HC Deb 19 December 1994 vol 251 cc1397-412 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about prison security.

I am today publishing the report of Sir John Woodcock's inquiry into recent events at Her Majesty's Prison Whitemoor, and the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, His Honour Judge Tumim, of his inspection there earlier in the year.

Sir John Woodcock's report reveals a dreadful state of affairs at Whitemoor. I shall tell the House this afternoon what happened, the extent of the problems that exist, and the radical action which I believe needs to be taken to remedy them.

I turn first to what happened. On Friday, 9 September six prisoners attempted to escape from Whitemoor. The six prisoners were category A inmates who were held in the special secure unit. Shortly after eight o'clock in the evening, the prisoners, who were in possession of two guns, got out of the special secure unit and scaled the perimeter wall of the prison. A prison officer was injured by a gunshot during the escape.

All six prisoners were recaptured speedily. Four were apprehended almost immediately they got over the wall. The other two prisoners were arrested by the police about half a mile away from the prison. I pay tribute to the actions of the prison staff and police officers who apprehended these armed and dangerous men.

The following day, I appointed Sir John Woodcock, formerly Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, to conduct an inquiry. His terms of reference were: to inquire into all the circumstances surrounding the escape of six prisoners from the special secure unit of Whitemoor prison on the evening of Friday 9 September 1994; to report his conclusions to the Home Secretary; and to make recommendations on any action that should be taken to avoid a recurrence.

On 22 September, police officers conducting comprehensive searches at the prison discovered about one pound of Semtex explosive and three detonators. The find was made within a sealed storage container, which was within the perimeter of the prison but outside the special secure unit and other prison accommodation. Sir John Woodcock agreed that his inquiry should consider how those materials came into the prison.

There was an immediate need to reinforce security at Whitemoor and throughout the Prison Service. The following steps were taken for that purpose.

The special secure unit at Whitemoor was closed. An extensive programme to improve physical security at the prison was instituted, including reinforcement of the prison perimeter fence and provision of additional closed circuit cameras. That programme also includes the strengthening of the perimeter of the special secure unit itself, with additional alarm and detection devices. Additional searching facilities are being installed in the special secure unit, with an X-ray machine and metal detecting portal. The unit will not reopen until the full programme has been completed in the spring.

Full searches of all dispersal prisons holding high security prisoners were undertaken. Detailed specialist security audits were carried out at all special secure units. All prisons holding category A prisoners were instructed to ensure strict enforcement of the searching procedures that are set out in the Prison Service manual on security.

Security was reviewed at all dispersal prisons, local prisons and category B training prisons, using each establishment's security audit; and all prison governors were instructed to re-examine their physical and procedural security measures.

I turn now to the conclusions reached by Sir John Woodcock. I am extremely grateful to him, especially for the speed and thoroughness with which he conducted the inquiry.

The report conveys a devastating picture of the regime in the special secure unit at Whitemoor. Sir John concludes in paragraph 9.30: everything which could have gone wrong has in fact done so". Sir John found that tension was high at the unit from its opening in 1991. He says at paragraph 9.7: The Special Secure Unit lasted only three days from its opening before it suffered the first of many challenges from the inmates". That confrontation was about the searching of visitors, following which prisoners were allowed to get what they wanted, and that, in Sir John's words, set the tone of ensuing prison officer-inmate relationships". He went on in paragraph 9.8: The episode represented a victory for inmate power which was the foundation of more to follow". The inquiry found many loopholes in the practices and procedures adopted at the prison. Paragraph 9.4 states: At times it was difficult to find something being done in accordance with the Manuals. Sir John also found that the amount of property allowed to prisoners made the searching of cells impractical, but statistical returns purported to show that searches had been fully carried out as required by the Prison Service security manual.

The report also highlights significant management failures. Managers in the prison should have known what was going on. The report also identifies a number of instances when Prison Service headquarters failed to provide the governors with the clarity and strength of support that they had a right to expect.

My first and overriding aim is to put right that which has gone so badly wrong. The Woodcock report makes 64 recommendations under 13 headings. I accept all of them. They cover the need to improve surveillance and observation; to improve the control of prisoners' property and the searching of their cells; to tighten up security procedures for visits and the searching of staff; to improve arrangements for the transfer of inmates' property; to improve security arrangements for new prison construction; to strengthen physical security measures at Whitemoor; to use dogs more effectively; to review the procedure for opening new prisons; to review inmate privileges; to improve staff selection and training; and to improve the effectiveness of management and supervision.

