HL Deb 26 January 1983 vol 438 cc252-5

2.55 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the spirit and intention of Prison Rule 31 is not contravened by the prolonged refusal to transfer certain prisoners from British to Northern Ireland prisons.

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

No, my Lords. The Government make considerable efforts to enable prisoners to maintain their family relationships, but in deciding where a prisoner should serve his sentence we also have to take account of many other factors, including the requirements of the prison system, the nature of his crime and the consequences of any transfer. It is not always possible for prisoners to be located near their homes, even in Great Britain, and there are particular obstacles to a transfer to Northern Ireland if a prisoner has committed an offence on behalf of a paramilitary organisation and there is no clear evidence that he has severed his link with that organisation.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his reply. May I ask him whether he accepts that Prison Rule 31 obliges the Government to pay special attention to the interests both of the prisoner and of his family? Would he agree that transfers would reduce the risk of family and marriage breakdown? Finally, do the Government still stand by the declaration of the Home Secretary that each request for a transfer will be considered on its merits?

Lord Elton

My Lords, indeed I am very much aware of the importance of considering the family interests of all prisoners within the prison system, but there are other considerations, both of justice and of the management of the prison system in this country and the prison system in Northern Ireland. In these cases I think that those considerations supervene. The Home Secretary does. however, look at each of these cases on its merits.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, will the Minister give an indication as to whether the Government or the prison authorities provide facilities whereby members of the family can visit prisoners at regular intervals?

Lord Elton

Yes, my Lords, indeed the Government do. Where a prisoner's family or nearest of kin are on supplementary benefit or a low income, they are eligible for assistance to travel to take up their visits. Provided the prisoner is in prison for three months or more, then they can do this once a month. If it is necessary to stay overnight, then there is also assistance by way of subsistence; and this is as available to the relatives in Northern Ireland of prisoners in this country as it is to the relatives of other prisoners.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, would the Minister accept that I was very glad to hear his expressed concern for the families of prisoners and for doing anything possible, no matter what the crime, to limit the damage to family relationships, particularly in the case of families with children? However, is the Minister aware that a journey by a family from Northern Ireland to, for instance, one of the two prisons in the Isle of Wight which hold a number of IRA prisoners involves a family in a journey by sea, by rail, and again by sea, with bus journeys at both ends, which requires at least 26 hours' travelling time each way, and longer when such families live in distant places like Derry and Fermanagh? Would the Minister not agree that this really does impose a heavy hardship on young families and wives travelling with them? Does it not limit the frequency of family visits? In these circumstances—this is my last question—would the Government consider funding such visits by air?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we are, I think I have already said, aware of the importance of relationships with the family, both to the prisoner and to the family. We are also aware of the difficulties of transportation over long distances. I have given an indication of the financial help which is available for this; and it is also possible for prisoners to accumulate an entitlement to visit and then go for a short period to a place more accessible to Northern Ireland for them to receive those visits.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, are we to assume from what the Minister has said that the number of cases where a transfer is refused is kept to the minimum? Will he confirm that transfer is refused only in the serious cases to which he referred in his first reply? Who makes the decision, and on what basis is the decision taken?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Question and Answer relate to those prisoners convicted of terrorist offences committed in this country. That is the subject to which I addressed myself in answer. The considerations relate both to the management of the prison population in Northern Ireland, among whom tension is at the moment somewhat increased because of a campaign to segregate Republican and Loyalist prisoners, and also to the management of the prison system in this country. In each case matters for decision are put first to myself to advise and then to the Home Secretary.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether, when he is considering the possibility of families visiting their relatives in prison, he has in mind that some members of these families are ill and that it is impossible for them to make the journey from Northern Ireland to the Isle of Wight? Will he also consider the point that some of these prisoners have a deep longing to return to what they regard as their homeland? Is it necessary to add that psychological punishment to the punishment of imprisonment?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the difficulty of travelling from Northern Ireland to the Isle of Wight, and I have said what steps we have taken in mitigation of that. As to the deep longing of the prisoners concerned to return to what they regard as their native land, I have to say that one must look at both sides of the coin. These are prisoners who have been convicted of crimes in association with terrorist organisations which deal massive blows against the happiness and, indeed, the survival of families in this country.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, may I ask the Minister to say how he reconciles all he has said with the fact that British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland are, in almost all cases when convicted of offences there, sent to this country, to Britain, for imprisonment?

Lord Elton

First, my Lords, soldiers in Northern Ireland are not convicted of terrorist offences; secondly, the soldiers in Northern Ireland have gone there in pursuit of their duties under orders; and, thirdly, the people we are talking about have committed crimes in this country of their own volition.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, when the noble Lord says "in this country", is he suggesting that Northern Ireland is not part of it?

Lord Elton

My Lords, there are two countries, one Province and one Principality which comprise the United Kingdom.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, would the Minister give consideration to the case of Sean O'Docherty, a young man who has publicly renounced violence, broken with the IRA and apologised to all his victims?

Lord Elton

My Lords, in spite of the public protestations of Mr O'Docherty, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that he has broken his links with the terrorist organisations; and he continues to refuse to comply with prison rules, which bears out my suspicions.