HL Deb 26 April 1990 vol 518 cc684-95

4.28 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement about the serious disturbance at Manchester prison which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House will be aware, at about 6.20 p.m. yesterday evening, prison staff regained control of the prison. One of the six inmates who remained in the prison was taken back into custody earlier in the day, and the remaining five surrendered later. All prisoners in Strangeways on 1st April have been accounted for, and certainly nothing has been found to substantiate the wild stories which appeared in the press in the early stages of the incident. That yesterday's operation to recover the prison was concluded without further injury to staff or prisoners in what were very difficult and dangerous circumstances is a great tribute to the skill and discipline of the prison officers.

"The House will, I am sure, wish to pay tribute to the considerable courage and professionalism displayed by the officers who did the job yesterday and all those in the prison service involved in bringing this incident, and indeed the recent disturbances in other prisons, to a successful conclusion. In particular, I wish to express our gratitude to the governor of Manchester prison, Mr. Brendan O'Friel, and his colleagues who have worked tirelessly to bring the disturbance there to an end with minimal danger to life. I also wish to thank the police, fire and ambulance services for their invaluable and unstinting help here and elsewhere. Among the very many I was able to thank at Strangeways last night was a representative of the Board of Visitors who had been there all day, and indeed someone from the Board of Visitors was present throughout the disturbance. I thank them all most warmly.

"Events at Dartmoor, Bristol and Pucklechurch show that the prison service is not loath to bring to a swift end disturbances of this sort. But circumstances obviously vary a great deal and different tactics have to be adopted in different situations. But our strategy throughout each of these incidents has been to regain complete control at the earliest moment consistent with incurring as few casualties as possible among both prison staff and prisoners. I believe that that was the right strategy here and that events have vindicated it.

"I greatly regret the sad loss of a prison officer who died after serving loyally during the disturbance, and the loss of life of one of the remand prisoners. I wish to offer, once again, my deepest sympathy to the families concerned. The Greater Manchester police have already embarked upon a major criminal investigation and I want to make it absolutely plain that those who commit criminal offences in this sort of incident must expect to face the full rigours of the law. There are already a number of very serious criminal offences—riot, violent disorder and affray—let alone murder and grievous bodily harm which are available in the sort of circumstances which we have seen at Manchester. But I want to make absolutely sure that the courts do have all the powers necessary and am reconsidering the possibility of creating a new criminal offence of prison mutiny.

"The House would not expect me to say that all we need to do now is wait for the outcome of Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry. Much has been done already, but there are other things we must do urgently. This incident has led directly to the loss of over 1,500 prison places at Manchester, at a time when we were making significant inroads into solving the problem of prison overcrowding, and will inevitably lead to difficulties in other prison establishments until the places can be regained. We are taking urgent steps to make available as many secure places as are needed.

"I have already made it clear that we are bringing forward the recruitment of 200 more prison officers to help establishments that are under particular pressure caused by these appalling incidents. We shall consider urgently whether there is any need for additional training of staff to deal with incidents of this sort. Over 3,000 officers have been specially trained in the past 12 months, and more are being trained. We have already placed orders for an extra £¾ million worth of equipment and clothing for the personal protection of officers.

"New prisons are designed so as to minimise the risk of events developing as they did at Manchester. But we need to consider what physical improvements can quickly be made to existing establishments. Officials are conducting an urgent review of structural and other means of preventing prisoners getting on to roofs in these old Victorian prisons. We will also examine how to make it easier for prison staff to get on to roof areas and the higher landings. Officials will also examine methods of locking doors and the issue and carrying of keys, the storage of inflammable items such as cooking oil, and how we can improve protection to kitchens, pharmacies and medical treatment rooms. There is then the physical protection of vulnerable prisoners. We must study whether that can be strengthened.