Many of those recommendations either have been or are being implemented. I have asked the Prison Service to prepare by the end of January a detailed timetable for each recommendation and the Prison Service has undertaken to provide that. I intend to publish that timetable except where there are security implications.

I have also considered whether more can be done. I have concluded that it is necessary to go beyond the security recommendations contained in the report. Three additional specific measures will be taken.

First, a more systematic method of recording and evaluating intelligence and security information on staff who might present a security risk will be introduced. Advance warning is clearly one of the most effective means of preventing escape attempts. Secondly, staff in high-security units will be equipped with personal alarms. Thirdly, the walls and fences of high-security units will be reinforced further with additional alarm, detection and anti-climbing devices.

Those measures are designed to address immediately the weaknesses identified by Sir John Woodcock. But I believe that, if public confidence is to be restored, it is essential to go further. An independent assessment is needed to create that confidence. That needs to examine thoroughly every aspect of security, identify any remaining deficiencies, and ensure that they are dealt with.

I am therefore appointing General Sir John Learmont, formerly Quartermaster General for the Army, to conduct a comprehensive, independent and authoritative review of security throughout the Prison Service. His terms of reference will be, in the light of the report of the inquiry into the attempted escape from Her Majesty's Prison Whitemoor on 9 September 1994, to review physical security and security procedures in the Prison Service in England and Wales, and to make recommendations.

Sir John will start work immediately. I shall publish his findings, subject to the overriding need not to publish anything which might compromise security. He will be assisted by two expert assessors. One will be Sir John Woodcock. The other will be someone with operational experience in the Prison Service.

Sir John Woodcock's report states that only closed visits would provide completely secure conditions, but he also acknowledges that there are other factors to be taken into account. I propose to ask Sir John Learmont to consider the need for closed visits in special secure units as part of his inquiry. I am also asking Sir John to report to me in 12 months on how far the recommendations of the Woodcock report have been implemented, as Sir John Woodcock suggests should be done.

In addition to security, Sir John Woodcock's report also identifies certain practices which were part of the prison regime, but which I and most hon. Members will consider unacceptable. Those have now ceased. The abuse of telephones identified in the report has now stopped. Controls on the keeping of possessions by prisoners in special secure units have been made more rigorous. The practice of prison officers going shopping at the behest of prisoners has also stopped. Purchases will take place only through the prison canteen. Luxury items will not be allowed.

The House will recall that I am already on record as saying that prisoners must not enjoy privileges as a matter of right, but should have to earn them. The Prison Service corporate plan, which was published in April 1994, already commits the service to put such a system in place. Idle or disruptive prisoners should not enjoy exactly the same conditions as those who are diligent and co-operative. Privileges such as additional visits or extra time out of cells should be earned by good behaviour and lost by misbehaviour. The new system will be fully in place by the end of next year.

As part of that new approach, the amounts of private cash that prisoners are permitted to spend will be reduced, and in time the use of unearned private cash will be eliminated altogether.

The measures that I have announced today will deal with the problems identified in the Woodcock report—that is, those relating to security procedures in our prisons. But it is clear from the report that many, if not most, of the problems at Whitemoor arose not because procedures and instructions were not in place, but because they were not obeyed. As paragraph 9.27 of the report points out: It could be said that what the Prison Service needs to do most of all is to comply with its own written instructions. Sir John Woodcock's inquiry was not a disciplinary inquiry. Staff whom he interviewed were given an undertaking that their responses would not be used in any disciplinary proceedings. Accordingly, I now need to appoint an investigating officer to carry out a disciplinary investigation. The investigation will consider all levels of the service.

The scope of the investigation and the importance of ensuring fairness and impartiality require the appointment of a person unconnected with the Prison Service. I intend to appoint Sir David Yardley, the former local government ombudsman, to conduct the inquiry, and have today informed the unions of my intention. This inquiry will determine whether evidence exists to institute disciplinary proceedings or any other action against any member of the Prison Service.

In the light of events at Whitemoor, I have considered whether any change is necessary in the arrangements for the supervision of the Prison Service. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes: resign."] I intend to set up a new unit outside the Prison Service to strengthen Ministers' ability to supervise the performance of the Prison Service in accordance with the framework document. [Interruption.] The country will see the frivolous way in which the Labour party is reacting to these serious matters, and will reach a judgment on the fitness of the Labour party even to debate these matters.

