HL Deb 11 June 1981 vol 421 cc331-5

4.12 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The text of the Statement is as follows:

"I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a Statement on the escape from Her Majesty's prison, Belfast.

"Eight prisoners escaped from Her Majesty's prison, Belfast, yesterday afternoon at about 4.15 p.m. All of them were at the time on remand. The trial of seven of them had already ended, and the judge is expected to deliver his judgment tomorrow. Four of those were charged with the murder of an Army officer, Captain Westmacott, who was killed when the Army and police surrounded a house in the Antrim Road, Belfast, in May 1980. Two were charged with the murder, in April 1980, of Police Constable Magill. The seventh man, Ryan, was charged with the murder of an RUC constable, Reserve Constable Scott, in 1976, and a former member of the UDR, Mr. Fowler, in 1978. The eighth man, Gerard Sloan, was charged with being in possession of explosives. The trial in this latter case has not yet begun.

"The escape began while the eight prisoners were in discussion with three solicitors in three separate groups, each group in a cubicle in the visiting room which is some 15 yards inside the main gate of the prison. The prisoners produced three pistols. Four prison officers were forced to hand over their uniforms, which were put on by four of the escaping prisoners. The escapers then made their way to the main gate of the prison, severely injuring a prison officer who attempted to prevent them from leaving the visiting area. This prison officer was struck on the head, and is in hospital with a suspected fractured skull.

"At the main gate prison officers on duty were forced at gunpoint to allow the prisoners to leave. The eight prisoners then went immediately to two cars which were apparently waiting for them. Up to this point they had not discharged firearms. The alarm was raised at the main gate, alerting other prison officers, and the Army and the police. At least one shot was fired by the escapers: fire was returned by the Army and the police. Nobody appears to have been hit. The two vehicles were abandoned not far away, and it appears that the prisoners then hijacked other vehicles to continue their escape.

"The police and Army mounted a large-scale operation immediately after the escape. This operation is continuing, but so far none of the escaped prisoners has been arrested.

"Immediately after the escape, two solicitors and one solicitor's apprentice were arrested and are still in police custody, as are two other men, subsequently arrested in connection with the escape.

"Sir, an event like this is something which I regard as of the utmost gravity, and I am sure the House will agree. Apart from apprehending those who escaped, which is a matter for the police, the immediate essential is to find out what went wrong and to take steps to stop its happening again. To this end, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made available Mr. W. H. Pearce, CBE, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, to conduct an urgent inquiry into security arrangements at the prison relevant to the escape of these eight men and to report to me. The inquiry will begin immediately."

That concludes the text of the Statement, my Lords.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for repeating in this House this very important Statement made in another place. The armed outbreak from this fortress-like prison could have serious implications not only for the people of Northern Ireland but for the people in Britain and in the Irish Republic. There is no doubt that this was a meticulously planned and expertly executed escape, and it raises many questions and issues. At this stage, I would hesitate to level blame, and especially at the already hard-pressed prison personnel and security forces. I am sure the House will join with me in wishing the injured officer and others who may be concerned who were injured, in this particular incident, a speedy recovery to full health.

However, I think it is understandable that the incident has raised considerable disquiet, and questions are already being asked about how this outbreak could have occurred—how did it happen? I think it is reasonable to ask how were the guns smuggled into the prison and made available to the prisoners? Under what circumstances were the meetings simultaneously arranged with the prisoners and their legal advisers in the confines in which they took place? Were there sufficient prison personnel on duty to deal with the position? In these days of such sophisticated and effective electronic detection and alarm devices, has the prison, or have prisons in Northern Ireland, been denied the finance to carry out suitable and adequate up-to-date security installations?

Finally, I should like to say that, whatever may be the follow-up procedures to be undertaken, I hope due regard will be given to the interests of innocent citizens in their homes. I certainly welcome the Statement and the assurance that immediate and thorough investigation is to be made of this serious incident and that it is already under way. I do not expect the noble Lord to reply to the questions that I have put to him today. Indeed, I consider this would be part of the duty of the person appointed to undertake the investigation. I would like to say that I have every confidence that Mr. Pearce, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, will carry out his task fearlessly and effectively. I hope that he will deal with not only this matter of the Crumlin Road prison but also the general prison situation in Northern Ireland as regards both conditions and aspects of security. With that, I give support to the Statement as outlined by the Minister.

