§ 10.10 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)
I beg to move,That the Treatment of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 20th January, be approved.I informed the House on 4th November that I would be bringing forward this Order for approval to enable a number of new measures for the treatment of offenders to be introduced in Northern Ireland, and that I proposed to make a start on the phasing out of special category status. The Order was published as a proposal on 19th December 1975 and was laid before Parliament in draft on 20th January 1976.
The new measures, which take account of penal developments in the rest of the United Kingdom, include new release arrangements for prisoners, powers for the courts to order offenders to undertake community service and power to defer sentences for up to six months. Provision is also made to enable hostels to be provided within the community. The measures are consistent with the general trend in penal reform.
By far the most important of these measures is the proposal for new arrangements for the lease of prisoners. Remission of sentence has for long been a feature of the prison systems in all parts of the United Kingdom. Although there are minor differences of practice governing release of prisoners between England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, all prisoners serving determinate sentences of more than one month have, for many years, been able to earn remission of one-third of their sentence by good behaviour. On this important matter, a prisoner serving a sentence of imprisonment in one part of the United Kingdom was no better and no worse off than a prisoner serving a similar sentence in another part. Generally the sentences of such prisoners expire on release, and they are under no further liability of any kind.
This position of parity was upset when the Criminal Justice Act 1967 1072 made provision for the establishment of separate but similar parole schemes in Scotland and in England and Wales. These parole schemes did not supersede the existing arrangements under which prisoners could earn one-third remission of sentence but were additional to them. Prisoners serving determinate sentences became eligible for consideration for release after completing 12 months in prison or one-third of their sentence, whichever is the longer period. The parole scheme applies only to persons who are serving sentences of more than 18 months.
The process of selection for release under the parole scheme for England and Wales is elaborate and is described in detail in the Report of the Parole Board for 1973. It involves the collection of comprehensive information about the history of a prisoner prior to his sentence, his behaviour during sentence, his plans for the future and the circumstances into which he will go, if and when released.
Prisoners released on parole are usually subject to supervision by a probation officer and may be required to observe conditions specified in a parole licence until the period of parole expires. Prisoners who fail to comply with the terms of their parole may be recalled to prison.
By no means all prisoners who are eligible for consideration for release on parole benefit from the scheme, and many remain in prison until released on remission of sentence in the ordinary way. None the less, the introduction of parole has given prisoners in England, Scotland and Wales a significant additional opportunity for early release compared with their counterparts in Northern Ireland. This has been acknowledged for some time by successive Governments, and extensive studies have been made to see how the balance might be satisfactorily restored.
Nevertheless, in prevailing circumstances, I am satisfied that it is simply not a practical possibility to introduce a parole scheme in Northern Ireland. With the compound conditions in which the majority of Northern Ireland prisoners are housed, it would not be feasible to make the kind of assessment 1073 of readiness for release which is a feature of the parole scheme. Nor is it realistic to expect probation officers to supervise prisoners on parole who may be motivated by influences which probation officers are neither qualified nor trained to control. It remains clear, however, that many Northern Ireland prisoners would be regarded as very good prospects for parole when judged by the criteria used by the Parole Board.
There are few who would dispute that the parole scheme was a valuable and imaginative advance in penal reform. Nevertheless, the House will know that it has not been free from criticism, and this has encouraged me in my conclusion that the solution to the particular problems which exist in Northern Ireland should be by an approach which is quite different from that which has been taken elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I should like to pay tribute to the Under-Secretary in my Department who is in another place, whose knowledge in this field is great and who has spent a great deal of time in the last 18 months gathering knowledge about the problems of prisoners in Northern Ireland and has played an important part in this scheme.
Accordingly, I am proposing that prisoners serving determinate sentences will be given an additional remission of one-sixth of their sentence, allowing them to be released at half sentence instead of two-thirds sentence as at present. However, instead of being free of all further liability on release, prisoners so released will, if they are convicted of an imprison-able offence committed during the remitted period of their sentence, be liable to be returned by a court to prison for all or part of the balance of their sentence, in addition to whatever other penalty the court may impose for the offence.