"We must also recognise that large numbers of prisoners in the same place at the same time can give rise to considerable risk. There is a difficult balance to be struck between restricting the numbers alowed to congregate, which can itself lead to trouble, and creating a constructive regime, which can make a contribution to the maintenance of control in prisons. But I am certain that this is something we must look at.

"The results of this work will be reported to me during the coming weeks. None of it pre-empts the outcome of Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry which is now in progress and we shall make available to him the results of this work. The House will recognise that vigorous action is now needed to try to prevent further disturbances'".

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

4.34 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. Like everyone else, we are glad that this appalling criminal disorder at Strangeways prison has come to an end after 25 days. The initial riot involved about 1,000 out of 1,600 inmates, a figure which was progressively reduced as time passed.

On behalf of my noble colleagues I should like to join Ministers in conveying our appreciation and gratitude to the governor and prison staff for their patient and courageous conduct through this painful and difficult period. We should also like to pay our tribute to the police, fire brigade and other public services for their contribution. We are conscious that more lives could have been lost if they had not behaved thoughtfully and with restraint. It has become clear to everyone that the task of prison officers, more especially in Victorian buildings like Strangeways, is fraught with great problems, that there are very important lessons to be learnt and that the building of new prisons should be given more urgent priority by the Government.

In view of Lord Justice Woolfs inquiry, which I understand begins today, I shall put only a few brief questions to the noble Earl. First, may we assume that the Woolf inquiry will investigate the copycat outbreaks which took place in more than 20 prisons during the Strangeways siege? Furthermore, will the inquiry be looking at the implications of Fresh Start? Is it not the case that there would have been 30 more officers in post at Strangeways if Fresh Start had not been introduced there?

Secondly, it has been reported that the governor of Strangeways had planned to send in a riot team on 2nd April, the day after the violence erupted, but that a higher authority—presumably the Home Office—overruled that plan. Can the Minister confirm whether that is the case? Did a discussion on the question of physical intervention on the second day take place between the governor and Home Office officials, or even with the Home Secretary himself?

Thirdly, many people are concerned by the publicity which has been given to this criminal episode, especially on television. They argue that it has prolonged the agony and given a herioc aspect to criminals. Will the Woolf inquiry consider that aspect of the case?

Furthermore, it has been reported that the estimated cost of the damage caused during the 25 days of the siege could be as high as £80 million. Can the noble Earl confirm that and can he say whether Manchester Corporation will be expected to pay in whole or in part for that damage?

Finally, the main cause of unrest is the size of our prison population in the United Kingdom. We note with appreciation the actions which are proposed by the Government and which are listed in the Statement read by the noble Earl. There is a way in which the Home Secretary could reduce the population significantly and rapidly; namely, by reducing the number of remand prisoners by applying the 110-day trial deadline throughout England and Wales and by ending the 28-day custodial remand introduced four years ago in the Criminal Justice Act. Will the noble Earl please ask his right honourable friend to consider that possibility urgently? Such action need not necessarily await the result of the Woolf report. We on this side are of course anxious to co-operate with the Government in any reasonable measure to improve the prison service generally.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may also thank the noble Earl for having repeated the Statement and once again say how much we are indebted to Mr. O'Friel and his colleagues for their cool and professional judgment throughout the entire dispute. I regret the extremely ill-informed and foolish attacks made upon Mr. O'Friel by some elements of the press.

Perhaps I may ask one or two questions arising from the noble Earl's Statement. First, the noble Earl rightly thanked the Greater Manchester police, fire service and ambulance service for their work. What reply will the Greater Manchester Police Authority receive from the Home Office to its request for financial support, given the high level of expenditure in which it has been involved during the dispute?

My second question concerns prison places. The noble Earl referred to the fact that the department has lost 1,500 places at Manchester. How many places have been lost at Pucklechurch, Dartmoor and Bristol? It is necessary to recognise the extent of the short-term crisis regarding prison numbers following the events at Strangeways.