Lord Banks

My Lords, I, too, should like to join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. We on these Benches share in the concern expressed in the Statement and by the noble Lord who has just spoken from the Opposition Front Bench. We also share in the sympathy expressed to those who have been hurt in the incident. We deplore the fact that these escapes have proved possible. On the face of it the security arrangements would appear to have been inadequate for dealing with prisoners with such serious offences in the prevailing conditions in Northern Ireland. How could the prisoners, for example, have come into possession of pistols? We are glad that there is to be an inquiry and we hope that the inquiry will be thorough and far-reaching.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, and the noble Lord, Lord Banks, I should like to say that indeed the inquiry will be far-reaching and thorough. As to the other questions of how this occurred and the apportionment of blame, it is quite right, as both noble Lords pointed out, that we should await the outcome of the inquiry.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I should like to add two questions to the very thorough remarks that have already been made. First, my recollection of when I was concerned with prisons in Northern Ireland was that every visitor, whether a solicitor or not, was searched. Is that correct? If that is so, then it seems to me that one can pinpoint pretty easily what went wrong. Secondly, while welcoming Mr. Pearce's appointment, may I ask that at least a good deal of his report be published?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as regards the first question of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, I point out that all visitors, including solicitors, are searched when they go into the prison. As to the publication of the inquiry, I shall certainly take the noble Lord's concern to my right honourable friend.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I thought that certainly some of the prison personnel, some of the officers, were, in fact, armed. Are they not armed at all?

Lord Elton

My Lords, if prison officers were armed there would be an every day, day-to-day danger of a prison officer's firearm being taken from him by a prisoner. They are not armed.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I welcome the Statement made by my noble friend on what to us, especially in the border area, is a major disaster, because there has, in fact, by this escape, been a recruitment of somewhere around a 30 per cent. increase in the efficient strength of gangs south of the border, because it is south of the border that I believe they will go. I should like to ask my noble friend whether his inquiry will extend right across the board of prisoners before they are convicted and, if convicted, go to the Maze Prison. It is on that level that I feel that our régime has become too liberal for the conditions in which we live. I should like to suggest to my noble friend that he should suggest to his right honourable friend that they might use the Maze Prison, which is an infinitely harder place from which to escape, as a remand prison for this particular type of prisoner.

Is my noble friend aware of the absolute dismay that there is in the Security Forces, which, in the case of one man, Ryan, spent four dangerous years chasing this vicious murderer? If the Government can do anything to try to reassure the Army and the police in their very dangerous task in this affair, it will be very welcome to everybody.

Also, I should like to ask my noble friend whether he will ask his right honourable friend the Prime Minister to press at once with the new Government in Dublin, whichever it may be, for some form of extradition or some efficient method of bringing these criminals to justice, because to the South of Ireland, to Monaghan they will go without a doubt. The present method is almost useless. Will my noble friend press that matter?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I leave the House in no doubt at all that the Government do regard this as a very serious event indeed, and I can give the assurance both to my noble friend and to the Security Forces that we do so regard it and will so treat it. On the question of the inquiry now in hand, which will begin physically on Monday, the prison in quesion is the only remand prison in Northern Ireland. It may be for question—and indeed I shall draw my right honourable friend's attention to my noble friend's suggestion—that there should be a different use for the Maze Prison. But what we are concerned with is what went wrong in the remand prison. The closer the terms of the inquiry, the quicker the result, and it is important to prevent this happening again. Of course my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is fully aware of the importance of co-operation in security matters across the border and, indeed, the desirability of extradition procedures, and that will not be lost sight of.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I should like to raise one further question relating exclusively to the inquiry. Mention was made of the possibility that Mr. Pearce's remit might extend to other prisons in Northern Ireland. In view of the obvious urgency of this particular escape from the Crumlin Road prison, can the noble Lord assure the House that Mr. Pearce's remit is concerned only with the escape that took place from that prison?

Lord Elton

My Lords, that is the remit as I now understand it. I have merely undertaken to draw this aspect of the question to the attention of my right honourable friend. However, like the noble Lord, I believe that this is a matter of urgency and we do not want something going on for a very long time.

Earl Erne

My Lords, in congratulating my noble friend Lord Brookeborough on his very apt questions, I should like to ask my noble friend if he is aware that the level of violence in the border areas—and I speak as a Fermanagh man—is by no means at a tolerable level? This latest incident will only make things worse.

Lord Elton

My Lords, no level of violence is acceptable. Every step will be taken to put the matter right.