HL Deb 16 March 1998 vol 587 cc487-94

4.42 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my honourable friend the Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"Madam Speaker, may I say at the outset how much I regret the death of Mr. David Keys in the Maze Prison during the weekend. The Northern Ireland Prison Service owes a duty of care to all prisoners, regardless of what they have done or may have done, and any death in custody is a matter of deep distress to prison staff.

"The circumstances of this case are now the subject of a murder investigation and I must choose my words with care. David Oliver Keys was found dead in his cell in C wing of FI Block 6 at approximately 8.30 a.m. on Sunday 15th March 1998 during the routine morning cell check. The body was found hanging with a ligature around the neck and both wrists slashed. He was pronounced dead at 9.05 a.m. The cause of death seemed to be suicide. The RUC and the coroner's office were notified, and the prisoners were moved out of C wing. During the course of the day the police and a pathologist visited the scene. Both expressed some concern that the cause of death might not be suicide. At 1700 hours the body was removed for a post mortem, the results of which led the RUC to launch a murder inquiry yesterday evening.

"Following his arrest and questioning by the RUC, Mr. Keys was remanded in custody on 11th March 1998 and was committed to Her Majesty's prison Maghaberry. He asked for, and was given, a form to complete seeking a transfer to the wings of HMP Maze occupied by the Loyalist Volunteer Force. This form is intended to ensure that the applicant is quite clear about the faction with which he wishes to be housed and about the nature of the regime which operates in Her Majesty's prison the Maze. Mr. Keys signed and dated this form on 11th March. In accordance with normal practice, the LVF prisoners were asked to confirm that Mr. Keys was acceptable to them. They said he was. No information was available to the prison service which suggested that Mr. Keys was in any way at risk from this faction. Accordingly, he transferred to the LVF wings of Her Majesty's prison the Maze on 1lth March.

"The Maze Prison contains more than 400 convicted terrorists and a further 100 or so remanded in custody in connection with scheduled offences. Some 150 prisoners have been convicted of murder or attempted murder. They are segregated according to faction, and two of the five factions have not declared ceasefires. The factions have considerable political and paramilitary influence, and they are supervised by locally recruited staff. Any one of these factors would, by itself, constitute a challenge to security and control. Combined, they present the Northern Ireland Prison Service with a unique set of circumstances not replicated elsewhere.

"Over the past year there have been a series of incidents which have rightly given rise to concern about the effectiveness of the establishment. Each has been made the subject of an inquiry, and substantial improvements in security have been made, under the guidance of a new managerial team.

"The escape and the murder of a prisoner in December 1997 are the subject of both police investigations and an inquiry by Martin Narey of Her Majesty's Prison Service. He is independent of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. I have received his report and it will be made public shortly. In addition, the Secretary of State has asked Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, to carry out a full inspection of the prison. This will begin next Monday, and his report will be published.

"In the light of all these investigations, it would not be appropriate for me to say more today about the nature and performance of Her Majesty's prison the Maze. I can assure honourable Members, however, that Ministers will be treating the conclusions and recommendations with the utmost seriousness." My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.48 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. She will understand, I am sure, the very serious concern that this latest incident has aroused in this House and indeed throughout the country. In the past week we have seen the release of the terrorist, Miss McAliskey, we have seen Sinn Fein allowed back into the peace talks, Gerry Adams entertained in Downing Street after two IRA murders and now we have the murder of Mr. David Keys by fellow prisoners. It was carried out in a way that implies much forward planning and a substantial time in its perpetration, and it follows close on the heels of the shooting of the convicted terrorist, Billy Wright, last December.

After Mr. Wright's murder, the prisons Minister in another place, Mr. Ingram, gave an assurance that security at the Maze would be tightened up and new measures put in place to ensure that such incidents could not happen again. But that does not seem to be the case. I do not expect the noble Baroness to go into the details of security measures at the Maze, but can she inform us whether security was tightened up after the Wright murder? Were all the new measures envisaged at the time put into place and were they in operation at the time of Mr. Keys' murder? Can the noble Baroness say when the report will be published?

