HL Deb 26 January 1984 vol 447 cc342-50

3.55 p.m.

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

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

"I shall, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a Statement on the report published today by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir James Hennessy, on his inquiry into security arrangements at Her Majesty's Prison, Maze, bearing on the escape on Sunday 25th September 1983 and on action I have taken following that report.

"I should like first to record my gratitude to Sir James Hennessy and his colleagues for the way they undertook their inquiry and for their thorough and comprehensive report. I am publishing it in full save for a small number of deletions which are clearly marked and which have been made for security reasons only.

"The Maze Prison holds the largest concentration of terrorists anywhere in Western Europe. It is, in Sir James's words, 'a prison without parallel in the United Kingdom, unique in size, and in the continuity and tenacity of its protests and disturbances… In no other prison that we have seen have the problems faced by the authorities been so great'. Sir James goes on to point out that its population is unlike that of any other prison, and he says that, 'nowhere else in the United Kingdom have there been such prolonged and wide scale protests of so horrendous a nature'. He records that 22 members of the prison service have lost their lives through terrorist action, including a deputy governor and others from the Maze. I know the House will join with me in paying tribute to them. As we consider the lessons to be learnt from the blackest day in the troubled history of the Northern Ireland prison service, let us not forget the unique demands which we put on the service.

"The report describes the escape from the Maze in detail. The broad outline which I gave the House on 24th October stands. The report draws attention to the careful planning of a small group of prisoners and to the outside help they received, particularly through the smuggling in of five guns. It also shows the ruthlessness of the prisoners, who stabbed one prison officer to death and seriously injured five others.

"The report is extremely critical of many aspects of security at the Maze. The House will regard these failings with the utmost seriousness. The report points to three main areas where security was inadequate: first, physical weaknesses, in particular in the communications rooms in the H blocks and at the main gate; secondly, poor security procedures, in particular inadequate searching, unsatisfactory control of visits and flaws in the control of prisoner movement, in the selection of orderlies and in the arrangements for responding to alarms; and thirdly, failures by individuals who were negligent or who did not carry out their duties. The report shows that staff at the Maze were complacent about security and that there was widespread laxness and carelessness in the performance of duties at both supervisory and other levels. This conclusion is a matter of the greatest concern.

"There is one other specific point that I would draw to the attention of the House. The report records that before the escape a probation officer seconded to the Maze Prison in January 1983 had admitted to being a member of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. He has since been dismissed from the probation service. Following investigations by the RUC, Sir James says there is no evidence that he had any involvement in the escape.

"The report makes 73 recommendations covering each of the three areas to which I have referred: enhanced physical security measures; improved security procedures; enhanced training and investigations with a view to possible disciplinary action in the cases of certain members of staff I accept the analysis and all of the recommendations. The most urgent measures were implemented at once, as I informed the House on 24th October. Twenty-one recommendations have already been put into effect. Thirty-eight will be carried out as soon as possible. And the remaining 14, as the report proposes, will be the subject of urgent review.

"As a result of the action taken, the control room in each H block has been made secure against armed attack: an electric lock has been installed at the main gate; a control point secure from armed attack is in place, and other security improvements have been made. Plans for a new main gate complex with a remote control locking system are being drawn up. A study of closed-circuit television linkage between each H block and the main control room has been commissioned. Changes in the security procedures, most notably searching, have already been implemented, and action will follow in other areas. Discussions are being held this afternoon between my officials and representatives of both the Prison Officers' Association and the Governors' Association in Northern Ireland about the report.

"The report analyses the policy changes made at the end of the hunger strike and on other occasions, and concludes that, taken singly or together, they played no significant role in facilitating the escape.

"The report is critical of the oversight of security arrangements at the prison by the prison department of the Northern Ireland Office and recommends the strengthening of its staffing. This is being done. A team has also been set up dedicated solely to the urgent implementation of each of the recommendations. I have instructed it to report to me on the progress being made.

"While recognising the enormous difficulties involved in running an establishment as large and complex as the Maze, the report concludes that the extent of the deficiencies in management and in the prison's physical defences amounted to a major failure in security for which the governor, who carries the ultimate responsibility for the state of the prison, must be held accountable. In the light of the report's observations the governor has resigned and his successor is taking up his duties today. The governor has served 34 years in the prison service with dedication and courage, and that should not go unremarked: I pay tribute to it. The assistant governor in charge of security has been moved today, and the principal officer concerned with security was replaced shortly after the escape. A governor from headquarters has been appointed to investigate the actions of officers named in the report, including the assistant governor and principal officer, and disciplinary measures will be taken if they are found to be justified.

"Sir James's strictures do not extend to all staff at the Maze. As he says, the service contains many men of ability and courage who respond well in a crisis and who are ready to risk their lives in doing their duty. A number of such officers, including Officer Ferris, who lost his life, are specifically commended by Sir James Hennessy. Though for reasons of personal safety it is not right to publish their names, I can assure the House that I have noted Sir James's comments and will be taking appropriate action.

"As I said to the House in October, the escape of so many prisoners represents a considerable setback to law enforcement in Northern Ireland. It is also a blot on the distinguished reputation of the prison service. This thorough report has uncovered a number of serious shortcomings and some grave operational mistakes for which the highest price has been paid. The recommendations are designed as far as possible to ensure that the shortcomings are rectified. I am determined to take them forward with urgency and resolution. The Northern Ireland prison service has an enormously difficult task, but it is of the greatest importance to the community at large that it maintains the highest standards of professionalism and discipline, which will enable it to carry out its essential role in the maintenance of law and order in the Province. I commend Sir James's report to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for repeating what is a most serious Statement. Though the Secretary of State commends the report, I think it unwise to comment in detail until there has been opportunity to read it and study it thoroughly. However, from the points made in the Statement it is clear that the report is comprehensive, thorough and frank, and thanks will be due to Sir James Hennessy and the team who worked with him for carrying out the review and for the report.

I am pleased to note that the report is to be published in full, except for deletions made for security reasons, which we were told would be the case when we considered the previous Statement on 24th October. When we considered the previous Statement I urged that there should be a debate in this House after the report became available. Clearly, most serious and disturbing matters are contained in the report, as well as many recommendations—I think 73 were mentioned—and I hope that there will be opportunity for the report to be debated in your Lordships' House.

I am pleased to note the steps already taken to tighten some aspects of security, and it may be that such measures could lead to harsher conditions. Can the noble Earl give an assurance that remand prisoners will not suffer in any way in consequence of any measures that may be taken?

The Statement refers to a review that will be undertaken with regard to 14 recommendations. Who will undertake that particular review? The Statement describes the escape incident as being a serious setback to law enforcement in Northern Ireland and a blot on the distinguished reputation of the prison service. But from these Benches we are pleased to note that tribute is paid to the general work of those who man the prison service, particularly in the serious circumstances in Northern Ireland, which are unparalleled anywhere in our country.

Morale must already be affected and that effect may be aggravated by the report. I would ask the noble Earl what steps will be taken quickly to deal with the situation so as to improve morale, which I am sure must at present be at a low ebb.

In view of the nature of the report, as revealed in the Statement, it may be that it is honourable that the governor has resigned, but I am pleased to note that in the Statement tribute is paid to the governor's 34 years of devoted service. Can the noble Earl say who is the new governor, since the Statement says that a new governor has been appointed?

Does the report make any mention of arrangements made for inspections of prisons in Northern Ireland? Have regular reviews of security arrangements been undertaken with respective governors? If so, by whom were they undertaken, and are the results of such reviews reported to the Secretary of State from time to time?

3.48 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Secretary of State's Statement. It is a very frank Statement, and one which I think covers both sides of this extraordinarily difficult situation. Ten years ago I had ministerial responsibility for the Northern Ireland prisons. I was enormously impressed by the courage and endurance of the governors, the assistant governors, and the prison officers who dealt with a situation which was almost untenable. It was perfectly clear to me, as well as to every governor, that they were, each and every one of them, sitting on a mine which might go up at any minute. This is to some extent true of all prisons, but it was very much truer in Northern Ireland than it is here.

What I appreciate about the Statement is that it does not say that because people are under a very great strain for a very long time that is any excuse for things going wrong; it is not. But at least it gives the public some understanding of how these things happen. They must not happen. They should not happen. But the fact that they did happen is the result not really of negligence but of strain over too long a time in the face of an organisation that is extremely carefully run and very dangerous indeed. Only the day before yesterday, I was talking to a prison officer in England who transferred to the Maze at the time I was there. He told me that the first chap from the IRA to whom he spoke—the leader of those in that part of the prison—said, "Yes, now, your name is so-and-so. You have a wife and seven children and you live here, here and there. We know all about you and it is very nice to meet you". This is the kind of organisation that the IRA has over there, and it is frightfully difficult to deal with.

There are some things in this report which clearly cannot be excused on the sort of grounds I am speaking of. I appreciate, however, that the Secretary of State has stated clearly his appreciation of the difficulties under which the staff and governors work and has also stated clearly that when things go wrong alterations have to be made. I should like to pay tribute to the governor. The name is not mentioned. I think I know him. If so, he is a very fine man who had probably been there too long. It is possible that the kind of strain that being the governor of a Northern Ireland prison exerts should be limited to rather shorter periods.

In any case, I do not think that there is any way out of the kind of solution that the Secretary of State has proposed here. One cannot pass over things which go wrong even though one can understand only too well how they do go wrong. This will never change. The strain of this kind of occupation is such that, every now and then, people will be empolyed for too long and the stain will cause them to make a mistake. It does not seem to me that there has been anything venal, according to the report. That is what we were frightened that we might find. I do not think that there is anything that suggests collaboration. There are mistakes of complacency. If you are searching people day after day, it is reasonable to get careless, and so on.

I can only say that we look forward to reading the report. It has been a most distressing situation. A number of good men have inevitably had to pay the penalty. I think it is right that they should have done so, although I greatly regret it. I thank the noble Earl for repeating this Statement and I commend the action that it is proposed to take.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I should like to thank both the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Donaldson, for their restrained, if that is the word, welcome for this very serious report, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, who has very wide experience of the extraordinary difficulties faced by the prison service in Northern Ireland on a daily basis—difficulties that are quite unparalleled in the rest of the United Kingdom. One thing that can be said about the report is that, although it is an extremely frank document that certainly does not duck any issue, it is generous enough to pay tribute where this is due.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether there would be an opportunity to debate the report. I have no doubt, as I think I stated in October, that that can be discussed through the usual channels. The noble Lord will perhaps address himself to that. Some of his questions he will answer for himself, if I may say so, when he reads the report. It is a complex document with a number of interlocking recommendations, which, when carried out, as my right honourable friend has undertaken to do, will, I have no doubt, cause the morale of prison officers to rise. To answer him specifically, my right honourable friend has set up a task force. This will not only carry out the recommendations as they affect the Maze. It will liaise with the governors of other establishments. There will be a review of the management structure of the prison department, with a strengthening of the operations of the security division in particular, so that the lessons to be learnt from the escape can be learnt and applied urgently.

The noble Lord asked about remand prisoners. There are very few indeed in the Maze. It is not a remand prison, but I understand that their conditions will not be changed except in so far as the arrangements for searching visitors, goods and vehicles coming into the prison have been stepped up. To that extent, I dare say that those coming to see them may be inconvenienced. It is not the practice, for security reasons, to publish the name of the governor. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, asked me any particular questions but I take comfort, as I know also will the Government and my right honourable friend in particular, from his observations.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the report has stated that the Maze prison is a unique establishment not only in the United Kingdom, but also in Europe or, for that matter, anywhere in the world, housing, as it does, not only Republican terrorists but also Loyalist terrorists. In the past, Loyalists have escaped from prisons, although on this occasion it was a set of the most ruthless murderers from the Republican side who were successful in escaping. The governor has resigned. That impels me to ask immediately this question. As this was a very unique undertaking anywhere in these islands, was advice ever sought from, or given by, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons or any other of the senior prison authorities in this island as to how that prison in Northern Ireland should be run? It must be admitted that it is such a unique establishment that no one had any experience of precautions that should or should not be taken. If no advice was given by senior prison authorities here in Great Britain to the authorities in Northern Ireland, it would be very unfair, I think, to blame any individual or any set of individuals there. Twenty-two men have lost their lives in trying to maintain control of that prison.

I know, and, I think, the Minister will know within the next 24 hours, that this has been a great defeat for morale among the prison officers. There will be certain politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly in the Loyalist, bigoted section of the community, who will try to use the conclusions of this report to create further trouble within the prison and to affect further the morale of prison warders there. Those who may try to do such damage to the prison service are, indeed, elected Members of Parliament. Will the Minister say, in view of what has taken place, that one of the most important factors has yet to be taken into account—that those men who are still at large following the prison escape are among the most ruthless murderers that we have ever seen in the island of Ireland? It is up to the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, of the Republic to make certain that every step that can be taken will be taken to ensure that those men are once again put behind bars.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked me, in effect, about the inspection of prisons in Northern Ireland. I can tell him that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales does carry out inspections in Northern Ireland. Indeed, he was diverted from carrying out a planned inspection at Magilligan to carry out this present inquiry which he has just reported upon, and these inspections will continue.

The report draws attention to the tremendous pressures on the security and operations division of the Northern Ireland Office, which is the division responsible for more regular inspections. As the noble Lord well knows, there have been a succession of crises at the prison; protests by and on behalf of the inmates; and industrial action by those serving there. The real lesson is that what happened should not have happened, but it did happen. The urgent task now is for everybody concerned to work together to restore the level of professionalism which is needed to carry out these very difficult tasks, and those tasks which the community very rightly expects the Prison Service to perform.

4.1 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Earl one or two questions arising from the Statement. First, would he accept that many of us agree with him that, given the fact that grave errors have been committed, it is entirely right that a number of staff changes have taken place? Secondly, although it is perfectly understandable that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised the question of whether there would possibly be a deterioration in relation to remand prisoners, given the fact that five guns were smuggled into the Maze, is it not absolutely clear that there will have to be infinitely more vigorous arrangements made for families visiting that prison?

Thirdly, is the noble Earl aware that one of the most disturbing elements of the Statement he has made is the reference to the fact that a probation officer working at the Maze Prison had a background of work in the provisional IRA? Can the noble Earl assure us that arrangements are now being made to ensure that we are not faced with the prospect of any repetition of such a situation in the future?

Fourthly, is the noble Earl aware that, although this is a grave Statement, it is right to acknowledge the individual courage of members of the Northern Ireland prison service? There are many gallant men who work in that service and I think it is right on an occasion such as this, when errors of judgment have clearly been made, to recognise publicly the gallantry of many of these men and their families.

Finally, may I say—not as an unqualified admirer of the present Administration—that many of us would regret if, as a result of this Statement, there was a repetition of the clamour for the resignation of the Secretary of State. Many of us who do not sit on the Benches opposite have a high regard for him and for the service which he is carrying out on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's first point—that is the resignation of the governor—I fear that a reading of the report will show how that has come about. The noble Lord is perfectly right to point to the absolutely deplorable fact that no less than five guns were smuggled into the prison, quite apart from the fact that the prisoners had access to chisels and other weapons which they used to stab the prison officers—one to death. All these matters are the subject of a great and intensive review. One can see from the report the various recommendations that Hennessy makes, from—starting from the inside—the searching of the inmates themselves, to the control which should be exercised upon them when they move from one part of the prison to the other, to the searching of those who are in fact employed at the prison; and, above all, those who from time to time (for instance, in the way of visits) come into the prison. All these matters are at the moment the subject of a very intense inquiry.

I was particularly pleased that the noble Lord added his voice to those who are paying tribute to the very considerable degree of courage that was shown by some of those officers on that afternoon. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has said, some of the men who escaped are the most violent and dangerous people in the United Kingdom. And for the officers to behave in the face of armed aggression in the way in which they did, is worthy of the highest tribute. That courage is something in which the whole community of Northern Ireland can take pride.

Lord Plant

My Lords, I speak as one who has visited the Maze Prison on a number of occasions, in particular when the prisoners were "on the blanket". The governor in question was the governor at that time, and I pay tribute to the work that he did and I regret very much that he has been sacrificed. I believe that we must have discussion about this matter because it is a most important issue. It is a great setback to the prison service and it is a great setback to the morale of the prison officers.

The question has already been raised about how the guns got in and there is a reference to a laxity in searching. But is there a laxity in searching? I believe that it goes deeper than that. I believe that there are insufficient prison officers to do the job as adequately as possible.

There are 38 more recommendations still to be implemented. We ought to have a discussion about this. There should be more discussion with the Prison Officers' Association. I should like the noble Earl to tell us the extent of discussion with the Prison Officers' Association about this very deplorable affair because its members gave their lives and its members are under attack. I believe that they are under-staffed and that they are under great pressure. It is right that the governor should not serve long periods in prisons like this one, but is it not also right that the prison officers should have some relief, some sabbatical leave? It is a terrible imposition on individuals to be in this particular position. I question very much—as has already been questioned—that the probation officer was a member of the IRA. We must have further discussion about this matter if only to protect the prison officers who have done so much to endeavour to deal with issues that are so complex in Northern Ireland.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I acknowledge the very difficult job which the prison officers perform in the Maze Prison, and, indeed, in other prisons in Northern Ireland, facing difficulties which are very much greater than those faced by their counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom. So far as manning levels and resources are concerned—which I think was the nub of the question which the noble Lord, Lord Plant, asked me—I have to tell the noble Lord that the report examined the question of the resources allocated to the prison service and it concluded, in general, that in the area of finance and indeed manpower, the prison service has been "reasonably well treated"—and when I say that I am quoting from the report.

Lord Plant

My Lords, does the Prison Officers' Association agree with that recommendation?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I am not privy to the thoughts of the Prison Officers' Association.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, on a more general point, would the Minister not agree that intimidation of both prison wardens and their families might well have contributed to making this break-out possible? Would he not agree that it means that Government policy should focus on building up greater trust with the minority community in order to drive a wedge between them and the provisional IRA?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Baroness that prison officers and indeed all who work in the prison service in Northern Ireland are subjected to pressures which are unknown in the rest of the United Kingdom. But of course it works both ways. The inhabitants of the Maze Prison consist of a small majority of Roman Catholics, but there are also a very considerable number of Protestants there too for the same type of crimes and offences. The pressure comes from all sides and from all directions. I do not think that one can read too much into the situation, other than to provide a prison régime in which those who are in the prison service can perform their work as free as possible from pressures and unmolested.