HL Deb 04 March 1992 vol 536 cc865-73

4.35 p.m.

The Paymaster General (Lord Belstead)

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. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr. Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement on Lord Colville's report on the management of paramilitary prisoners in Belfast prison. Before dealing with the substance of his report, which is published today, I should like to express my thanks to my noble friend Lord Colville for the thoroughness and speed with which he carried out a very difficult task.

"The House will recall the tragic events which gave rise to his review. On 24th November last a device exploded in the dining hall in C wing in Belfast prison. One prisoner was killed outright, another mortally wounded and several others less seriously injured. The efforts of staff in rendering first aid immediately after the explosion were in the highest traditions of the Northern Ireland prison service and earned the thanks of the relatives of the prisoners who died. On 26th November the Provisional IRA admitted responsibility for the outrage.

"Three inquiries were established: a murder investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which continues; an internal and necessarily confidential review of security procedures in the prison by a senior official of the prison service—most of its recommendations have been implemented and decisions on the others will be made shortly; the third strand was Lord Colville's inquiry into the operational policy for the management of prisoners of opposing factions in Belfast prison.

"The central conclusion of his report is strongly against further segregation within the prison system. It also recommends that in Belfast prison numbers in A wing, the only wing at present housing exclusively paramilitary prisoners, should be reduced; that out of concern for visitors' safety those prisoners should have separate visiting arrangements; and that time on remand in custody awaiting trial should be reduced, his preferred method being that the powers in Section 8 of the 1991 Emergency Provisions Act should be used.

"Mr. Speaker, I accept the report. I shall comment on each of the recommendations in turn.

"First, the question of segregation. Lord Colville brings out very clearly the increased risks posed to security by segregation. He says (and I quote): 'All the lessons from history suggest that segregation facilitates escapes, and escapes will give freedom to paramilitary fanatics of both factions who will kill and maim outside prison'. On security grounds I am satisfied that Lord Colville's recommendation is right.

"Moreover, I am also satisfied that segregation would make it more difficult to offer constructive regimes for inmates, as it already has at the Maze. It would constrain the flexible and effective use of the available accommodation. And the opportunity which segregation would provide the paramilitaries to reinforce their cohesiveness within the prison would have an adverse effect on the morale and self-esteem of staff.

"I turn now to the reduction of numbers in A wing. There are obvious advantages in keeping untried prisoners together in a more central location. I am pleased to tell the House that the governor can implement this recommendation within the next few weeks, when the necessary construction work will have been completed, without the need to move those prisoners out of Belfast prison.

"The recommendation on separate visits is not free from difficulty. But Lord Colville believes that the change is justified in the interests of the safety of visitors and I have concluded that it should for that reason be accepted.

"The case for cutting down remand times has always been strong. Lord Colville concludes that it is now unanswerable and I accept that conclusion. Delays in these cases are, of course, inextricably linked to the terrorist situation, which gravely complicates the investigation of crime and the criminal process as a whole. But it is not acceptable that people should remain for long periods without a trial. Together with my ministerial colleagues, I am urgently considering how the very real problems which exist might best be resolved so that these unacceptable delays can be overcome.

"Mr. Speaker, segregation remains a key objective of the paramilitaries. In resisting campaigns by both factions, prison governors and their staff have implemented the policy of successive Administrations. There now have been three major reports by respected and independent figures which say segregation is wrong. Lord Gardiner, in his report published in January 1975 on measures to deal with terrorism, recommended that special category status—segregation writ large —should be ended and that the influence of the terrorist leaders must be reduced. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir James Hennessy, in his 1984 report into the Maze escape of the previous year was in no doubt about the increased threat to security posed by segregation. Lord Colville having taken evidence from a wide range of people has come to the same conclusion. My predecessors accepted the recommendations of Gardiner and Hennessy and I in turn have concluded that I should accept the recommendations of Lord Colville. I do not believe that it would be acceptable to this House for the clear stand which has been taken over the years against segregation to be set aside as a result of paramilitary violence and in the face of unequivocal advice from three such distinguished sources and the powerful arguments that they have deployed.

"Mr. Speaker, the bomb explosion in C wing in Belfast was an act of terrorism no different from the murder of workmen at Teebane or the killing of people who happened to be in a betting shop at the wrong time. None of those events will deflect the Government from what they believe to be in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland." My Lords, that concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement which the Secretary of State made in another place. Moreover, on these Benches we wish to be associated with the tributes which have been so deservedly paid by the Secretary of State to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, who conducted the inquiry with his customary thoroughness, fairness and speed.

It seems to me that once again the people of Northern Ireland are immensely indebted to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. This report is another distinguished contribution.

As is pointed out in the Statement, the inquiry—which was the third one to be set up in Northern Ireland—was set up after the act of terrorism in Crumlin Road gaol on 24th November last. We are pleased to note from the Statement that the internal report of the review of security procedures has been completed. Of course, that is a confidential report but it is reassuring to know that the recommendations are being implemented. We trust that the RUC is also making progress with the murder investigation, because it was a murder. In fact, two murders were committed in the gaol as a result of that act of terrorism.