Because of the negligible effect which this would have on persons subject to short sentences and because of the administrative difficulty of keeping track of such sentences, the liability to be returned to prison will not apply to persons serving sentences of one year or less. The scheme will not apply, either, to life sentence prisoners whose cases will continue to be reviewed periodically under existing arrangements. Life sentences are not affected.
I am also proposing to extend in Prison Rules the powers of Prison Governors to 1074 postpone release for breaches of prison discipline by periods of up to one month instead of two weeks as at present, but do not propose to vary the powers of Boards of Visitors to postpone release for periods up to six months for serious breaches of prison discipline.
The powers to return persons to prison are for the court to exercise and there will be no Executive intervention of any kind. As is the wont in Northern Ireland, if elected representatives of any kind wish to make representations about this, it will not be for me to deal with them; it will be a matter for the courts. It will be for the court and judiciary to be contacted, and not my office.
The scheme is simple and readily understandable. The emphasis is on personal responsibility. If a prisoner does not commit an offence under Prison Rules in prison, he will know with certainty when he is to be released. If his release is postponed for a breach of discipline, he will know the reason why. On his release from prison, he will be able to live in the community just like any other citizen, but if he is not prepared to live within the law, he will know that he is liable to be dealt with more severely for subsequent offences. This is a real and important sanction.
It may be argued that the absence of compulsory supervision by a probation officer is a weakness of the scheme. I would be the first to acknowledge the value of the work done by probation officers in helping offenders in the community. I am, however, satisfied that in the present Northern Ireland context, compulsory supervision is inappropriate. The Northern Ireland Probation Service is, however, prepared to provide support for any discharged prisoner who seeks it on a voluntary basis and all prisoners will be encouraged to make use of that service.
Authority for the grant of increased remission from one-third to one half of sentence will be by way of amending Prison Rules, which will be laid before the House shortly. These rules are made under the Prison Act (Northern Ireland) 1953 and are subject to the normal statutory instruments procedure before Parliament. The opportunity is being taken to make a number of miscellaneous minor changes to bring the Rules more closely into line with the rest of the 1075 United Kingdom. I have already mentioned the increase in the disciplinary powers of governors. In addition, the Rules will provide for the prospective forfeiture of remission in the case of remand prisoners, the extension of the terms of office of Boards of Visitors, and the revocation, which I regard as important, of the largely obsolete powers to impose corporal punishment in prisons and borstals.
An increase in remission inevitably produces a backlog of prisoners who will on 1st March have already completed half sentence or more and, in the absence of special provision, would qualify for immediate release under the new rules. To deal with this problem, the Rules include transitional arrangements to enable the backlog of prisoners to be released in accordance with my directions over the four-month period from 1st March to 30th June. The releases will be phased according to sentence categories so that, during March, prisoners serving between one and three years who have completed half sentence will be released; the April releases will comprise prisoners serving between three and five years; the May releases, prisoners serving between five and seven years; and finally, in June, those serving over seven years. Approximately 450 prisoners will be affected by these arrangements.
I turn to the Order itself. Part I, I think, is self-explanatory. As I have said, release from prison with increased remission of sentence will be authorised by amending Prison Rules which will be laid before the House. Part II is complementary to the Rules, and the two together form the statutory framework for the new release arrangements.
Article 3 gives power to the courts to order the return of a person to prison if he is convicted of an imprisonable offence committed during a remitted period of a previous sentence. This power, as I have said, is in addition to whatever penalty the court may apply for the offence itself.
It should be noted that courts may order return for all or part of the balance of the original sentence still outstanding at the date the court makes the order. The power may be exercised more than once and remains available to courts 1076 dealing with imprisonable offences committed and dealt with during the currency of the remitted period of any previous prison sentence. Magistrates' courts can order return to custody only for up to 12 months as this is consistent with their current powers to impose terms of imprisonment, but the case can be referred to a higher court if a longer period for return is available and the lower court is of the opinion that a longer period of return to prison than 12 months may be justified. Articles 4–6 give a right of appeal to a higher court against an order of return to prison made under Article 3, and provide for proof of liability to the provisions of Article 3.
