HC Deb 10 January 1995 vol 252 cc31-47

4.2 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about three recent events—the escape of three prisoners from Her Majesty's Prison Parkhurst, the disturbances at Her Majesty's Prison Everthorpe and the death of Frederick West at Her Majesty's Prison Birmingham. I propose to deal with each of those separate events in chronological order.

As the House will know, Frederick West was found hanging in his cell by prison officers at Winson Green prison in Birmingham at about 1 o'clock on the afternoon of 1 January. He was pronounced dead by the medical officer at 1.40 pm. He had been at the prison since 13 May. Throughout that time, the extent of his supervision was based on advice from two qualified psychiatrists and prison officers. He had on two occasions—13–14 May and 1–4 August—been under special observation in view of the assessed risk that he might do himself harm. Apart from those periods, he was subject to the observation appropriate to an inmate of his security category. He was seen daily by a doctor, including on the day of his death, when his behaviour did not give any cause for concern.

The inquest into Frederick West's death opened on 6 January, and it will be for the coroner to determine the cause of death. An internal Prison Service inquiry has been conducted. Its findings will be made available to the coroner.

I refer now to the disturbances at Everthorpe prison on Humberside. On the evening of 2 January, 68 prisoners on C wing refused to return to their cells after association and staff were forced to withdraw from the wing. Some prisoners broke through into the adjoining D wing. A barricade was erected to prevent staff from entering from the main prison corridor and some damage was done.

Other prisoners at the establishment played no part in the disturbances and by early morning half the prisoners on C wing had returned to their cells. Control and restraint teams were deployed shortly after 2.30 that morning to regain control, which was achieved just before 3.30 am with no injuries to staff or prisoners. Sixty-seven prisoners were transferred out of the prison during the morning of 3 January.

The prison was run as normally as possible during the day of 3 January. At about 7.30 that evening a member of staff was assaulted on B wing and prisoners on A wing indicated that they would refuse to return to their cells after evening association. For their safety, staff withdrew from A and B wings, which were then secured to prevent any possible breakout. At 1 am, control and restraint teams were deployed to regain control. B wing was secured a quarter of an hour later and A wing just over an hour later.

The member of staff who had been injured in the initial disturbance was taken to an outside hospital. He has now been discharged. There were no other staff injuries, but a number of prisoners sustained minor injuries. One hundred and twenty-four additional prisoners were transferred to other prisons, leaving 68 prisoners at Everthorpe.

The internal inquiry report has not yet been completed, but it has emerged that, while there was no single cause of the disturbances, the governor's determined efforts to curb the misuse of drugs in the establishment were an important factor. Tackling the drug problem in our prisons is a difficult task, but it is something that we must do. We cannot allow prisoners to deflect us from that task. Governors will always have my full support in carrying out that vital job. When the report is available, I shall place a summary of the findings and the conclusions in the Library of the House, together with a report of the action that is being taken in response.

Two of the wings at Everthorpe are already back in use and the remaining two will be ready for occupation next Monday. The cost of repairs is estimated at £130,000.

I am sure that the House will join me in condemning the behaviour of those prisoners involved in the disturbances and in congratulating Prison Service staff on the professional way in which they brought both disturbances to a speedy conclusion. The injuries sustained by one officer are a timely reminder of the difficulties and dangers faced by prison staff as they do their jobs. I am also very grateful to the police and other emergency services for their key role in bringing those disturbances to an end.

I deal now with the most serious event—the escape from Parkhurst prison on 3 January of two category A prisoners, Rose and Williams, and one category B prisoner, Rodger. At about 6 pm on 3 January, a group of 31 prisoners—including the three who subsequently escaped—were taken to the gym. At 7 pm the group were returned to their wings. Just after 8 pm a dog patrol discovered a hole in an inner security fence and a makeshift ladder leaning against the perimeter wall beyond. The alarm was raised and emergency procedures put into operation.

Richard Tilt, the Director of Security of the Prison Service, has been carrying out an urgent inquiry and last night I received his preliminary conclusions. They indicate that the three prisoners made good their escape using a copied key to open a door and gate. They then made their way to the welding workshop, using the key to open another gate en route and two more gates in the workshop. Once they were in the workshop, a ladder was assembled and tools and other escape equipment gathered.

As the House will know, all three prisoners were recaptured on Sunday 8 January and hon. Members will wish to join me in praising the success of the police operation. In their searches, the police were greatly assisted by the public and the House will, I know, wish to pay tribute to the islanders who displayed their characteristic fortitude throughout a very difficult period.