I am also publishing today the report of the inspection of Whitemoor by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. The inspection took place in March, and the inspection report was submitted at the end of July. The chief inspector, Judge Tumim, and Sir John Woodcock agreed that the inspection report should not be published while the inquiry was in progress.

The inspection report makes recommendations to the director general, the area manager and the governor, but none to me. When the chief inspector submitted the report, he made three points to me in a covering note. I quote from that note. He said: The prison is developing satisfactory regimes despite the difficulty of having to manage two population groups which have to be kept apart. The quality of throughcare needs to be improved. Parts of the prison are very dirty. The overall conclusion in the report is that Whitemoor had opened successfully. The regime was undergoing severe testing, but its potential to become an effective prison was clear from the enthusiasm and commitment of managers and staff.

The Prison Service is today publishing its response to the inspection report. I am placing a copy in the Library. The majority of its recommendations have been accepted and are already in hand.

What happened at Whitemoor was wholly unacceptable. No one can read Sir John Woodcock's report without being shocked by the catalogue of errors which occurred. The measures I have announced today are designed to ensure effective security in our prisons. They will make the lives of the most dangerous prisoners less comfortable, but they will help to fulfil what must be the first duty of the Prison Service: to keep prisoners in secure custody. I commend them to the House.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

We fully support the recommendations that Sir John Woodcock makes in his report.

Will the Secretary of State accept that the report describes the most serious breach of prison security for over three decades? Will he also accept that, the breach having occurred, the public owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the prison officers of Whitemoor and to the police, who showed such personal courage and dedication in tackling some of the most dangerous men in Britain?

Will the Secretary of State agree that the first and most fundamental duty of a top security prison such as Whitemoor is to keep the public safe from Britain's most violent criminals; and that the Woodcock report shows that the Prison Service failed in that most basic duty?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the report lists a series of failures which simply beggar belief? They include placing staff in a position where they were manipulated and intimidated by prisoners, so that the prisoners ran the prison. They further include allowing prisoners an inordinate number of possessions which were then used to conceal hacksaw blades, knives, razor blades and a screwdriver, and which prevented prison cells from being properly searched. Inmates in the regime accumulated so much material that it took the police four days to search and log just one inmate's property during the criminal inquiry which followed the prison escape.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the Prison Service failed to provide adequate monitoring and surveillance of visits, exercise and the hobbies room, which was described as an Aladdin's cave of equipment"? Will he acknowledge that the Prison Service gave prisoners the chance to make their getaway equipment behind net curtains in the hobby room? The report describes it as by far the most disturbing and frankly quite bizarre aspect of this sorry situation? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, most disturbing of all, the service allowed the highly dangerous bomb-making explosive, Semtex, to be smuggled into the prison?

Against the background of this damning report, does not the Secretary of State understand that, after 15 years of the Conservatives posing as the party of law and order, the truth about this Government is that, while they are strong on words, they are extremely weak on action?

Surely the whole House must share my utter astonishment that, in all 46 paragraphs of the statement this afternoon, there was not a single indication that the Secretary of State was willing to accept any personal responsibility whatever for this monumental failure. [HON. MEMBERS: "How could he?"] Let me explain how he could. Will the Secretary of State accept that two different people have claimed that he was warned in advance about the situation at Whitemoor—the former chairman of the board of visitors, Mrs. Paddy Seligman, and his hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland)? Why did he not mention either of those claims in his statement?

Let us deal first with the allegations by Mrs. Seligman, who complains in her 1992 and 1993 annual reports of the extremely lax security at the prison, and of an apparent disregard by the Home Secretary of recommendations in our Annual Reports. Where those reports drawn to the attention of the Home Secretary or to any other Minister, as Mrs. Seligman claims, and what action was taken in respect of them?