4.50 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for making the Statement to this House which has been made in another place. I am sure that the House will acknowledge that it is a very serious situation in the Maze Prison. I do not want to cast my net as wide as the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and make it part of a pattern because, generally, the prospects for a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland are brighter than they have been for a long time.

However, when one looks at the situation in the Maze and the Statement that we have been given, I am sure that the Government will accept that we have now had a series of incidents over the past 10 months which must raise great doubts about the viability of the prison as a whole. We had an attempted IRA mass escape last May; there was the escape of an IRA double murderer dressed as a woman, last December; more recently, there was the murder of Billy Wright of the Loyalist Volunteer Force by the INLA, and now we have the apparent murder of a prisoner in his cell. Each of these incidents is now matched by its own investigation or inquiry. Were it not so serious, I might be inclined to say that at this rate there will be more inquiries about the Maze Prison than prisoners there.

We have got to the point where the Government, in contemplating what to do, have to ask themselves some serious questions about the prison. Perhaps I may ask them. First, the Statement refers to factional segregation. Are the Government satisfied with the underlying arrangements and rules at the Maze Prison which seem to have grown from the point when they were originally instituted by the Conservative government to where factional segregation has become factional control, where the prisoners, within those factions, are effectively guarding themselves? Secondly, when will the outgoing governor, who, I know, is staying on temporarily, be replaced? This is surely the time when there is a need for a new appointment and a firm hand in the Maze Prison.

Finally, I had intended to ask the Government at this point for a fully independent inquiry, but I believe the fact that Sir David Ramsbotham has been asked to look at the prison as a whole will reassure Members of this House, given his very fine, independent record. However, what is his remit? The Statement simply says that he is to carry out a full inspection of the prison. No doubt, that is what inspectors of prisons do. We must now be reassured that his remit is wide enough to include the way in which the system at the Maze Prison operates as a whole. I do not believe that this is the time for excitable calls for resignations because I do not believe that that helps a great deal. But the Government must respond, even within the constraints they have set themselves of not commenting, to the gravity of the situation.

4.54 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I agree with both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord about the seriousness of the situation. Following the events which have been referred to; namely, the escape by Averill and the death of Billy Wright, the Government have imposed additional security measures. Additional security modifications and improvements will be considered in the light of the Narey Report. It is anticipated that it will be published shortly.

The murder of Mr. Keys occurred in the segregated LVF block where no other paramilitary prisoners were located. Therefore, the issue of factional segregation appears to be satisfactory. I shall write to the noble Lord with details as to when it is proposed to replace the current governor at the end of his term of office. The Narey Report is expected soon. I welcome the recognition of the importance of receiving that report and considering it. The Government should take that into account.

Factional segregation is not entirely factional control. The alternative needs to be very carefully considered even given the possible serious consequences for prisoners and prison staff were the segregation system to be ended. We are presently considering the recruitment of a replacement governor, but obviously the exact date is not known. I hope that I have answered the questions raised, but if not, I can assure noble Lords that I shall read Hansard carefully and write to them as a matter of urgency.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I want to raise a point of order. Through the Leader of the House I ask the Front Bench speaker on the Conservative side to apologise to Roisin McAliskey for calling her a terrorist.

Lord Richard

My Lords, we all know that this is a House without a Speaker and therefore without anyone who can make a ruling. It therefore follows that no one in the House can rule whether a point of order is or is not a point of order. My noble friend has made his point. I hope that he will be satisfied and leave it there. Perhaps we can then get on with the rest of the questions on the Statement.

