HC Deb 27 January 2000 vol 343 cc107-36WH

[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of Session 1997–98 from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the Prison Service in Northern Ireland (HC 716), the Government Response thereto, Session 1998–99 (HC 299), and the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 27 October 1999, Session 1998–99 (HC 866-i).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Betts.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

It gives me great pleasure to open the debate on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's fourth report of the 1997–98 Session, which was agreed in November 1998. It deals with the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and is the first of the Committee's reports to be debated in this new Chamber.

I am aware that the House of Commons has had a very full meal of Northern Ireland affairs in the course of this week's business. Having been an undergraduate during the Suez crisis, I am conscious of the sense of anticlimax that can arise when pressure eases. In that respect, we have been unlucky in the timing of the debate. I hope that no one who is observing the Westminster Hall experiment will read too much into our comparative exhaustion following our exertions earlier in the week. I appreciate, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you were very much a participant in those exertions.

Westminster Hall sittings are a modernisation experiment. On a personal level, I remark in passing that, given my representation of the City of London, the debate on Report of the Financial Services and Markets Bill in the House shows the conflict that this new initiative can create between constituency and other responsibilities.

The evidence on which the report is based was taken between April and July 1998, and the Committee reported to the House in November of that year. As the inquiry progressed, it became clear that the Northern Ireland Prison Service would be subject to substantial change, and that the implementation of the Belfast agreement would clearly enhance the scale of those changes. A vital part of our discussions centred on the service's ability to respond. In order to bring the House up to date with developments in the year since our report, the Committee held an evidence session on 27 October 1999, at which it examined the Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and senior colleagues. That evidence is presented to hon. Members today.

I should like to pay particular tribute to our Clerk, Dr. Christopher Ward, who overcame with aplomb the task of seeing our report through its final stages, although having joined us only after we had taken the evidence. I also draw attention to paragraph 9 of the report, in which we pay tribute to our outstanding and authoritative advisers, Professor Tony Bottoms of Cambridge university and Dr. Andrew Coyle of King's college, London.

It is right that I should pay tribute, as did the Committee in its report, to the courage and professionalism over the past 30 years, in difficult and dangerous circumstances, of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Some 29 members of the staff were killed, and many more injured, in the troubles. The service faced formidable challenges, to which it was fully equal.

Our visit to the Maze prison gave us first-hand knowledge of the considerable psychological pressures placed on the staff by inmates. Sir David Ramsbotham's report on conditions in the Maze prison, which was published as the Committee agreed its report, graphically describes those pressures. However, although the Maze prison garnered the headlines, other prisons—notably Maghaberry, the only other high security prison in Northern Ireland—posed difficulties, and continue to do so.

Now that the management of terrorist prisoners is ceasing to dominate the agenda—although it has not disappeared from it—the service is facing equally difficult challenges of a different nature. We identified several challenges at the time of our inquiry. There was substantial overstaffing in comparison with prison services in other parts of the United Kingdom, partly as a consequence of 10-fold expansion during the 1970s in reaction to the onset of terrorist violence. The overall prison estate is small; there are just four establishments, and one is a young offenders centre. That means that, apart from the Maze, there is only a single high security prison—at Maghaberry. That same site also houses Northern Ireland's only female prison.

We identified the problem of managing terrorist prisoners, particularly in the Maze prison, which houses the majority of adult male paramilitary prisoners. The implementation of the conclusions of the Prison Service review, which reported in September 1997, was expected to lead to substantial cost savings in the medium and long term. Target costs for prisoner places in Northern Ireland are three times higher than in England and Wales.

We identified as a challenge the management of the down-sizing of the service, as terrorist prisoners are progressively released under the provisions of the Belfast agreement, and the consequent restructuring of its operations. We recognised the need to reflect more accurately the balance of the community. At the time of our report, just 6.9 per cent. of those in uniformed and governor grades were Roman Catholic, as against 77.6 per cent. Protestant. While recognising the difficulties of redressing the balance at a time of substantial staff reductions, the Committee considered that a plan to do so should be a priority high on management's agenda.

Our inquiry identified the challenges of improving morale, tackling high levels of staff absence and improving the calibre of the management of the service. The Committee noted that Northern Ireland Prison Service managers had apparently not been able to provide a suitably qualified candidate for the post of director general, or for the key post of governor of the Maze prison. There was also an urgent need to improve training.

The Committee also commented on a number of other areas. They included the practice of integrating sex offenders and other vulnerable prisoners—in contrast to that in England and Wales—which the Committee considered might compromise their quality of life and possibly their safety. We considered the incarceration of a female child in Maghaberry prison—there being no secure unit for females elsewhere—to be outside the spirit of the modern treatment of juveniles, and wanted the situation to be remedied at the earliest opportunity. We also sought changes in accountability, particularly as the service is expected to return to a more conventional role as the emphasis moves away from handling terrorist prisoners. Specifically, the Committee called for jurisdiction over matters of prison discipline to cease to be a responsibility of boards of visitors, for the inspection of the Northern Ireland Prison Service to become a formal responsibility of one of Her Majesty's chief inspectors of prisons and for the establishment of a prison ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Finally, we sought improved links between the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Northern Ireland probation service.

How did the Goverment respond to the report? In a brief reply sent to the Committee in February 1999 and published in the Committe's first special report last Session, the then Secretary of State announced that the Government "broadly endorsed" the Committee's 20 principal conclusions and recommendations. Only one recommendation was singled out for specific implementation—that relating to the removal of the board of visitors' role in adjudications which, the Secretary of State said, will be implemented, as soon as possible, by amendment to the Prison Rules". I shall return to that recommendation later.

What progress did the October 1999 evidence session reveal in the eight months following the Government's response? I do not propose to go through the evidence in detail, but I shall single out a number of important points.

The closure of the Maze prison is expected in July 2000, assuming that the prisoner release programme continues on schedule. Under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, all but 12 or 13 of the Maze prisoners will be released by then. Indeed, as at 27 October, only 34 per cent. of the total number of prisoners before the commencement of early releases remained—about a third.

However, the reduction in inmates has not been matched by reductions in staffing or accommodation. Five of the eight blocks remain in use and staffing at the prison has fallen by only around a quarter from 1,200 to 900. The director general conceded that the 158 prisoners could be accommodated in two blocks but for the need to keep the various factions separated. The fact remains that, although there may be sound arguments for not disturbing the status quo, the staff-to-prisoner ratio at the Maze prison has risen markedly over the period of the early release scheme, and now stands at 6:1. The director general was aware of no other prison regime with such a remarkably high ratio.

It is clear that the pace of implementation of the Prison Service review has been reduced and that greater emphasis is being placed instead on the staff reduction programme as a means of bringing about cultural change. Under the latter programme which was designed to produce an overall staff reduction of around 1,100—approximately 40 per cent. of the service—by March 2001, one third of the target has so far been met through a combination of selective voluntary early retirement and severance schemes, normal age retirement, and so on. The following phase is an open voluntary early retirement and severance scheme, and it opened in November 1999. I hope that the Minister will tell us how that is progressing, the initial signs of likely take-up, and his assessment of the prospects for achieving all the required redundancies through voluntary means.

The evidence session on 27 October last year revealed a welcome increase in training and good progress in reducing the adverse impact of court escort duties on prison regimes. The Committee also noted the progress on handling vulnerable prisoners at Maghaberry and the effort being put into developing anti-bullying strategies. There has been a drop in absenteeism, but much progress remains to be made in that area, as the service recognises. In particular, the director general hopes that normalisation in the Province will greatly reduce the stress-related element of absenteeism.

One of the biggest challenges facing the service following the closure of the Maze will undoubtedly be the running of Maghaberry, which will then be the sole high security prison in Northern Ireland. In his evidence, the director general described it as a very, very difficult prison. It was not designed for its present use and there is what the director general described as "a fundamental staffing issue" in the relationship between the staff's attendance arrangements and the work that must be done, on which negotiations are in progress with the Prison Officers Association. I hope that the Minister can give us a progress report on those.

Maghaberry will, presumably, also have to accommodate the rump of prisoners from the Maze when that prison closes. Although Maghaberry already houses paramilitary prisoners—transfer to the Maze prison has always been voluntary—it remains to be seen whether its integrated regime will be able to accommodate prisoners who are used to a segregated one.