Secondly, there are the even more grave allegations by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. There is no doubt that, so important did she regard the allegations, that she personally wrote to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and saw him. Does the Secretary of State now accept that he made a serious error of judgment when he wrote back to the hon. Lady, dismissing her complaint in a letter in which he justified the lavish surroundings of that high-security unit as ones which were designed to compensate to some extent for the regime inside the unit"? Did the Home Secretary not compound that error of judgment in the same letter, when he denied that the prisoners had access to a workshop, when the hobbies room was the very workshop in which the getaway equipment was made? Did he take any action following those representations, and does he now accept the claim reportedly made by the hon. Lady in The Observer o f 4 December that, had the Home Secretary acted on her warnings, the breakout might never have happened"? Will the Home Secretary concede that the delphic wording of his proposal at the end of the statement, which caused much mocking laughter a moment ago, to set up a new unit outside the Prison Service, to strengthen Ministers' ability to supervise the service, amounts to an extraordinary admission that existing arrangements for holding the director of the Prison Service and himself to account have all but broken down? Is that not confirmed by paragraph 9.19 of the report, which says that the so-called "changed agenda", which is all about privatisation and performance indicators, has meant: There was no space— no time— for senior people to spend time checking compliance with basic procedures."? Is not this breakdown in accountability right up to Ministers also confirmed by paragraphs 9.28 and 9.29? At paragraph 9.28, Sir John Woodcock writes: There exists at all levels within the Service some confusion as to the respective roles of Ministers, the Agency Headquarters, and individual Prison Governors. In particular, the Enquiry has identified the difficulty of determining what is an operational matter and what is policy, leading to confusion as to where responsibility lies. Is not the truth that, far from the report exonerating the Home Secretary, as he implied throughout his 46 paragraphs, it simply says that the issue of his accountability is beyond the remit of the Enquiry to comment further"? Against that background, and given all the other disasters over which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has presided, will he now begin to acknowledge that his position is becoming increasingly untenable? Is not the truth of the situation that the report reveals a catalogue of incompetence and negligence on a truly monumental scale, which has been compounded today by buck passing by the Secretary of State, and by his failure properly to recognise his responsibility for this appalling state of affairs, in which the safety of many prison officers and the public was put at risk? Because of the Home Secretary's failure and that of the Prison Service, public confidence in the prison system has been woefully undermined.

Mr. Howard

Of course I entirely agree that we owe a debt to the prison officers and the police who apprehended the six men who attempted to escape from Whitemoor on 9 September. I acknowledged that debt in my statement, and I pay tribute again to them for their actions.

Of course I agree, as I made plain in my statement, that the state of affairs at Whitemoor which is disclosed in the report is wholly and completely unacceptable. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I was warned in advance of that state of affairs, and he relied on two reports to support that allegation. I shall deal with each of them in turn.

On the point about the 1992 and 1993 reports from the boards of visitors, I did not see them—[Interruption.] I shall tell the House what the reports contained. The 1992 report made no reference to security whatsoever. The 1993 report made a reference to the fact that the large amount of possessions in cells at Whitemoor—not in the special secure unit, but in the rest of the prison—did impede searching. However, that report was accompanied by an addendum, which was submitted later that year, saying that the position had considerably improved. There was therefore no basis in either of the reports for a warning of the sort to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the correspondence I had with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). Indeed, the relevant part of that correspondence is included as an appendix to the Woodcock report. My hon. Friend will, I know, be the first to acknowledge that there is no reference to security in her letter, and that her concerns did not raise the question of security. She has indicated to me that the report in The Observer to which the hon. Gentleman referred was not an accurate report of what she had said.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the changed agenda in the Prison Service. There is indeed a changed agenda in the Prison Service: everything in the report—which is the product of a culture that has existed in the Prison Service for a very long time—underlines and reinforces the need for change. I am determined to ensure that the necessary changes in the Prison Service are made, and that steps to put right what went wrong are implemented; that is the task to which I intend to address myself.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the public will be appalled and astonished at what he has had to tell us today, but will equally feel that his immediate response when these matters were brought to his attention was perfectly adequate? Is he aware that the account he has given today of the fuller response that will be delivered in the fulness of time, following Sir John Woodcock's report, will be welcomed by all?

There is obviously a temptation for Opposition Members to scoff and to demand my right hon. and learned Friend's resignation, but that is silly. What we need to do is improve the functioning and operation of the Prison Service, so that surveillance and supervision are better than they have ever been.

As for the list of recommendations for the future, does my right hon. and learned Friend not consider that the time has come to consider dividing visitors from prisoners far more effectively than they have been divided in the past? Is it not time to adopt the glass partitions used in other countries? It is clear that most of the material got into the prison from outside; it ought to have been stopped, and it must be stopped in the future.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his introductory remarks.

Sir John Woodcock considered the possibility of making all visits to special secure units closed visits. It is dealt with in his report, which states that that is the only way in which complete security can be achieved. Sir John acknowledges that other factors must be taken into account. I have decided that the appropriate course is to refer the matter to Sir John Learmont, as part of his general review of prison security.