Part III provides for the introduction in Northern Ireland of community service for offenders, deferment of sentence and restriction on the imposition of a first custodial sentence without legal representation, all of which are already available in England and Wales by virtue of the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973.
As the House will know, following a recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, community service for offenders was introduced on a trial basis in six probation and after-care areas in England and Wales. The trials have shown the schemes to be viable and they are now to be extended to all parts of England and Wales, subject to the constraint of the present financial restrictions. I am satisfied that community service would also be a valuable method of treatment in Northern Ireland, and accordingly Articles 7–13 provide for this.
Provision is made for courts to order an offender aged 17 or over who is convicted of an offence for which he could be sent to prison to perform not less than 40 or more than 240 hours of unpaid work. The Northern Ireland Probation and After-Care Service will play a major role in the administration and implementation of the scheme and it is hoped to involve as wide a range as possible of voluntary and statutory agencies in the provision of suitable tasks for the benefit of individuals or the community generally.
Article 14 allows a court to defer passing a sentence on an offender for up to six months. This power is to enable the court to have due regard to circumstances which might be uncertain at the time it is dealing with the case but which are 1077 likely to become clearer with the passage of a reasonable period of time.
Article 15 is designed to ensure that a person who is to be given a first custodial sentence has been given every opportunity to have his case adequately presented in court. In practice a very large number of cases in this category are legally represented and the purpose of this provision is to extend the safeguard to all such cases.
Part IV of the Order deals with a number of administrative provisions. Article 16 extends the powers of the Secretary of State in line with those available to Probation and After-Care Committees in England and Wales to provide bail hostels and other facilities for the treatment of offenders in the community.
Schedule I makes transitional arrangements to ensure that liability to be returned to prison under Article 3 will not apply to persons released prior to 1st March 1976. Persons who will already have served more than one half of their sentence and are released initially under the new arrangements will have their liability to recall reduced to take account of this.
The coming into force of this Order is coupled with another important development—the ending of new admissions to special category. Special category status in prisons in Northern Ireland was introduced in 1972 at a time when the security situation in Northern Ireland and the problems faced in Her Majesty's prisons presented a uniquely difficult situation. Hon. Members will already be familiar with its meaning and its effects.
I am absolutely certain that it is right now to start phasing this system out, but I should also make it clear that when we were in opposition we fully supported the introduction of the system by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw). In considering the reasons for introducing it, one is bound to recall the circumstances of the time. I must also make clear to the House my own view that the fact that there is no one in detention in Northern Ireland has been a real contribution towards our being able to take the decision we have taken. All those in prison in Northern Ireland are in prison by the due processes of the law. They are not there 1078 by executive action. They are not there by decisions taken uniquely by myself, and it is in that clearer situation that I have felt able to deal with this matter.
The Order will begin to take effect on 1st March and it is the Government's firm intention that no offence committed after that date will qualify the offender for special category status in prison. All these newly convicted prisoners will be housed in cells and will have the benefit of a positive regime of work and training. No method of ending new admissions can be devised that will not produce some apparent anomalies, but the Government are satisfied, taking all factors into account, that this is the correct method.
This is the key to the restoration of control—and loss of control was the most objectionable feature of special category. The aimless existence, followed by special category prisoners in compounds, is no preparation for return to normal living. Henceforward all new prisoners, like existing ordinary prisoners, will be required to work, and I am glad to say that increasingly we are now able to provide work which will make constructive use of the skills of prisoners. While they are working, prisoners will be required to wear prison clothing, and if they want to enjoy the privileges available under prison rules they will have to earn them.
At the same time, the opportunity is being taken to review the administrative arrangements for letters, parcels, visits and leisure clothing for all convicted prisoners, and to introduce some improvements. All of this makes sense. These developments are for the good of the Northern Ireland community and, indeed, of the prisoners themselves, and I am sure that all responsible opinion will support them.
