HC Deb 02 February 1981 vol 998 cc21-6 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement.

On 16 December I asked the deputy director general of the prison service, Mr. Gordon Fowler, to conduct an urgent inquiry into the circumstances of the escape of three category A prisoners from Brixton prison earlier that morning. I have now received Mr. Fowler's report. Because of the criminal proceedings that are being taken in connection with the escape, I am advised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General that it would not be right for the report to be published at present. But I propose in my statement to give the main findings of the report and to indicate the action that has been and is being taken in consequence.

The main conclusion of Mr. Fowler's report was that the escape was made possible by human error, specifically by serious weaknesses at all levels in the establishment in the application of the security procedures laid down for category A prisoners. Mr. Fowler has made a number of recommendations to rectify these deficiencies and the director general of the prison service has instructed that these should be implemented immediately.

Before coming to that conclusion, Mr. Fowler inquired into all the various factors which could have made the escape possible. He concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that there was any conspiracy or collusion in the escape by members of the staff of Brixton prison. As regards the fabric of the prison, he found that although the prison was one of the worst examples of the inadequacies of the worn-out and antiquated part of the prison estate, the physical fabric was not in itself a principal factor in the escape, but we must all acknowledge that when we contain high-risk prisoners in far from ideal, though not insecure conditions we increase the weight of responsibility on the staff concerned.

Mr, Fowler also reported that, with a senior officer and seven officers responsible for supervising 15 category A prisoners in D wing, with one officer responsible for surveillance during the night hours, the staffing level was entirely adequate. Further, he found that the industrial action did not impinge on security at the establishment or affect staffing levels in D wing. Nor did he find that the security procedures themselves were defective.

Mr. Fowler's clear view was that the failure to prevent the escape was due to a number of specific human weaknesses occuring over a period of time, at all levels of staff concerned.

The director general of the prison service and I accept those conclusions, and the specific recommendations for restoring a satisfactory level of security that flow from them. The director-general has instructed that they be acted on with all speed.

I turn now to the action that the director-general has taken in view of the main finding in Mr Fowler's report that the failure to prevent this escape arose from human errors in the establishment over a period of time at all levels. In the circumstances, the governor, Mr. Selby, must himself accept, and very properly does accept, the primary responsibility. The director-general has accordingly appointed Mr. Anthony Pearson, at present governor of Gartree high security prison, to be governor in charge of Brixton prison, with immediate effect, in succession to Mr. Selby, who has been moved to a post in the prison service regional office structure.

The responsibility for what occurred is not one which can, however, be laid only at the governor's door. The weaknesses and errors in performance of all members of staff concerned have been brought home to them. Where appropriate, they have been transferred to other establishments, or other duties within the establishment.

Before concluding, I should like to say one more word about the staff aspects. The responsibility for the custody and care of prisoners, including high-security-risk prisoners, is a very heavy one. We are entitled to require it to be discharged to the highest standards. The House will wish to recognise, however, that the record of Brixton, including Mr. Selby and his staff, has been one of real achievement in difficult circumstances, which I believe it is right for us to acknowledge.

The director-general of the prison service, in conjunction with Mr. Fowler, the regional director and the new governor, will carry into effect the recommendations on security in the establishment. Any wider lessons for the prison service, which has had a good security record in recent years, will also be followed up.

Finally, I have thought it right to ask Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, who reports directly to me and not to the prison department, to inspect Brixton prison, paying particular regard to security matters, so as to ensure that I personally can be satisfied that the report has indeed been effectively followed up in all respects. The inspection will take place later this year.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

I thank the Home Secretary for his very prompt and, if I may say so, very proper statement. The Opposition accept, of course, that the full report cannot be published at present. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman equally accepts that the escape of any category A prisoner causes great public anxiety, and that in this case the anxiety is particularly acute. In the light of that, I wish to ask the Home Secretary four specific questions.

First, the right hon. Gentleman referred to human error over a period of time. May we be told for how long such mistakes were being made? May we also be told whether those mistakes might well have resulted in other escapes which, by good fortune, did not occur?

Secondly, in so far as the errors were the result of the failure of normal procedures and practices, is the Home Secretary sure that similar errors are not now being made in other high-security prisons? In particular, should not the chief inspector, who the Home Secretary tells us is examining Brixton, also make sure that Brixton's errors are not being repeated elsewhere?