Thirdly, the noble Earl referred in his Statement to the necessity to strike a balance between the need to restrict the right to congregate and the need to create a constructive regime at establishments such as Strangeways. Does he not recognise that when men are being locked up for 23 hours out of every 24, many of them living three to a cell and slopping out in really obscene conditions, the idea of further limiting the rights to congregate is not a serious practical possibility?

May I ask him, following from that, whether he does not recognise also that one of the most obvious problems which arose at Strangeways was the fact that there were over 1,600 inmates when there was a CNA of 970? Does he not recognise that so long as such conditions apply, there will be a substantial number of people living in grossly uncivilised conditions and, more than that, that this is the very tinder which is being provided for riots? These can always take place in establishments such as Strangeways, making it more necessary for the Government to consider what short-term steps can be taken to improve the overcrowding in prisons, which will be substantially worsened as a result of the number of prison places that have been lost?

Lastly, we all recognise that Lord Justice Woolf will be making a number of judgments on these matters, and some of us would prefer to await his report before necessarily associating ourselves with the suggestion that there was a shortage of prison officers.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition and to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for what they have said and particularly for conveying their expressions of gratitude to the governor and his staff, and also to the police and fire services. They have all been under very considerable strain, and I think we are all proud of the way in which they have carried out their task, which has resulted in this outbreak having been drawn to a conclusion without any loss of life at all, other than the two cases we know about. That is something for which we can all be immensely grateful.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition asked whether Lord Justice Woolf would be able to investigate the copycat outbreaks which occurred after the original one at Strangeways. His terms of reference are to inquire into the events leading up to the serious disturbances in Her Majesty's prison at Manchester, and they have been subsequently widened to include the other outbreaks as well. Therefore the "copycats" will come under that heading and he will be able to address himself to those issues.

The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition also asked whether there would have been 30 more officers on duty at Manchester had Fresh Start not been in place. I do not think it is possible to make a simple comparison like that, because the circumstances are different. What is a fact is that they were seven officers short of the total complement required. If I remember the figures correctly, out of a complement of 542, three were not in place at the time because they were not part of the establishment. That brings the number down to 539 and in fact there were 532; so that means the figure was only seven short of the correct number.

With regard to the noble Lord's suggestion about the governor wanting to take action, I have to point out to him that clearly in matters of this nature Ministers look to the operational managers of the prison service for guidance, and we continuously received advice from the governor of Manchester prison and from the Director-General of the Prison Service, who is himself an experienced former governor, on the best way to handle the situation. We though it right to accept that advice.

The noble Lord also said that it would cost £80 million to carry out the repairs, and he asked whether Manchester Corporation would be expected to pay for them. We shall have to wait and see exactly what the situation is. It will be necessary to take a structural survey of the place and assess the damage that has been done. Then we can find out what the cost will be and whether the building should be repaired. Until those steps have been taken, it is difficult to pontificate further.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred to what had happened in Pucklechurch, Dartmoor and Bristol. In Dartmoor no places have been lost because although one wing has been lost, it will be possible to bring in another wing which was due: to be refurbished and was temporarily empty. Now that will be able to be used. In Manchester, Bristol and Pucklechurch some 2,000 places have been lost, and of course people will have to be accommodated elsewhere. It is desirable to get that accommodation made available as efficiently as possible, spread as best we can over various establishments.

I understand the noble Lord's concern about limiting further the rights to congregate. Of course, he is perfectly right to make that comment. The Statement says that my right honourable friend is going to consider the difficulties. If you give people more freedom and more congregating together results in this kind of action, it may be necessary to consider where and if such rights ought to be limited.