My hon. and learned Friend has raised an important point that merits serious attention. It will receive that attention from Sir John Learmont.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Home Secretary confirm that it is clear from the report that a previous Minister of State sanctioned the temporary abandoning of thorough searching; that it is clear that dedicated search teams were not used because of a lack of resources set aside for the purpose; and that it is clear that recommendations of previous security inquiries simply were not implemented? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that Ministers were not asking the most obvious questions about security in prisons with which they were supposed to be familiar?

How is it possible that, after all this—and after the sight of a prison being run according to the convenience of its inmates—no one is resigning, the Home Secretary refuses to take responsibility and the director general of the Prison Service is awarded a substantial bonus?

Mr. Howard

Let me deal with those three points in turn.

First, the retrospective sanctioning of the temporary abandonment of rubdown searches was put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold)—on, I believe, the very day on which the 1992 general election was called—in the context of a review of search and security measures in special secure units. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, having had an opportunity to read the report, instructions were given for rubdown searching to be recommenced at Whitemoor and other special secure units before the Whitemoor unit was reopened.

Secondly, it is not true that the recommendation for dedicated search teams was not implemented because of resource implications or anything of that nature. Governors were consulted about it, and were left to decide the extent to which priority should be given to specialist search teams in that context. The decision, however, was not taken on resource grounds.

On the right hon. Gentleman's third point, it is true that I am responsible for all the Home Office's activities and for the Prison Service. I am accountable to Parliament for the Prison Service. The director general is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Prison Service.

The bonus to which the right hon. Gentleman referred was paid in respect of the year that ended in March 1994. It was paid in accordance with particular indicators that were specified in the director general's contract, including the number of escapes, and that year saw a considerable reduction in the number of escapes. The director general has agreed that there is no question of a bonus during the current year—[Laughter.]

Mr. Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

The report reveals a shocking story, and no one who has been connected with the Prison Service at any level can feel anything other than shame at the position that it reveals. I am sure from what my right hon. and learned Friend said, however, that he will agree that the energy, effectiveness and sheer personal courage of the officers on the spot who recaptured four of the escapees show a different but equally revealing picture of prison staff.

Will he also accept from me, as the Minister who oversaw the transition from department to agency, that he is wise to establish a new unit to keep him more systematically informed of developments in the prison system? Will he, however, take especial care to ensure that the unit works in a way that clarifies and promotes the sensible division and devolution of responsibility for operational matters in what is an extremely complex service, where the reins can never be kept in a single pair of hands effectively, however much Opposition Members pretend that they can?

Mr. Howard

My right hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the prison officers who were responsible for the speedy apprehension of four of the six inmates who attempted to escape from Whitemoor on 9 September. In considering the basis on which the unit is to work, I shall carefully bear in mind the remarks that he has made, coming as they do from someone with considerable experience in these matters.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I deprecate introductory remarks during questions. We are here to question the statement and the Home Secretary. As the House saw, a number of hon. Members rose to ask questions. It will be impossible for me to call all of them if they make long statements and introductory remarks. I must now have brisk questions and brisk answers.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does the Home Secretary accept that his statement sounds more like scenes from a "Carry On" film on prisons than a statement on a high security prison? Having accepted that a Minister was responsible for scaling down searches, will the Home Secretary tell us why searches were not reintroduced until after the prisoners had escaped? What was the cost of the phone bill? Having considered everything, will he tell us why he did not consider resigning from his position?

Mr. Howard

I told the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that instructions were given that rubdown searches should be resumed before the Whitemoor special secure unit was reopened. It was not until the publication of the Woodcock report that it became clear that they had not been resumed, in contravention of those instructions, which were clear, specific and absolutely explicit.

They were no doubt one of the things that Sir John Woodcock had in mind when he concluded, in the passage that I read out, that what the Prison Service needs to do most of all is to comply with its own written instructions. That is the truth about the searches. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I set out in my statement the steps that I took in the immediate aftermath of the attempt to escape on 9 September as to the need to implement all instructions relating to searches and other security measures across the prison system.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that Sir John Woodcock's conclusion would have been substantially different had he been asked to produce his report a year earlier? Is not the most disturbing part about the report the fact that it reveals a culture in our prisons where everything is done for the benefit of the prisoners—or, if not for them, for the benefit of the prison officers?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend saying that there is a real distinction between what the report reveals and what happens in all other prisons throughout the country? If that is not the case, what is my right hon. and learned Friend going to do about the conduct of the Prison Service and responsibility for it?

