HL Deb 08 July 1991 vol 530 cc1226-34

3.50 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the escape of two Category A high risk prisoners from Brixton Prison which is now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"I wish to make a Statement about the escape of two Category A high risk prisoners from Brixton Prison using a firearm on the morning of 7th July. They were awaiting trial at the Central Criminal Court for serious offences including conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.

"Yesterday morning the two prisoners named Pearse Gerrard McAuley and Nessan Quinlivan attended the first Roman Catholic mass of the day in the prison. The service began at 9.15 a.m. and finished at about 10.05 a.m. Since both were high risk prisoners, they were subject to the usual security precautions. Accordingly, they underwent a rub-down search before leaving their secure unit for the chapel. They were escorted there by three officers.

"After the service, and again in accordance with the usual procedures, the prisoners were escorted by three prison officers to return to their unit. A dog patrol supervised them between the chapel and the main prison building. Once inside and in a narrow passageway, one of the prisoners produced a firearm and took one of the escorting officers hostage, holding the gun to his head. He fired a shot above the officer's head, and the other prisoner took the keys of the hostage officer and used them to gain access to the prison centre. In the centre a further shot was fired which passed through the clothing of another officer. The prisoners and their hostage went through two other gates, entering a building yard.

"In the yard another shot was fired to keep pursuing staff at bay, and the prisoners reached the prison wall at a point where they were able to scale it despite the razor wire at the top. They then escaped into the married quarters area outside the prison and threatened a prison officer who was cleaning his car. They took possession of it but abandoned it when they found their route was blocked.

"They were at that point within a few yards of Brixton Hill, where they stopped a private car. The driver was ordered out and shot in the upper right leg and the woman passenger got out unharmed. I am pleased to say that the driver is recovering in hospital. The car was driven into Brixton and abandoned in a side street. With money they had taken from the car driver, they used a taxi to take them to Baker Street Underground Station.

"I am deeply disturbed by this grave lapse of security and by the associated risk to members of the public. I have decided that we must have a swift and independent inquiry into the circumstances of this deplorable incident so that any necessary lessons can be learned promptly.

"I have therefore asked Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, His Honour Judge Tumim, to carry out a full inquiry with the following terms of reference: 'To inquire into the circumstances of the escape of prisoners McAuley and Quinlivan from Her. Majesty's Prison Brixton on Sunday, 7th July, and in particular to review the security arrangements for handling high risk prisoners in this prison; to assess how those arrangements were operated on the day concerned; and to make recommendations'. "I spoke to Judge Tumim this morning and he told me that he would be starting the task immediately. He will be assisted by the police. I have asked him to submit an interim report by the end of this month. Subject to the need to protect sensitive security material and to the possibility of criminal charges being laid, I intend that the chief inspector's findings should be published.

"When Judge Tumim inspected Brixton last year, his report referred to certain comments on security matters which he had put directly to the Director-General of the Prison Service. These dealt with matters of physical security, including the position and coverage of closed circuit television. I shall be asking the inquiry to pay particular attention to the progress made in these areas.

"Judge Tumim also recommended that we should reconsider holding Category A high risk prisoners in Brixton when new accommodation became available at the new Belmarsh Prison in Woolwich. The Director-General accepted this recommendation. The new unit at Belmarsh for all Category A prisoners in London who are designated as a high risk has been recently completed. It had been planned to use this as from November, but I have decided to bring this forward to next month.

"In the meantime I have taken the following action. All governors of prisons which hold Category A prisoners, other than dispersal prisons, have been asked to review urgently their procedures for handling Category A high risk prisoners whenever it is necessary for them to leave their secure units. In particular they must consider immediately whether religious services can be provided for them in their living areas as opposed to allowing them to move to chapels. I have asked the Director-General of the Prison Service to report to me on this as a matter of urgency.

"I have also given instructions that other prisoners awaiting trial on terrorist charges should be moved immediately from Brixton to high security dispersal prisons.

"This was a very serious incident and no time must be lost in finding out exactly what happened and taking all possible measures to prevent such an event recurring."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement to us. It is a very serious and grim Statement to which we have had to listen.

The House and the country will be deeply disturbed that two suspected terrorists held in supposedly high security conditions can procure firearms and break out of prison in this manner. While considering this dreadful incident, I am sure that the whole House will have learned with some relief that the motorist concerned appears to be recovering in hospital. We offer him from all sides of the House our sympathy in his injuries and our good wishes for his speedy recovery. The House will also, I am sure, wish to express our admiration for the brave prison officers who faced these two men, armed and fierce as they were.