Mr. Tilt's inquiry highlights very serious deficiencies in procedural and physical security at Parkhurst. There were serious failures at local level by both management and some individual officers in carrying out basic security procedures in accordance with the Prison Service's own written instructions. Certain specific lapses on the night in question contributed significantly both to the failure to prevent the escape and to the length of time that elapsed before its discovery. That that could happen so soon after the publication of the Woodcock report into Whitemoor and so soon after the director general gave a clear and repeated message to governors and staff that security procedures must be followed is a cause for dismay.

Mr. Tilt also draws attention to the effect on security at Parkhurst of the extensive building works that have been under way since 1990. He considers that the decision made in 1990 to continue to hold category A prisoners at the prison without additional security measures was mistaken. But he also concludes that none of the causes of the escape can be directly attributed to the rebuilding programme. In his view, although the capacity of local management to ensure that correct security systems and procedures were in place and being implemented effectively was reduced, the very existence of the rebuilding programme should have emphasised the need for strict adherence to basic security procedures.

The following remedial action has already been taken or is now being taken to improve security. It includes better monitoring of the movement of prisoners, especially the high-risk category A prisoners, and better supervision of their activities, adequate training of staff in the emergency control room, the presence of a governor at all times until prisoners are locked up at the end of the day, an increased dog team, improved lighting and cameras, the replacement of all compromised locks and additional alarm systems—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order. These are important matters and the House must listen to the statement by the Secretary of State. If not, I shall find it difficult to call hon. Members who are barracking from sedentary positions.

Mr. Howard

I have outlined the immediate action that has been taken at Parkhurst. As the House knows, Sir John Learmont is already reviewing physical security and security procedures throughout the Prison Service in England and Wales, and Sir John, accompanied by Sir John Woodcock, who reported on events at Whitemoor and who is acting as his assessor, will visit Parkhurst this week. I have asked them to carry out an independent assessment of events at Parkhurst. They will have available to them the report made by Mr. Tilt, which they will be able to take into account. In view of the detailed information about security at Parkhurst in Mr. Tilt's report, it would not be appropriate for me to publish it. However, the examination of it by Sir John Learmont will ensure that it is independently reviewed. Sir John Learmont and Sir John Woodcock will not be bound by it and the scope of their inquiry will not be limited in any way. It will be open to them to bring forward proposals for early action without waiting for their formal report to me. The findings of their report will be published.

A separate disciplinary investigation into events at Parkhurst will commence as soon as the relevant police inquiries are complete. Two other actions are being taken. The present governor is today being removed from his duties at Parkhurst. Pending the outcome of a disciplinary investigation and any subsequent proceedings, he will not run any other prison in the Prison Service. When he has completed any assistance that he needs to give to the various inquiries now in hand, he will take up non-operational duties elsewhere. Six members of staff, including one of governor grade, will also be temporarily transferred to duties at other prisons. Both those actions are without prejudice to the outcome of the disciplinary investigation.

I refer now to my personal responsibilities as Home Secretary. I have made it repeatedly clear that I am personally accountable to this House for the Prison Service. I also have full responsibility for all policy decisions relating to the service. In his report, Mr. Tilt has not indicated any policy decision of mine that can be held to have caused in any way the breakout from Parkhurst. It will, of course, be open to Sir John Learmont to look at the issue afresh.

However, that is not the end of my responsibilities. It is also my clear duty to respond promptly to warnings about prison security. I can tell the House that I did, indeed, receive one warning about security at Parkhurst. Judge Stephen Tumim wrote to the director general on Friday 7 October to express his concern about the following aspects of security at Parkhurst: searching of cells, the metal detector portal, the operation of the X-ray machine in the gatelodge, supervision of visits and staff reluctance to confront visitors. I am placing a copy of Judge Tumim's letter in the Library of the House. Immediately on receiving that letter, I spoke to the Director General of the Prison Service and asked for a full report. I was subsequently assured by the director general on the basis of advice from the governor that all Judge Tumim's recommendations had been implemented.

It has also been suggested that I was warned of the need to install geophones. I received no such warning. At the time of the escape, geophones were in fact being installed around the perimeter fence at Parkhurst and will be in operation by April at the latest, when the relevant building work will be complete. The decision to install them was taken in April 1994. The prison service decided not to install geophones in the prison earlier because, as Ministers made clear at the time, the building work would have severely limited their effectiveness. It was the impact of those building works, which will enhance security, which dictated the timing of the installation.

Recent events are bound to have affected public confidence in the Prison Service and it will not be easy to repair the damage that they have done to its reputation. That damage can be repaired only by finding out exactly what went wrong in each of those events and taking all the action that is necessary to put things right. The inquiries that have been established and the general review of security under Sir John Learmont will identify what went wrong. I am determined to take the action that is needed to put things right and I am accountable to this House for that action.