Mr. Howard

There is a great deal of truth in my right hon. Friend's sombre analysis. The extent to which the regime and the failures at Whitemoor exist in other prisons is precisely what Sir John Learmont's review will examine. That review will indicate what action needs to be taken beyond the 64 recommendations of the Woodcock report which I have accepted, and the three further measures beyond that which I said that I have put in hand. It is precisely the analysis behind my right hon. Friend's question that has led me to establish Sir John Learmont's review.

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

Has the Home Secretary considered resigning?

Mr. Howard

I have looked very carefully at what others in my position have done in this type of situation. In 1983, a number of terrorist prisoners escaped from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. Many of them got away. At the time, my noble Friend Lord Prior said: If I had felt that ministerial responsibility was such that in this case I should have resigned, I certainly should have done so. It would be a matter for resignation if the … inquiry showed that what happened was the result of some act of policy that was my responsibility, or that I failed to implement something that I had been asked to implement, or should have implemented. In that case, I should resign."—[Official Report, 24 October 1983; Vol. 47, c.23-4.] I have carefully considered Lord Prior's observations. I think that he set out the right approach. I have endeavoured to follow that approach and I have reached the same conclusion that he reached and, indeed, the conclusion reached by the right hon. and noble Gentleman Lord Jenkins of Hillhead after the escape of George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

My right hon. and learned Friend will understand that, like all hon. Members, I am concerned about the report, especially following my own visit to Whitemoor. Nevertheless, does he agree that the report makes it clear that it is the Prison Service which is to blame, not him?

Mr. Howard

I have announced to the House that I am setting up a disciplinary inquiry to see what evidence exists that would enable disciplinary proceedings or other action to be taken at all levels in the Prison Service so that those who were responsible on a day-to-day basis for the appalling state of affairs at Whitemoor can be brought to account.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Did the Home Secretary share my difficulty when reading the two reports in deciding whether they were talking about the same prison? In other words, why did Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons say that he considered the prison to be "virtually impregnable"? Why did he decide that he would make "no recommendations" whatever to the Home Secretary? Why did he recommend the scaling down of certain key security measures, such as searching visitors, and terminating the use of guard dogs?

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman will understand my difficulty in answering that question. I can tell him that the recommendations in the chief inspector's report on the scaling down of staff in the secure unit and the elimination of the use of dogs will not be implemented. The view that Whitemoor was virtually impregnable was widely held within the Prison Service and widely held by the prison officers at Whitemoor. It contributed substantially to the regime that the Woodcock report makes clear existed there.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, although there may be a cessation of violence at present in Northern Ireland, there will be no cessation of the attempts by IRA terrorists to try to break out of prisons wherever they may be? As it is a well-established practice of the IRA to seek psychological domination over prison officers, whether by intimidation or by "honey traps" outside the prison, which is also a well established practice in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that every prison governor concerned sees the importance of one particular recommendation in the report, especially for the safety of prison officers themselves, which is the frequent rotation of prison officers in their duties?

Mr. Howard

Yes, I certainly will. My right hon. Friend, with all his experience of these matters, is absolutely right to draw attention to that especially dangerous feature of the situation at Whitemoor and elsewhere. He is absolutely right to say that it is essential that that recommendation is drawn to the attention of all governors.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

When the Home Secretary re-examines security measures, will he look at the disgraceful overcrowding in prisons, which results in prison officers having to look after prisoners in impossible circumstances? At Leicester prison, the number of people certified as the normal accounting level is 194. I am told that today, the prison has 345 inmates, and that there have been seven suicides in the past year or so. What does the Home Secretary intend to do about the overcrowding which results from his Government's scandalous failure to deal with prison conditions all these years?

Mr. Howard

There is no suggestion that there was any connection between overcrowding and what happened at Whitemoor. Moreover, there has been a substantial reduction in overcrowding in the prison system in recent years. At the beginning of 1987, there were 5,000 prisoners in our prison system who were three to a cell designed for one. Now there is none. There has been a substantial reduction in overcrowding in our system. There is no basis for any suggestion that there was a connection between that and Whitemoor.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

Given what is obviously a bad business, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Learmont inquiry, which he has set up with admirable promptness, is the largest inquiry of its kind since the Mountbatten inquiry, which was set up with equally admirable promptness by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead? Contrary to the arithmetic of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), that inquiry was less than 30 years ago.