Quite obviously we welcome the Government's announcement that an inquiry is to be launched into what occurred. From these Benches, we are grateful that that inquiry will include an examination of all the security arrangements at Brixton Prison and not just the circumstances of this particular escape.

We were pleased too to know that an interim report is to be issued and published by the end of the month. I trust—if I am allowed to say this—that the usual channels will procure that any such interim report is speedily debated in your Lordships' House. It is important and urgent for obvious reasons, not least because such incidents have a most damaging effect on the morale of prison officers in our prisons and on this occasion on the morale of our security forces, who show great courage in apprehending suspects of this kind and spend an enormous amount of time in doing so.

Will the Minister confirm or deny that at the time of the break-out, Brixton prison was holding 1,060 prisoners, 230 more than the official limit, with only 140 staff on duty? Does the Minister not agree that the break-out occurred after chapel on Sunday? One can hear in this House, and no doubt in another place too, grim echoes of Strangeways. Almost precisely the same timing and almost precisely the same methods were employed in the incident at Strangeways. In his report on the prison disturbances at Strangeways, Lord Justice Woolf considered the problem of weekend staffing levels. He suggested that disturbances are more likely to occur at that time. He went to the trouble of recommending, at paragraph 13.106 on page 351 of his report, ways of increasing weekend staffing, not least because of the risks that exist at this time. What have the Government done about that recommendation? If they have done nothing until now, why is that?

These escapes are even more alarming, not just because of the report of Lord Justice Woolf but also because of a report referred to in the Statement, namely, that of Judge Tumim, the very man who is being asked to conduct the inquiry into these events. However, what the Statement did not contain was the date upon which Judge Tumim made his report on Brixton Prison. That occurred in August last year—11 months ago. The Statement does not contain direct quotations from that report. However, because of the seriousness of the contents of this Statement, I must ask for your Lordships' indulgence while I quote from that report. At paragraph 3.08 on page 46 of his report Judge Tumim deals with the question of security at Brixton Prison. He stated in August 1990: This process would be helped if Brixton did not hold high or exceptional risk Category A inmates; the need for it to do so should be re-examined in view of the prison's existing level of security and the forthcoming opening of … Woolwich with extensive, purpose-built Category A accommodation and security. In the meantime, the time taken to approve proposed visitors to Category A inmates should be reduced". At paragraph 2.12 of the report Judge Tumim further states: At the time of our inspection Brixton held nearly 60 inmate, in the highest security category (Category Al), many of whom also had the ability and resources to mount escape bids". What firmer warning could the same judge who is now being asked to conduct the inquiry give? Why has the warning been ignored—as one anticipated—and why has the judge been asked to report again on precisely the matters on which he reported in August 1990? This House has received many excellent reports on conditions in our prisons. Many of those reports have drawn attention to most unsatisfactory conditions of overcrowding and insecurity. From these Benches I welcome the fact that there will be another report. But could we have done with reports and see action instead?

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for having repeated the Statement. Few Home Secretaries can have had to read such a sombre Statement in the House of Commons than has been the lot of the current Home Secretary. It is a matter of the gravest importance that two dangerous, armed men have been allowed to escape from Brixton prison. The men represent a danger to the general public and that fact is causing the most serious concern in the police service. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, recognises that fact.

What is the purpose of major police operations that are launched to bring suspected terrorists before the courts if the suspected terrorists are allowed to escape in the circumstances of the break-out at Brixton Prison yesterday? It is all the more worrying that this incident has taken place when there is an ever-present prospect of still further Provisional IRA activities in Great Britain. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, I, too, welcome the fact that Judge Tumim is to be asked to conduct an independent inquiry. All of us have substantial confidence in Judge Tumim who has produced some admirable reports on conditions in prisons. Our welcome of his appointment is unrestrained but it raises the question—the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has just touched on the point —of how wise it has been to hold Category A prisoners in prisons which are so grossly overcrowded. That situation represents a major threat to the security of a prison. This is not a case of being wise after the event.

I welcome the fact that changes will be made as regards high security prisoners attending chapel services. Again I am not trying to be wise after the event. But, given what happened at Strangeways last year, one has to wonder why, when the disturbances at Strangeways arose within the chapel, greater steps were not taken to ensure that serious problems did not arise from Category A prisoners attending chapel services in Brixton.

The question of staffing levels is a difficult one. I believe most of us recognise that there has been a major improvement in the staff-inmate ratio in prisons over the past 20 years. We welcome that improvement but we may need to look at staffing levels on Sundays. It is no accident that both these episodes took place on a Sunday. I hope very much that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will be able to confirm that that matter is receiving substantial attention.

