HL Deb 18 December 1980 vol 415 cc1205-10

11.37 a.m.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question of which I have given Private Notice. The Question is as follows:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the situation in Northern Ireland arising from the hunger strike of men and women prisoners, and the likely effect in extending violence".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, there are now 40 prisoners taking part in the hunger strike at Her Majesty's Prisons Maze and Armagh. These are made up of the seven male republican hunger strikers at Maze, now on their 53rd day, plus the 30 who joined on 15th-16th December, and the three republican women at Armagh, who started on 1st December. The three Armagh hunger strikers are showing appreciable weight loss, but their general condition is otherwise reasonable. The other recent strikers are not causing anxiety at present. The original seven, however, are now all showing marked deterioration.

The Government's position has been made clear in statements made on 23rd October and 4th December. There can be no question of the Government conceding the demands of the hunger strikers for political status. However, the Government have been, and continue to be, ready, despite the protest, to deal with the humanitarian aspects of the conditions in the prisons arising from the protest. Indeed, it is a matter of regret that changes made have been rejected, but this will not alter the Government's resolve to build on the progress achieved in recent years in the administration of Northern Ireland prisons.

As for the public order implications of the hunger strike, it is for the chief constable to decide how best to deal with the operational repercussions of any particular situation. If he feels it necessary to do so, he may call upon army support, which is available. So far the police have not required such support, and no doubt your Lordships will agree that they have handled the situation admirably.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, I wish to express appreciation for that very full reply. Arising from the Minister's suggestion that the Government have been making proposals for humanitarian reform, may I ask whether he can indicate what those proposals are, and whether they cover clothes, association, visits, and letters; and, if so, have those suggestions been rejected by the hunger strikers?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I can best reply to that supplementary question by quoting from the Written Answer given in another place on 4th December, in which the five specific demands of the prisoners were listed: "To wear their own clothes; to refrain from prison work; to associate freely with one another; to organise recreational facilities and to have one letter, visit and parcel a week; and to have lost remission fully restored". The House may not be aware of the extent to which these conditions are already available to the prisoners. Prison rules require prisoners to wear prison-issue clothing or special clothes appropriate to their work during normal working hours, on weekdays from half-past seven in the morning to five o'clock in the evening; but, as a privilege, prisoners may unless they are engaged on orderly duties wear their own clothing for the rest of the evening during the week and throughout the weekend. It will therefore be seen that a prisoner conforming with the rules may wear his own clothing for almost half the time he would expect to be out of his cell. For the remainder of the time, the Government's decision of the 23rd October—and that is to what I would direct the noble Lord's attention—means that conforming prisoners will be wearing civilian clothing issued by the prison authorities.

As to work, prison rules require convicted prisoners to "engage in useful work", and four main types of such work are undertaken. First, some prisoners undertake domestic tasks in the kitchens, dining areas, ablutions and wings; second, an extensive range of industrial employment is provided in prison workshops; and, third, vocational training is available to teach a wide range of skills. Courses have been developed to the requirements of the skills testing service of the City and Guilds of London Institute; fourth, education classes are provided during working hours (from two to 20 hours a week) to cover a wide range of prisoners' needs, from remedial education to Open University courses. Classes in craft theory are given to complement the vocational training side, while tuition is provided in a wide range of subjects enabling prisoners to study for RSA City and Guilds literacy and numeracy certificates, GCE "O" and "A" level certificates.

On the third point, association, the prison rules provide, as a privilege, that each weekday during the evening for three hours, and throughout the day at weekends, prisoners have "association" during which, within each 25-cell wing they may watch television, play indoor games, follow hobbies and exercise in the yard attached to each wing and attend education classes. A wide range of evening classes is provided, and there is some dovetailing with daytime courses. Apart from text books, the Northern Ireland education and library boards provide well-stocked libraries; and books and newspapers may be taken to be read in the cells.

On recreation, the protestors demand the right to organise recreational facilities. The prison regime already provides for the use of gymnasia and playing pitches in addition to the statutory exercise period of not less than one hour each day in the open air when practicable. During association periods prisoners may use the hobbies room for supervised handicraft and artistic activities. I hope your Lordships think I am not being too full in this reply, but there is a little more and I think your Lordships would like to know.

On visits, letters and parcels, the protestors demand one visit, one parcel and one letter each week, Under prison rules, each prisoner enjoys as of right one letter and one visit per month. The rules provide, as a privilege, seven additional letters per month at the expense of the prison, three additional visits and a weekly parcel. Special parcels are also allowed at Christmas, Easter and Halloween. Thus, the existing privileges are already more generous than the protestors demand.