The inquiry by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, made four recommendations, which are referred to in the Statement. We are pleased that they have been promptly accepted by the Government. As the Statement makes clear, the issue of segregation of prisoners at Crumlin Road gaol has been a critical issue for years. We are gratified and grateful that the Government have accepted that recommendation. We fully support the Government's stand against segregation which, after all, is one of the key objectives of the paramilitary organisations which seek to dominate the prison.

On that particular recommendation, I have not had time to study the report but the Statement tells us that the central conclusion of the report is strongly against further segregation within the prison system. Does that mean that for some time the present degree of segregation will continue?

The second recommendation of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, is that the number of prisoners in A wing should be reduced. I am relying on my memory but I believe there were about 100 prisoners in A wing on that date in November last year. We understand from the Statement that building works are in hand which will make it possible to bring about the necessary reduction. We are pleased to note from the Statement that those works are likely to be completed within a few weeks.

We fully agree that time on remand in custody awaiting trial should be reduced. That is a difficult issue involving many interests. Is the Minister able to throw any further light on how the Government hope to be able to achieve that desirable objective?

The final recommendation is that there should be separate arrangements for visits. Again, in principle one agrees with that but presumably it will take a little time to organise.

The situation in Crumlin Road gaol has been volatile for years. Therefore, from these Benches we join with the Minister in paying tribute to the members of the prison service who are employed in that particular prison. Between June and September of last year 40 prison officers were injured in that prison. The homes of some prison officers were also attacked. Therefore, we owe the prison officers in Northern Ireland a great debt of gratitude. I wonder whether the Minister knows how the prison officers are responding to the recommendations. I spoke to a member of the prison service just before coming into the Chamber and I understand that they are fully supportive of the Statement.

We fully support the Statement and its recommendations because they are in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, from these Benches I give an unequivocal welcome both to the report of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and to the Government's very constructive reaction to his recommendations. The House, Parliament as a whole and the Government are extremely well served by the invariably judicious and thoughtful recommendations of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. Once again, that is the case on this occasion.

The issue at the centre of the report is segregation of prisoners. The report states: There is no middle ground between the fundamentally opposing attitudes". I am certain that the attitude which the Government have taken—recommended by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, and which we on these Benches support—is right. We cannot be seen to allow the terrorists and the paramilitaries a say in how prisons are run. We cannot let the terrorist culture pervade other prisoners who, because of segregated community loyalties, would be infected by the germ of terrorism. We cannot let that happen. We cannot let them decide how prisons should be run. I am quite certain that the Government and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, have come to the right conclusion.

As regards time on remand, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, is right to draw our attention to the fact that a terrifying period of one and a half to two years is the average time which prisoners spend on remand. I should like to ask the Government what they believe should be done about that. I understand that the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, has recommended that the average should be reduced from one and a half to two years to half of that time—something like nine months. Even nine months is a long time to be on remand without trial.

However, in bringing down that average—and perhaps the Minister will tell us whether he accepts the specific recommendation on that—what will be done in particular about the 11 prisoners who have been on remand for more than two years? Within the generally hopeful response given by the Government of bringing down the time, what is to be done about the 11 specific prisoners?

As regards separate visits I too welcome the conclusions drawn. They seem humane and sensible, although I understand the difficulty. I welcome the fact that the Government feel able to accept them. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, says how tough the conditions are in Crumlin Road prison. What are the Government's plans for spending the £20 million which have been allocated for the improvement of the gaol? I hope that it can be done urgently. They are very grim conditions.

There is one final question that I wish to ask. Do the Government have any comment on the noble Viscount's understated but nevertheless quite clear dismay, shown in paragraph 2.5 of his report, that the Loyalists were locked up after the incident without any apparent help or consultation in what must have been a situation of great fear and concern to them? It certainly cannot be thought to be conducive to good conditions and attitudes in the prison. With the exception of those reservations and questions, from these Benches I very much welcome both the report and the Government's reaction to it.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for their reception of this report. In particular I thank both noble Lords for stating their parties' support for the stand against segregation which is in the report and which has been accepted unequivocally. The other three recommendations have also been accepted. The recommendation on segregation has been accepted unequivocally by my right honourable friend. It is enough for me simply to rejoin that this is the third of three distinguished reports by independent observers and investigators on the Northern Ireland scene. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, it is entirely wrong for the prisons to be run by any faction of those who are in them. I am grateful to both noble Lords for their unequivocal support on this extremely important point.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked me about the meaning of the words in the Statement as regards the recommendation that there should be no further segregation. He wonders whether that means that segregation at this particular prison is something which exists and which is not going to be attended to. It does not mean that and I say that unequivocally. The situation in Belfast prison is that, following representations which were made in 1990 by certain public representatives, the governor introduced new unlocking arrangements to reduce the possibility of confrontation between the factions in the prison. These arrangements involve staff making an assumption about which faction will accept the offer of exercise or evening association so that it is possible to that extent for that particular faction to be taking exercise or evening association without the other faction being there.