In conclusion I must say that there can be absolutely no excuse whatever for what occurred at Brixton yesterday. I hope very much that we shall have an opportunity to discuss this matter on the basis of Judge Tumim's report at the earliest opportunity.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I believe we can all agree that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, was entirely right when he referred to this Statement as a grim Statement. The noble Lord also voiced the opinions of everyone in this House when he expressed his sympathy for the motorist who was shot. The sympathy of all of us goes out to the motorist. The noble Lord expressed his admiration for the people who, faced with those armed, desperate men, behaved so well. He said that he would like a debate on this very serious matter and obviously that request will be considered.

The noble Lord asked about the number of prison officers on duty yesterday in the prison. The answer is that 145 prison officers were on duty and there were about 1,000 prisoners in the prison. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, one of the matters which Judge Tumim will undoubtedly look into is the question of staffing ratios on Sundays. The noble Lord was at pains to point out that staffing ratios overall have improved dramatically over the past decades. In the 1960s there were six prisoners to one prison officer; 10 years ago there were three prisoners to one prison officer; and now there are two prisoners to one prison officer. Therefore, in fairness one should not forget the great improvements which have taken place, just as one should not forget the great improvements in the prison estate, with 12 new prisons since 1979 and 12 other prisons to be completed during the next three years.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, referred to Judge Tumim's report on Brixton published in August 1990. I can assure him that Judge Tumim's warnings have not been ignored. The Home Secretary has been advised by the director-general that all his recommendations are being considered and action has been taken. It is for the inquiry to consider whether further action should have been taken.

Noble Lords should be hesitant to criticise the Government regarding the recommendation that high risk Category A prisoners should be moved to Belmarsh. Belmarsh has only recently opened. The original intention was that high risk Category A prisoners should be moved to Belmarsh in November this year. Only two of the four wings at Belmarsh are yet in operation. It is a newly-commissioned prison coming into operation by stages, as one would expect. In view of the obvious anxiety that is bound to have been caused throughout the country as a result of the incident, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has decided to bring forward the transfer of Category A high risk prisoners to Belmarsh. As I said in the Statement, they will go there next month.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, welcomed the decision to ask Judge Tumim to carry out the inquiry. I certainly do so.

So far as concerns the lessons from Strangeways, it is worth bearing in mind that there were 309 people in the chapel at Strangeways and there were 71 in the chapel at Brixton on this occasion. One of the things that was said after the Strangeways incident, which I remember so vividly, was that with such a large number of people in the chapel it was difficult to exercise proper supervision over them, particularly with staffing levels as they were on a Sunday. Having 309 people in the chapel confronted the staff with a considerable task. One could say that that lesson was learnt because yesterday there were 71 people in the chapel —a very great difference. As the Statement makes clear, the Home Secretary is not content with that. One of the matters which will have to be considered by the inquiry is whether such chapel gatherings should be terminated for high risk prisoners and whether those prisoners should have the opportunity for religious observance in the wings within which they are kept secure.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the escape of these two most dangerous terrorists is sickening for the anti-terrorist squad? So far as they are concerned a year's work of surveillance and detection has been squandered. Secondly, does he agree that this is a major morale booster for the Provisional IRA? It is an international propaganda coup from which its cause will benefit and it has made our prison system look pathetic.

Will the noble Lord say whether those two prisoners were in the maximum security wing? Were routine searches of visitors evident or have they been abandoned? Was the metal detector screen operative in recent times? Finally, what of inside help? Who aided and abetted the escape? Are there IRA terrorist supporters within Brixton gaol? Rooting out him or them is as important as capturing those who have escaped. I hope, therefore, that the inquiry to which the noble Lord referred will take into consideration such an investigation of the inside operation.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right. This must be absolutely sickening for all those who take such risks and work so hard to fight the terrorists. It is indeed a propaganda coup for the terrorists.

The answer to the noble Lord's questions are as follows. As I understand it, the two prisoners were in the maximum security wing. There is a metal detecting screen which is used when visitors come to see maximum security prisoners. I have no reason to think that on the last occasion when the two men received visitors their visitors did not on that occasion, as on previous occasions, go through the metal detecting screen. There is careful supervision of visits. I am told that two prison officers observe a visit when it takes place. The prisoner is there, there is his visitor and there are two prison officers watching. However, the other questions which the noble Lord asked are matters for the inquiry.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, can my noble friend answer this one question? Why do we have two IRA prisoners together at one time? Surely it would be much better if they were separated. If one was in Manchester and the other in Cornwall they would not have been able to combine. If both are in the same place at the same time it is much easier for them to take advantage of what is obviously a thoroughly incompetently run prison.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, they should be where one is confident that there is maximum security. The question which my noble friend has asked is fundamentally a question for Judge Tumim.

