HC Deb 16 March 1998 vol 308 cc953-8 3.46 pm
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement in respect of events at the Maze prison which have resulted in the death of Mr. David Keyes, a prisoner on remand.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

I should like to say at the outset how much I and the Secretary of State regret the death of Mr. David Keyes in the Maze prison during the weekend. The Northern Ireland Prison Service owes a duty of care to all prisoners, regardless of what they have done, or may have done, and any death in custody is a matter of deep distress to prison staff and those responsible for the safety and security of prisoners.

The circumstances of this case are now the subject of a murder investigation, so I must choose my words with care.

David Oliver Keyes was found dead in his cell in C wing of H block 6 at approximately 8.30 am on Sunday 15 March 1998, during the routine morning cell check. The body was found hanging with a ligature around the neck and both wrists slashed. He was pronounced dead at 9.5 am. The cause of death seemed to be suicide.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the coroner's office were notified, and the prisoners were moved out of C wing. During the course of the day, the police and a pathologist visited the scene. Both took the view that the cause of death might not be suicide. At 17.00 hours, the body was removed for a post mortem, the results of which led the RUC to launch a murder inquiry yesterday evening.

Following his arrest and questioning by the RUC, Mr. Keyes was remanded in custody on 11 March 1998 and was committed to Her Majesty's prison Maghaberry. He asked for, and was given, a form to complete, seeking a transfer to the wings of HMP Maze occupied by the Loyalist Volunteer Force. That form is intended to ensure that the applicant is quite clear in his mind about the faction with which he wishes to be housed, and about the nature of the regime that operates in the Maze. Mr. Keyes signed and dated that form on 11 March.

In accordance with normal practice, the LVF prisoners were asked to confirm that Mr. Keyes was acceptable to them; they said that he was. No information was available to the Northern Ireland Prison Service that suggested that Mr. Keyes was in any way at risk from that faction. Accordingly, he was transferred to the LVF wings of the Maze on 11 March.

The Maze prison contains more than 400 convicted terrorists, and a further 100 or so are remanded in custody in connection with scheduled offences. Some 150 prisoners have been convicted of murder or attempted murder. They are segregated according to faction, and two of the five factions have not declared ceasefires. All the factions have considerable political and paramilitary influence that extends beyond the perimeters of the prisons in which they are held. Any one of those factors would, by itself, constitute a challenge to security and control—combined, they present the Northern Ireland Prison Service with a unique set of circumstances which is not replicated elsewhere.

In the past year, a series of incidents have rightly given rise to concern about the effectiveness of the establishment. Each has been the subject of an inquiry, and substantial improvements in security have been made under the guidance of a new management team. The escape by a prisoner and murder of another prisoner in December 1997 are the subject of both police investigations and an inquiry by Martin Narey of Her Majesty's Prison Service. He is independent of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. I have received his report, and it will be made public shortly—although care must be taken to ensure that its publication does not prejudice the on-going RUC investigation or any subsequent judicial process. In addition, the Secretary of State has asked Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, to conduct a full inspection of the prison. That will begin next Monday, and his report will be published in due course.

In the light of all those investigations, it would not be appropriate for me to say more today about the nature and performance of HMP Maze. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that Ministers will treat the reports' conclusions and recommendations with the utmost seriousness.

Mr. Maginnis

I shall not deal with the Minister's shameful admission at the Dispatch Box this afternoon that prisoners engage in self-regulation from the moment they enter the Maze prison. Society suffers greatly as a result of any murder, but democracy as a whole suffers when a murder is carried out for blatantly political purposes and advantage.

Will the Minister explain how, when a tunnel progressed for many yards in the Maze before it was discovered, a prisoner attending a children's Christmas party escaped, a convicted prisoner was murdered, and now a prisoner in custody has been murdered, society can be expected to have any confidence in the Executive and the Administration in Northern Ireland? If those who are supposed to be in a controlled environment cannot be protected, how can we protect society as a whole?

The core issue for the Minister today is how the Executive and the Administration will respond to the Narey inquiry and Sir David Ramsbotham's inspection. Will a judicial sworn inquiry be launched as a result of this incident? Will the Secretary of State and others make the blatant presumption that no one needs to resign as a result of this outrageous situation? As has occurred in the past, will no one in charge be found to be culpable? The Minister must admit that it is no good his saying that this sort of thing went on before Labour came to power. After 10 months, I must ask: when will the Minister and his colleagues accept responsibility in government?