Maghaberry prison is, in many respects, the cornerstone of the Northern Ireland prison system. It will continue to play a crucial role. There has been a series of disturbing press reports over the past few months about conditions there, and several worrying incidents, such as the recent discovery of an imitation firearm and the apparent use of home-made incendiary devices. There is also an unusually high number of fires in the prison, which are alleged to be resulting in a high level of compensation claims from prisoners. The Minister may wish to say something about those points when he replies to the debate.

The evidence session revealed that there was unlikely to be any material change, at least in the short term, in the religious imbalance in the service. That is unfortunate. With the implementation of the Patten proposals on the police in Northern Ireland, the Prison Service will look increasingly anomalous. Although I recognise the difficulties of recruiting into a service that is being downsized at the rate which the Prison Service plans, given the lack of recruitment in recent years, some means needs to be found of reducing the religious imbalance and of introducing new blood generally.

One surprise to come from the evidence session was that our recommendation on ending the role of the board of visitors in adjudications, to which I alluded earlier, had not been implemented, despite the Secretary of State's response. Although the director general explained the reasons, it is a fact that that change of policy would not have come to the Committee's attention but for the evidence session. I suggest to the Minister, and to the Government at large, that it would be conducive to good relations between Select Committees and the Executive if Ministers were to take the initiative and inform the Committee as soon as possible when a change of policy impacts on the Government's position on a Committee recommendation.

Whatever I may say about the timing of the debate this week, in other respects its timing is especially apposite, because last month the Secretary of State announced the start of the quinquennial review of the status of the Northern Ireland Prison Service as an agency of the Executive. I hope that those responsible for the review will look closely at the Committee's report and evidence, and will read carefully the report of today's debate. The Northern Ireland Prison Service has given sterling service to the Province. Despite the morale-sapping difficulties that it has faced, its devotion to duty and its security record have been excellent. Whatever further changes the review brings, I have every confidence that the Prison Service will continue to serve the people of Northern Ireland well in the future. I commend the report to the House.

2.45 pm
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

During the troubles, 29 members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service were killed. Even during the recent period of relative peace, prison officers have been attacked in their homes. In the period 1996–97, there were 122 reported threats against staff, and 50 officers were admitted to the special protection scheme. People make a courageous choice when they choose to work in the Prison Service. In that context, I shall speak briefly on the general pressures facing the service as well as the specific problems, and on what I hope to see as a result of the report.

As the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) rightly said, there are huge psychological pressures on prison staff. Personal information on staff members is regularly gathered by the paramilitaries, and has been used to powerful effect by prisoners who remain in close contact with active paramilitary units outside jail. Casual references by prisoners to officers' personal lives induce a sense of menace that is played on by many prisoners. The normal balance of control in a prison can be reversed by prisoners willing to influence staff in that way.

The political climate in Northern Ireland has had a tremendous impact on the way in which the Prison Service there is run. About 500 prisoners are segregated according to political affiliation into five separate housing units. The murder of Billy Wright demonstrates that many prisoners are violently opposed to each other, and are occasionally in a position to do something about it. Once in prison, they are confined to the wing in which fellow members of their organisation are housed. Each wing has its own commanding officer, appointed by the paramilitary organisation to maintain discipline among the ranks of the imprisoned members.

If one steps back to consider that, one sees that it is an extraordinary way to run a prison service. We could analyse the history of how we got to that predicament, which highlights the difficulty involved in moving from the past to the futre. The future Prison Service should be much more in line with mainstream prison systems in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Attempts to treat prisoners as individuals in the Maze have largely been foiled as the prisoners regard themselves as prisoners of war. That has created a different ethos with regard to prisoners' behaviour. They enjoy the support of significant sections of the community, which places prison officers under immense pressure when trying to maintain order. In 1994, the management decided to withdraw staff from patrolling duties in the residential areas of the wings because officers were effectively hostages, unable to enforce orders against the will of organised prisoner groups.

We must bear in mind those general pressures when we consider reform. I shall move on to some specific problems. I shall not repeat the points already made. Low staff morale is a key issue to be faced. The high number of sick days taken is a testimony to the burden of the job. Furthermore, when staff take sick leave, it places more of a burden on those who remain at work.

Job insecurity may also have contributed to the problem. The Good Friday agreement does not make it clear how many staff will be needed or where they will be based, which is probably having a negative effect on morale as well. There is also an imbalance in the composition of staff. Approximately 6.9 per cent. are Roman Catholic, 77.6 per cent. are Protestant and 15.5 per cent. are not categorised. That causes problems that are clear for all to see. Nor is the training programme fully effective. The target of five days per staff member has not been fulfilled: the average is in fact three days.

We have touched on sectarian problems associated with prisoners, but there is also a distribution problem. Although one would normally expect remand prisoners to be detained separately from convicted prisoners, women to be detained separately from men, and juveniles to be detained separately from adults, that is not always possible in Northern Ireland because of the small number of establishments. For example, sex offenders are not separated from other prisoners, and concerns have arisen about bullying and serious ill-treatment. In England and Wales, there are vulnerable prisoner units for sex offenders, although such offenders can be integrated with other prisoners if they wish. In Northern Ireland, the reverse applies. As was said, young female offenders are currently held at Maghaberry in a special centre, but I am concerned that it is not really sufficient.

I referred to the issue of future uncertainty. On 11 November 1998, the Director General of the Prison Service said that the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement could make possible the closure of the Maze prison, to which reference has been made, by the end of 2000. Such uncertainty is giving rise to some specific problems.

Liberal Democrats broadly support the report's recommendations and welcome what the Government have already said, but we have some questions. How will paramilitary prisoners be dealt with after the Good Friday agreement is fully implemented? Has the effect of the Good Friday agreement on the Prison Service and staffing levels become any clearer? Can a timetable be established in respect of changes in numbers? From where will staff be drawn? A specific retraining programme would make a lot of sense, and I agree with what the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said about providing generous redundancy packages. Similar comments have been made in the past in respect of the police service.

What can we do to raise morale? The changing political circumstances will no doubt help, but the endemic difficulties to which I have referred require specific attention. Should more placement officers from outside Northern Ireland be used in the Northern Ireland Prison Service? There are pros and cons, but it may be a way in which to depersonalise the work by making it more difficult for specific prison officers to be intimidated and influenced. However, political changes may in any case reduce such pressures.

What can be done to ensure that a system of vulnerable prisoner units exists in Northern Ireland? There is a duty of care, and adequate protection from attacks should be provided. I am not suggesting that sex offenders should necessarily be kept completely separate from other prisoners, but we need a clearer strategy. Various tactical decisions have led us to the current position. That is understandable, but perhaps we can take a step forward through this review.

Keeping young offenders in close proximity to adult offenders is probably unwise. Again, we need a clear strategy to ensure that young offenders are treated separately and do not interact with adult prisoners.

The same goes for young female offenders. Could they be held at Hydebank, for example, in separate quarters from the males?

I want to comment on two other issues. One relates to the Maze and the specific procedures for its closure. If normalisation continues, it would be more appropriate to ensure that ordinary criminals are held properly. At the same time, we should begin to address the odd ethos that I have described with regard to the paramilitary organisations.

The second matter is that I hope that all these reforms will be undertaken in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday agreement and the presumed stabilisation of the security situation. I would be encouraged to know that the strategy was a long-term one, perhaps making some assumptions on the way, but assumptions in the context of other pressures and issues relating to the Good Friday agreement.

There seems to be a prospect of a return to a more conventional role for the Prison Service, and it is appropriate that modern systems of accountability should be established. I hope that we shall have assurances from the Minister on that. I must apologise in advance to him for not being able to stay to the end of the debate, for reasons that I cannot change, but I shall read his comments and I hope that he will forgive me for my rudeness in leaving.

I simply emphasise that whatever we do must be in the context of thinking about the long-term normalisation of Northern Ireland and with due consideration for the prison staff, who have unquestionably suffered some ugly treatment in the past.