On remission, the prisoners are demanding the restoration in full of the remission that they have lost while engaged in the protest. Prison rules provide that a prisoner serving a term of more than one month receives remission, subject to good conduct, up to one-half of his sentence. This is a more generous rate of remission than is available elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Remission may be forfeited as a punishment for breach of prison rules, but it may be restored after subsequent good behaviour. The protestors have lost one day's remission for each day they have been in breach of prison rules. The opportunity to regain lost remission already exists.

My Lords, I believe that I could deposit in the Library a fuller account of the conditions if it was required, but I think your Lordships will be seized of the fact that the bulk of what the prisoners claim to be seeking is in fact available to them already, without recourse to the methods they have chosen to pursue.

Lord Blease

My Lords, is it not a fact that this House shares with my noble friend Lord Brockway his deep concern about the dire consequences of the decision of the hunger strikers to reject the personal plea of Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich and the Government, and others, to end their fast to death? May I ask the Minister whether he considers that there may still be hope if new approaches could be made by Church leaders on the basis of the Cardinal's personal plea and the Government's recent Statement on prison procedures in the Maze? May I further ask the noble Lord whether he would consider making suitable approaches to the Prime Minister to arrange for urgent and private discussions with the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party in another place about the immediate issues arising from this hunger strike as it affects the people of Ireland and of this country?

Lord Elton

My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's first suggestion, that a new approach by Church leaders might affect the commitment of the prisoners, we would always welcome any support from that direction. I am certain that what the noble Lord has said about a meeting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of his party and the Leader of the Liberal Party will be noted in Hansard. I cannot of course commit my right honourable friend to any response.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I have visited the Maze Prison and have been very much struck by the high standard of the conditions there for those prisoners who co-operate, and that I do not think that the Government should concede special privileges to terrorists? It will be a tragedy if any of the hunger strikers dies, just as it was a tragedy that their victims died or were maimed. It is all part of the turmoil in Northern Ireland today. Does the Minister not agree that the strife between the two communities will be healed, but that it is going to need a great deal more patience, coupled with a determination to see genuine wrongs righted and grievances sorted out? I do not think these grievances and wrongs fall into the category that might be suggested by the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not think I can disagree with anything that the noble Lord has said.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister a very short question? Why do not the Government make this information generally known in the country? I may say that what he has said today has given me some comfort about this terrible tragedy that is going on, but in the country this information is not known. Why do not the BBC or the ITV present a programme which says this?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness's welcome for what I have said. I certainly will continue to do everything I can to make it more widely known, and so will Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, would the noble Lord tell us whether, in that programme, there could be included how many people these seven have murdered and how many they have gravely injured?

Lord Elton

My Lords, there is, of course, rather a large number of people under sentence. The prisoner Leo Patrick Green was sentenced for the murder of an RUC inspector; for attempted murder, three counts; for wounding with intent, two counts; and for possessing firearms and ammunition with intent. Raymond McCartney was sentenced for the murder of a constable and of Mr. Geoffrey Agate, manager of the Dupont factory, Londonderry, and for belonging to a proscribed organisation. Sean McKenna was sentenced for attempted murder of two reserve constables; possessing firearms and ammunition with intent, carrying firearms with intent, three counts; carrying firearms in a public place; wounding with intent, two counts; possessing firearms and ammunition with intent; causing an explosion, two counts; possessing explosive substances with intent, three counts; false imprisonment; possessing firearms with intent; conspiracy to intimidate and belonging to a proscribed organisation. Thomas McKearney was sentenced for the murder of a postman who was a part-time member of the UDR: possessing firearms and ammunition with intent, and for assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Joseph Nixon was sentenced for robbery on two counts. Thomas McFeeley: attempted wounding, with intent, of a policeman, using firearms to resist arrest, possessing firearm and ammunition with intent, possessing firearm and ammunition in suspicious circumstances and robbery, two counts. Brendan Hughes: handling stolen goods, possessing explosive substances, with intent, possessing firearms and ammunition, with intent.

My Lords, that is a long list. I think it answers the noble Lord's question.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I do not want to prevent the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, from asking his final question, but when he has done so and after my noble friend has answered, perhaps we might move on.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, as a means of seeking a solution and in view of the statement of the Catholic leaders that they regard these proposals as a way out, could not a deputation from the Archbishops and Bishops be arranged to meet the hunger strikers in their prison to try to dissuade them?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am not certain to which proposals the noble Lord refers. As I said earlier, any assistance which the Church leaders can give in persuading the hunger strikers to abandon a course which is suicidal to them and difficult for many other people would be very welcome.