Finally, is it not a matter of the utmost significance and the greatest concern that the Ministers and civil servants who have made such a diabolical mess of our prisons over the past 10 months are the same Ministers and senior civil servants who have lost the confidence not only of the Prison Service and the governors association in the Prison Service, but of the Police Authority for Northern Ireland, the Police Federation in Northern Ireland, and a vast number of ordinary members of society in Northern Ireland, who see those same people carrying out an exercise in dealing with the RUC that will soon place that police force in the same disorganised position as the Prison Service?

Will the Minister get the message, and will he and his colleagues stop distorting and dissembling what is going on in the Prison Service?

Mr. Ingram

I shall start from the end point. The opposite is the case. Since we have taken over the administration, we have tried to be more transparent, open and honest about the realities that we have inherited in Northern Ireland, both in the Prison Service and in wider society. That is why we have what we believe to be a successful peace process in place. We have faced up to realities and stopped using the language of history and the mantras of old. We have tried to look towards the future and the new.

The hon. Gentleman commented on the self-regulation in the prison. That is indeed the case. There is an element of self-regulation. It has been there for a considerable number of years.

As a result of the attempted tunnel escape to which the hon. Gentleman referred, a major investigation was carried out by a senior civil servant. Those recommendations are being implemented. Most of those that would impact greatly on increased security in the prison have been implemented.

On the back of the prisoner escape involving Liam Averill and on the back of the murder of Billy Wright, a further investigation has been carried out. We await the publication of that report. It would be wrong to issue any statements in advance of that, because of what I said about the possible danger of prejudging an existing RUC investigation and any judicial action that may follow from it.

The hon. Gentleman asked when Ministers would accept responsibility. We do accept responsibility. That is why we are seeking to implement the changes that we have undertaken. However, everyone in Northern Ireland, including local politicians, must also accept responsibility.

The consequence of change in the administration of the Maze would clearly have a significant impact among the prisoners, possibly leading to major disorder in the prison, as we have seen time and again in the Maze. Also, because of the large-scale support that those prisoners have out with the prison, in the communities from which they come, there could well be major public disorder in the estates of Northern Ireland. If that is the kind of change that local politicians want, and if those are the consequences that they want for their community, they should say so now.

It is not just a matter of local politicians raising questions; they must also look for answers for their own troubled society. That is what the Government are trying to manage, to the best of our ability. I would have expected and hoped for a little more calmness from the hon. Gentleman in the present situation, because of what could flow from current developments, as happened after the murder of Billy Wright. We can all remember the large number of sectarian murders that flowed from that. Calmness and responsibility are required from all politicians—not just from Ministers, but from local politicians.

Mr. James Cran (Beverley and Holderness)

The Opposition join everyone in the House and elsewhere in deeply regretting yet another killing in the Maze prison, and send condolences to the family of Mr. David Keyes.

This is a crime which should not have been possible. Many questions will be asked, just as they were at the time of the killing of Mr. Billy Wright. Questions can be asked in the House, but they simply cannot be answered. That is why, at the time of the killing of Mr. Billy Wright, the House will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) called upon the Government to set up a fully independent inquiry, simply because that was the only way in which there could be confidence in the outcome of any inquiry.

It is regrettable that the Government chose to ignore that advice and instead instigated what, in effect, is an internal investigation. That simply will not do now. I repeat the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell yet again for an independent inquiry to be set up speedily. Any other action will not meet the requirement of this serious situation, which must not be repeated.

In anticipation of the reports that the Minister mentioned and has commissioned, can he offer any guarantees that there will not be a repetition of the killing that we are now discussing?

Mr. Ingram

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's early comments in recognising that there are difficulties in answering detailed questions during what is clearly an RUC murder investigation. I appreciate that at least he recognises that such questions could prejudice that investigation.

The hon. Gentleman has repeated once again the request for a full judicial public inquiry. He should know that that process would, of itself, have to be long running. It would have to take full account of any police investigation and any judicial processes that flowed from that. Therefore, it would be some time before any conclusions could possibly be implemented on the back of such an inquiry. The hon. Gentleman has made that call in advance of the publication of the Narey report. I suggest that he await the publication of that report. Let him see how thorough that report has been, as I believe it has. He should then judge the conclusions accordingly as they arise from the report.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could anticipate future events. I cannot do that. No Minister in any Administration has ever been able to give such guarantees. Violence exists within all prisons, or there is the potential for it within all prisons on the mainland and in Northern Ireland. I believe that that is even more so within the regime at the Maze because of the very nature of the prisoners who are in it.

That is why, before a prisoner is transferred to the Maze, he is fully informed of the sort of regime that he is entering. It is on the prisoner's own decision that he enters that regime. That is the reality which has applied for many years. Indeed, it applied under the previous Administration. It is what we have inherited that is under investigation, not what we have created.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Liberal Democrats, too, join others in regretting the death of the prisoner concerned and of any prisoner who is housed in Her Majesty's prisons. I acknowledge straight away the difficulties that the Government face in trying to address this issue and bringing it to a suitable conclusion.