The noble Lord asked whether the Manchester police would be reimbursed. We are grateful to the police for their unstinting work over this. Where it can be shown that forces were undertaking work which could not be held to be within their area of responsibility—for example, holding prisoners in police cells—then the prison service will certainly be happy to consider meeting the costs involved. We have already been in contact with a number of forces, and no doubt the Manchester Police Authority, if they feel it is desirable for them to be reimbursed, will let us know what their views are. We shall then consider them.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the Home Office be considering whether, and to what extent, the copycat outbreaks in other prisons were prompted or aggravated by what the prisoners in those prisons saw on the television about the things that were happening at Strangeways?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am quite certain that will be one of the matters to be considered, because it is in everyone's mind without question that the fact of being able to see this kind of thing happening on television does encourage others to carry out the same tactics. Therefore it will be necessary to address our minds to the question of how we can prevent that happening, but I need not spell out the complications.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, the noble Earl said in reading the Statement that there are other things we must do urgently. I am sure the noble Earl would agree that one of the great disadvantages of prison life is the extreme enforced idleness. Would he therefore also not agree that one of the things we must do urgently is to give very much higher priority to the establishment of effective and relevant training programmes, and to see that such programmes are used? In many cases there have been good training programmes; but their takeup, for a whole variety of reasons, has been woefully inadequate. If the noble Earl and his department believe this, are they prepared to back a high priority for training not only with words but also with sufficient and additional financial resources? I should declare an interest in asking this question because I am chairman of the Apex Trust, which is at the moment with the knowledge of and with some degree of support from the prison department launching new initiatives in training within prisons.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Baroness is perfectly correct. The infuriating part is that a great deal had been done in Manchester recently in order to give people more training, to get them out of their cells and to give them some work to do rather than just sitting confined. Now all that has been put back, but certainly we shall be considering that aspect.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Intermediate Treatment Fund. I also apologise to my noble friend for not giving notice of my question but that was in part due to the fact I took over as chairman only yesterday afternoon. In the wake of the demonstration of the dangers of a high prison population, will my noble friend ask his department to give all possible support to programmes designed to prevent young adults and juveniles offending? Furthermore, will he ask his department to consider relieving pressure on the remand wings by reducing the pressure of business in the Crown Courts? As a result of that pressure, people are kept waiting in remand wings while queuing for their cases to be heard. That could be achieved by removing the need for imprisonment for offences where it is not suitable; for example, first offences of handling goods of small value. I am advised that currently such cases occupy 8 per cent. or 9 per cent. of Crown Court business in the Greater London area.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's observations. I congratulate him on the position that he has recently accepted. He need not trouble about not having given me notice of his question because, apart from one, no other noble Lord has, and therefore he is in good company.

The position in respect of remand wings is most important and in the Home Office we are considering ways in which to relieve the pressure upon them. The points raised by my noble friend will certainly be considered. At present we are trying to discover the pressures that are put upon prisons and prisoners which are exacerbated by the fact that they must go to prison in the first place. What has happened during the past few weeks will intensify that pressure.

Baroness Ewart—Biggs

My Lords, the Minister said that 2,000 cells were lost. Can he say whether the Government have considered using army camps to house offenders? Can he also say whether they are considering using the procedure used successfully by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, in 1980 following the national prison officers' dispute? He circulated the courts asking them to exercise restraint when sentencing. Can the Minister say whether in future it will be possible for the Prison Department to declare when a prison is full to capacity? Strangeways Prison was allowed to take 600 prisoners in excess of its normal capacity. Surely there is now a case for allowing prisons to declare when they can take no more prisoners.

As regards Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry, will its investigation into the underlying causes be taken seriously? We are the only European country which has had major disturbances in recent years; in 1986, 1988, 1989 and this year. Therefore, there must be a good reason for investigating the underlying causes as well as those relating to this particular riot.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's concern. It is not our present intention to use army camps for the simple reason that it is necessary to keep those who have been removed from prisons such as Strangeways in secure accommodation. Army camps do not necessarily provide that. We have not yet circularised the courts suggesting that they impose more lenient sentences and I cannot tell the noble Baroness whether that will be done. It is all very well to say that we should declare when a prison is full to capacity, but had such an attitude been taken we might have found that a number of prisons which were regarded as being full had to take additional people. The fact is that if the courts sentence people those people must be put somewhere. I do not wish to widen these questions into a debate on the prison system but I point out that it is our desire to provide more prison places and build more prisons—and that we have done—in order to meet the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness. However, if the courts sentence people to prison the prison system must take them.