2.56 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

In rising to commend the report, I emphasise particularly the contribution that it has made, and is making, to the process of normalisation, to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) referred. The theme of the report is to move from an extraordinary and aberrant Prison Service to one that functions as it does in the rest of the United Kingdom. In many ways, the report ensconces that idea. For example, paragraph 29 refers to bringing the prisons within the remit of the chief inspector. That is an amazing thing to have to say: for the most part, prisons are within the inspectorate and one would not expect a report to have to make that recommendation. However, in order to talk about normalisation, it was right that we should try to identify how extraordinarily abnormal the Northern Ireland Prison Service was. We hope that, as it changes, the past tense will become an ever more accurate way of describing the changes that are taking place.

That extraordinary or abnormal nature comes out in so many ways. The Maze prison is the most appalling place that I have ever visited. I have visited many prisons, in the United Kingdom and abroad, and I have not seen another prison whose landscape was like a moonscape because there was no gardening. There could be no gardening at the Maze because anyone who went out to garden was likely to get killed. That kind of prison regime, under which people had to be confined in concrete quarters, meant that the impression of absolute desolation was very forceful. Yet every person in that appalling place had chosen to go there rather than to Maghaberry, which is a much more conventional and pleasant-looking place, where there are workshops and the normal processes of prisoner education that is rightly obtained in the rest of our prison system. Why would anyone choose to go from Maghaberry, a place which looks as if the inmates have a role to play in shaping it, learning and mixing with other people—awful though all prisons are—to a place like the Maze? The answer was that a substantial number of prisoners in Northern Ireland regarded themselves as freedom fighters. That strong definition, whether on the loyalist or the republican side, was so deeply etched into the system that it was impossible for the prison to be controlled without accommodating it, but the authorities were never explicit about it.

The report talks about the psychological condition of prison officers in Northern Ireland. In my view, it was one of considerable distress, from so many angles. At Hydebank, the young offenders prison, people were being locked up incredibly early in the evening and suffered all sorts of deprivations on top of those that are normally obtained in our prison system. Why was that? The answer, in short, was because of the Prison Officers Association's bolshy view. It was almost as if, where prison officers could exert some control, they would do so dogmatically, because there was one place where they exerted very little control.

That abnormality in the system made it difficult to imagine how one could address the psychological distress of prison officers. The prison officers at the Maze could not have any sensible interaction with the prison population, because it was so different from the prison populations in the rest of the country. When one visits a prison in Cambridge or on Dartmoor, one meets people who are outside society. Many of them come out of prison to broken marriages, homelessness or the streets of London. When I discussed a particularly difficult prisoner at the Maze with one of the paramilitary commanding officers, as they called themselves, he said, "He'll be all right." I said, "How can you say he'll be all right?" as the prisoner was not long due to be released. The self-denominated commanding officer said, "We'll find him a suitable job." In other words, the person inside the prison was organising the employment of his fellow inmates.

One might think that that is normal, but it is not normal in any meaningful sense. Prisoners do not normally have the capacity to find jobs for other prisoners. That sense of power—that people outside could be required to find prisoners a job, and would find them a job if a word was merely said—was conveyed throughout the system and applied also to other more ominous utterances. If the commanding officer said to a prison officer, "Nice young daughter you've got", the prison officer would not sleep that night, if the remark was made in the context that the prison officer was regarded as having crossed the inmate.

That is not normal, but the effort to move from that to normality required the Government to take the extraordinary steps that they have taken, with the agreement of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, in seeking not simply a different kind of prison system, but a different concordat governing society that then made possible the transition from an extraordinary, abnormal prison service to a normal one.

The Select Committee was grateful that the Government took the recommendations so seriously. I am grateful to my Committee colleagues of all parties, who worked so hard to address the issue. It is not easy for any of us to admit to such a substantial failure in a society of which we are, for the most part, justly proud. When considering the threats and the power of prisoners, we have had to consider the major malfunctions that occurred—I hope that that is in the past tense—in Northern Ireland's society. There is a long way to go, but, although the report is critical, particularly in paragraph 74, of the prison officers, none of us could have done better in the circumstances in which they were placed. They were given an impossible job and many did it with great courage and as much humanity and intelligence as were possible in circumstances that society had made impossible for them.

In commending the report, I hope that the House will note that many of the suggestions are work-in-progress towards normalisation. I hope that issues such as vulnerable prisoner units and more effective treatments and responses to young offenders will be processed. I hope that the Minister will provide the assurance that we want that the process of normalisation will continue apace and that the Prison Service that remains after normalisation will be properly integrated into the United Kingdom prison system.

3.7 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Inevitably, contributions by members of the Select Committee will be selective and personal. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) because I agree profoundly with most of what he said. He referred to "a substantial failure" and I regret to report that, with qualifications, to which I shall refer, that is a valid overall judgment on the situation that we found during our inquiry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) referred to the courage and professionalism of the Prison Service. I am sure that there is no dissent about the courage, but we must be cautious in what we say about the professionalism. Some of my conclusions during our inquiry—it was reinforced by having spoken to and met many serving Prison Service officers over the years—are that the professionalism is latent, the intention exists, the wish to provide a highly professional service exists, but a combination of circumstances has failed to enable the delivery of that good intention of professionalism. I shall present a brief thesis to illustrate that.

I shall deal first with the paragraphs headed "Management" and then look more closely at the issue of low morale and lack of professional pride in the Prison Service.

Management is the greatest deficiency in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and we must begin to focus our attention on that. A continuing theme throughout our inquiry was the question mark over the quality of the service's management. Before we began our deliberations, we inherited Mr. Narey's report, in which he described his doubts about the quality of management. He returned to that theme in his oral evidence to the Committee. The prime illustration of the problem, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, was that the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service was of insufficient quality to provide a governor of the Maze and a director general of the service.

Her Majesty's inspector of prisons also commented on the need to improve the quality of the Northern Ireland Prison Service's management. We heard powerful evidence to the same effect from the Prison Governors Association and the Prison Officers Association. One of the most alarming features of the evidence received from that quarter was that of the lack of trust and communication between the sectors in the service.

That is why, although I fully endorse and support summary (d), I found it to be a depressing conclusion to have to give. It says: There is considerable cause for concern about the ability of the managers in the Service to cope with the demands on the system which likely reforms and changes will require". I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will assure us that positive steps are being taken to address the quality of management in the Prison Service.

The second point that I wish to make is that without that improved quality of management, the tragedy of today's Prison Service—low morale and the lack of professional pride—cannot be addressed effectively. In paragraph 39 of the report, we state: We were unfavourably impressed with the low morale displayed by staff". That is our abiding recollection of the inquiry. We were preceded by Narey, who, in paragraph 1.21 of his report, described a general air of apathy which pervades much of the establishment". Members of the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Governors Association, from whom we took evidence, spoke of a deep sense of unhappiness among staff. As those of us who have read Sir David Ramsbotham's report know, he found many such instances among the Maze prison staff.

One of the manifestations of that low morale is the abnormally high sickness rate, which is partly a symptom of the acute personnel problems that afflict the service. That factor compounds itself, because absence for sickness increases the burden on, and overstretches, other members of the Prison Service. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) referred to the failure to reduce that problem, which was a key target of the latest report.

The Committe found in its inquiry that the first step in addressing the high rate of staff absenteeism is to examine its causes very closely. A degree of communication between management and prison staff is required that has so far been lacking. I acknowledge that management have expressed their written good intentions, but they have not been put into practice. The reality is that it is the responsibility of the highest level of management to deal with staff absenteeism in partnership with relevant staff associations and local management. We are talking about a breakdown in basic management techniques and communication. The matter is urgent and should be given the highest priority.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that management's perceived make-do-and-mend attempts to come up with a short-term solution contributed greatly to unsatisfactory relationships between management and prison officers? Does he also agree that proper long-term planning was needed, and that the lack of progression in the officer corps through training and expertise to senior management level has reflected badly on management over the years?

Mr. Hunter

The hon. Gentleman is right, as his wide experience in these matters will confirm. Indeed, the Committee received considerable evidence to that effect. The evidence suggested that a full-blown scheme of exchange of placements might help to infuse a wider perspective in the horizons of management and Prison Service officers. I am sure that that is right, but a long look should be taken at establishing a structure and appropriate training that will provide incentives and a clear career path. That is the way to improve quality at every level of the Prison Service.