Prisons are a vital part of any system of criminal justice. Prisoners have a right to be treated decently and we must do what we can to try to rehabilitate them. But all prisoners are in prison because a court has put them there to be punished for crimes that they have committed. That is why I want austere conditions in prisons. That is why I want privileges to be earned, not handed down as rights. That is why I want prisoners who have misbehaved to be properly disciplined for what they have done. The first duty of the Prison Service is to keep prisoners in custody. That must underline all its work. We must all learn the lessons that can be learned from those events and do everything possible to prevent them happening again.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Does not the Secretary of State understand that he has just made a statement to the House that wholly fails to meet public anxieties about the lamentable sequence of events that have beset the Prison Service in the three short weeks since he last had to make a statement to the House on the state of that service? During that period, Frederick West has been found dead in Winson Green prison, there have been riots on two successive nights at Everthorpe prison and three highly dangerous prisoners have escaped from Parkhurst.

The seriousness of the escape from Parkhurst cannot be overstated. The public were put at enormous risk and it was with great relief that we all learnt that the men had been recaptured without injury to the public. I pay my own tribute to the police, to the prison officers and to the public on the Isle of Wight who were involved in the five days' search and above all, to the bravery of the special constable and the dog handler who arrested Williams.

I also wish to put on record our unqualified condemnation of the behaviour of the inmates who rioted at Everthorpe gaol and our tribute to the courage and tenacity of the prison staff and the police who had to deal with those two riots.

All that has come on top of the escape from Whitemoor prison last year and the catalogue of failure in the management of the Prison Service which was unearthed by the Woodcock inquiry. Does not the Home Secretary accept that he stands accused today of gross incompetence in the execution of his responsibilities, for the Prison Service, to the public and to the House?

First, does the Home Secretary accept that he personally and repeatedly failed properly to act on warnings that had been made about security problems in Parkhurst and Whitemoor by the—[Interruption.] no, no—by the board of visitors and the chief inspector of prisons? While the Home Secretary acknowledged today that the chief inspector of prisons, Judge Tumim, warned him in a note sent in early October of grave security problems at Parkhurst, does not he accept that, had proper action been taken on those warnings then, as Judge Tumim made plain on "The World at One" yesterday, the escapes could not have taken place?

Can the Home Secretary deny that his Department was warned for years by the board of visitors and the governor that Parkhurst required an electronic alarm system in its perimeter walls and fences which, I understand, all other high-security gaols have and that, had that system already been installed, it is highly probable that the escape would have been noticed immediately and not after a delay of two hours?

Secondly, is not it the case, as I shall demonstrate to the House, that the Secretary of State has compounded his failure to act on those warnings by a pattern of evasion and misinformation? Does he now acknowledge that he was wrong to claim, as he did in the Daily Mail last Thursday, that all Judge Tumim's recommendations on searching have been fully implemented? I note that in his statement today, all the Secretary of State said was that he had told the director general to ensure that the warnings were implemented and followed through and that he had been assured that they had. However, last Thursday the Secretary of State made categorical statements to the Daily Mail that those warnings had been acted on.

With regard to Whitemoor, does the Secretary of State now accept that what he told the House on 19 December about the contents of the 1992 and 1993 reports of the board of visitors at Whitemoor prison was demonstrably inaccurate and wrong? With regard to the 1992 report, the Secretary of State will recall that when I challenged him on whether he had followed up the warnings in the report about security, he said: The 1992 report made no reference to security whatsoever. I have a copy of the 1992 report with me. Security is mentioned twice on page 2 alone. Even more significantly, page 32 of the report contains specific recommendations, addressed to the Secretary of State, about the need for him to ensure that the searching of all visitors to the prison was tightened. The report states: In our opinion, all visitors to prisons should be searched as a routine. As a failure to search visitors properly was one of the major security lapses identified in the Woodcock report after the IRA prisoners had escaped, how on earth could the Secretary of State claim in the House on 19 December that the board of visitors report contained no reference to security whatsoever."—[Official Report, 19 December 1994; Vol. 251, c. 1403.] when demonstrably it contained a series of recommendations about security?

As for the 1993 report, the Secretary of State again implied in his earlier response to me that the security concerns in the 1993 report were only about the amount of possessions in cells and that those concerns had been dealt with by an addendum from the board of visitors submitted to him a few months later.

I have a copy of the addendum and the 1993 report here. The report contains a catalogue of complaints about security, not just about possessions in cells. It includes a charge that prison staff were being sent out of the prison on shopping trips not just to purchase Cromer crabs, fresh salmon and budgie seeds but, most alarmingly of all, to purchase "special hobby tools". We all know to what use the hobby tools were put in the hobby room by the IRA prisoners. The addendum, which I have seen, was just two pages long, and it did not deal with the majority of those security complaints, as Mrs. Paddy Seligman, then chairman of the board of visitors who wrote those reports, has made crystal clear in a letter that she wrote to the Secretary of State a week ago.

