HC Deb 08 September 2003 vol 410 cc5-6WS
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy)

On 5 August, we announced that there would be a short review in response to concerns expressed about the safety of prisoners and staff within Maghaberry Prison. The terms of reference for the review were as followsTo consider, in consultation with prison management, staff, their unions, prisoners and other interested groups and taking account of relevant practice in other jurisdictions, the options for improving conditions at Maghaberry Prison, particularly as they relate to safety, for all prisoners and staff, remembering the Prison Service's statutory obligations as set out at section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and bearing in mind the lessons of the past and the new environment created by the Good Friday Agreement, and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

We invited John Steele, a former head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, to lead the review and he was assisted by Father Kevin Donaghy, a former chaplain at the Maze Prison, and Canon Barry Dodds, a former chaplain at the Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast.

We are very grateful to John Steele, Fr Donaghy and Canon Dodds for conducting this review during the month of August and providing us with a number of timely and informative recommendations. The Government received the Steele Group's recommendations at the end of August and, having given them the most careful consideration, has decided to accept them in principle and has asked the Northern Ireland Prison Service to establish an additional regime for eligible paramilitary prisoners.

It will take some time to develop and implement these recommendations: the review was designed to provide the Government with ideas on how the safety issue might be addressed rather than the precise working arrangements that would need to be put in place, and these will take some time to develop. We will take what immediate steps we can in the interim and it is expected that the new regime should be in place as quickly as possible.

The key recommendation is that republican and loyalist paramilitary prisoners should be accommodated separately from each other and from the rest of the prison population. This is a significant change from the fully integrated prison regime that has been running at Maghaberry Prison for nearly 20 years. That regime has been successful for those who have chosen to make the most of the opportunities offered to them but, like any prison regime, it requires the co-operation of prisoners.

The Government's decision is no reflection on the professionalism and dedication of Northern Ireland Prison Service staff in pursuing a normal integrated regime. We still believe that integration is the safest regime for prisoners and staff when prisoners conform and co-operate. But we have to deal with the small minority of prisoners who have now refused that cooperation.

In the face of that, the Government has a responsibility to respond to these changed circumstances. In order to help protect the safety of prisoners and staff working with them, a separate regime must be put in place for eligible paramilitary prisoners.

This does not constitute a return to the conditions that existed at the Maze Prison; nor can we allow it to become a staging post on the road to Maze-style segregation. No one wants a return to the conditions that pertained at Maze where staff were threatened, intimidated and subjected to brutal attacks and where prisoners could threaten and intimidate other prisoners with impunity. Indeed, by far the majority of the most serious incidents that have taken place in Northern Ireland's prisons have happened under segregated conditions.

The crucial difference between what John Steele has recommended and what happened at the Maze is that Prison Officers must remain in control and the Government will do all that it can to ensure that this is the case. As the review team recommended, the Northern Ireland Prison Service will draw up and publish a compact which will detail what the eligibility criteria will be, what type of regime separated prisoners can expect and what the Prison Service will expect in return.

The success of the new arrangements will require the Prison Service management and staff to be given the wholehearted backing of the community and their representatives. The Government looks forward to them receiving that support for what we all recognise is a very difficult task.

We intend that this arrangement should not be to the detriment of the remainder of the prison population. The Northern Ireland Prison Service has made major advances towards a 'normal' prison system since the closure of the Maze. The Government believes that the resettlement of prisoners and reducing the risk of their re-offending is what the community wants its Prison Service to do. The Government hopes that they continue to build on that progress and that the majority of prisoners, who I am sure will wish to continue under integrated conditions, will take advantage of the opportunities offered to them.

The Steele Group also made a number of other recommendations, which the Northern Ireland Prison Service has started to address.

On behalf of the Government, I would like to express our deepest gratitude for the work of the prisons staff and to commend them for the way in which they carry out their duties often under extremely demanding conditions, and in the face of serious provocation and intimidation. The new arrangements will throw up many challenges for staff, but we know there is a wealth of experience and commitment to be drawn upon in implementing these recommendations.

A copy of the Steele Group's recommendations has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.