My last point is at a slight tangent, but I plead justification because it has already been raised in passing by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats. In the Government's response to our report, the Secretary of State acknowledged that the Prison Service should hold prisoners in "secure and humane confinement". I could not read those words without recalling the events of 26 December 1997, when Billy Wright was murdered in the Maze prison. I acknowledge that that was an isolated incident, but it was surely the most dreadful indictment imaginable of the proposition that the Prison Service is providing secure confinement.

The Minister and I have corresponded about this matter over the months and years, but fears have not been put to rest that it is being covered up behind a smokescreen. The most thorough public inquiry is needed to examine and establish how, in the most secure prison in the United Kingdom—perhaps even in western Europe—a prisoner could be murdered—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I shall suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.

3.19 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.34 pm

On resuming

Mr. Hunter

I had almost completed my remarks, and I shall now do so briefly.

I was making the point that I was profoundly concerned to read in the Secretary of State's response to the Committee the reference to the aim of the Prison Service to hold prisoners in "secure and humane confinement". In that context, I was referring to the murder of Billy Wright on 26 December 1997. It was dreadful that such an event could take place in what is regarded as one of the most secure prisons, at least in western Europe. I used the words "smokescreen" and "cover-up", because that is the perception of a significant number of people.

I shall make my final point on the subject of Mr. Wright's murder.

Mr. Beggs

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the callous and brutal murder of the prisoner David Keys, not long after that, was equally horrific and that it reflected badly on, and contributed to the loss of morale of, the prison officers charged with providing secure conditions for that prisoner?

Mr. Hunter

I accept that correction from the hon. Gentleman, and I agree that I should have included that case in my comments. It was the other side of an unacceptable coin. Essentially, the same situation arose, involving the objective of the Prison Service to provide secure confinement, although security did not apply to those who were confined.

I come to my final point on that event of 26 December 1997, and the murder that followed soon after. Do not those events—at least in the case of Mr. Wright—suggest either a dereliction and abandonment of duty arguably second to none, or even, as some fear, tacit consent, if not active contrivance? Those questions will remain unanswered unless or until the Government instigate a full public inquiry into the events.

3.37 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The report was issued reasonably recently, yet the developments taking place in Northern Ireland involve such rapid change that almost anything that one says is soon past the point. We are dependent on the Minister to bring us up to date. We have conducted a thorough investigation, with a report published in November 1998, and which started in the previous April; we have revisited the issue since. Nevertheless, changes are taking place of such a dramatic nature that almost anything one says at any stage will be slightly out of date. It is, therefore, difficult to develop a full and proper blueprint.

We have the report dated November 1998, and the Government's quite short response dated March 1999. We then had a session at which people from the Northern Ireland Prison Service returned to us in Committee, and we attempted to find out what had developed since that stage. That matter is also now in front of us. [Interruption.] My apologies.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Barnes

If I may have a second to attend to my pager, I shall ensure that that does not happen again.

Therefore, it is a rapidly changing scene, which revolves around the Belfast agreement and all the hopes that are pinned on it. The agreement dramatically changes many things in Northern Ireland and has already had a major impact on the Prison Service. A number of people have already been released from the Maze, and equivalent prisoners will in future go to Maghaberry. Therefore, a more normal prison procedure should now obtain and we should not expect to adhere in future to the pattern that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) described. However, almost no one has an exact blueprint for the future; there is no clear Utopian guide. There are some ideas and suggestions, which I hope are the result of the Select Committee doing its work thoroughly, but neither we nor the Northern Ireland Office, and certainly not the Northern Ireland Prison Service, has yet found the means to resolve the complex problems that we face.

We find an example of the way in which things move in the memorandum submitted to the Select Committee by the Northern Ireland Prison Service. It said that the report produced by Sir David Ramsbotham, Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, contained 143 recommendations and many helpful and pragmatic pointers for the way forward. However its publication came at a time when the position at Maze was significantly different than at the time of the inspection. Therefore, things are already beginning to change dramatically.

To some extent that affects the position of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. It has received massive criticism. The Select Committee report was critical of it, and the Prison Officers Association was highly critical of the management. Although changes have taken place in the management, we have had to prod it to produce proposals, but the proposals before us are still not as precise as they should be. In some of the evidence that was presented to us, the Northern Ireland Prison Service was trying to make assessments for the month to come and developments were just around the corner.

The main problem for the Prison Service is the impact of the troubles—the existence of the Maze and the fact that 29 prison officers have been killed. That has led to low morale and low commitment and a high rate of absences, which affect not only the day-to-day working of the Prison Service but its training programmes, because people are missing from training programmes, too. In spite of comparative overstaffing, which has been created by problems in the past and aggravated by the recent release of prisoners, a depressing situation exists. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead described it very well. He said that if a prisoner in the Maze says to a prison officer, "How's your daughter doing?" or asks about something else in his personal life, that will restrain the officer's responses and disturb him considerably.

I had some experience of that when I was in the Maze. My group went to see different groups of paramilitary prisoners. When we visited the IRA section, we talked to the second team for a while, until the first team arrived. When the self-appointed commander and his deputy arrived, it took them a while to work out who we were. After a while, the deputy said, "Ah, you're Harry Barnes." The chill that went down my spine was substantial, he will be pleased to hear. It is easy to understand the response of those who work there daily. I shall not mention the name of the person concerned, but I noticed his release from prison the other day. I am well established and well protected in these hallowed halls, but I am aware that a tremendous impact must be made on those involved in day-to-day operations. There will be knock-on consequences in Maghaberry and elsewhere.

Mr. Beggs

Just to ensure that the hon. Gentleman does not forget his experience, may I ask whether he is comforted by the thought that that individual may soon receive a pass allowing him freedom of access to the Palace of Westminster?

Mr. Barnes

I shall consider that possibility with great interest and try to respond in like kind when I see him in the Corridors of Westminster.

The great problem in the Prison Service, over and above low morale and absenteeism, is overstaffing and the inevitable imbalance in the number of prison officers from the Catholic and Protestant communities. The Select Committee's report touched on that imbalance and the difficulty of tackling it, which is considerable. The Patten report referred to that and future operations.

The Prison Service has 6.9 per cent. Catholics and 77.6 per cent. Protestants, with a rapidly declining need for prison officers following the releases from the Maze and the resulting overstaffing there. The necessary downsizing is made more difficult by moves to correct the balance.

We considered services linked with the Prison Service—for example, cooks, kitchen porters and so on. With the number of applications for those jobs, it might be easier to ensure that there is some movement towards more Catholics being employed. Some attention has been paid to encouraging people to follow up advertisements for employment in those services.

The Prison Service can compliment itself on those numbers having risen recently, but people from the Catholic community who replied to the most recent advertisement for cooks, kitchen porters and so on constituted only 20 per cent. of applicants. That is still much lower than the percentage of Catholics in the general population and the jobs have been re-advertised to try to stimulate more interest.

There are massive problems. For example, there is the problem of the culture in the Prison Service. The attitude of some existing officers may make it uncomfortable for Catholics to apply. There is also a problem for Catholics in their own communities as a result of the feeling that they should not be prison officers. We know about the problems in the police service, which must be even greater in the Prison Service—especially a Prison Service with residual activities in relation to paramilitary provision. The constraints within Catholic communities are considerable. However, civilianisation may offer a hope for correcting the balance at an earlier stage.

In a more general sense, perhaps a number of prison officer jobs should be allocated to back-up provisions in a move towards civilianisation. Such a move, which clearly could take place in Northern Ireland, has already taken place throughout the United Kingdom police force. It may prove easier to attract applications for jobs that are not front-line positions.

Creating posts in the Prison Service so that people will apply for jobs is a considerable problem. The Government must give thought to the available resources and what needs to be done. With regard to the police force, it has been suggested that people should be encouraged to apply for jobs in police forces elsewhere to provide specialist assistance and advice. That approach will have consequences for the Prison Service.

Early retirement, financial provision, back-up assistance, and the relocation and retraining of people who must use their skills in a different setting are matters of great importance, and the financial implications are considerable. The Northern Ireland Office must confront the question of whether extra resources should be found to tackle those problems. If all goes well and powers are transferred to the Executive and the Assembly, the involvement of the Committee and the Northern Ireland Office will decline. However, we hope that that will not result in what has been described as the peace dividend, whereby a certain block of money is transferred and the remainder is not taken into account. Resources should be available to maintain the Northern Ireland police force and Prison Service, both of which are heavily manned.