Does not the Secretary of State recognise that, whatever his intentions may have been when he made those statements on 19 December, many right hon. and hon. Members will have been wholly misled by what he said about the contents of those reports, and that he now owes the House an apology and an explanation of his lack of candour?

Thirdly, does the Secretary of State deny that he has continued to refuse to accept proper responsibility for this saga of ineptitude? Everyone except the right hon. and learned Gentleman is responsible for what has occurred. This Home Secretary is the "Not me, guy" Home Secretary.

Fourthly, since the breakdown in security at Parkhurst, as Judge Tumim made clear, is at least as grave as that at Whitemoor, on any scale, why has the Secretary of State continued to refuse to establish a wholly separate and fully independent inquiry into Parkhurst, as he did within 24 hours at Whitemoor? Does not he recognise that it was wholly inappropriate to put the director of security, Mr. Richard Tilt, in charge of the investigation, as any thorough examination by Mr. Tilt would have to involve the conduct of his immediate superior, Mr. Derek Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, and of the Secretary of State himself? In asking Mr. Tilt to conduct the investigation, he was effectively making the Prison Service judge and jury in its own cause.

Will the Home Secretary acknowledge also that the Learmont inquiry, which he announced on 19 December and which we supported, was a general one into the physical security of prisons throughout the country and that it cannot be a separate, free-standing inquiry? Indeed, I note that the Secretary of State was very careful not to suggest that the Learmont inquiry into general physical security would be an independent inquiry into events and into his responsibility at Parkhurst. Instead, he has very carefully not used the words "an independent, separate inquiry", but an "independent assessment of events"—a very different kettle of fish.

Moreover, confidence in that independent assessment of events cannot but be undermined by the precipitate decision of the Secretary of State to seek out and, in effect, discipline the prison governor and six staff before a proper independent investigation has taken place. Does not the Secretary of State's refusal to set up a fully independent inquiry show that he has much to hide, and speak volumes about his own culpability?

Fifthly, does the Secretary of State accept that policy decisions made by Ministers have a direct bearing on the crisis of confidence that Judge Tumim, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, now says is overwhelming the Prison Service? Why does not he recognise that his policy of privatisation and of the market testing of the Prison Service is wholly wrong in principle and has sapped the morale of the service? As the general secretary of the Prison Governors Association said at the weekend, month to month changes in government policy are adding enormously to the burden and stress of all those involved in running the service.

Does not the Secretary of State now recognise that the so-called clear distinction that he has made between policy and operations in the Prison Service has no foundation whatever in reality and that, by maintaining that fiction, he continues only to evade his own responsibility? Did not the Director General of the Prison Service let the cat out of the bag at the Prison Service conference last year? He said that if it's difficult it's classified as operational. Is not another example of the use that the Home Secretary has made of that operational device the fact that he sought to rely on the verdict of his subordinate, Mr. Richard Tilt, to escape any responsibility for the events and circumstances surrounding the Parkhurst escape?

Will the Home Secretary now accept that he must take three steps to restore confidence in the prison system? First, he must abandon market testing and privatisation of the service—that is what the former Conservative Prime Minister called for at the weekend. Secondly, he should sit down with governors and prison officers to agree a programme for restoring morale and good order in the Prison Service. Thirdly, he must face his responsibilities for the good management of the service as well as for its policy, and make himself properly answerable to the House.

Does not the whole of the Home Secretary's statement serve only to underline what everyone in the country now knows—that the conduct of his office is characterised by consistent evasion of responsibility, exceeded only by his readiness to scapegoat others? His failure properly to direct and manage the Prison Service and to keep dangerous criminals under lock and key represents a failure in one of the most basic duties of any Government—to protect the safety and security of the public.

Mr. Howard

Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the seriousness of the events; no one takes such matters more seriously than I do. I am also grateful to him for his tributes to the work of the police and of the Prison Service.

I shall deal with each of the hon. Gentleman's criticisms in the order in which he made them. I do not accept for one moment the allegation, in which there is no substance, that I have failed to act on security warnings. I have set out and clearly explained the action that I took when I received the warning from Judge Tumim. Furthermore, the Tilt report does not conclude that the matters identified by Judge Tumim, important though they are, were in any way related to the escape from Parkhurst. I have also explained clearly the action taken on the installation of geophones. While building work, itself related to security, is going on, it does not make sense to install geophones because they cannot work effectively in those circumstances.

It is a measure of the desperation of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that he has sought to reopen matters related to Whitemoor. I do not accept for one moment the construction that he put on the answers that I gave on that subject. Moreover, it was open to all those concerned with the board of visitors and its reports to put their concerns to Sir John Woodcock in the context of his inquiry into what happened at Whitemoor. Presumably the matters in question were put to him.