In conclusion, I should like to mention a matter which concerns me greatly. I am responsible for security in Northern Ireland. There have been problems in the prisons in Northern Ireland. I have a list of occasions when the Army was used in prisons, as during the Maze burning the year before last. My hon. Friends who were there will remember how there was, in effect, a battle. The Northern Ireland civil servants responsible for prison matters were involved with the RUC and even more with the Army, which brought soldiers into the prison.
1079 There are rules, of course. Some hon. Members will remember seeing pictures in the newspapers of the weapons that had been fashioned. It was an unpleasant situation. I have never altered the rules. The rules are still exactly the same.
In the past couple of days I was very surprised to hear a story that the rules had been altered. Neither I nor my security advisers have knowledge of any plan in the Maze Prison or anywhere else to make an alteration when special category is ended. We have no knowledge of anything that is going to happen. If anyone has such knowledge he should go to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and not to me. I am not a policeman. It is not my job to carry out the work of the police. I regret that the person who raised the story in the Press has not seen fit to give the information to the RUC. If there is trouble the rules will be as they have been. There has not been one iota of alteration.
I pay tribute to what the Army has done in the time that I have been in Northern Ireland, and before. The development of ending special category, while not part of the Order, will take place when the Order comes into effect. I commend the Order to the House.
§ 10.32 p.m.
§ Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)
This is an important and complicated Order and the House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who carries a heavy burden which does not get lighter, for explaining it in person. He will be aware that we fully support the ending of special category status. We do not underestimate the magnitude of such a step.
I saw the Maze Prison at the time of the fire to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. We realise that this is a serious step with which the policy of remissions is linked. It is necessary for more units of cellular accommodation to be furnished so that firmer control can be asserted over prisoners and so that prisoners can be given work.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that in Great Britain there has been public disquiet and public comment regarding the release of prisoners against whom charges of serious crimes have 1080 been brought. I wonder whether the remission of half sentences will apply to those convicted of the more serious crimes. What exceptions will there be? The people of Northern Ireland will be concerned, as have been people of this side of the Irish Sea, that there are proper safeguards for the safety of life and property.
We have taken note of what the right hon. Gentleman said about sanctions against those who might default after remission. Has the right hon. Gentleman considered whether remissions should apply only to prisoners foregoing special category status? That would provide a positive incentive for prisoners to change willingly and voluntarily, and to cooperate in moving from special category to ordinary criminal status.
We welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about community service arrangements. Of course, in Great Britain the circumstances are entirely different from the arrangements made in 1973 appear to have been going well.
I wonder what kind of appointments the right hon. Gentleman intends to make to a Community Service Committee. Article 10 refers to people subject to community service orders changing their addresses. What arrangements will there be for the performance of these orders in the areas to which those concerned move? The definition article does not tell us precisely what is meant by "a relevant person" in Article 7(11) and Article 8.
The Order includes provisions for the abolition of corporal punishment in prisons and borstals, in line with what has happened in Great Britain. Is this a case of giving legislative effect to the existing situation? I think I am right in saying that no sentence of corporal punishment has been imposed in Northern Ireland for some time.
I have a certain charitable interest in the reference in the Order to assistance to bodies concerned with prisoners' aid, since I am the honorary adviser to a Catholic prisoners' aid body. I believe that there was a policy change last summer which caused a stir in Northern Ireland. Which organisations receive or will receive public subsidy and under what conditions?
§ 11.37 p.m.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
A great problem in Northern Ireland is prison accommodation, how the prisons are run, the conditions inside them and the rules governing those convicted of various offences. We as Ulster representatives welcome every step to bring the prisons of Northern Ireland into line with the prisons of the rest of the United Kingdom. Any step in that direction as envisaged by the Order is welcomed on this Bench.
But let no one think that the prisons and the legal system in Northern Ireland can be compared with the situation on this side of the water. There are terrorist courts there for the trial without a jury of scheduled offences. So people are not sentenced in the same way as they would be here. It is important, when examining prisoners and the courts which deal with scheduled offences and the conditions of those sentenced, to bear those facts in mind. The Secretary of State must admit that an exact parallel cannot be drawn in this respect between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
I know that the Order does not deal in full with the special category status, but the right hon. Gentleman has said that there will be changes. I suppose that we shall have an opportunity later to discuss special category prisoners.