This should not be seen as a great opportunity for the Exchequer to save money. Instead, we should recognise that those resources are needed as Northern Ireland moves from an exceptional set of circumstances to normality. However, that normality cannot simply be swtiched on; it must be nurtured.

The Prison Service management are now nudging towards many of the ideas on the direction in which matters should move that are given in the documents. I hope that we can lift our analysis by saying that the necessary resources will be provided, so that the proposals that have been made can be realised.

3.54 pm
Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

As a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I am conscious of the contributions made by my right hon. and hon. Friends to the report, which forms part of the remit of this afternoon's debate.

It is worth recalling the circumstances that gave rise to the Committee's decision to hold an inquiry into the efficiency and effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The escape of the IRA prisoner Liam Averill from the Maze prison on 10 December 1997 was closely followed, on 27 December, by the murder at the prison of the prisoner Billy Wright. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) reminded us, that was followed by the murder of the unsentenced prisoner David Keys in the Maze on 15 March 1998.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's remarks closely, and I thought that I heard him say that there was an unsentenced prisoner—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman addresses the Chair; otherwise, the microphone will not pick up what he says and it will be difficult for me to hear him.

Mr. Taylor

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is the first time that I have spoken in this Chamber and it has a different orientation. Personally, I find it difficult to speak to someone with my back to him.

I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that murder or injury had been inflicted on an unsentenced prisoner in the Maze. I find it surprising that unsentenced prisoners should be held in such a grave prison, with its high-level security and the landscape that was described earlier. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there are remand prisoners in the Maze?

Mr. Donaldson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is true that remand prisoners are held alongside sentenced prisoners in the Maze prison. David Keys was a Loyalist Volunteer Force prisoner who was held in the LVF block at the Maze. He was on remand awaiting trial for his alleged involvement in two murders in the village of Poyntzpass. He was allegedly murdered by some fellow inmates belonging to the LVF. It was a sad case.

I say at the outset that I and my party condemn, absolutely and without reservation, the activities of all the terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland. However, that does not mean that we should not be concerned about what happens in our prisons and the welfare of prisoners, regardless of their crimes. Those of us in positions of legislative responsibility have a duty to ensure that their conditions are humane.

However, that duty must be balanced by the need to provide proper security in prisons. Concern about the conjunction of events in the Maze and their impact on security at the prison—and on the security of the wider community—prompted the Committee to hold its inquiry. Those events had a significant impact not only on the Prison Service, but on the wider political process at a crucial time.

The escape of Liam Averill, and in particular the murder of Billy Wright, had a destabilising influence that almost led to a complete breakdown of some of the ceasefires. Prison security is important not only for ensuring that prisoners stay in prison, but for the wider political process.

Mr. Hunter

To complete the hon. Gentleman's line, with some presumption, we are talking of some of the unsung heroes of the peace process.

Mr. Donaldson

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I shall not add to his point.

Prisons and prisoners have been a very important aspect of the wider political process—to the extent, regrettably, that prisoners became a bargaining chip in the negotiations that led up to the Belfast agreement. An early release scheme was introduced, which provided for the early release of prisoners linked to terrorist organisations. I objected to that scheme in principle because I felt that it was wrong to trade prisoner releases for political concessions or political agreement on issues that were not relevant to the prison.

I still cannot understand why one of my constituents, who is serving a life sentence in Maghaberry prison for the murder of his wife, will serve that sentence while prisoners in the Maze who also committed murder have now been released. It is difficult to explain to my constituent why a politically motivated crime is treated differently from a crime with another motivation. That will set a difficult precedent in Northern Ireland if there is a resumption or a continuation of terrorist violence.

Mr. McWalter

The actions of many of those in the Maze prison were heinous, vile and murderous. The difficulty in any society that is experiencing a major malfunction is that, sometimes, some people within it believe that violence is justified in such circumstances to correct the social malfunction.

Whether or not the hon. Gentleman shares that view, he must recognise what one might call the Nelson Mandela objection. That involved someone whom most people would regard as a person of high principle and honour finding himself in a society in which he felt the need to put a bomb on a railway. That is the logic that most people understand. Even if we do not agree that the justification in place X is as worth while as the justification in place Y, nevertheless some people in place X think that it is, which will generate that kind of action. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the normalisation is important and must be cherished and allowed to progress.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order, before I call the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), may I say that the Chair does not like overlong interventions? I have been tolerant because of the tone of the debate, but such interventions are generally unhelpful.

Mr. Donaldson

Perhaps I am dealing with prisoner releases in isolation, but one difficulty for many people in Northern Ireland is that, while they see a significant concession made to a terrorist organisation, they do not see the reciprocity required if the political process is to move forward. I am not suggesting that prisoners are traded for anything, but if the exceptional circumstances described by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) are relevant, it is time that those organisations that are benefiting from the prisoner release scheme started to deliver on their side, especially in terms of illegal weapons.

The early release scheme has had a major impact on the Prison Service and its complement is now being downsized through the staff reduction scheme. We may well soon see the closure of the Maze prison. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead may have been a little uncharitable when he described the prison as a moonscape. It is in my constituency and when I am there I travel past it almost daily. Its architectural design may not be pleasing to the eye, but one must understand that the function of a prison is not to be architecturally pleasing but to secure the incarceration of those placed there by the judicial system.

We are dealing with a particular set of individuals, who have chosen to associate together in terrorist organisations. Measures have therefore been taken—I hope that they will continue to be—to ensure that those prisoners are secured and that their escape is prevented. The Maze prison was often described as the most secure prison in Europe, yet there was a mass escape from it in the 1980s that sadly involved the murder of one prison officer. Subsequent escape attempts were made, and the IRA prisoner Liam Averill succeeded. That escape contributed to the circumstances that gave rise to the inquiry.

Although it may be desirable that prisoners should be able to participate in what might be called normal prison activities, I remind the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead that, for the IRA, gardening means digging a tunnel. I can understand why the Northern Ireland Prison Service might not wish to encourage that activity. The wider community in Northern Ireland thought that the prisoners in the Maze prison enjoyed a degree of what I might call "luxury".

Mr. Beggs

A holiday camp.

Mr. Donaldson

Indeed, it was often described as a holiday camp. Special arrangements were made for the prisoners to associate in paramilitary groupings and they enjoyed a large degree of freedom within prison confines—and a large degree of control over the prison's day-to-day affairs. We discovered that the officers commanding the various paramilitary factions had an arrangement with the prison governor—they negotiated arrangements for the management of the prison. I have no doubt that that special arrangement gave rise to the difficulties that led to the circumstances that I described earlier.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the prisoners out on Christmas parole enjoyed the Maze so much that he went back before his parole ended? The situation in the Maze goes back many years; I remember having to identify the body of a chief prison officer who had appeared on television to speak of the prison officers' problems in dealing with prisoners under the relaxed regime that politicians had imposed on them.

Mr. Donaldson

I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us that that problem has been going on for some time. As I said, prison matters can have an impact on the wider political process. I think of the hunger strikes in the early 1980s, over many of the issues that have been mentioned which had a serious impact on the political process in Northern Ireland.

I do not want to dwell too much on what has happened. The inquiry and the Committee's report are important because of the lessons that can be learned and how those lessons are applied to the present and the evolving situation in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. If the early release scheme continues and the Maze prison closes, Maghaberry prison will become the main establishment in the Northern Ireland Prison Service. As it happens, Maghaberry prison is also in my constituency; I have a large prison population in my constituency. Although not all the prisoners have their origins in my constituency, many of the prison staff who work in Maghaberry and the Maze live there.

I pay tribute to the staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service who have, in the difficult circumstances mentioned by members of the Committee, sought to ensure adequate prison security, not only for the effective management of prisons but to protect the wider community. I urge the Government to bring forward their plans, which have apparently been delayed, for the award of a medal to Northern Ireland Prison Service staff to mark their contribution over the recent decades of violence—although I hope that they will not, unlike certain recent awards, be given posthumously. Such awards will recognise the past, present and future contribution of the service.

