HL Deb 24 October 1983 vol 444 cc19-23

3.35 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Mansfield)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The Statement is as follows: —

"On 25th September at approximately 2.45 p.m. a number of Republican prisoners produced guns in H Block 7 of the Maze Prison. They overpowered prison officers and shot the officer in the block's central control room in the head. They put on the officers' uniforms. About an hour later, still in control of the block, prisoners took over a meal delivery van on its arrival, and the prison officer driver was forced at gunpoint to drive 38 of the prisoners to the main gate of the prison. On the way the van passed through two manned gates without being searched. At the main gate the prisoners disembarked and a fight with prison staff ensued during which a number of prison officers received serious injuries and a prison officer was stabbed to death. I deeply regret his death, and know the whole House will join me in extending sympathy to his family. The prisoners opened the main gate, but the exit was immediately blocked by a prison officer's car. The 38 prisoners then sought to escape on foot and were chased by prison officers. As a number of the escaping prisoners were wearing prison officers' uniform, and some of the prison officers were in civilian clothes, the Army sentry in the tower at the main gate could not clearly identify which individuals were prison officers and which were prisoners. He did however open fire and wound one escaping prisoner whom he had seen shoot a pursuing prison officer in the leg. Ten prisoners were quickly apprehended and returned to the prison. Immediately the alarm was given, the RUC and the Army instituted very extensive arrangements both in the immediate vicinity of the prison and more widely throughout the Province.

"Immediate contact was established with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland, who readily gave their full co-operation. Within the next few days a further nine escapers were apprehended, leaving 19 still unlawfully at large. The search for them continues unremittingly.

"On the day following the escape, with the agreement of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, I invited Sir James Hennessy, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, to conduct an inquiry into security arrangements at HM Prison, Maze, bearing on the escape on Sunday 25th September; to make relevant recommendations for the improvement of security at the prison; and to report to me as soon as possible.

"Sir James, who arrived in Northern Ireland the day after the escape, is aided in his inquiry by a full team of Inspectors and by other staff of HM Inspectorate of Prisons, numbering ten in all. It is not yet possible to say when the report will be completed. The House will understand that the arrangements at the Maze are inevitably complex and there are a great many witnesses to be interviewed, some of whom are still recovering from injuries. However, I know that Sir James and his team are pursuing the task with urgency as well as with a view to its being as thorough and searching as it can be.

"When the report is complete, it is my intention to make public as full an account as possible of the matter consistent with the future security of the prison.

"In parallel with the start of Sir James's inquiry, all governors of prisons in Northern Ireland immediately undertook urgent reviews of their security systems and procedures. Both in the Maze prison and elsewhere there has been additional searching of prisoners, cells, prison workshops and other areas. The Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army have assisted in searching prisons in line with long established procedures. Certain additional physical security measures are being implemented, including the provision of protective screens for the control rooms of each H block in the Maze Prison; and a more secure electronic locking system has been fitted to the main gate on a trial basis, which, if found satisfactory, will be linked to a specially constructed bullet proof control post. Other security measures are also being taken.

"The escape of so many prisoners and the killing of a prison officer represents a setback to law enforcement in Northern Ireland at a time when terrorist organisations have been under increasing pressure. The security forces will in no way allow the pressure to be relaxed because of it. The escape also adds to the already considerable difficulties in managing the prisons in Northern Ireland. I am anxious, in reporting to the House today, to indicate what action has been taken since the escape as well as to outline the facts of the incident as far as they can be established in advance of the Hennessy report. The House can be assured that we shall do everything possible to identify why things went wrong on 25th September, and shall take all appropriate steps in the light of those findings."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I wish to thank the Minister for repeating this Statement, and first from these Benches to join in his expression of sympathy to the family of the prison officer who was killed and to the other prison officers who sustained injuries. We are pleased to have confirmation of the appointment of Sir James Hennessy to conduct this inquiry into all the circumstances of this escape, and to know that he has a 10–man inspectorate team to assist in that inquiry. It will be appreciated that there is considerable public disquiet and that there are many important matters about which we shall wish to have answers. It is not the purpose of this afternoon's discussion on this Statement to list these points. We shall naturally await this report with considerable interest and concern.