No one has suggested that Sir John's report pulled any punches, and if he had thought that there was any significance in what appeared in the reports by the board of visitors, he would have referred to them in that context in his report, but there is no such reference.

Of course, I intend to ask Sir John Woodcock and Sir John Learmont to inquire fully into what happened at Parkhurst, and theirs will be a fully independent inquiry. Nothing will be ruled out of their purview, and they will not be constrained in any way. They are clearly entitled to consider to what extent, if any, questions of policy contributed to what happened at Parkhurst, and they are free to come to any conclusion that they think appropriate and desirable. I have stated that I intend to publish the findings, and there is no question of any kind of cover-up.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman sought to blame what has happened on market testing. To suggest that market testing can in some way explain, condone or excuse the failure to count prisoners out of the gym and into the wing, to ensure that cameras are properly pointed or to make sure that the duty governor is on duty at the relevant time, is to demean our proceedings. The hon. Gentleman ought to be ashamed of that suggestion, and withdraw it.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I want a brisk exchange of questions and answers. A lot of hon. Members want to get in, and we have other business to conduct today.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for keeping me informed of events as they unfolded on the Isle of Wight within hours of the breakout occurring? Will he confirm to the House and reassure the people of the Isle of Wight that when he receives the full report, the safety of the people on the island will be paramount in his mind? Will he join me in congratulating Colin Jones, who spotted the prisoners on the run, and the chief constable and his men on the successful recapture? Does he consider that closed visits at prisons would obviate the necessity of searching visitors?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at the fact that the British Medical Association refused to allow doctors to perform internal searches of prisoners, as they might prevent highly dangerous drugs from getting into prisons and compromising security? Does he agree that to call for his resignation every time a villain manages to perpetrate a crime against law and order is a villain's charter, and that it is those on the Opposition Front Bench who are the real enemies of law and order?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a close interest in security matters in relation to prisons in his constituency on the Isle of Wight since he was elected to the House. I can certainly assure him that the safety of the islanders will be paramount in my mind when it comes to addressing the conclusions of the various reports. My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to those who played a part in bringing those who escaped from Parkhurst back into custody.

I can tell my hon. Friend specifically that I have asked Sir John Learmont to look into the possibility of introducing closed visits as a matter of urgency. No stone will be left unturned in restoring security to our prisons.

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

When did the director general assure the Home Secretary that all Judge Tumim's recommendations relating to security at Parkhurst had been implemented, and was that true? Does the Home Secretary at least concede that the policy of delegating the operation of prisons to the director general has not worked? Does not he ask himself why he must stand at the Dispatch Box displaying dismay and producing more rhetoric? There has been a great deal of policy and many innovations, but there is no proper control of security at the prisons. Is not that something for which he must take responsibility?

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman has distinguished himself in the past few days by popping up on just about every television programme acting as the mouthpiece of John Bartell. When he has a bit more experience in those matters, the right hon. Gentleman will realise that parroting the allegations made by Mr. Bartell is not a responsible way of addressing the issues involved.

I shall deal with both the right hon. Gentleman's questions in turn. I was given the assurances from the director general to which I referred within days of receiving the information from Judge Tumim. I looked at the matter, and I asked for those assurances. I raised questions on the assurances, and I was given them on the basis of what the director general had been told by the governor. Mr. Tilt is at present addressing in detail the question of the extent to which all those matters had in fact been implemented.

With regard to operational policy, there has always been a division between policy matters and operational matters. That has existed not only since the introduction of agencies—it has been recognised for years, and indeed for generations. I really do not see—the right hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on this—how, whatever structure or framework is in place, one can avoid a sensible distinction between policy and operational matters.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that what happened at Everthorpe was provoked by a deliberate crackdown by the governor, under the instructions of my right hon. and learned Friend and his Department, on many abuses within the prison, which related not only to drugs but to prisoners barricading themselves into their cells and not being properly supervised? Would not it be a sad day if a Home Secretary of any party was forced to resign from office because prisoners rioted in the way that we saw at Everthorpe in response to a proper crackdown prompted by public concern about the conditions in our gaols?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I note that the hon. Member for Blackburn also agrees. We do not yet know the full range of causes of events at Everthorpe, but it is reasonably clear that the crackdown on drugs was a prominent one. It is absolutely essential that that policy continues to be implemented. The misuse of drugs in our prisons is a disgrace. Effective action has to be taken to deal with it. Governors who take that action deserve not only my full support but the support of everyone in the House.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

As the Home Secretary says that he is accountable to the House of Commons only for policy matters and has carefully defined as not policy matters the lamentable series of events that he has described today, and as the arrogant and incompetent Mr. Derek Lewis, whom no fish and chip shop or whelk stall would accept behind its counter, has proclaimed on the radio the success of his regime, blamed everyone else in sight and found a scapegoat in the governor of Parkhurst, who is accountable to the House of Commons for the events that the Home Secretary has described? Where does the buck stop?