When will the Secretary of State announce the putting into operation of bail hostels? I am sure that he will agree that remand prisoners in Northern Ireland are quite a problem. The situa-in the Crumlin Road Prison for remand prisoners is not one that the right hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member would like. On behalf of my colleagues I welcome the step forward that is being taken with regard to bail and remand prisoners. If the Secrelary of State could spell out in greater detail what he has in mind it would be helpful.
Under British law a person is innocent until proved guilty. In Northern Ireland we have many remand prisoners who have done a long stretch in circumstances that are almost the same as they would be if they were serving prison sentences. I conduct a service in Crumlin Road Prison every Sunday morning and remand prisoners there tell me that they wish that their trials were over and that 1082 they were serving sentences. This is because of the perplexities created for them and the standard of accommodation available to them. We on these Benches regret that it is not possible to have a proper parole system but I agree with the Secretary of State that such a system would not be practicable. I cannot see how any officer could properly supervise a person on parole in the present serious situation.
I urge the Secretary of State to keep this matter under constant review. If a time came—and we hope it will come more quickly than we expect—when there was a degree of normality, I would like to see the law governing the prisoners in Northern Ireland brought into line with that in any other part of the United Kingdom.
I turn to the question of prison accommodation, which is a serious subject in Northern Ireland. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many prisoners are at present in compounds and how many are in cells? Can he say what the intake of the Northern Ireland prisons has been in the past three months? If the intake is rising, the availability of cells will be less. Will the Secretary of State tell us how the prison building programme is progressing? This question of penal reform and the bringing of the law governing prisoners in Northern Ireland into line with the law in the rest of the United Kingdom rests entirely on the availability of cells—on the availability of proper accommodation.
I do not suppose many hon. Members have visited the compounds in the Maze Prison. If they went there they would see how different the set-up in the Maze is from a prison on this side of the water. They would see that there was a grave distinction between the position of sentenced prisoners and prisoners awaiting trial in Northern Ireland and that of prisoners in any other part of the United Kingdom.
I should like the Secretary of State to give some more information about the intake of prisoners in the past three months and say what he thinks the intake will be after March. If the intake is greater than it is now, the practicality of the system could be put in jeopardy. Perhaps the Secretary of State does not want to look into the future because that is difficult, and I suppose that from a 1083 security point of view he does not want to give a figure in excess of what it might be, nor does he want to make a lower calculation, but this is the crux of the situation.
We have looked at the proposal of the Secretary of State that prisoners who have served half their sentences should be released. Has the right hon. Gentleman made any contact with the prisoners who would benefit from this proposal? Many prisoners would rather serve their full sentence—that is, the two-thirds—and know that when they left prison there would be no possibility of imprisonment being reimposed on them. I understand that in this country not every prisoner gets parole, and probably not every prisoner applies for it and therefore does his two-thirds term and is absolutely clear when he leaves prison.
When the proposed system comes into operation in Northern Ireland, will a prisoner be able to make a choice? Will he be able to say, "I want to do the two-thirds of my sentence", or must he go when he has completed half the sentence? The Secretary of State is smiling, but from my contact with prisoners I know that some of them would prefer to leave prison absolutely clear. The right hon. Gentleman needs to keep that thought in mind, because it brings out an anomaly between the suggested system for Northern Ireland and the system which operates on this side of the water.
On the question of special category status, the House would do well to cast its mind back. Earlier tonight we debated a Bill which originated with the previous Government. It was a baby taken up and weaned by the present Government. Whatever criticisms may be made of the Secretary of State, he cannot be blamed for introducing special category status. It was introduced not to help what are termed Loyalist prisoners but because, it was said, certain IRA men were fasting to death.