4.57 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, noble Lords will be grateful to the noble Baroness for coming to the House to make this important Statement on behalf of the Northern Ireland Office. For that reason I shall direct my two brief points to the Government in general and not necessarily to the Minister. Are Her Majesty's Government now prepared to recognise that the prison regime in Northern Ireland has deteriorated alarmingly over the past year by reason of what are called "confidence-building measures" but which in reality are concessions to various terrorist organisations to persuade them to do us all the honour of remaining in the mis-named "peace process"? Do Her Majesty's Government realise that stability will not return to Northern Ireland until it is clear that government and Parliament are on the side of the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland of all faiths?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the concern expressed by the noble Lord is well known to Her Majesty's Government. We believe that it would be inappropriate to make judgments about the current set of circumstances in HMP Maze prior to the Narey Report and the full inspection which is due to be carried out as a matter of urgency. I believe that we would all agree with the noble Lord that confidence has to be felt across the entire community. Government policy is directed to seek that end.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, in an interview on Radio 4 this morning, the chairman of the Prison Officers Association of Northern Ireland said that he would not ask, and did not expect, his members in the Maze to enforce discipline because of the danger to their lives. Do the Government accept that situation?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I did not hear the interview to which the noble Lord refers. Obviously, it is difficult for me to answer in detail. The Maze is the only prison in the world facing the kinds of difficulties that it does. The prison has to accommodate over 500 dedicated terrorists affiliated to and maintaining active links with five different terrorist organisations. The regime at the Maze has to cope with the attendant security and control problems balanced against the need to maintain a humanitarian regime. That is an extremely complex and difficult task. The regime at the Maze therefore represents and reflects a pragmatic solution to the difficulties of operating the system. It is difficult. Obviously, the regime in the Maze will come under close scrutiny during the inspection.

Lord Blease

My Lords, perhaps I may endeavour to express again to the noble Baroness the sentiments conveyed by the other noble Lord from Northern Ireland, the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, who sympathised with the noble Baroness in presenting this problem to the House. It is very difficult for someone who does not live in Northern Ireland to understand the situation. Like other Members of this House who know what is happening there and who experience it day by day and who often have to sit by quietly because of our families and others who live there, perhaps I may say that we can understand the reservations of the noble Baroness at this time. However, does not the noble Baroness agree that recent incidents—not this latest incident, but other such incidents—are among many which call into serious question the whole system of control, management, regime and authority at the Maze Prison? Is there not now a need for an urgent, full, judicial review of the penal system which has given rise to such concern and alarm among peaceable citizens in the Province?

I can assure the noble Baroness and the House that those Members of this House who live in Northern Ireland understand the full consequences of what happened yesterday morning when they woke up and heard that broadcast. It shook Northern Ireland to the timbers after what has happened recently. I hope that the Narey inquiry and the appointment of the chief inspector will help to explain some of those things but, like others, I feel that a full judicial inquiry is necessary in this instance.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the police are undertaking a full investigation into the deaths which have occurred in HMP Maze. In addition, the Narey report will look into the escape of Mr. Averill. It would not be appropriate to consider a full judicial inquiry at this stage. We await the outcome of the Narey report. We await the outcome of the forthcoming inspection of the Maze. We shall then be able to make judgments. Even if a full judicial inquiry were to be authorised at this stage, it would have to await the outcome of the police inquiry into the murders in order to be able to make a judgment about proceedings. So, it is not an event that could take place quickly. The Government are taking the appropriate steps.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, the situation in the Maze Prison has been scandalous for a considerable time and it is getting worse if people are being murdered while in prison. We have heard a lot about inquiries. What is needed is immediate firm action and no further concessions to terrorists. We cannot afford to sit and wait for various inquiries to report. Undoubtedly we shall take—at least, I hope that the Government will take—considerable notice of them, but in the meantime let us get on with the job and improve security in the Maze Prison.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I sought to explain—I apologise to the House if I was not clear—that following the escape there was an immediate investigation and measures to improve security against escape are now being put in place. I am sure that we all understand the noble Lord's impatience for action and results, but it is essential that the police are allowed to carry out their full inquiry into the murder. There can be no quicker way of looking at the issues of security and the running of the prison than to await the inquiry and report from Mr. Narey and the inspection by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that however much time may need to be taken—I recognise that there are many problems—in reviewing the situation inside the prison, there seems very little doubt that there is a threat to the lives of the families of the officials and warders who work in the prison? Does the noble Baroness agree that that is fairly generally accepted? Could not something be done at once about that because it leaves everything else open and may be of great reassurance to the officers working there?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am sure that the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness are well known to the Prison Service and that everything is being done to protect families from the sort of risk to which she refers. If I am made aware later of any further detailed plans, I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the present conditions in the Maze were instituted in 1982 after the hunger strike and that since then there has been a gradual erosion of control in that prison? The noble Baroness said that there had been a deterioration recently and mentioned a number of cases. In 1983, 33 prisoners escaped from the Maze Prison—and that was under the aegis of a Conservative Government, so I do not think that the present Government can be totally blamed for the awful conditions that exist in the Maze at present. As has been said, there is undoubtedly a risk to the lives of the warders and prison officers if any attempt is made to take away the concessions that have been made to those prisoners over the years. One need only reflect on what we saw on our television screens recently when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland went into the Maze Prison. We saw the most horrific consequences of those concessions.

