HC Deb 11 February 2004 vol 417 cc1398-400
3. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

What representations he has received on the separation of paramilitary prisoners from other prisoners at Maghaberry prison. [153157]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

The closing date for responses to the consultation on separation was set as 22 January. By the end of the consultation exercise, 21 submissions had been received from a variety of sources. We are currently considering those representations and will publish our conclusions shortly.

Mr. Barnes

My right hon. Friend will be aware that today sees the publication of the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the separation of paramilitary prisoners from ordinary prisoners in Maghaberry prison. It says that it was a dangerous decision for the public servants that had to implement it; that it was made for political reasons, following a campaign by dissidents; and that the trail seems to go back to 10 Downing street, where the decision may have been made by officials. May we have a guarantee that the line will now be drawn and we will not end up with the situation at Maghaberry that we used to have at the Maze, with the paramilitaries running their own areas?

Jane Kennedy

We will obviously study the report carefully and respond at the appropriate time. It is important to understand that the Steele review was of the safety of staff and prisoners at Maghaberry. On that basis, it was welcomed and endorsed by church leaders and political parties in Northern Ireland. Decisions were taken on that basis by Northern Ireland Ministers. I welcome the detail of the report, which shows how complex and dangerous it is to manage and run prisons in Northern Ireland. In accepting John Steele's recommendations, we have made it clear that there will be no return to Maze-style conditions. We are determined that prison staff must remain in control, and the physical security measures, together with the prisoner compact, are designed to achieve that.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con)

When was the last time that the Secretary of State and his team took a decision contrary to all the advice received from every responsible agency in the Province, as happened over the prison issue?

Jane Kennedy

I can answer only for the decision that we took on this occasion. When we commissioned the Steele review, the terms of reference were clear: they were to examine options for improving conditions at Maghaberry prison, especially as they related to safety, for all prisoners and staff. Included in the terms of reference was the need to bear in mind the lessons of the past. I hope that that will reassure members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab)

The disturbances in summer 2003 were not instigated by paramilitaries, but by integrated prisoners—the ordinary, decent criminals, or ODCs as they are affectionately known. Since those disturbances, the best accommodation at Maghaberry has been put aside for separated paramilitary prisoners and integrated prisoners have had to double up. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that the facilities for the ordinary, decent criminal population will improve, thus preventing further disturbances this summer?

Jane Kennedy

I accept that there has been some reduction in the regime on offer to all prisoners in Maghaberry while we have been developing the arrangements for the separated prisoners. However, it is our intention that following establishment of the regime and the moving of the prisoners into their new accommodation, which we anticipate will take place at the end of this month, we will begin to put resources into the integrated regime that will continue to be offered in the rest of the prison.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)

The Minister will be aware of the recent attacks on prison officers and their homes, which are linked to the whole issue of separation. Recently, the Secretary of State reached an agreement with the Prison Officers Association to appoint an independent person to assess the need for security measures at home for individual cases. Can the Minister assure me that resources will not be an issue and that if prison officers need protection in their homes it will be made available? Will she confirm that it will not be a case of a window here or there, but that she will comply with the security recommendations?

Jane Kennedy

I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance.