HL Deb 02 April 1990 vol 517 cc1135-46

4.46 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement about the violence at Manchester Prison on Sunday, 1st April, which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

"At about 11 a.m. yesterday some 300 prisoners attending a service in the chapel attacked the staff present and took keys from them and the staff were then forced to withdraw. The prisoners broke out of the roof of the chapel and gained access to the main prison, where a large number of inmates had been unlocked from cells in order to be served with their midday meal. These joined the chapel rioters and violence spread quickly to the remand wing. Staff then had to be withdrawn from all the living areas in the prison for their own safety. Some 120 prisoners in the hospital, who were taking exercise at the time, were, however, secured and took no part in the disturbance.

"Meanwhile prisoners in the living area began to destroy the roof and internal fittings. Staff were forced back away from the buildings by volleys of slates and other missiles and fires were lit inside the prison. The emergency services were quickly in attendance and police were deployed outside the prison. No prisoners escaped. During the afternoon about 500 prisoners gave themselves up and during the evening and night more surrendered.

"My latest information is that some 119 prisoners have yet to surrender, while 69 prisoners remain in the hospital and other parts of the prison, safe and under control. Prison officers regained control of the four remand wings of the prison this morning. Some 1,363 prisoners have been sent to other prisons, and 95 are in police cells, as a result of most remarkable work by the prison service and the police.

"There have been widespread but conflicting stories from surrendering prisoners about the violence which took place in the early afternoon and claims that a number of prisoners are dead. It has not been possible to confirm these stories and to date no bodies have been discovered but the possibility that fatalities have occurred cannot be ruled out. The general picture is of prisoners indulging in violence on other prisoners, the full consequences of which remain to be discovered. Nine of the surrendering prisoners claim to have been forcibly injected with drugs and eight admit to having taken drugs voluntarily. Twenty four prisoners are in outside hospitals, one with serious head injuries and one with a punctured lung. None is considered now to be in danger. I say again that these injuries seem to be the result of violence meted out by prisoner on prisoner. Twelve prison officers were injured and had to be taken to hospital.

"I should like to pay tribute to the commendable bravery shown by the prison officers, who were faced with a fierce and savage onslaught, and to the courageous leadership of the governor and his senior staff. I also express our gratitude to the police for their swift response and also for their help later in moving prisoners from the gaol. I thank also the fire service and the ambulance service for their help.

"This is clearly a dreadful incident, all the more serious in the light of all that we have been trying to do to reduce the pressures on the prison system and improve conditions. The prison population nationally is now over 2,100 lower than at the same time last year and total expenditure on the prison service has risen by 20 per cent. in real terms in the last 12 months. As the House knows, we are engaged in a policy designed to keep out of prison those who do not need to be there and also a programme of refurbishment of existing establishments and a building programme, in which eight of the 28 prisons in the programme have already been completed. By 1992–93 we will have provided over 10,000 new prison places and but for incidents like this overcrowding would have been a thing of the past.

"Judge Stephen Tumim, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, wrote in his recent report on Manchester prison published last week that, 'life at Manchester is a great deal nearer what it should be, both for staff and inmates, than it was some two years ago', and commended the governor and staff for the improvements they were achieving. He concluded his report by saying, 'There was much more to praise than to decry in an establishment clearly going in the right direction and with an optimistic momentum'. Sadly, the short-term consequences of this incident will be to worsen conditions elsewhere just when real improvements were flowing from the combined effect of our policies on criminal justice and the prison building programme.

"By a cruel irony, negotiations have only recently been concluded with Manchester City Council for the purchase of land for a major redevelopment of the prison. A new hospital was opened last year and the first 28 cells have been fitted with integral sanitation as part of a rolling programme.

"The population of the prison has dropped significantly since mid-1988. Compared with February last year, the number of prisoners held three to a cell had gone down by over 300 to only 123 out of the total population of over 1,500.

"Clearly there will have to be a thorough inquiry into this extremely serious incident. Because the incident is not yet concluded I do not believe that the precise nature of the inquiry or who should lead it should be determined now. But I shall inform the House as soon as I have reached a decision."

That concludes the text of the Statement.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, this is a day of sad Statements. With regard to the one to which we have just listened— we thank the noble Earl for his courtesy in repeating it— there are some questions which ought to be asked. Before I ask any questions, let me at once pay tribute from these Benches to the courage of the prison officers involved and say that we hope that some of the figures in regard to the injuries which they sustained are not increased. We hope that this dreadful occurrence will very soon draw to an end.

However, there are some questions which must be asked. The first is regarding the alarming figures circulated abroad and the wild rumours— I hope that is the correct description— of the number of people killed in this incident. Will the noble Earl bear in mind— as I am sure he does— the anxieties created among the families of prison officers and indeed the prisoners themselves? Is he able to confirm that communication is being made to those families with as much expedition and care as is possible in the circumstances?

Is it true that over the weekend letters were placed in what is called the "dead letter box"— where inmates of the prison can put in notes which are obviously anonymous but which can help in the safe management of the prison— warning management that some such incident might take place in the sense that there would be demonstrations? If that is true, is it also true that in spite of that warning only four extra officers were put on duty? If so, is there not insufficient flexibility in the prison service to enable, where there is a warning of that kind, proper action to be taken in order to ensure that the number of prison officers is properly supplemented to avoid the type of occurrence which took place?

I further understand that in a prior situation, namely before Fresh Start— which we were told was doing so much for the prison service— there would have been 30 more officers on duty than there were over this weekend? If that is so, what is being done about that?

The noble Earl, the Minister, was rather selective in his paraphrasing of the chief inspector's report made on this prison and issued only on Thursday last. Among the comments that the chief inspector made by way of praise, he also drew specific attention to understaffing, overcrowding and poor conditions.

I have some figures which may interest the House, and I address them to the noble Earl for confirmation or otherwise. On the first day of the chief inspector's inspection, as against a figure of 970, which is the certified normal accommodation, the prison held 1,625 prisoners; of that number, 1,116 were convicted prisoners and 509 had not been convicted; there were 296 cells with double occupancy and 82 cells with triple occupancy. Did not the chief inspector say that the occupancy by three men to a cell, completely unsuitable in this prison, must cease? Did not the chief inspector also say that many prisoners were in their cells with nothing to do for 22 hours out of 24?

We all listened to this sorry tale with deep anguish; but there is no point in our looking at things with anguish unless we feel that everything is being done to stop a repetition of these happenings and of the dreadful conditions that appear to be behind them, without of course in any way justifying them.

On that final note, I ask the Minister what steps are being taken to ensure that there is not a copycat reaction elsewhere in our prisons?

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, again I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. This is a very serious episode. It is clearly one of the most serious incidents of its kind for many years that has taken place in the British prison system. However, is the noble Earl aware that those who know the prison governor, Mr. O'Friel, regard him as one of the most experienced and competent governors in the prison service? It is particularly fortunate that in the very difficult situation which occurred he was in charge of the establishment.

Is the noble Earl also aware that though he has rightly drawn attention to some of the more satisfactory elements of Judge Tumim's report, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, observed, it was a rather selective series of quotations? I think the noble Earl will confirm that the prison is still 60 per cent. above its certified normal accommodation. That is a wholly unsatisfactory situation making for great difficulty both for the prison staff and the governor.

Although undoubtedly there have been improvements, the fact is that we still have over 120 prisoners kept in deplorable conditions, three to a cell, with slopping out. Is the noble Earl further aware that there are between 300 and 400 prisoners at Manchester who are still wholly unemployed and that many are locked up for 22 hours out of 24? While we have such conditions in our large prisons there will always be the risk of serious disturbances. It is surprising that we have had so few.

I now turn to one specific matter which is of concern to me. I refer to the Rule 43 prisoners, to whom I draw particular attention. These are the prisoners who are segregated because they have committed, generally speaking, sex offences, which therefore gives rise to the risk that they will be assaulted by other prisoners. Has the block holding the Rule 43 prisoners been recovered by the prison staff? That is particularly important; all the more so given that there are rumours that a number of people have lost their lives and it is in that block that there is just such a risk.

I shall also be grateful if the noble Lord can tell the House what steps are being taken either by the prison department or Greater Manchester police to give information to the relatives of those prisoners who are still inside the prison. That is a matter of great importance, as I am sure the noble Earl recognises, and I hope he will be able to assist us in that direction.

Finally, we all recognise the immense problems facing the prison department and the Home Office. We welcome the building programme, but, unless we achieve further substantial reductions in the size of the prison population, serious disturbances are always likely in the appalling conditions in which many prisoners are still held in British prisons.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord Harris of Greenwich, for their observations on the Statement. It is an unhappy day to have to make two Statements of this nature.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred to the anxiety about the number of prisoners who may have died. I regret that I cannot add to the Statement. I realise that everyone will remain anxious until we know the true facts. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked about the Rule 43 prisoners. I can tell him that the part of the prison that has been secured consists of the four remand wings. The rest of the prison, therefore, has not been secured, and that includes the Rule 43 prisoners. I am unable to give details to noble Lords on what communications are being held with the prisoners' relatives who have expressed anxiety.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, said that much has to be done in Manchester. Everyone agrees with that, but a great deal has been done although we accept that the position is far from perfect. Nevertheless, the amount of time now spent outside cells has been increased considerably over the past year. The number of inmates occupied in day-time education in 1989 was 194 and the figure is now 210. In 1989 inmates attended 17 courses; the number of courses is now 61. Inmates were involved in 65 working parties and there are now 69. There were 222 workshops and there are now 270. Therefore, much progress is being made.

With regard to warnings about trouble, I cannot tell the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, what was put into, as he described it, the dead letter box. However, I understand from the governor that it is not unusual for rumours to circulate from time to time about possible trouble. Such a rumour was circulated on Saturday but there was no confirmation of a definite plot.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred to staffing. The number of prison officers has been increased over the past three years by over 3,000; that is, nearly 20 per cent. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to overcrowding, with three in a cell. He said that that was intolerable. I agree. Every effort is being made to reduce that overcrowding. In February 1989 there were 459 prisoners held three in a cell. In the past year that has dropped to 123.

If there are other points to which I have not replied I shall write to noble Lords.

5.5 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in view of some of the rather extravagent statements that have been broadcast about prison staff, can my noble friend confirm what was said on the radio at lunchtime by my honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr. Mellor? He said that the staff at Strangeways is only three below establishment.

With regard to overcrowding, I welcome my noble friend's statement that the Government intend to pay special attention to the means of reducing it. In that connection will he bear in mind, especially as there were so many prisoners on remand at Strangeways, that about one-third of the prisoners remanded in custody, sent there by the courts, are either acquitted, bound over or given non-custodial sentences? Is there any way in which the courts can have those factors drawn to their attention?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, obviously the courts are aware of the position and are made aware of the position. However, I can confirm that my honourable friend the Minister of State is correct. On 10th March, Manchester had 532 officers in post, which included the principal and senior officers and specialists, and the target staffing level was 542; though that included three works posts which are not at present required.

I will certainly take into account what my noble friend said about overcrowding, but the difficulty now is that all the other prisons will be overcrowded because they are having to take the burden of the prisoners from Strangeways. I can now confirm that most of the Rule 43 prisoners have been moved out of Manchester.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I live in Greater Manchester and that I visited Strangeways in the autumn of last year? The noble Earl is right about the improvements that are in being. However, while I was there, as recently as last autumn, the prison was endeavouring to resolve a staffing dispute between the prison department of the Home Office and the officers of that establishment. Is it not correct to say that Strangeways is the largest prison in Europe, and certainly in Great Britain? I understand that it holds more prisoners than any other establishment. My noble friend Lord Mishcon touched on the most worrying aspect. I believe the Minister said that over 1,300 prisoners from Strangeways had been dispersed among the other prison establishments.

Before I came to this House I represented a constituency in Leeds that contains Armley Prison. It is a similar prison to Strangeways, though not as large, and has all the same problems of overcrowding. It is trying to modernise, slowly but surely. I ask the noble Earl to impress strongly on the Secretary of State in another place that, wherever these 1,300 prisoners are dispersed, adequate additional facilities and resources should be made available to the governors and the prison officers manning those prisons in order to cater for the extra work and to prevent, as my noble friend Lord Mishcon said, the mushrooming of these disturbances in prisons throughout the United Kingdom.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I shall certainly see what can be done about that. All I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, at the moment is that there had to be emergency action in order to remove the prisoners. It is quite astonishing what the prison service and the police have done in having moved so many prisoners so quickly. Clearly, that throws a burden on other prisons. We shall have to see what can be done to lighten that burden where possible.

Lord Elton

My Lords, perhaps I may put into perspective the terribly difficult task which faces those who manage the prison service. Will my noble friend confirm that from the beginning of this century until somewhere in the 1960s not one brick was placed on another for new and secure accommodation for prisoners? Will he also confirm that from the beginning of the century until now the crime rate has risen remorselessly? Does he agree that the Government have been successful in their tasks, in that the statistics governing the prison population and overcrowding are at last beginning to turn and that is a major achievement?

In order to improve on that achievement, will my noble friend draw to the attention of his right honourable friend the subject mentioned by my noble friend Lord Renton; namely, the remand wings and the very great pressure to which they are subject? Will he also bring to the attention of the courts, the conditions for these prisoners, though that is done frequently already? Will he also consider changes to the law which might reduce the burden on the Crown Court? I refer in particular to the change which, supported by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, I suggested when we were debating the last criminal evidence Bill. I refer to a change on imprisonability for certain minor crimes.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I shall deal with that last point first. I am grateful to my noble friend for referring to this matter. It has been the thrust of the Government's desire to get those who are more suitably punished in the community punished there and not to send them to prison. We are bringing in policies to make that work for the very reason that my noble friend has given. It is more suitable for many people not to go to prison. He is quite right that until a short while ago very little had been spent on prison buildings, but now a very great deal is being spent. The prison building programme has produced about 2,000 new places over the past two years and it is set to add a further 1,660 places in 1990-91. An additional 7,000 places are currently under construction at new establishments.

I know that this may not satisfy your Lordships as to the position at the moment; but, as my noble friend has indicated, it is at least a very considerable effort which is being expended in order to improve the situation. I shall certainly take note of what he said about remand prisoners.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I listened to the answer given by the noble Earl to the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I was horrified to think what prisoner may still be doing to prisoner at this moment. There can be horrific bullying and as a member of a board of visitors I know what can happen. I ask the Minister whether it would not be wise to bring in the SAS now and put a quick stop to the present situation.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the matter is not quite as simple as that. When a place is confined and in a state of turmoil, the first thing that has to be done is to restore it to a state of order. That is what is being done at the moment.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, while the condition of prisons and their general management are of outstanding importance and perhaps the most vital issues, this Statement concerns a prison riot? With that in mind, will he pay special attention to the comment made by the noble Lord who drew attention to the risk of copycat actions arising in other prisons? When he is setting the terms of reference for any inquiry, will he consider the possibility of examining whether the television cameras reflecting all that they see is a good thing? It was quite clear that in this instance the people on the roofs were taking certain actions and searching for publicity. The risk of copycat action could arise from that. Will that matter be included in the terms of reference? The presence of television cameras at a riot not inside a prison may help to identify people who can be dealt with later. But inside prison the people involved do not need that kind of identification. The cameras may well encourage them to seek publicity which could encourage copycat actions leading to more trouble than can be envisaged at the moment.

5.15 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for not having answered his point when he referred to copycat actions. There is always that danger. Where this kind of activity is shown on television and there are television sets inside the prisons, the prisoners can see what is taking place. That may encourage them to behave in a similar way. It is impossible to say that there cannot be and that there will not be any copycat actions. Incidents did occur in four other prisons yesterday.

At Hull Prison about 120 prisoners sat down in the exercise yard. There was also a sitdown in the exercise yard at Rochester. A fire was started in the living accommodation at Kirkham, and at Lewes there was a minor disturbance. It is one of the sad facts of life that copycat actions may take place. Short of telling the television people that they must not record certain incidents of public interest, it is difficult to know how to stop it taking place.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, can the Minister say how the number of prisoners at Strangeways rose as high as 1,600? Can he tell the House at what point it is decided that a prison cannot take any more inmates? If the population is in excess of 600, it is remarkable how the overpopulation rose to such a high level. Can the Minister further say whether the staffing levels were those agreed under the Fresh Start programme? Can he also say what the programme was for refurbishment and the establishment of integral sanitation, and at what speed that programme was moving?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I could tell the noble Baroness what was being done by way of improvements in the establishment but at the moment I seem to have confused all the information that I had. With it I would have been able to deliver with great clarity the information that she seeks. Perhaps I may let her know the position.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I remind the noble Earl that he told us that 28 cells were receiving integration now for 900 prisoners, plus 600 remand prisoners.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the position is that 22 cells at the establishment already have integral sanitation. Work had begun on the preparation for restoring integral sanitation for a further 138 cells. The work, which involved taking only a few cells out of use at a time, was due to be completed by May 1991. It was the first phase of a rolling programme for installing integral sanitation throughout the establishment.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, for about 13 or 14 years my husband was chairman of the Gartree top security prison and during that time there was a riot there. Therefore, perhaps I can claim to have some second-hand knowledge of the problems that follow a riot and of the time which it takes to get back to normality.

We accept that more money is being spent on improving conditions and providing extra places. Unfortunately, many of those places have now been taken up by prisoners who have had to be evacuated from Strangeways. But is this event perhaps an indication that, however good those improvements are, they are still not taking place quickly enough to deal with the problems in our prisons? Is there any way in which the building and refurbishing programmes can be speeded up? As other noble Lords have said, remand prisoners create more overcrowding and generate even more ill will among other prisoners. If the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, is right and Fresh Start has meant that fewer prison officers are available in some of these touchy spots, is the Fresh Start staffing programme likely to be reviewed?

From these Benches we offer our support to the governor, to the prison officers and indeed to their families who go through this experience with them. We offer our thanks to the emergency services— the fire service, the police and the ambulance service— who have had to pick up the pieces.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for those remarks. She asked whether it is possible to expedite the work. Clearly, the work going on is of extreme importance but it has not yet reached a satisfactory position. Of course there is still a great deal more to be done. The Government have embarked on the largest prison building programme this century. There are 28 new prisons in the total programme. Expenditure on the prison service rose by 58 per cent. in real terms between 1978 and 1988. The current financial provision is for £ 1,140 million a year, which represents a 20 per cent. increase in real terms over the 1988–89 figure of £ 902 million. Current public expenditure plans show expenditure increasing to £ 1,271 million in 1991-92. We have always recognised that the success of the prison building programme, taken with policies on diversion from custody, may make it sensible to turn the focus of our attention more to refurbishing the essential parts of the existing estate. That is what we shall have to try to do.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, while I have always greatly welcomed the prison building programme of the present Government, I believe there is a danger, in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has said, of it being thought that absolutely nothing was done until they took office. There is a risk of overlooking what was achieved before then. I think of such prisons as Long Lartin and Coldingley and of my own appearances before the Public Accounts Committee to explain why they all cost three times as much as was originally estimated. It was inadequate but something was done.

I should like to ask one question about these events. Am I right in thinking that the prisoners would have been able to watch on television what went on in Trafalgar Square on Saturday? If they did, and if a violent protest was in prospect, what they saw would have done absolutely nothing to discourage them. As one who had some responsibility for the prison service, this episode has struck me with particular horror. I should like to associate myself with the expressions of appreciation for the action taken by the prison officers and the risks they have suffered in taking it.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks about the prison officers. They certainly have had a most alarming experience. I note what he said about what was done before the Government came to office. I deliberately did not refer to anything other governments had or had not done. Indeed I would not do so, knowing of the noble Lord's distinguished position at the Home Office. However, I was bound to refer to the figures which I gave for straightforward reasons.

The noble Lord asked whether prisoners might have watched on television the events in Trafalgar Square I am not privy to what prisoners watched but my guess is that they have television and that they watch it. If they watched it, they probably saw what happened.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

My Lords, this was an extremely well thought out plan. The noble Earl said that the trouble spread quickly from the starting point 1o the remand section. How many of the prisoners who have not surrendered and are still on the roof or elsewhere in the building are from the remand section? Has there been a reduction over the past year in the time spent by remand prisoners awaiting trial?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I cannot say whether there has been a reduction but I can say that 119 prisoners have yet to surrender. Prison officers regained control of the four remand wings of the prison. A number of prisoners have yet to surrender. They occupy a part of the prison over which prison officers do not have control.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, the noble Earl has rightly drawn attention to the courage of the prison officers in the situation that arose in Strangeways Prison. This was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich have pointed out that the conditions obtaining in Strangeways regarding overcrowding and the long confinement of prisoners in their cells are typical of those in all other local prisons.

My noble friend found it surprising that the situation that has arisen at Strangeways has not happened more often. I am sure that he would agree with me— and I hope that the noble Earl will agree also— that it is not simply a matter of luck that these things happen. Apart from their courage, prison officers show quite extraordinary skill in managing prisoners in those appalling conditions. I am sure he would also agree that a prison officer is not simply a turnkey. His job is largely a matter of personal relations, social skills and a partnership, if that is not too strong a word, with the prison population to make sure that, despite the appalling conditions, the prison service runs so relatively smoothly.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for drawing attention to that point. I do not mind admitting that it is something I did not realise until I took up my present office. There is a great association between the prison officers and the inmates of the prison. One tends to think that prison officers are just gaolers. If that were so the chances of trouble would be much greater than they are. The work of prison officers is skilled work, and when it is done properly there is a rapport, which is a perfectly wholesome one, between the prison officers and those in prison. That makes this kind of thing less likely to happen than would otherwise be the case.