I am concerned about recent incidents of arson attacks and violence at Maghaberry prison. Elements within Maghaberry—paramilitaries are now there—may seek, through violence and pressure on prison staff, to have imported into the prison the regime that prevailed at the Maze. I urge the Minister and the Government to stand firm against any such move. As I have said, many of the incidents at the Maze, including the escape of Liam Averill and the murder of Billy Wright, were a direct consequence of the regime that was in operation—a regime that hindered effective management and security. It would therefore be a disaster if the regime at the Maze were transferred to Maghaberry. Control must be retained and the governor must be given the resources that he needs to deal with such problems.

One problem that we found on our visit to Maghaberry was staff morale and the alarming levels of staff absenteeism, particularly due to stress-related illnesses. A small amount of manpower in the Prison Service has been freed up by the early release scheme, and some staff have moved as part of the first two phases of the staff reduction scheme, but there is still an excess of staff, exacerbated by the recent closures of blocks in the Maze. If staff are needed at Maghaberry, I hope that the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service will make officers available to nip problems in the bud so that matters do not become difficult to control. I hope that the management and staff at Maghaberry are given the support that they need to deal with that problem.

I want to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) said about the murder of Billy Wright in the Maze prison. As a Northern Ireland Member of Parliament, I am not holding a candle for Billy Wright, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, or any terrorist organisation. I have condemned the activities of all such organisations. However, I am deeply concerned about the circumstances surrounding the murder of Billy Wright in the Maze prison. I do not believe that the inquiries conducted either by Martin Narey or by Sir David Ramsbotham got to the core of the issues surrounding that murder. There is public interest in getting at the truth and in understanding the sequence of events that led to the murder. I shall not rehearse those today, but there was a series of so-called coincidences, which facilitated the actions of those who murdered Billy Wright. I accept that they have been apprehended, brought before the courts and sentenced, but that is not the end of the matter.

On Tuesday next week, I and others, acting in the public interest, will visit the Maze prison, together with Mr. David Wright, the victim's father. We shall look at the layout of the prison and discuss with prison management the circumstances leading to the murder. I echo the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for an independent public inquiry into that event. Public interest in this matter will not go away. What is happening is poisoning the atmosphere, especially in Portadown. I return to the link between what happens in the prisons and the wider political process, which has the potential to unravel much of the progress that has been made. The Government need to look again at that issue.

Mr. Beggs

Does my hon. Friend agree that many prison officers sincerely harbour deep suspicion about the circumstances leading to that murder? They want a full public inquiry into the tragedy.

Mr. Donaldson

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right; I have talked to prison staff, some of whom were there on the day of Billy Wright's murder and were peripherally involved in the investigation. They are deeply concerned about what happened and believe that the good name of the Prison Service in Northern Ireland needs to be cleared on the events surrounding the murder of Billy Wright. It is crucial that the Government deal with the issue now by establishing an independent public inquiry. If that happens, we shall get at the truth of the matter once and for all.

The past 30 years have been difficult for the Northern Ireland Prison Service. I, and others, have often criticised it for inefficiencies and mistakes that have had serious consequences in the wider community, but I have also paid tribute to the staff who have worked in very difficult circumstances. Through my involvement in the Committee inquiry and my continued interest in the prison service, I have gained a better understanding of the difficulties and challenges that it faces. It is healthy that we, as elected public representatives, have a better understanding of the issues. At the same time, we believe that the conjunction of events that led to the inquiry must never happen again. We ought never again to have to face the committing of a murder in one of our prisons. I hope that the lessons that we have learned will be applied, that proper, effective security measures will be implemented, as the Government have promised, and that there will be no more escapes. If those important things can be achieved, the work of our Committee will have been worth while.

4.20 pm
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Much of what I wanted to say has already been covered, and I do not want to prolong the debate any more than necessary. Will the Minister tell us the Government's proposals to retain experienced prison staff from those currently employed in Northern Ireland prisons? There has been much talk about the excellent redundancy package that is offered to induce early retirements from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but there has been much less comment on the package offered to prison officers. I, too, pay tribute to the service that they have provided to all the people in Northern Ireland over many difficult years. I also pay tribute to the support given by the wives and families of prison officers. There have been times when much more could have been done to assist those who were forced to leave their homes and buy more expensive properties elsewhere. In having to move for their own safety because of intimidation and terrorism, they suffered considerable financial loss as well as psychological strain, stress and upheaval. I hope that due consideration will be given to a proper package to encourage the take-up of early retirement.

I accept entirely the remarks of colleagues about the need to create facilities for a much more balanced work force in the Prison Service. However, for as long as paramilitary organisations refuse to decommission or to break down paramilitary structures, further effort will be made to establish paramilitary control in Maghaberry and elsewhere. The closure of Maze prison will not see the end of paramilitary influence.

We need to be able to expect from Prison Service management and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Office, greater influence and increased resources to ensure better training for those in prison, so that, when they have completed their sentences, they can move back into society with less risk of reoffending and returning to prison.

The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has done a great service. I pay tribute to all our colleagues from the mainland for the time, consideration and thoughtfulness that they put into the preparation of the report. I hope that the Minister will even be able to give us a fuller response than the somewhat short one that we received from the Secretary of State.

4.24 pm
Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

I shall add a brief word on behalf of those on the Conservative Front Bench.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who chairs the Committee and who opened our proceedings so excellently. I also congratulate all members of the Committee on the report.

I was suprised when my right hon. Friend mentioned the remarkable staff-to-prisoner ratio at the Maze prison. I nearly intervened on him, but before I did so he said that he also regarded it as remarkable, which made my point. As the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said, we are making our observations against fixed time lines which have passed and in an atmosphere of enormous change. That atmosphere was alluded to in the Secretary of State's response to the report.

I echo my right hon. Friend's reference to the devotion to duty and security record of the Prison Service in Northern Ireland, and add my praise and respect for its work in adversity.

I have been profoundly impressed by all the speeches that I have heard today, none of which was remotely a clone of any other. The nature of comment has been extraordinary and eclectic, which has given me a remarkably vivid view from different positions of the state of the service. I shall underline the paradox of my position. I was concerned by the misgivings of my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), not least about morale and absenteeism, but at the same time, paradoxically, I found myself sympathetic to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), who asked rhetorically whether any of us felt that we could have done any better.

Relatively new as I am to my brief, I have found today's proceedings most informative. I have been impressed by the work of the Committee, and await the Minister's response with interest.

4.28 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) does not have to wait too long.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) clearly and precisely set out the range of issues that were required to be considered by his Committee, and he rightly paid tribute to the members of the Committee and the officials who served it. He also correctly put the debate in the context of what has been a busy week for Northern Ireland business. We have had a good attendance in the Chamber, and many thoughtful and useful contributions to the debate. I shall deal with the one jarring note—the tragic murder of Billy Wright—in due course.

I am sure that I speak for my right hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam), who was the Secretary of State when we gave evidence to the Committee, when I say that we always received an effective grilling. It was always courteous, however, which helped the Committee to arrive at conclusions. The report is a constructive and perceptive document. It correctly identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and we are acting on its comments. Where strengths can be strengthened and weaknesses need strengthening, we have done that with vigour, as I shall elaborate.

When the director general, Robin Halward, met the Committee in October in a follow-up session, he discussed the developments and follow-on that he had initiated along with the senior management team, and identified where progress had been made in relation to the report and its conclusions. This afternoon, I shall not cover that ground again but shall touch on it tangentially and elaborate on how we have progressed since then.

The job of a prison officer is, at the best of times, difficult, as has been borne out by the contributions that we have heard today. It demands patience, understanding and an ability to withstand the sort of pressure that most of us would hope never to be placed under. What is true in England, Scotland and Wales is even more so in Northern Ireland, where, as the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, among others, mentioned, 29 officers have been murdered, and many more have been injured over the past 30 years. I share in the tributes that have been paid to those officers and their families. Those officers made significant sacrifices, and their families must live with the tragic consequences. As hon. Members have said, such threats continue, and we should pay tribute to those officers who continue to serve in those difficult circumstances. They, as part of the overall delivery of governmental services in Northern Ireland, have made a major contribution to what we all hope will be the beginning of a new, peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) referred to the possible award of a Prison Service medal to those who have served. That will be a matter for the body responsible for such issues, the committee on the grant of honours, awards and decorations. As that body must consider the application that will be made, it would not be appropriate for me to comment now on the outcome of its deliberations. However, the hon. Gentleman's point was well made, and the proposal is progressing through the Government system, in full consultation with the staff associations responsible for those who serve in prisons.