Thirdly, can the Home Secretary explain what is meant by the statement that the physical fabric of Brixton prison was not in itself a principal factor? We understand that the escape was effected by the prisoners boring through the physical fabric. If that is the case, may we be told in how many other high-security prisons it is physically possible to bore holes through the walls?

Fourthly, the Home Secretary told us that the staff—that is, staff junior to the governor—have been transferred to other positions in the prison service and in the prison. Do we take it from that, as I think we would wish to take it, that they have been transferred to other posts in such a way as to ensure that they do not have responsibility for high-security prisoners?

Finally, does the Home Secretary recall that the men who escaped had been awaiting trial for over a year? Does he agree with the Opposition that the problem of Brixton is therefore inevitably linked with the problems relating to prisoners on remand in gaol, and that the fact that they had been there for so long awaiting trial was bound to exacerbate the difficulties faced by the governor and the prison staff?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the mistakes, in that there had been failures to carry out security procedures, had certainly been going on for a period of months. It therefore would have been possible for other escapes to have been made because of that failure to carry out security procedures.

Similar errors have not been made elsewhere—or, at least, they have not resulted in escapes, I am glad to say—but I will certainly make sure that the procedures are fully carried out. I think that the lessons of Brixton have been very quickly learnt throughout the prison service.

The value of having the chief inspector of the prison service is that he will be able to go around. The inspection of Brixton will be in addition to the other inspections that he will be making on a routine basis throughout the year, when he will look particularly into these high-security problems.

I am advised that the security wing at Brixton is up to the standard that exists in many of our prisons. The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) laughs, but he should remember why it is so. It is because the House, all Governments and the country have always been reluctant to spend money on our prison estate. Therefore, neither the hon. Gentleman nor the rest of us should laugh. That is the fact that we must all face.

Equally, had the security arrangements been fully carried out in this case the opportunity to bore through the walls would not have been available to the people concerned. It was because the security arrangements had not been carried out that that was possible. The question of staff being transferred to other posts is primarily a matter for the director-general of the prison service. I shall make sure that he appreciates what the right hon. Gentleman said, and in principle I trust that that will be so.

The length of time before trial is one of the very real problems that affect a prison such as Brixton. Those who wish to criticise what happened at Brixton or, indeed, the governor, should recognise some of the problems that long periods on remand have caused him and all his staff. It is right for the House to recognise that. These delays are a matter for my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, and it is usually wise for other Ministers not to trespass on his preserve.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there were at least three major reasons why this escape took place—first, that it was possible to move furniture away from the wall and back again, thus hiding efforts to make the holes; secondly, that somehow visitors had smuggled in implements that enabled the tunnelling to take place; and, thirdly, that there was scaffolding outside, which enabled the prisoners to get over the wall and make their escape? Bearing those points in mind, can my right hon. Friend confirm that these three things have at least been tackled and that they will not occur again in other prisons?