Of course the inquiry into the underlying causes will be taken seriously. We are as concerned as the noble Baroness and all noble Lords about the causes of such riots. They are disgraceful, bad for the prison system and the country, and we wish to discover what can be done and the cause. Everyone knows that there is no simple answer but I assure the noble Baroness that Lord Justice Woolf's recommendations will be considered most seriously.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords—yes, I shall give way to the noble Lord.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the unfortunate effects of the publicity given by the media to the recent events at Strangeways has been to give a totally false impression of the relationships which exist between prisoners and the prison staff? They displayed acts of violence and hatred by a small number of prisoners against the prison officers below. Will the Government consider ways and means of trying to correct that impression?

I recall some excellent documentary films which appeared on BBC television, I believe, a year or two ago. They showed the correct picture, the normal relationships, the good order, the humane treatment and relaxed atmosphere obtaining in our prisons despite the appalling conditions which exist in some of them. The pendulum can swing too far giving an impression of total chaos that is barely held in check.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, one of the difficulties with any story which reaches the media is that it it blown out of all proportion. What is shown on the screens is that which the transmitting companies concerned wish to show. The result is that it has the effect described by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt; it gives a bad impression of the relationship between staff and prisoners. That relationship must be good and, on the whole, it is good. The way in which we can recover the position must be considered and I am grateful for the noble Lord's suggestions.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I was happy to give way to the noble Lord who gave me such good advice many years ago when he was chairman of the Parole Board. One of the questions asked by my noble friend was not adequately answered. If, before the incidents at Strangeways, any of us had been told that it would take 25 days to recover one of Her Majesty's prisons, we should have regarded that with absolute incredulity. While it is right to concentrate on the fundamental underlying causes, should we not also look at the tactics which were followed? Perhaps we should do so, especially in view of the continued reference that has been made to the governor's proposal to recover the prison after two days. I am sure the Minister will agree i that the 25-day lapse of time will cause profound \ consequences within the prison service for many years to come.

Without prejudging the accuracy of the statements will Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry cover not only the events leading up to the outbreak but also the tactics that were followed afterwards? Public opinion will be deeply disturbed by the length of time taken and the tactics that were followed. I do not believe that public opinion will be satisfied unless there is a detailed examination of the reasons why the course was followed. I do not wish to create difficulties between the governor and the Home Office, but does the Minister not agree that it is the Home Secretary, regardless of the advice that he received, who must accept responsibility for the tactics that were followed? I urge that the matter should be looked into.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, is entirely right in making that observation. He expressed the concern, which has been felt by everyone, that the events continued for a long time. From his experience as Home Secretary the noble Lord knows that my right honourable friend must accept responsibility.

Perhaps I may put this point to the noble Lord, because I think it is important. We all wanted to see it finished earlier. When an outbreak such as this occurs a great deal of thought is given to it. All kinds of different ideas are produced. Eventually one has to decide on a policy. The policy that was concluded was that one should proceed by a form of attrition to try to wear down people rather than go into immediate confrontation. Everyone knew that there was chaos within the prison. There may have been boobytraps and if severe action had been taken it was very likely that loss of life might occur. Had that happened, the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, might have accused my right honourable friend of having taken precipitate and over-quick action. He might have done that and others might have done so.

The noble Lord will also bear in mind that when the disturbances at Strangeways first occurred there were 1,600 people there and it was necessary to evacuate many of them. The prison staff were largely taken up in dealing with that. There were 200 prisoners left in the building and the number of staff available to try to take on 200 prisoners would have been disproportionately small. As it was, in the end there was a ratio of staff to prisoners of about 25 to 1 to deal with the situation. At the beginning there had been a ratio of about 2 to 1.