The provision of a better service cannot be achieved in a vacuum. The Northern Ireland Prison Service and I value the fresh perspective that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has brought to our work and our objectives for the future. The Northern Ireland of two years ago, when the Committee began its inquiry, is a world away from the Northern Ireland of today. For the first time in a generation, Northern Ireland has an Executive, elected by and responsible to all the people of Northern Ireland, and we have the best chance yet to secure a genuine and unbreakable peace.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service, too, is experiencing unprecedented change. The early release of paramilitary prisoners has markedly changed the size and composition of the prison population, and peace will ask different questions of the Prison Service of the future. It can begin to focus on running a normal prison regime, if such a thing exists. It can break free from its traditional role of a bulwark between segregated groups of paramilitary prisoners, and it can play a more positive role in delivering broader criminal justice objectives, helping to reduce crime and the fear of crime.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee began its inquiry in the aftermath of the Good Friday agreement, when it became apparent that future staffing levels would have to drop by about 40 per cent. The Committee faced a barrage of questions from staff, who had real concerns about their future. That was reflected correctly in the report and was mentioned in today's debate. That period of uncertainty obviously dented staff morale.

In many ways, the Northern Ireland Prison Service was the first part of the jigsaw of putting together the changes initiated by the Good Friday agreement, which has had a major and significant impact. We have had to work hard since then in three areas to make a real difference—first, on staff management, development and morale; secondly, on some specific operational matters; and, thirdly, on inspection and accountability arrangements.

Before I say more on that, however, it is appropriate for me to deal with the tragic murder of Billy Wright and the points raised by the hon. Members for Basingstoke and for Lagan Valley. It is worth putting the matter in context. Two major inquiries into the running of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, primarily into the running of the Maze prison, resulted from that murder. The coroner also commented on it in his judgment, although it was not as a result of a full police investigation. More important, however, the Royal Ulster Constabulary undertook a thorough investigation of those events, which resulted in three people being found guilty of the murder.

I have had to meet Mr. David Wright, Billy's father. Mr. Wright is also in correspondence with me and with my right hon. friend the Secretary of State. We have had to deal with that man's grief, which is genuine. He has lost someone close, and he carries that loss with him. We have explained to Mr. Wright that, if he has new evidence, he should bring it forward by whatever means he wishes—through Ministers, through his own Member of Parliament, or more appropriately, through the RUC.

Members of Parliament may call for a public inquiry, but an inquiry would interview people who would tell it things that could have an impact. I would ask them to take that information to the RUC. They should not use the forum of a public chamber to debate the matter, as it might encourage people to think that substantial evidence was available where none exists. If there is evidence, we want to know about it. If new evidence could lead to new lines of inquiry by the RUC, it should be made available. Saying that we have not got to the bottom of the matter could be seen as a criticism of the RUC. The RUC carried out the usual thorough investigation.

Mr. Donaldson

The right hon. Gentleman misunderstands what we are driving at when we call for a public inquiry. I acknowledged that the individuals involved in the murder have been prosecuted by the RUC and that meetings have been held with the RUC to discuss the evidence in that case. However, the circumstances that surround the events that led to the murder of Billy Wright are important. I speak not only about the apprehension of those who committed the crime, but about getting to the truth of how that crime was facilitated and by whom. For instance, how did the two guns arrive in the Maze prison? I could ask many other questions, but I do not want to incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the Minister understands that matters beyond the simple question of prosecution are of public interest and can be properly satisfied only by an independent public inquiry. Our purpose in raising the matter today is to give weight to that call. It is not a mere ritual.

Mr. Ingram

I do not want to get involved in the detail of that debate. However, people who demand public inquiries into such events usually say that there has been collusion between the RUC and the Army, or between unknown individuals somewhere in the system. The evidence obviously has to be significant before we embark on such action. We have examined the information that Mr. David Wright has given to us and that has been given to the RUC.

What happened in the case is established not by politicians or Ministers sitting in judgment, but by people who have investigative capabilities. Our advice is that the evidence that has been produced is insufficient to take us forward in that regard. If the hon. Members who are raising the issue have substantial evidence, they should make it available. It is easy to say that there is evidence or that there are questions to be asked—of course there are questions to be asked. There are probably questions in every murder inquiry that do not get answered. For example, it was never established how the weapon was brought into the prison. That was subject to investigation. If the allegation is one of collusion—that the people in the Prison Service somehow colluded in the murder—the evidence for that should not be passed to me as a Minister. If that is done, I am prepared to accept it but will immediately pass it on to the RUC. I urge other hon. Members to do the same. Such matters should be put into the process so that they can be properly investigated.

A request was made to me for Mr. Wright to visit the Maze next week, and we were able to facilitate that. I hope that that can be done quietly and without publicity because my assessment is that Mr. Wright is still carrying much grief and hurt. I would hate to see people exploiting that for their own purposes, as tends to happen—I do not make that charge against hon. Members who raised the subject today.

I was dealing with the three areas that we felt had to be examined. The first was staff. The prisoner release scheme prompted a fundamental reassessment of future prison staffing levels, and the staff reduction programme was launched in December 1998. To date, 210 staff have left the service and we expect some 1,100 staff to have left by the end of March 2001. The final date for applications to the scheme was 21 January this year, and we have received more than 900 applications. Consequently, I am pleased to say that there will be no need for compulsory redundancies, which is a significant achievement.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster asked about the phasing of the measure and how it would be achieved. I shall not go into that, because it is an issue for management to handle through their dealings with prison staff associations. If further information can be provided on phasing and its likely progress as we move through the process, I would be happy for it to be given to hon. Members. The way in which phasing has been handled, given the numbers that have left and the number of applications received, has been a significant achievement. It is a significant achievement for the Prison Service management, as the high take-up showed that they got their strategy and their figures right, avoiding the need for compulsory redundancy. It is also significant for prison officers, who have been able to stay or leave, depending on what is best for them. We obviously owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the service and commitment of those who are leaving.

The question of religious imbalance has been raised. It is difficult to achieve religious balance, given the major downsizing taking place. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) gave accurate figures on the scale of take-up. Every effort is made to tackle the issue, but there are few opportunities for engagement and we are, as ever, dependent on people taking up those opportunities. Even with all the encouragement and positive spin of advertisements to persuade people from the minorities to apply, there may not necessarily be a willingness in their communities to serve in the Prison Service. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire made that point.

Mr. Barnes

Is it considered too early for the hoped for take-up of such jobs by people from the Catholic community? The peace process is at a difficult stage, and people wonder what will happen. Once it has changed the nature of Northern Ireland politics, it may become more natural for them to take up jobs in and associated with the Prison Service and the police. Targeting the Catholic community might work much better in those circumstances.

Mr. Ingram

The answer to that is broadly yes. We always have to be conscious of laws promoting positive discrimination. Laws have been changed to facilitate such an approach, not only for the Prison Service but for other aspects of the Northern Ireland economy. We all hope that Northern Ireland will become a normal society. As it does so, the climate will change and people in those communities will have the freedom to participate in the responsibilities of the state that they have not had hitherto. They will do so without the threat hanging over them of having to move home or of their families being ostracised. We hope that a normal society will evolve and, meanwhile, we will encourage the best take-up that we can from minority communities. However, we should bear in mind the fact that there are few opportunities for that to happen during downsizing.

Those who stay in the Prison Service in Northern Ireland will face new challenges and priorities. Its director general, Robin Halward, and his team have taken a fresh look at the service's mission statement "Visions and Values". It has made what it calls a future positive programme that will allow everyone to contribute in a positive way to personal development, to consider what contribution individuals can make to the development of the service and to share their views with colleagues. Everyone staying in the service will have the opportunity to participate in that programme.