The Maze is an extraordinary prison, by any standards. The events of the past 12 months have proven it to be one of the most extraordinary prisons in the world. The first duty of a prison is, clearly, to protect society from its inmates. Its second duty is to protect inmates from one another. It is clear that in the Maze we are failing to achieve both those objectives.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches hope that the Government will launch a fresh and independent inquiry. We support the Conservative approach in that direction. If any individuals are directly or indirectly responsible, we would not expect them to remain in their current jobs. We do not, however, call for resignations at this moment because we feel that that would be inappropriate until a full investigation has taken place.

Does the Minister agree, therefore, that he is responsible for making absolutely sure that prisoners are safe in the Maze? What steps will he take to ensure that a murder or, indeed, a suicide, does not occur in the prison in the near future?

Mr. Ingram

Again, I welcome the acknowledgement that the circumstances that prevail in HMP Maze are unique. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Government and the Prison Service have a duty of care to the prisoners in their charge, and, indeed, to wider society. The Government fully recognise that.

The hon. Gentleman requested a full judicial public inquiry. I explained the difficulties associated with that and the delay that could flow from it, which would not address the specific problems that we face at present. As I said to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran), he should await the outcome of the Narey report. Judge us on it, and if there is dissatisfaction with its recommendations, the demand for a further inquiry could be made at that time.

The Government live up to their responsibility, but the hon. Gentleman's request for guarantees for the future—no murders, no suicides, possibly no escapes—is impossible to grant. I ask him to take on board what I said to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). There would be significant consequences if the regime in the Maze was changed. It would mean a more draconian regime. First, could prison officers continue to service such a regime, or would some other force need to be put into the prison if there were major riots? Secondly, how would we deal with the consequences of a reaction in the communities that support those prisoners?

That is what all hon. Members have to face up to when they make their demands. The reality of the regime in the Maze was not faced in the past, in the sense of being honest and open about it. That is what we are addressing.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I remind the Minister that, not so long ago, the Secretary of State was taking the advice, for what it is worth, of convicted terrorists in the Maze prison? How can it be seen that her action, in giving weight to their counsels and advice, has in any sense improved the regime in that establishment? Is it not true that Her Majesty's Government's prime responsibility is to ensure the total reliability of the prison and custodial system, on which the rule of law so very much depends? Without that rule of law, how can any just, lasting and enduring peace be achieved?

Will the Government now make it their priority to listen to the advice of elected, democratic politicians, like my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who tabled the private notice question today, rather than give weight to the counsels of terrorists?

Mr. Ingram

Let me explain that the Secretary of State did not enter the Maze to seek the advice of the prisoners. It was a bold step, which was recognised internationally as something which kept the ceasefire of a major loyalist paramilitary group on side. It was brave. It took guts to ensure that the particular group of paramilitaries outside the prison that supports its members inside ceased the sectarian murders that it was carrying out. That is the reality that the hon. Gentleman has to face up to. We listen to advice from local politicians and others.

On the administration of the Maze, we have put in place a detailed investigation by Martin Narey and asked Sir David Ramsbotham to carry out a full inspection of the prison. I think that that is the best quality advice that we can obtain, from people who are expert on and knowledgeable about the administration of prisons.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I, too, express my sympathy to the relatives of the deceased prisoner, David Keyes, as do all my colleagues, but I regret that the Minister is indicating that it is likely that we shall continue to yield to blackmail from those within and without our prisons. Irrespective of where historical responsibility lies for the lack of security and control in our prisons, and especially for the lack of proper management at the Maze, does the Minister accept that the recent murders of prisoners show a total disregard for authority by people in prison?

Will the Minister take steps to end the system of self-regulation by prisoners? The sooner that is done, the better.

Mr. Ingram

Let me make it clear that the Secretary of State and I are not yielding to blackmail from people in the prison or prisoners groups. We are trying to manage a difficult and complex situation. The level of security in the Maze, far from being reduced, has been increased. New security measures, such as cell checks, fabric checks and scrutiny of visitors during visits and of prisons during and after visits, have been put in place since the report on the tunnel escape attempt, the Wright murder and the Averill escape.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to end the self-regulatory regime. If we do so, prison officers will have to go down the wing at night, with prisoners under lock asking for sanitation. We must take into account the threats that that would pose to prison officers. HMP Maze contains ruthless murderers and terrorists who do not value life very highly, and 29 prison officers have lost their lives during the troubles. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that prison officers should again be exposed to such a regime, I shall take his view fully into account in my considerations.