§ The Minister of State, Northern Ire-laud Office (Mr. Stanley Orme)
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I agree that Protestants benefited from it. However, it was granted, not to Protestants, but to IRA men who proposed to do in Northern Ireland what Mr. Stagg did on this side 1084 of the water. The then Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box that special category status was like something which existed in the prisons on this side of the water. Members of the Opposition Front Bench should note that it was a Conservative Secretary of State who tried to tell Northern Ireland representatives that this compared with the status of prisoners on this side of the water. We all knew that that was far from the case.
The vast majority of elected representatives in Northern Ireland at that time opposed the introduction of this status. It is something the IRA has always insisted on—that its members are political prisoners and not criminals. Protestant prisoners also accepted that status, though I was one of those who suggested that they should not adopt it because they were playing into the hands of the IRA.
Does the Secretary of State propose that, where this status has already been granted, it should cease from March? I understand that he does not, so we shall have the special category status in Northern Ireland prisons for a long time. I think it will be years before it can be done away with. Will the status be available to those who commit crimes before March? If a person commits a crime tonight and fulfils the necessary criteria—whatever they are—will he be able to claim special category status? This must be spelled out quite clearly.
We must face facts. Those who are connected with Loyalist para-military groups, as well as those in Republican groups, are totally opposed to the abolition of this status. The House should not delude itself that there will be any welcome from these people.
Through all the troubles, the writ of law has always run in Protestant areas of Northern Ireland. Police have always been able to go in and make arrests. It might have been more difficult at some times than at others, but they have always been able to go in. People have been brought before the courts, sentenced and are now serving their time.
On the other side of the coin, it has been accepted that there have been "no-go" and "no-stay" areas and, in answer to a Question from me in the House, the Secretary of State has admitted that there are now areas where, to say the least, there is not normal policing.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Carson) may be more accurate in relation to some areas. But let us give honour to the RUC in the areas in which it does operate.
However, in those areas where the police do not operate, terrorists have, to some extent, a sanctuary. They are harder to detect and apprehend and it is more difficult to get evidence against them. Evidence can be gathered where the police operate. In areas where they do not operate, that task is much more difficult. That leads to the feeling in the Protestant area that if a Protestant commits an act of terror he is more likely to be captured, brought before the courts and sentenced, than is a Republican who commits an act of terror.
When the writ of law was not running in certain areas detention was used. In those days most of the people detained were from areas in which the police could not operate. Therefore, there were far more Republican than Protestant detainees. Now that those detainees have been released many of them have gone back to the sanctuary of their own areas and few have been made amenable to the law. But the Protestants who committed crimes and acts of terror or counter-terror were caught and sentenced. So there is a strong feeling that there has not been even-handed justice and that it has been to the advantage of the Republicans because they were in areas where they had sanctuary from the law.
We should be blinking the facts if we did not bring these matters before the House. There is a feeling in Northern Ireland that those on the Protestant side can be caught and have to do time, whereas those on the Republican side can get away with it.
We on these Benches do not have to make the decision. The Government have to make it, and they have announced their decision. In the past in Northern Ireland the making of laws and the failure to administer those laws led to the breakdown of law and order. There were people in another place who thought that they could ban parades although they were told that they could not. Parades were legally banned, but parades went on, and that brought the law into contempt.
1086 The Secretary of State should bear in mind the serious misgivings we have about the practicality of some of the measures he envisions in the Order. Prison reform and change will not be easy. Anyone who says these changes can easily be made does not know what is before us. There are those on the Protestant side who committed atrocious acts of terror. They have no right to cover over what was really crime, the motivation for which had nothing to do with politics, but there are sincere men who find themselves in a serious position. We need to bear them in mind. We in the House have a responsibility. They are in that position because the Government of the country was not able to give them the protection they were entitled to expect.
It is sad to see such men who have never had a stain on their characters, who were never before a court in their lives, while other men who have been in and out of prison no doubt use the name of loyalty to cover up their practices. There are people who have never had a stain on their characters but who, for the ideal of maintaining Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom and because of a breakdown of law and order, find themselves in prison through no fault of their own except a decision they made, which was a wrong decision, to follow what they felt to be a legitimate course.