We have already taken great strides to meet concerns about staff training. I am pleased to report an increase in overall levels of training, most notably in raising professional standards and developing management skills. That returns us to some of the points raised in debate. Seven hundred staff from all levels are engaged in national vocational qualification accredited programmes. Almost 600 are signed up for or are already participating in management skills programmes.

By April, we should have exceeded the service's target of five days of training and development per officer. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said that he could not stay for my response, but he pointed out that the average number of days allocated for training was much less than that.

Those significant improvements were rewarded when five of the Prison Service's six establishments achieved Investors in People accreditation: its headquarters, training college, Magilligan prison, Maze prison and the young offenders centre. Maghaberry prison will be assessed once recent changes have bedded in. Even with that level of progress, the service will not rest on its laurels. The successes are a platform from which we are dedicated to building continuous improvement.

The management of staff absenteeism remains a primary objective of the Prison Service. We engaged management consultants to analyse our systems and recommend improvements. Those consultants found that core absence management procedures are sound, but that weaknesses exist in implementation and information gathering. In his evidence session, the director general advised the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the achievements of the project team that he has created to improve attendance management. By 31 December last year, the overall number of operational days lost due to absenteeism had dropped by almost 16 per cent. compared to the previous year. We aim to achieve an overall reduction of 30 per cent. from the 1998–99 baseline by March 2001.

The second group of anxieties that have been expressed in the debate and are detailed in the Committee's report relate to operational issues. The report raised a number of issues relating to prisoner accommodation and the maintenance of a full and varied regime. The closure of the Maze prison and the overall management of paramilitary and reoffending paramilitary prisoners will require a great deal of attention in the coming months, and perhaps for even longer. Full implementation of the Good Friday agreement should make it possible to close the Maze by the end of 2000. It could probably be achieved in the summer, depending on the circumstances that develop over the coming months. We are planning its smooth rundown. As the nature of the prison population changes, and as part of the overall review of the prison estate, the service is taking a fresh look at the maintenance of good order and prison discipline in all circumstances.

One priority will be to minimise the threat of bullying and intimidation without isolating people. Vulnerable prisoners in Magilligan prison are housed together in one unit with people who are not a threat to them. We plan to extend that arrangement to Maghaberry.

Like the Committee, we are worried about the fact that female juveniles are held in the young offenders wing at Maghaberry prison. The Northern Ireland Office review of the juvenile justice system is due to report shortly, and will offer solutions to what we all know is a difficult problem. Although I cannot say what those solutions will be, we have taken the matter on board and are conducting a thoroughgoing review of it, which will be issued shortly. That will then be subject to further consultation. I shall ensure that the Committee receives a copy of that report.

The Committee's report urged that operational constraints, in particular court escorting duties, should not be allowed to disrupt the delivery of a normal prison regime. A courts escort group, which was established in September 1999, allows prison governors to plan staffing levels without having to cope with the unpredictable demands made by the courts, which lead to disrupted regimes. We have begun to tackle that problem, too. In its early days, I visited the group, which generated a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the officers involved, and was beginning to show results even then. Once we are able to evaluate the benefits in staff management and financial terms and, if possible, for the RUC, which has been involved, we shall inform the Committee.

In addition, a video-link project is being piloted between the young offenders centre and the magistrates and Crown courts in Belfast. It enables remand inmates to participate in pre-trial and remand hearings and bail applications without leaving the centre. Again, I visited that project in its early stages, and I have been advised since that it is working successfully. In many ways, we are ahead of what is being done elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Perhaps we should proclaim that more, but it is another example of substantial success. We intend to extend that project to Maghaberry later this year. Maghaberry will demand a great deal of attention in the coming months. The complex population mix and the difficulties involved in maintaining a full regime at all times have recently led to several unacceptable incidents.

My primary concern is the maintenance of security, good order and control, and I have every confidence in the ability of the Prison Service to manage and, where possible, prevent such incidents. The present staff shift patterns and sick absences have militated against the full range of prison activities, and that sometimes results in reactions within the prison. We are currently involved in negotiations with the Prison Officers Association to overcome those problems. In addition, we are looking at ways to introduce an entirely new visits system, which will guarantee booked visits and enable prisons to establish better visitor identification, searching and drugs control procedures. The system will be piloted at Magilligan prison from this March.

As a next steps agency, the Northern Ireland Prison Service is due to carry out a quinquennial review, as the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said. That will represent a welcome chance to evaluate the service's performance since it became an agency in 1995. It will determine whether agency status is the best method of operation and, if so, critically examine the relationship between the agency, the core Department and me, as the responsible Minister, in the form of a revised framework document. It will allow the service to appraise its key performance indicators and key targets in light of a changing prisoner population and closer collaboration with other parts of the criminal justice system. The review was launched in late 1999 and a wide-ranging consultation exercise has begun. I apologise if hon. Members have not received that information—we will keep them apprised of the situation as it develops. We want to involve all interested parties, including hon. Members from Northern Ireland who have an interest in the matter. An emerging findings paper will be issued in spring of this year, and we hope that the review will be completed by the summer.

I turn to the third set of issues that have been raised by the report and by hon. Members during the debate. Those relate to accountability, inspection and working arrangements with the probation service. Work is in hand to meet the Committee's worries about accountability and working arrangements with the probation service. I cannot yet give any firm indications about the precise mechanisms, because that is part of the on-going criminal justice review. That review is due to be published in the near future, and obviously any suggestions that it makes in respect of this and other issues will be subject to full consultation. It will highlight the relevant matters for the benefit of hon. Members. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has drawn the criminal justice review group's attention to the links between the Prison Service and the probation service, and it is therefore aware of that interest.

In the meantime, we are making important progress in other related areas. The Committee recommended that we should formalise the arrangements for the inspection of prisons by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. I, as the Minister, and the Prison Service value our close links with the chief inspector, and share the Committee's desire to place them on a more formal footing. We have written to the Home Office and the chief inspector to take forward that recommendation.

In October, the Committee raised the lack of substantive progress on the removal of boards of visitors from the prison adjudication function. I can report that we have given boards of visitors an undertaking that we will take away that responsibility and are working towards a target date of April this year. That is an ambitious target—but important, none the less—because replacing this responsibility raises difficult issues for both for us, in the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and the Home Office. We need to get it right, not least in the way in which it is conditioned by the European convention on human rights. We must ensure that we have proper systems to guarantee the safety of staff, to allow a governor to take appropriate action to maintain good order and prison discipline and to guarantee the rights of prisoners. My officials are working closely with the Home Office on those matters.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recommended the establishment of a prisons ombudsman, either specifically for Northern Ireland or linked to another jurisdiction. I agree with the Committee that the resolution of prisoners' complaints through the courts is over-used, costly and often inappropriate.

The Prison Service has undertaken a fundamental review of grievance procedures and is examining the case for an ombudsman. We shall draw on experience in England, where arrangements are being reconsidered, and in Scotland, which has a system of prison-based committees. The Northern Ireland Prison Service hopes to finish gathering evidence in the coming weeks. It will then consult interested parties before moving forward. We shall, of course, keep the Select Committee informed of developments.

It is worth recording that the Prison Service already has well-established links with the probation service, both operationally in prisons and at senior management level. We continue to consider ways of improving and developing services. During recent months, both services have been working jointly to improve management and supervisory arrangements for life sentence prisoners. They are working with other statutory agencies to develop joint protocols for the assessment and management of sex offenders. At the end of last year, both services worked together on the hosting of a European conference on prisoner reintegration. They are trying to draw on wider international experience of such delicate and difficult matters.

The report of the Select Committee was a helpful reminder that in difficult circumstances we are, at least, moving in the right direction. Where we fell short, the Select Committee did not spare us. We took a long, hard look at where we must improve. Sometimes, we cannot implement measures immediately, but it is better to examine the matter to get it right so that it will last beyond the immediate future. We have studied all the conclusions carefully and are working hard to implement them.

The report and our debate today focus a critical eye on what we are doing with the Northern Ireland Prison Service and will make it a stronger and more vital organisation. The Select Committee's critical comments and examination, and the way in which the director general, with his senior management, follow the recommendations will make the Northern Ireland Prison Service a better service in the months and years ahead. Much will depend on the sort of society in which it exists. We all want a different and better society than we have had in the past 30 years.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Five o'clock.

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