The Statement said that, commensurate with security, the Secretary of State will make public so far as possible all the details in the inquiry report. May I ask for an assurance that in addition there will be a debate in this House on this important inquiry report when it is made available? Although there are a number of important questions to be looked into by the inquiry, may I ask the Minister whether the circumstances of the escape give an indication that there has been any departure from the original objective in the way the Maze Prison was constructed? Has there been a departure from the original intention? Each part of the H block was for a compound system of segregation. Is the Minister able to say whether there is any information as to when H Block 7 was last searched before the mass escape?

We are pleased to learn from the Statement that the Republic of Ireland gave promise of immediate co-operation. Can the Minister give any information at all as to the suspected whereabouts of the other 19 prisoners who are still at large? Is there any indication as to the countries to which they may have gone? If so, what co-operation is promised by those particular countries?

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I wish from these Benches—both of them, or all four of them—to echo the sympathy to the family of the prison officer who was killed, and to express our great admiration of the fighting spirit of the prison officers in the Maze, who are essentially on extremely dangerous active service, and one must never forget that. What it seems to me remains to be said today is simply that the key moment was getting the guns into Block 7. Once guns are in a prison anything may happen. That seems to be the key to which we shall look for the answer when the inquiry is finally made.

Beyond that I do not think that we can make any comments or ask any very intelligent questions. It is enough really to realise—and I hope the inquiry will assure us of this—that neither money nor staff are in any sense responsible for any of the shortcomings which may be revealed by the inquiry. That would be crucial, because if that were the case then governments are to blame. But if it is at a lower level than that, it is difficult to establish blame except on certain individuals. We await with interest the report, and we support the noble Lord's request for a debate in this House when we get it.

3.44 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for their welcome of this Statement. It is true, as I think both noble Lords said or implied, that not very much can be said until Sir James Hennessy produces his report. As to whether there should he a debate in your Lordships' House once that report is forthcoming, or such parts of it as my right honourable friend feels should be published, that will be a matter for the usual channels to discuss in the normal way.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked in effect whether this escape implies any departure from the original intention when that part of the prison, the cellular part, was constructed. The answer is no. Quite obviously things went wrong—and I can say this without in any way pre-empting Sir James or his inquiry—in that prisoners were able to pass from one H block to another and eventually right to the gates of the prison. Of that we can be most sure. But I can assure the noble Lord that there has been no departure from the original strategy conceived when the prison was built, and the tactics under which the prisoners are kept there.

The noble Lord asks when was the last search of that particular block before the escape. I am informed that searches are ongoing and that there is no particular laid down régime, because if there was the prisoners would know about it and it would be a good deal less effective. The noble Lord aked where the other 19 prisoners are. A lot of people would like the answer to that question, and they would then do something about it. So far as the Republic of Ireland is concerned I can assure the noble Lord that both at Government level and particularly in respect of the attitude of the Garda there has been complete co-operation ever since this escape took place.

As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, the key to the whole matter is the fact that guns were smuggled into the prison, and we shall no doubt look forward to Sir James's report in respect of that. But there was no question, if that was at the back of the noble Lord's mind, that any financial cutbacks either in staff or in the way in which the prison regime is maintained have been responsible for that. The financial and manpower resources available for prisons in Northern Ireland have not been reduced.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, in view of the possibility that the events that took place at the Maze, the escape, could have wider implications bearing on the security of persons in other prisons who present particular security risks, will the noble Earl tell the House whether Sir James Hennessy has been asked in his report to make any recommendations regarding other top security prisons and the security risks that they may present in the future?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, Sir James is devoting his energies to the actual escape which he has been asked to investigate. I am quite sure that whatever comes out of his report will be studied with the greatest of care by the prison authorities and, insofar as it is applicable, will be applied in other prisons. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—and he has enormous experience of this—that there are no prisons within the United Kingdom where we have such a high concentration of violent—one could call them vicious—prisoners, committed to a certain course of conduct. Therefore, it is unlikely that the conditions which pertain at the Maze would ever be reproduced in any other prison in Great Britain.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, may I ask the Minister for clarification of one question that I put to him with regard to co-operation from other countries? Is there any suspicion that some of these prisoners still at large may have gone, say, to France or America? If so, have those or any similar countries been approached, and are they giving co operation?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I have no information about where these prisoners may have gone. However, I can tell the noble Lord that we have extradition arrangements with a great many countries and if the prisoners are discovered in those countries we will make every effort to have them extradited to this country, either on the basis of being escaped prisoners or in respect of the original crimes for which they were convicted.