I feel for these people because they never had anything on them before. I Meet and talk to them, and I know how they feel. The Secretary of State makes the decisions. We on this Bench have no responsibility for the decisions he makes. We can try to convey to him how our people feel, but his are the decisions.
From this Bench he has received and will receive strong criticism and resistance, but we must put on record that he had nothing to do with the introduction of special category status, which was introduced in a way which helped forward the IRA. If the same policy had been pursued against the Republican hunger strikers in Northern Ireland as was taken against Mr. Stagg, things would have been different in Northern Ireland.
We welcome parts of the Order. I trust that it will help to ease the burden. We shall listen with great interest to what the right hon. Gentleman has to say 1087 about implementation of many of the things about which we have asked.
§ 11.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
I shall answer as many of the points raised in the debate as I can. If I miss any, I will write to the hon. Member concerned.
I say to the hon. Member for Antrim. North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that I have often given thought to the sincerity of those who murder and kill in Northern Ireland. Their actions may have been done to bring about a united Ireland or to keep Northern Ireland's link with the United Kingdom. Like him, I am moved by what has happened, and there are times when, unlike him perhaps, I feel a personal responsibility, and when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State returned from Armagh and described to me those people in the factory who had been mown down by the IRA, I do not think I have ever seen him more moved.
Perhaps the men who did it were sincere—but sincerity does not justify what is done in Northern Ireland. It is the easy way out. As I left Northern Ireland this morning, I read that three people had been killed. The Press reports said that it seems to have been done in this instance by Protestants—though that is probably a misuse of the term. I have no reason to know either way. The details were bloody. Sincerity is no justification for what is done in Northern Ireland.
Proper prison accommodation is not the only solution. It is part of the story. It is like normal policing and the normal rule of law. I believe that what we are doing is a step in the right direction, but it will not be easy.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) generally welcomed the Order, and I am grateful for that. He raised a number of matters with me. First, he asked what was the definition of "relevant officer". In general, it is the probation officer, but if ever the probation officer service is overworked I shall have the power to appoint officers with similar training who need not necessarily be probation officers. But in the first instance they will be probation officers.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the scheme applied to all sentences. I thought 1088 that I had made it clear that it applied to all except life sentences. There are people sentenced to life. I think that there are 17 under the age of 17 who are in prison at my pleasure. If we multiply that by about 40, it is a remarkable number of people with life sentences in Northern Ireland.
I was reminded by the hon. Gentleman of the discussions that we have been having since August of the year before last when he mentioned the possibility of using increased remission only for those who give up special category. The problem is that there is no definition of "special category" that one can give in law. It is an administrative device, which I supported, introduced by the previous administration. We have spent months talking and getting legal advice about a legal definition.
Then the hon. Gentleman asked about appointments to community service committees. It is intended to appoint people who are representative of the Northern Ireland community and who can contribute towards its development in a varied and wide-ranging way. I have in mind representatives of the trade unions, official organisations and public and statutory authorities. I shall be glad to know if anyone has any ideas. I can only say that I am constantly amazed at the number of official organisations of people in Northern Ireland who are working for the good of the community but who do not hit the headlines because what they do is not newsworthy. But there are wide-ranging possibilities here.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked to what organisations it was intended to provide financial aid for the treatment of offenders. The Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders was formed several years ago as the counterpart of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders which functions in England and Wales. Grant is paid to this central body, which, in turn, is prepared to consider the payment of grant to any other body which is prepared to provide a viable scheme.
I think that that deal with all the matters raised by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. If I discover that I have missed any, I shall write to him.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, North for the general support 1089 which he gave to the proposals. He raised a number of topics. First, of course, it is easy to say that because we have scheduled offences and non-jury courts, this is a major remove from the normal processes of the rule of law. I have kept my eye on this in the past year or two, although it is not my direct responsibility. Whatever views I had in Opposition, the steps taken by the previous administration were right. Jury service in Northern Ireland is rather difficult. It is not easy for those on jury service to take the kind of decision they might take if they were on this side of the water. But people are sentenced by the due process of law, and it is important to remember that.