Yesterday morning, when the announcement of the death of the prisoner was first made, the Catholic population were in absolute fear because they thought that it was a repetition of the Billy Wright murder, but it is now rumoured in Northern Ireland that this victim was murdered by his own colleagues. Can the noble Baroness make representations to bring about an early inquest into this awful death—and it is a tragedy for his family, however one may see it—so that the people of Northern Ireland will know exactly what happened to bring about that death? I ask the Minister—I do not believe that she can give an answer—can any of those concessions that were made by the Conservative Government over a period of 18 years to murderers and thugs (on both sides of the political and religious divide) who are now in the Maze be taken away without endangering the lives of warders, prison officers, police and members of the Army?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin by apologising if I gave your Lordships the impression that I had made a judgment about deterioration of the situation in the Maze. I certainly did not intend to do that and would want to make a judgment only on the basis of much greater knowledge following reading the Narey report and the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. In terms of the questions which my noble friend asked, at this stage I would prefer not to be drawn into making a judgment about the way in which the prison has been managed in the past and now. I am very much aware that the Secretary of State and her ministerial team must make an extremely difficult judgment in consultation with the professionals about the degree to which outside factors should be taken into account. A degree of judgment must be exercised about the way in which the prison is managed.

I note the views that have been expressed about the background to the murder of Billy Wright. All I can say is that I shall ensure that the views that have been expressed in your Lordships' House are brought to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and my honourable friend the Minister. Prison officers who are at risk are offered protection for their wives, families and homes. My noble friend referred to the fact that 38 prisoners escaped in 1983. I point out that 19 of those were recaptured immediately. In the light of the introduction of humane conditions balanced against control, one is not necessarily talking about concessions but about the very careful management of an extremely difficult situation. I hope that my noble friend accepts that a difficult judgment has had to be made in the past, must be made now and will have to be made in the future.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in the other place. I believe that the events in the Maze are likely to lead to incidents of revenge outside. The penalty will be the maiming or, even worse, the killing of the innocent. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that they must stop. Where do the Government believe that responsibility for preventing such incidents should lie? Do Her Majesty's Government agree that there are no political prisoners in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, where responsibility lies for making a judgment about how to prevent further violent incidents is a very difficult matter. Obviously, the ultimate responsibility for violence lies with those who directly perpetrate it. As to the need to protect those who are most at risk, the noble Baroness, with her distinguished experience as a Minister in Northern Ireland, is only too well aware that that is a task which the security forces seek to carry out at all times. The noble Baroness will also be aware of the Government's view that there are no political prisoners anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, will my noble friend ensure that the point raised by my noble friend Lord Fitt and by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, about the position of prison officers is emphasised to the Chief Inspector of Prisons whom I respect? He knows a great deal about prisons in this part of the United Kingdom. There is not the slightest doubt that if a prison officer at the Maze is regarded as stepping out of line his wife and family are at risk outside. That is something which very few people this side of the water understand. In any inquiry what happens in Northern Ireland must be taken into account; otherwise, the investigation will be English, Welsh and Scottish-based and will not be good enough.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I give my noble friend the assurance that I shall do everything to ensure that the concerns that have been raised today in your Lordships' House are passed on to all those involved in inquiring into the circumstances and conditions.