Lord Jay

My Lords, has the noble Lord the Leader of the House seen reports in the press that individuals who visited Brixton prison last week were in no way effectively searched or screened as they entered the prison?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I can only tell your Lordships what I have learnt from the Home Office. High risk Category A prisoners have individual supervision when they receive a visit. They are strip searched before such a visit and they are strip searched after the visit. The inquiry will want to ensure that that took place on every occasion, but that is what ought to have happened.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in the light of the admirably concise terms of reference for Judge Tumim, is it not possible for the submission of the interim report to be given even more urgency, especially as, if the report is not received until the end of this month, it is unlikely that there will be a debate on it in this House or in the other place until the autumn?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, your Lordships will agree that one has to strike a reasonable balance. To insist that Judge Tumim should report to us in less than a month might mean a less thorough report than your Lordships would wish to see.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, why was the priest not brought into the prison? Surely that is elementary. It is touching to know that there were 71 people present. It would be interesting to know how often they went to church when they were outside. They all appear to undergo rapid conversions when they go into prison. Is the suggestion that the gun was found in the confessional box correct? If so, are visitors to the prison domain allowed to wander around the grounds? Listening on the radio this morning to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I understood the head of prisons to say that all visitors were not searched. That was the phrase that he used. How are the visitors who are to be searched selected? When visitors come to this place, they have to go through a screen. We have to walk about with identity cards on, presumably even if we go to church. Why are some people searched and not others? It appears that there are some curious rules. We do not need an inquiry to look into them; we just need two sensible people—preferably women—to put the prison governor right.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, as I said earlier, the purpose of having an inquiry of this nature is to ensure that that which was supposed to happen in fact happened, but there is no doubt as to what should have happened. If people come out of the high-security area in which they are incarcerated in order to go to church, that is one period when they are more able to take mischievous action than at any other time during the week. That is why my right honourable friend said that one of the matters that Judge Tumim will have to take into consideration is whether those high-risk, category A prisoners should continue to be taken to church. One would have thought that it might be possible to provide facilities for them to worship in their own high-security quarters, if that is what they really want to do.

Lord Monson

My Lords, will the Leader of the House tell us whether the prison officers who were escorting those two extremely dangerous prisoners were armed? If the answer is that it is not part of our British tradition to arm prison officers, may one suggest that British traditions, which may have been appropriate in the relatively gentle 1930s or 1950s, are no longer appropriate in the much more dangerous 1990s".

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I have no doubt that that matter, among others, will be considered by Judge Tumim when he reports.

I hive just been corrected on one small matter which I should mention. I said that an inmate is strip-searched both before and after a visit. That is not right. He has a rub-down search before and is strip-searched after the visit.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, perhaps I may refer to the important point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. This is an international matter of some importance. The appropriateness of appointing Judge Tumim has already been mentioned. As we all know, he made a detailed report on the prison and its security arrangements in August 1990. It would be a speedy matter to see what improvements or alterations, if any, have been made since then. In addition, he would have to find out what, it would appear, occurred on the evidence that he can obtain regarding the incident. With an judge of the experience of Judge Tumim, that would mean possibly seven days' intensive work. Noble Lords may agree with me that it is important that Parliament should have an opportunity to debate the matter and any interim recommendations that are made. Will the Leader of the House assure us that an effort will be made to obtain the report within a week or so with a view to the House considering it before the summer recess?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, obviously I shall pass on to my right honourable friend what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said. There are a number of matters to be considered: first, what work has been done since Judge Tumim compiled his report; secondly, what further work might now be indicated; and, thirdly, what happened on this occasion. Perhaps my right honourable friend should tell Judge Tumim that the House would prefer the report to be completed in time for a debate before the House rises, but if Judge Tumim says that that would not be consistent with the thoroughness that he wishes to put into the exercise, we must accept that.

Lord Havers

My Lords, I know Judge Tumim very well. As we all know, he is a very responsible man. He will read today's debate. We should not put him under any pressure of time because I am certain that he will produce that report just as soon as he properly and responsibly can.

Lord Waddington

; My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. I shall tell my right honourable friend exactly what has happened in the House this afternoon and explain to him that we should like the report as soon as possible. I am sure that he will convey those views to Judge Tumim and that the latter will do his best to produce a report quickly but thoroughly.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little further on the matter of a debate. Clearly, it will be difficult for the report to be debated before the summer recess. Will the Minister consider recalling the House as soon as the report is available?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I shall consider that suggestion, but I shall consider it at great length and it might take me the whole of the recess to carry out that consideration.