Mr. Howard

I can confirm that point to my right hon. Friend. I emphasise that the Learmont inquiry will have two purposes. First, it will look at security across the prison system generally and secondly, it will specifically report in a year's time on the progress that has been made in implementing the recommendations of the Woodcock report. I have undertaken, subject only to security considerations, to publish the report of Sir John Learmont's committee in a year's time.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the Home Secretary agree that he has been warned time and time again by the Home Affairs Select Committee and various other bodies of the necessity of installing appropriate electronic search equipment at Brixton, for example, where it was installed after the gun had arrived, and at other places throughout the prison system? That, coupled with the continuing deterioration in conditions and standards for prison officers through decreasing training, overwork, over-hours and decreasing numbers, has contributed to the appalling state that we now see in our prison system.

Mr. Howard

No, I do not accept that. There was equipment at Whitemoor, although the report criticises the way in which it was used. As to the hours worked by prison officers, there has been an enormous reduction in the number of hours worked on average by every prison officer in recent years.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that an overwhelming majority of the public cannot understand why hardened villains should have any contact with visitors other than through bars and under supervision? Does he agree that, if drugs or weapons of any sort should be discovered in a prison, all visits should be stopped until the matter is cleared up? Will the Learmont inquiry be able to address those matters?

Mr. Howard

The Learmont inquiry will certainly be able to address those aspects to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention which deal with security. Certainly with regard to dangerous prisoners, I am specifically asking for Sir John Learmont's view and certainly, the inquiry will address the possibility of identifying guns in prison. Indeed, it is now the case that the kind of investigation which takes place in the few instances when guns are found in prisons involves the suspension of visits.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Can the Minister recall any event about which a statement was made to the House which was bizarre as this, other than the Canadian mailbag fiasco at Wandsworth prison? Is there no honour left in politics at all? Does he accept no responsibility whatever? Will he tell us something about the shopping that prisoners have been doing? Was it with their Barclaycards? If he is refusing to resign, will he at least claim to be guilty but insane?

Mr. Howard

I have already dealt with the question of responsibility. It is perhaps an interesting reflection on standards—a charge made by the Opposition very frequently—and perhaps relevant that, when there was the escape from the Maze to which I referred earlier, the Labour shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not call for the resignation of my right hon. Friend Lord Prior, and when there was the escape from Wormwood Scrubs, the Conservative shadow Home Secretary did not call for the resignation of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. And on both those occasions, the prisoners actually got away.

Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

May I take the opportunity to thank my right hon. and learned Friend for setting the record straight on my behalf? May I also urge him, in the light of my experience as a Minister with responsibility for prisons, to look very closely at determining the roles of Ministers, the agency headquarters and the prison governors, even before his special unit is set up? It seems from what Sir John Woodcock has said that clarification is urgently needed, so that people who are at the grass roots—the prison governors and prison officers—know precisely to whom they should be responsible.

Mr. Howard

I am not entirely certain that I agree with my right hon. Friend about that. I am not under any confusion as to the line of command and the allocation of responsibility. It is set out very clearly in the framework document. The director general is not under any confusion either about the relationship, which is set out very clearly in the framework document. It is the duty of those in the Prison Service to comply with the instructions which they are given. So I do not entirely go along with my right hon. Friend on that point.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

Is the Home Secretary aware that Wandsworth prison is in my constituency, and therefore I have close association with boards of visitors in many prisons? Is he aware that the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) about the role of the former chairlady of Whitemoor board of visitors and the concerns that she expressed will not been accepted by her and will not be accepted by that board of visitors? Nor will it be accepted by boards of visitors throughout the country, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman was repeatedly told by those boards of visitors of the very deep—

Mr. Howard

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cox

It is no good the right hon. and learned Gentleman shaking his head. He was told repeatedly of the deep concern of the board of visitors. Will he give the House an assurance that any prison governor who is concerned about security will have whatever funding he or she needs to bring security up to standard?