The Government feel that these are sensible and pragmatic arrangements which fall far short of segregation on the wings, which is exactly what the paramilitaries are after. I say quite bluntly that there is still segregation at the Maze prison. I make the point that that prison is an establishment which has been having a declining prison population. Anyway, it is the policy of the prison service always to encourage occupants of the Maze prison to move to Maghaberry prison in order to conclude their sentences. As both noble Lords will know that is an integrated prison.

The noble Lord asked me perfectly fairly how we were going to move prisoners, as the recommendation says in the report and which my right honourable friend has accepted, from A wing to other parts of the prison. The Statement which I have repeated says that not only can we accept that, but we can do it without actually having to move prisoners out of and back into the prison. We will move out some sentenced prisoners and reallocate some accommodation within the prison. We plan that the present A wing population will be divided between A and B wings and some physical construction work will be required. However, I very much hope that new arrangements will be in place literally within the next few weeks.

The noble Lord also asked me how prison officers have reacted to the main recommendation against segregation. Very helpfully, the noble Lord said that from personal contact his understanding was that prison officers would be very positive. I add to what the noble Lord said by saying that, as always, prison staff will implement ministerial policy. In case that sounds rather complacent, I add that it has always been the line which has been taken by the Prison Officers' Association and the Governors' Association. I am confident that, whatever the challenges involved, the prison officers in Belfast prison will do exactly that.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, asked what the Government were doing as regards waiting times on remand. I admit to the noble Lord that that is the most difficult of the recommendations. My right honourable friend is determined to do everything possible to reduce the length of time which some prisoners in Northern Ireland have to wait on remand before trial. Figures are deployed in the report. An official working group on delays in the criminal justice system has been re-established to report to Ministers. It will seek to identify practical and effective ways of reducing remand waiting times and to consider the implications of introducing statutory time limits for scheduled cases under Section 8 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991, which is the specific recommendation that my noble friend Lord Colville makes.

The noble Lord asked me about the 11 prisoners who have been on remand for more than two years. I know that every effort will be made to see that their cases are brought forward. Without going through a long list of things which were done, it is right to say that a number of administrative measures have been introduced over the past few years to help reduce waiting times. They included a review of the organisations' staffing levels at the DPP's office, at the relevant sections of the RUC and at the forensic science laboratory; the establishment of a fast stream to identify and take forward cases which can be brought to trial relatively quickly. There was also an increase in the strength both of the judiciary and also of the numbers of Queen's Counsel at the Northern Ireland Bar. I very much hope that, with these administrative arrangements being in place, we shall be able to see those cases brought to court in the near future.

The noble Lord quite rightly said that my noble friend's report says that the regime in Belfast prison is tough and asked what the Government are going to do about that. To a large extent the answer lies in the hands of the prisoners themselves. The present regime in C wing shows what can be done when prisoners co-operate together and with the management of the prison. Many of the restrictions on the paramilitary type prisoner, such as tightly controlled movements, were introduced following representations and have resulted in a number of improvements. In addition, as the noble Lord probably knows, we have plans, which we have stated publicly on many occasions, to refurbish the prison as soon as we possibly can. We have already begun making financial arrangements for that plan.

The noble Lord said that the report indicates that prisoners were locked up after this terrible explosion. Yes, that is true, in a situation which was terrible for all concerned, both staff and prisoners. However, action has been taken in the prison. For instance, psychologists have been appointed and put into place very quickly. A very great deal was done by the supportive services including the chaplaincy. In concluding what I am saying to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, I remind him that at the beginning of the Statement there was a tribute to staff which I believe was well deserved.

5 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, my remarks will be very brief. I have one question to put to the Minister, but first I should like to thank him for repeating the Statement and join with my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and the Minister in acknowledging the debt of gratitude we owe to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. I am sure that all peaceful citizens in Northern Ireland who have been living in anxiety and fear also join with their thanks. I am certain that all those involved with the prison services, including the prison officers, the probation board, voluntary workers in the prisons and also prisoners and their families will welcome this timely report.

The point I wish to make to the Minister concerns the administrative arrangements he mentioned. I am pleased to hear the recommendation that remand time should be reduced. Will the Minister consider publishing information about this report to the public as well as to those at official level? I am especially concerned about welfare groups associated with prisoners, such as bona fide welfare groups from Churches and other such organisations. The sooner they are aware of the recommendations and are able to communicate them to prisoners' families and to prisoners themselves, the sooner the heat and the tension that has arisen will be relieved. It will be useful to consider not only the administrative arrangements that are to be made in the legal sense but also the promotion of the information and how it is to be achieved outside.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blease, whose knowledge of Northern Ireland affairs, and specifically of these affairs, is very extensive. The report will be on sale tomorrow in Her Majesty's Stationery Office bookshops and there will inevitably be publicity on TV and radio. But the real answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Blease, is that one of the matters in which the prison service in Northern Ireland can take pride is the relationships which the service has with the splendid voluntary organisations who do so much for the prison service, not least in transport matters and also in running visitors' centres outside the prisons. I have no doubt at all that the prison service will be talking with voluntary groups as well about the contents of this report.

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