The hon. Gentleman said that there was a strong feeling on the Loyalist side about this, and that, whatever was the motivation in the first instance—and the title "political prisoner" runs through Irish history—it was strongly felt by the Protestant para-militaries equally as much by the Republicans.
Then the hon. Gentleman asked whether those in special category were informed of the scheme. I know, through the Governor, that those in special category have been informed of the scheme which I have introduced and which I have talked about for some time. It has been explained to them, but it is done through the Governor.
The hon. Gentleman talked about accommodation, and he was right to do so. It is easy to cry over spilt milk in Northern Ireland. In the early 1970s, Charles Cunningham—at that time a former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office—headed an inquiry in Northern Ireland about prisons. For whatever reason, nothing was done about it. We are therefore left with Crumlin Road, which is unable to hold the prison population. That explains Magilligan and the Maze. There are 1,880 prisoners in compounds and 850 in cells.
Two hundred new cells have been completed at the Maze and a further 300 should be completed this year. Towards the end of 1976 work will begin on the final 300 cells to be provided at the Maze. Provision of this cellular accommodation will enable a start to be made on phasing out special category status. A small cell group for 20 female prisoners is nearing completion at Armagh, and plans are in hand for better cellular 1090 accommodation at Belfast and Armagh Prisons. A new maximum security prison is being built at Maghaberry. Work is planned for three stages, the first with accommodation for 432 males and 56 females. This should be completed by 1981. I do not want to go beyond that because the prison will take a long time to build, and it will be later in the 1980s before it can take its full planned accommodation.
§ Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)
The right hon. Gentleman made no mention of Magilligan prison when he was dealing with cellular accommodation. What is the future of this prison? Is it intended to provide cellular accommodation there, or will it be left with the compound structure? What sort of prisoners is it intended shall occupy that accommodation?
§ Mr. Rees
Special category will remain for some time, and there will be special category at Magilligan. I have no intention of providing cellular accommodation at Magilligan. I did not want to provide it at the Maze. I had hoped to build it all at Maghaberry, but that would take too long. It would have been better to break away from the Maze, given its history, but that was not possible. I have found that the logic of accommodation and fact often drives one away from the best of intentions.
The question is whether we shall have enough accommodation. The ending of detention has made space available. The new cells will be available. In the course of last year about 1,200 people were charged through the courts. I cannot say how many of them were sentenced, but at a rough guess—and I hope that no one will hold me to this figure—about 85 per cent. of those charged in Northern Ireland are sentenced. That will give some idea of the extra accommodation which will be required.
The prison population increased by about 50 each month last year, but the rate fluctuates considerably. Of course, one of the merits of the scheme I have introduced is that in these four months there will be a reduction of about 500.
I was asked about bail hostels. I hope that they will come into use later this year. These premises for the accom-are designed to reduce the numbers modation of persons remanded on bail refused bail. We shall be discussing this 1091 issue with the Salvation Army and similar voluntary bodies. I am not necessarily a great believer that the State must do everything, and I am impressed with those people who run voluntary bodies like these. There are things that only they can do and it is worth while using them.
The Order will begin to take effect on 1st March. No offence committed after that date will qualify the offender for special category. There will be anomalies, but I have looked at the matter for a long time and this is the only way that we can see it can be done.
I was asked whether there could not be choice in Northern Ireland. I do not think that that is possible, and it is not catered for in the Order.
The release rate under the parole scheme in England and Wales in 1974 was nearly 33 per cent. of those eligible. Longer-term prisoners are eligible for more than one review. About 40 per cent. of parole-eligible prisoners are released at some time during their sentence. I wish that we could have parole. It is by far the best way, but it is not possible in Northern Ireland.
I commend the Order to the House. It is the result of a great deal of work by civil servants and others. In recent months I have increasingly been informed about it, but the detailed work has been done by the Under-Secretary and the prison governors and staff. The Order is a part of returning normality. It may not be easy, but it is something on which we must stand firm. I am sure that I shall receive the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House as the scheme begins to be introduced.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Treatment of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 20th January, he approved.