Mr. Howard

The right hon. Gentleman has rather uncharacteristically misunderstood the position. I am accountable to Parliament for the Prison Service. I am accountable to Parliament for all matters that are relevant to the Prison Service. I am responsible to Parliament for policy. The director general, according to the framework document, is responsible for operational matters. That is the distinction, but I am accountable to Parliament for the Prison Service generally. Since the director general became head of the agency, a great deal of progress has been made, not least in reducing the number of escapes, which has fallen by about a third during his period of office. That is an important matter to be taken into account. The Prison Service is clearly going through a difficult time. The director general is the best person to take it through that difficult time.

Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, as someone who has had responsibility for prisons in the past, I understand the difficulties and problems that arise from that responsibility? Along with a substantial number of people outside the House as well as people on the Benches here, I urge him to continue his policies in the most resolute way. It is absolutely essential for the security and safety of both the prisoners and the general public that we have a Home Secretary who believes that he must pursue the policies that he is pursuing as firmly as my right hon. and learned Friend has shown that he is determined to do.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, far from accepting the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) that we should stop pursuing the policy of privatisation in our prisons, particularly in prisons that hold convicted prisoners, we should accelerate that policy? It is one of the ways forward in ensuring that greater responsibility is accepted by all those who run the prisons and are accountable for them.

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her remarks. I believe that the policies that we are pursuing are in the interests of the country as a whole. I have no intention of being deflected from them. The private sector clearly has a role in operating our prisons. The indications so far are that it can bring new ideas and greater cost-effectiveness to bear in the provision of prison services. I shall continue to proceed in a measured and responsible way.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Judge Stephen Tumim's letter of December, which identified problems at Parkhurst, referred to one general problem—a staff reluctance to confront prisoners. Does the Home Secretary agree that such reluctance is particularly dangerous when it is manifested not by the prison officers on the wings, but by the management within prisons? Does he accept that the problem is not confined to Parkhurst but extends elsewhere? Will he consult the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), who has responsibility for prisons in Northern Ireland? A similar if not more dangerous position prevails in prisons in Northern Ireland and it should be dealt with. Does he agree that the police on the Isle of Wight were greatly assisted by their ability to publish photographs and names of wanted men without being accused of collusion?

Mr. Howard

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says. He is right to identify a refusal to confront prisoners as a problem of enormous seriousness, whether it occurs in Great Britain or in Northern Ireland. It is certainly a problem that must be tackled. I am sure that I can learn lessons from what happens in Northern Ireland and perhaps the reverse can happen. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend disregard the personal abuse and party political claptrap of the Opposition? Is not it clear that the fault lay much lower down the line and that my right hon. and learned Friend has reacted vigorously and speedily to deal with that? The statement that he has made today has demonstrated that he is properly accountable to Parliament. Will the Learmont inquiry or possibly some other inquiry deal with the escape from Littlehey prison in my constituency, which is normally a very efficient and well-run prison, or will some other inquiry have to be set up? Does my right hon. and learned Friend think it rather odd that one of the prisoners who escaped was due for release in April? Does he agree that it is disturbing that one of the other prisoners who escaped was a psychopathic rapist sentenced to life imprisonment whom, curiously, the Parole Board released after only a limited time?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. There will be an internal inquiry into the escape from Littlehey, but if any lessons of general application to prison security can be learned from that escape, they will come within the remit of General Sir John Learmont's inquiry. I know that he will be interested in them. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about the oddity of someone whose release is almost imminent nevertheless escaping. These things happen in the Prison Service. I have a great deal of sympathy with the last point that my hon. Friend made about the circumstances in which parole was granted to one of the other prisoners who escaped.

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

Is the Home Secretary saying that if the geophones had been fitted, they would have been rendered useless by the building works? Is that his argument?

Mr. Howard

I do not claim any personal expertise in such matters. I am advised that geophones cannot be installed when extensive building works are under way because they do not work effectively in those circumstances. [Interruption.] That is partly because they are constantly set off by the building works and partly—to deal with the night time point, which I understand—because the building works tend to damage the geophones regularly in a way that impairs their effectiveness. It was on the basis of—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman is really interested in the matter and looks into it in detail, he will find that the decision to go ahead with the installation of geophones was taken in the first financial year for which I had any responsibility. So, I have no reason to give the hon. Gentleman anything other than the reason why the Prison Service did not install geophones while the building work was being carried out, which was that it acted on advice that they would not be effective while the work was under way.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

No fair-minded or reasonable person could think that the matters that my right hon. and learned Friend explained today are a reason for resignation. It is a fact, however, that the Director General of the Prison Service has presided over a regime so lax that, in recent months, he was prepared to sanction a convicted rapist taking part in the London marathon. In recent days, a prisoner has written to me from a prison in Devon—a convicted rapist, serving a six-year sentence—complaining about the fact that he has not had enough home visits. It is that degree of laxity that is upsetting the public. That laxity is ultimately the responsibility of the person in charge of operations, Derek Lewis. How much worse have matters got to get before, at the very least, he considers his position or has it considered for him?

