenge police notes, and to request ESDA—electrostatic data analysis —tests and the problems experienced by the RUC in interviewing witnesses in certain areas.

I reiterate that the issues responsible for the delay in remand times are being considered urgently in the light of the reversal of the trend.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

I join in the expressions of thanks to Lord Colville for his report and to the prison staff for their excellent work in difficult circumstances.

There is a real problem with lengthy remands in custody. Has the Secretary of State noticed that, when a case comes to trial, the defendant or defendants sometimes plead guilty at that late stage? Can discussions take place to ensure that, if a defendant is to plead guilty, his case is brought before the court as quickly as possible?

Mr. Brooke

I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's question. It may be helpful to the House if I list the administrative measures that have been introduced in the past few years to help reduce waiting times. They include: a review of the organisation and staffing levels in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, relevant sections of the RUC and the Northern Ireland forensic science laboratory; the establishment of a fast stream to identify and take forward cases that can be brought to trial relatively quickly; the appointment of a presiding judge at Belfast Crown court to oversee the listing of cases, and two additional High Court judges, one additional county court judge and 12 additional Queen's counsel, significantly increasing the number of senior counsel available for criminal cases.

In answer to the question by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I should have said that the major building work at Belfast prison is in preparation. The Government are taking it seriously, but I do not wish to commit myself to the precise moment at which it will be done.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I also wish to express my appreciation of the work of Lord Colville and my satisfaction at the fact that the Secretary of State has been able to accept Lord Colville's recommendations. I am glad that the Secretary of State is working towards implementing the remand recommendations, while understanding the difficulties. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to report progress to the House as soon as he can?

The Secretary of State referred to the internal and necessarily confidential inquiry into security procedures, and said that decisions were expected shortly. Naturally, I do not ask him to reveal the nature of those recommendations, but can he say whether there has been full consultation with the prison staff, both about matters that may have been thrown up by the security inquiry and about the implications of the intentions regarding the numbers in A wing? Have they met with the understanding and backing of the staff?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said about Lord Colville. I shall as soon as possible vouchsafe further information on the recommendations on remand times that we are considering. Most of the recommendations of the internal security review at the prison have been implemented. Unless we are prepared to countenance draconian measures that would seriously and adversely affect the quality of life for all prisoners and their visitors, absolute security cannot be guaranteed.

The prison service has rightly earned praise, both in the Province and elsewhere, for the overall quality of the regime that it provides. Neither it nor I wish to make life less tolerable for the many because of the actions of the few. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the prison service has always made it clear that it will seek properly to carry out the Government's decisions about the prison regime.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I am all for integration, as distinct from segregation, in Northern Ireland, but is not relative integration among paramilitary prisons presenting many problems? The significant point in Lord Colville's reports seems to be that, if groups are segregated, it leads to cohesion within them, which means that escapes and other activities are more likely. Relative integration begins to break that down. Are there not other methods, apart from relative integration, to break down that cohesion?

Mr. Brooke

I think that the central point of Lord Colville's report is that segregation makes the planning of escapes easier. The fact that those held on remand in Belfast prison are prisoners who have recently been arrested and whom the paramilitaries would particularly like to have outside prison reinforces Lord Colville's recommendation, to which I think the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) gave support.

Separation is a word that has been quoted as the antithesis to segregation, perhaps along the lines mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. The governor has already introduced sensible arrangements to reduce the chances of confrontation. It is significant that the prisoners to whom Lord Colville spoke drew no distinction between separation and segregation.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

My colleagues and I should like to express our sympathy to the relatives of the person most recently murdered in Northern Ireland. We have repeatedly condemned violence, terrorism and murder. The report came about partly as a result of the murder of one of my constituents in Belfast prison, which naturally heightened concern among prisoners and their relatives outside prison for the safety of prisoners.

What progress has been made to date in tracking down those responsible for the bomb and the murder? Does the Secretary of State agree that the safety of prisoners and prison staff remains paramount? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that every effort is made as quickly as possible to improve the conditions under which prisoners have to remain in Belfast prison?

Mr. Brooke

I know that the whole House will wish to join me in agreeing with the sympathy expressed by the hon. Gentleman for the family of his constituent who was killed in the incident concerned.

On the question both of the security of prisoners and of the safety of prison staff, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, there can be no guarantee of absolute security —as I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan).

All prison governors take practical and reasonable steps to discharge their duty of care. However, segregation does not guarantee safety; the two prisoners murdered in prison were segregated. Most of the recommendations of the internal security review of Belfast prison have been implemented. I recognise that that mainly concerns prisoners, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that it also concerns prison officers.

I referred in my statement to the Royal Ulster Constabulary investigation into the murder of the hon. Gentleman's constituent. That investigation is continuing, and the RUC hopes to bring it to a conclusion.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leigh)

As I understand it, republican terrorist groups get their arms and explosives from the middle east and America. Will the right hon. Gentleman have a quiet word with the Governments concerned, and especially with George Bush, about that matter? Where do the loyalist terrorists get their arms—and, more importantly, what are the Government doing about it?

Mr. Brooke

I would not want to be confrontational towards the hon. Gentleman, but if he wants to make charges about the American Government providing military assistance to anybody within the island of Ireland, it would be better if he presented his evidence privately to me before making such accusations in the House.

The Semtex involved in the episode on which I made my statement today is widely thought to have come in the pre-Eksund consignment from the Libyan Government to the IRA. We should look in that direction for the source of the offence in this instance.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

During the urgent considerations to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, would he be prepared to accept any useful suggestion from those of us who come across fairly regular information in the course of our constituency duties?

Mr. Brooke

If any right hon. or hon. Gentleman wishes to be of assistance privately in that way, the Government would be happy to receive such help and advice.