Mr. Whitelaw

I can confirm in general terms what my hon. Friend said. Even there, I must be careful not to go into too much detail as to how the escape may have been effected, because of the legal complexities involved. I shall certainly ensure that these problems, which were brought to light by the report, will be dealt with in other prisons.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Had the appalling state of affairs that the Home Secretary has described been primarily the responsibility of the prison governor, would not he have been dismissed the service rather than been given other unspecified duties, or is he being made a scapegoat for wider deficiencies? Is not the logic, then, that the resignation should be at the top, namely, that of the Home Secretary?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not believe that the right way to deal with a report of this kind, and the problems that arise from it, is to make scapegoats. I believe that Mr. Selby has had a considerable position in the prison service. As many hon. Members and others elsewhere who know him will confirm, he has a future in the prison service that is of importance. It is therefore right to deal with this matter on that basis. On the last point, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view but there are other people who determine whether it is right or not.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that conditions at Brixton prison have been thoroughly unsatisfactory for too many years and that it is easy to put blame on the shoulders of those who have responsibility for the prison? Nevertheless, it was not too many years ago that an escape was effected merely by jumping on to the shoulders of another inmate and going over the wall. It seems that the standard of continuing supervision of the security of that prison may not have been high enough. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that when this inquiry is completed, and the recommendations are given full effect, there will be a continuing process of supervision about the security of Brixton prison in particular?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, most certainly. There will be very careful supervision. It is fair to say that on the whole it is not reasonable to compare the escape of category A prisoners from a high-security wing with the going out of a category C prisoner from accommodation that at the time was external to the perimeter of the prison. Since then, no one has been placed in those dormitories, and they have been removed. I do not think that the two cases are on all fours. As to the general position of escapes from prison, I am glad to say that in recent years—I draw this to the attention of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—the prison service has had a good record. In fact, there was a time when there were a large number of escapes. I should tell the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that the Home Secretary at that time, who is no longer in this House, did not resign, nor did anyone suggest that he should have done so. I am prepared to take full responsibility for anything that goes wrong anywhere in the Home Office, but if I had to be responsible for everything in that Department, in its many spheres, I would not remain in my position for many days.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call those hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the real issue here is not the fact that these three men were able to get out of the secure unit but that they were able to get over the wall? Will he give the House a firm assurance that when building work is taking place the closest scrutiny will be given to ladders and scaffolding? Can he say whether at the time when this escape took place there was a 24-hour patrol around the perimeter wall?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about scaffolding. In view of the many recent strictures on the media and others, I must be extremely careful about commenting on the actual way in which the people concerned escaped. I hope that the House and the hon. Gentleman appreciate that. The patrols should have been there. That is one of the security matters in Mr. Fowler's report to which I referred. There had been security failures at all levels, including the question of patrols.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Tuite was not being kept in Brixton, as opposed to other more distant high-security locations, for the convenience of relatives and others who wished to visit him there? Will he also take this opportunity to assert that in this regard no particular privileges—tacit or otherwise—are being allowed to IRA prisoners?

Mr. Whitelaw

Brixton is a main category A prison for remand prisoners in London. Therefore, there was nothing exceptional in Mr. Tuite's being placed there. There are no special privileges, but my hon. Friend will be the first to realise that in terms of treatment a prisoner on remand is in a different position—understandably so—from that of a convicted prisoner.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Does not the Home Secretary agree with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that if there are to be resignations those at the top should resign, rather than a likeable and well-respected governor? The right hon. Gentleman said a great deal about the factors that did not contribute to the escape but very little about those specific human weaknesses that did. What were those specific human weaknesses? What specific recommendations are now being made to counter them? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the restrictions that are imposed will not unnecessarily restrict the activities of prisoners who do not require maximum security conditions.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Mr. Selby is not being asked to resign. He is being retained in the prison service.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk


Mr. Whitelaw

As I said, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that what has been done to Mr. Selby is too much and the next moment say that it is insufficient. Mr. Selby properly accepted responsibility himself. This having happened, it is right that he should move from being the governor of Brixton and that someone else should be put there. I do not think that that can be questioned. Equally, it is right that he should not resign.

I am advised that if I were to go into all the different human weaknesses I could easily prejudice some of the legal proceedings. I must not do that. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the changes that will follow will merely be to ensure that the security arrangements that should have been carried out all the time will actually be carried out. There will be no extra restrictions on prisoners other than the high-security ones.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

Will the right hon. Gentleman recollect that the over-reaction of Roy Jenkins to the escape of Blake was generally seen afterwards to have been a major mistake, which led to a deterioration in the prison regime? Will he give an assurance that there will be no repetition of that sort of reaction on this occasion? How can the publication of the report and public knowledge of how the escape was implemented affect adversely the trial of anyone concerned with the offence? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that if the report is not to be produced until after the conviction of anybody connected with the escape it may never be produced, bearing in mind that one of the prisoners has not been recovered, and may not be recovered?

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not wish to comment on the past. I think that in the circumstances what I have done is fair to all concerned, including the governor, whom I have deliberately not made into a scapegoat. As for legal proceedings, I can do only what I am advised by the Law Officers. In view of the considerable trouble that has been caused in the media, in terms of other matters and other cases that are pending, I think that I should be wise not to get into areas in which I might be equally accused. That is why I have not done it. I should dearly like to publish the full report, and I shall do so as soon as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General allows me to do so.