Of course that will be considered very carefully to see whether different action in different circumstances might be taken in the future. I can assure the noble Lord that Lord Justice Woolf's inquiry will enable him to investigate those matters. He is required to look into the events leading up to the serious disturbance and the action taken to bring it to a conclusion.

Lord Annan

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will meet a point which follows from one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. Is it not always right that the commanding officer—in this case, the governor of the prison —is the person who is responsible for the place and that one follows his judgment unless in the event it proves to be the wrong judgment, when one has to take action? However, in this case it seems clear that he was overruled and quite different instructions then began to be given.

In 1974 I analysed many of the disturbances that took place in our universities. It became clear to me from that analysis that in many cases, if an injunction had been taken out against the students who were in revolt, there would have been peace within the university in a very short space of time. However, if a disturbance is once allowed to continue, one is in grave difficulties because it generates publicity.

That is one reason why I ask the noble Earl whether he will make a particular point of bringing to the attention of his right honourable friend the Home Secretary the necessity to back the judgment of the man on the spot.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, of course I shall inform my right honourable friend of the noble Lord's remarks. In the final analysis, as the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, said, the responsibility is that of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. He has advice tendered from the governor, the prison department and his officials and takes the advice in the light of his own views. He took the advice and he takes full responsibility for it.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the vital lessons to be drawn from this matter is the necessity for the Government to review their policy with regard to prisons? Should not they now abandon once and for all a policy that has been attacked month after month and year after year by many Members of this House; namely, the policy of keeping in the same institution those who have not been tried and not been sentenced alongside those who have been tried, convicted and sentenced? Is not that a policy that has contributed to many of the disturbances over recent years?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in the eyes of the noble Lord maybe it is. When a riot of such a nature takes place, everything is considered. But it is not all that easy suddenly to remove a whole batch of prisoners from one establishment and place them into another one which is already full. If this were a perfect world and one could construct separate establishments, doubtless the results would be better.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the true constitutional position is that responsibility to Parliament rests with the Home Secretary and him alone? However, if he were to take operational command of a situation such as that which we have all witnessed through the media, he would be a very unwise Home Secretary.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that observation. If my right honourable friend had overruled advice—I cannot say what that advice was—and been successful, everyone would have said, "How wonderful". If he had overruled the advice and been unsuccessful, he would have been roasted over a very hot fire indeed.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that he has still not dealt with this very important matter? The allegation is made—and has been made several times in the media and the press—that the reason for the delay in settling this matter was not the action of the governor and his staff but actions by the Home Office, presumably by the Government, which restricted the operations that the governor and his staff wished to undertake? That is the question put to him and we have not had an answer. It was originally put by my noble friend on the Front bench at the beginning of questioning. Will the noble Earl now answer that question?

Earl Ferrers

I thought that I had answered it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I do not think so.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has a happy knack of intervening as soon as I open my mouth and does not give me the opportunity to conclude what I intend to say. I was trying to tell him that when such an action occurs my right honourable friend takes advice from the governor and the deputy director of the Prison Service and acts upon that advice. There are all kinds of advice floating about the Home Office.

Some of it even comes from Ministers of State in the House of Lords. However, it would be impertinent and imprudent if I were to single out which person gave which piece of advice to my right honourable friend. I can assure the noble Lord that he took his decision on the advice that was given.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, perhaps I could intervene at this stage. There is a rule recommended by the Procedure Committee and accepted by the House as a whole to the effect that the questions and answers on a Statement should last for 20 minutes from the end of the Minister's first reply to the Front Benches opposite. I think it is the general feeling of the House that those 20 minutes should be kept absolutely firm. Whether I misinterpret the feelings of the House on this occasion it is for the House to decide, but I think that we should be unwise to breach what has proved to be a good rule.