Mr. Howard

I dealt with that question in my answer to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I have taken action to deal with one of the matters that my hon. Friend mentioned—the extent to which home leave and temporary release were being granted excessively and without adequate regard to the need to protect the public. New guidance has been issued to deal with that matter and it is having a significant effect.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

In view of the concern about security at Parkhurst, will the Secretary of State tell the House what correspondence about geophones has taken place since 1988, between the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) and Home Office Ministers? Does he accept that he and the other Ministers are responsible for the fact that they were not installed prior to April 1994?

Mr. Howard

For the reason that I have already given, I do not accept that. It is perfectly true that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) corresponded with my predecessors about that very matter. He drew to their attention the advantages that geophones offer. That matter was consistently considered and the conclusion to which I referred was reached—that, in view of the building works that were taking place, it would not have been sensible to install geophones. The key moment when building works will be complete will be April 1995 and it is expected that geophones will then be operational, their installation having been completed by that date.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that most improvements in operational performance, for example, in health or hospital care, or rail and air travel, have followed regrettable breakdowns in operational service? With regard to the public interest, the key issue is the positive response that is made to remedial measures following breakdowns. Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore accept congratulations, at least from Conservative Members, on the completely assiduous and open way in which he has kept the House informed about all the operational breakdowns and the concentrated and energetic way in which he is making certain that long-term remedies and improvements are put in hand?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. There is much truth in what he said, and the Prison Service ought to look upon this train of extremely unhappy events as an opportunity for it to reform and improve itself, to ensure that they are not repeated.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Home Secretary recall that, just before the Christmas recess, he used as his excuse the fact that previous Home Secretaries had experienced prison breakouts, so those were not a reason for his resignation? Does not he realise that none of the reputations of those Home Secretaries was anywhere near as tarnished as his, and that there will be no confidence in wide-ranging matters of law and order as long as he is so desperate to cling to office?

Mr. Howard

The people will view the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act and its importance in helping the police, helping them bring criminals to justice, helping to convict people who are guilty of crimes and giving courts the powers to pass appropriate sentences, in rather a different light from the way in which the hon. Gentleman views it.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that I wrote to him on 2 January, after the second riot at Everthorpe, to suggest that he should oblige prisoners who have rioted and done damage to remain in their cells until they have repaired them? I see no reason why the taxpayer should do that for them. I was therefore pleased to receive an assurance that prison labour has been used to restore much of the damage. Does he accept, however, that I shall be very angry indeed— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, I should be jolly cross if any of the 67 or the 124 prisoners who are to be transferred were sent to gaols such as mine in Lancaster, which is very well run and has a good governor and wardens and prisoners who co-operate, as that would be wholly unfair.

Mr. Howard

The last thing that I would want to do is to make my hon. Friend cross or angry. I assure her that any prisoner who can be found to be responsible for taking part in the disturbances at Everthorpe will be subjected to disciplinary action and possibly to prosecution. I hope that that meets the essential concern that lay behind her intervention.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

The Secretary of State says that he is responsible only for policy. After the Strangeways riots four and a half years ago, the Woolf inquiry report made recommendations that most hon. Members on both sides of the House thought would transform the Prison Service. The Government and the then Home Secretary made a strong commitment to implementing Woolf. Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman became Home Secretary, the Woolf recommendations have been assiduously buried. That is policy, that is his responsibility and that is why we have the present crisis and why he should resign.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. If one studies some of the key objectives of the Woolf report, one finds that Lord Woolf attached great importance to reducing overcrowding. At the beginning of 1988, more than 5,000 prisoners were held three to a cell built for one, but now none is. In his report, Lord Woolf attached great importance to increasing the amount of purposeful activity in which prisoners engaged outside their cells. Such activity has increased by 12 per cent. during the past year. I do not think that Lord Woolf wanted his objectives to be achieved at the expense of prison security and the protection of the public and it is my job to ensure that the latter receive the priority that they deserve.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend have any evidence that the Prison Officers Association has been urging or instructing its members at Parkhurst not to co-operate with the police inquiry, or any other inquiry, into the escapes? If he has such evidence, what does he intend to do with it?