Mr. Howard

I dealt earlier, and rather fully, with the contents of the reports from the board of visitors. That is the basis on which such allegations should be tested. I can tell the House that the implementation of the 64 recommendations in the Woodcock report will not be inhibited by any resource constraint.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the principal conclusion of the Woodcock report was that the Prison Service failed systematically to observe its own rules? Is he able to give me, the House and constituents throughout the country a categorical assurance that the Learmont inquiry will address itself to the problems of running our prisons, that he will ensure in future that there is no further intimidation of prison officers by dangerous category A prisoners, and that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has recommended, officers will be rotated regularly?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to those features. The purpose of the 64 recommendations in the Woodcock report is to achieve the objectives to which my hon. Friend referred. The Learmont inquiry will consider what more needs to be done across the Prison Service. The purpose of the these exercises will be to ensure that there is never again a recurrence of the events and the situation at Whitemoor.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North)

The problem for the Home Secretary is the scale of the scandal. Does he not have responsibility for putting in place policies and procedures to ensure that scandals in prisons on such a scale cannot happen, and has he not failed in that responsibility? He should accept the consequences of that.

Mr. Howard

If there were any evidence that my policies were in any way responsible for what happened, the hon. Gentleman would be right. But there is not a word of criticism of policy in the Woodcock report. Nor is there any basis for the suggestion that my policies were in any way responsible for what happened.

Mr. Edward Garner (Harborough)

May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his frank statement? I ask him to assure the House that nothing said to the Woodcock inquiry will inhibit the bringing of criminal, civil or disciplinary proceedings, should the Yardley inquiry or anyone else find that there is evidence that makes it appropriate to bring such charges.

Mr. Howard

Yes. I think that it was right of Sir John Woodcock, whose principal objective was to get at the truth of what happened, to say that the evidence which was given to him would not be used as the basis of disciplinary proceedings. That does not mean that the disciplinary investigation that I have set in hand will be unable to pursue these matters. It will pursue them, and if evidence is revealed that would justify disciplinary proceedings or other action against anyone at any level in the Prison Service, that action will ensue.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

If the Home Secretary is as eager as he claims to change the culture of the Prison Service, will he, as a guarantee of good faith, demand that the director general of the Prison Service pays back the £35,000 performance bonus which he granted him last year?

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record of the Prison Service during that year, and especially the substantial reduction in the number of escapes that took place during that year, he will have cause to reflect on his question.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

My right hon. and learned Friend is clearly right to opt for a tougher and harder internal regime in the category A prisons. In so far as this induces among resourceful but violent and desperate prisoners the attitude of "death or glory", is not the implementation of his tough regime something of an exercise in sophistication as well as determination? Does he agree that the subtleties of constraining those desperate men are scarcely appreciated in respect of the comments that we have heard from Labour Members?

Mr. Howard

I agree with my right hon. Friend's last point. In addition, I agree that one should never underestimate the difficulty of having in place an effective regime. The task on which the Prison Service is engaged is very difficult. It was described in a previous inquiry as one of particular complexity. My right hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to those aspects of it.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the reason why he has not been directly criticised in the report is that, as the report implies in paragraph 9.29, it was beyond the inquiry's remit? Is it not true that the Home Secretary himself determined the inquiry's remit? It is therefore hardly surprising that he was not directly criticised. Will the Home Secretary address the criticism in paragraph 9.28— There exists at all levels within the Service some confusion as to the respective roles of Ministers, the Agency Headquarters and individual Prison Governors. In particular, the Enquiry has identified the difficulty of determining what is an operational matter and what is policy, leading to confusion as to where responsibility lies"? Surely, as Home Secretary in a Government who have been in power for 15 years, it lacks credibility to say that the Home Secretary was not responsible for what happened. Has not the confusion in responsibility arisen directly from arrangements which the Home Secretary put in place, or is he not now even responsible for his own mistakes?

Mr. Howard

I have already dealt very fully with paragraph 9.28 of the report. I am not under any confusion about the respective roles of Ministers, the agency headquarters or individual prison governors, and nor is the director general. As for individual prison governors and others in the service, it is their responsibility to comply with the instructions that they are given.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) is entirely wrong about the report's remit. It was not in any way beyond Sir John Woodcock's remit to criticise me were he of a mind to do so.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

Look at paragraph 9.29.

Mr. Howard

Paragraph 9.29 says nothing of the kind. If the hon. Lady, who is mouthing inanities from a sedentary position, were to read the report, she would understand that paragraph 9.29 says nothing of the kind. Sir John Woodcock's report was very wide in its terms of reference and very wide in its remit. It was entirely within his remit, if he wished to do so, to make criticisms of me. The fact is that he did not do so, and the Opposition cannot bring themselves to accept that.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We will now move on.

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