Mr. Howard

I have evidence that members of the Prison Officers Association were instructed not to co-operate with the police inquiry and that they did not do so. I am passing that evidence to Sir John Learmont and to the disciplinary investigation.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

Is not it a fact that the Home Secretary has made repeated comments about boards of visitors at Whitemoor and Parkhurst? Their annual reports were an expression of deep concern about security and many other aspects of the day-to-day running of prisons. What credibility does he give to the annual reports produced by those boards, in view of the countless hours that many of their members give during their day-to-day involvement in overseeing what is happening in prisons? Can they have any confidence that the right hon. and learned Gentleman ever considers the work that they put in and looks at their annual reports?

Mr. Howard

I take those reports and the work done by boards of visitors very seriously. I spoke to the chairman of the board of visitors at Parkhurst this morning to congratulate and thank him and his board on the work that they have been doing, which is enormously appreciated. We are all in their debt as they work long hours on an entirely voluntary basis and perform an extremely useful task.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend is comforted today by the support from the Conservative Benches for the tough measures that he has announced and taken, contrary to the ridiculous press stories that we have been reading over the past few weeks about falling support on Conservative Benches. Will he ask those conducting market testing to explain why, since 1979, the prison population has gone up by 15 per cent., yet the number of prison officers has risen by 70 per cent? Is not it right for taxpayers to ask whether they are getting a good deal?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. The figures that he cited are important when considering the allegations constantly made about the effect of the increase in the prison population on conditions in prisons. They are telling figures. Even since 1989, the prison population has increased by about 1,000, yet the number of prison officers has increased by about 4,000. Those important facts are relevant to this debate and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to them.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Does the Home Secretary know that, after a tragically high number of suicides in Armley prison in my constituency, his Department issued new and full guidelines to monitor potential suicides? Given that another prisoner committed suicide in Armley prison on new year's eve, will he explain what has happened to those guidelines? Were they temporary? Are they long forgotten? They seem to be proving ineffectual in the whole system.

Mr. Howard

The guidelines are certainly in place, but I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman on the case to which he has drawn attention. It is a matter of great regret that last year saw an increase in the number of suicides in prisons. The number of suicides is greatly to be regretted. On the whole, our record is significantly better than that of most other countries, but that gives no cause for comfort and we take the problem seriously.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

We have heard much this afternoon about inquiries, but is not it time that we took Judge Tumim's advice and had a wide-ranging inquiry into how prisons are run? Are not drug dealing and bullying rife in virtually all prisons? While I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's concern to stamp them out, we need more than concern: we must take a fresh look at the problem. I do not ask my right hon. and learned Friend to take the words of Mr. Bartell as gospel, but, in taking that fresh look, will he take account of the views of prison officers who are operating prisons on the ground?

Mr. Howard

I take into account all relevant views and test them against the facts, which is the sensible way to approach matters. My hon. Friend is right to express concern about the misuse of drugs in prisons. One of the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which came into force yesterday, enables the random testing of drugs in prisons for the first time. I hope that a random testing programme will be implemented in prisons over the next few months.

A wide-ranging general inquiry is exactly what I asked Sir John Learmont to carry out in the aftermath of Whitemoor. It is principally into issues of prison security, but I have had a preliminary discussion with Sir John, who clearly takes the view that in order properly to address issues of prison security, he must look far and wide across the Prison Service at how it is organised, and I have not sought to discourage him in that approach.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth)

The Home Secretary admitted that last October Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons warned him of serious deficiencies in security at Parkhurst. Why, then, did he go on television and radio so regularly and deny that he had been given such warnings?

Mr. Howard

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is completely inaccurate and misinformed.

Mr. Enright

I saw you.

Mr. Howard

I have never denied that I received warnings from Judge Tumim. Indeed, I have always totally accepted that I received the warning from Judge Tumim. I have told the House today what action that I took on that warning. The hon. Gentleman can see for himself the terms in which the warning was issued because I have put Judge Tumim's letter in the Library. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's recollection is false.

Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester)

In respect of my constituent, Mr. Fred West, does my right hon. and learned Friend feel that an internally generated inquiry and report are likely to conclude that surveillance arrangements were adequate? Do not the facts speak for themselves? Did not Mr. West's son warn some weeks earlier that his father might commit suicide? Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore ensure that the prison officers directly responsible are held accountable for what must surely have been negligence?

Mr. Howard

The evidence that we have so far, based on the internal inquiry, does not justify my hon. Friend's conclusion. However, all those matters will be looked at afresh and fully at the inquest, which will, of course, be held in public. All my hon. Friend's understandable concerns about what happened can then be explored, investigated and thoroughly assessed in that forum, which is the appropriate one.

Madam Speaker

We shall now move on.