HC Deb 26 January 1984 vol 52 cc1053-62 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James Prior)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the report, published today, by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir James Hennessy, on his inquiry into security arrangements at Her Majesty's prison Maze bearing on the escape on Sunday 25 September 1983 and on action I have taken following that report.

I should like first to record my gratitude to Sir James's Hennessy and his colleagues for the way they undertook their inquiry and for their thorough and comprehensive report. I am publishing it in full save for a small number of deletions which are clearly marked and which have been made for security reasons only.

The Maze prison holds the largest concentration of terrorists anywhere in western Europe. It is, in Sir James's words a prison without parallel in the United Kingdom, unique in size, and in the continuity and tenacity of its protests and disturbances. In no other prison that we have seen", he said, have the problems faced by the authorities been so great. Sir James goes on to point out that its population is unlike that of any other prison, and he says: Nowhere else in the United Kingdom have there been such prolonged and wide scale protests of so horrendous a nature. He records that 22 members of the prison service have lost their lives through terrorist action, including a deputy governor and others from the Maze. I know the House will join with me in paying tribute to them. As we consider the lessons to be learnt from the blackest day in the troubled history of the Northern Ireland prison service, let us not forget the unique demands which we put on that service.

The report describes the escape from the Maze in detail. The broad outline which I gave the House on 24 October stands. The report draws attention to the careful planning of a small group of prisoners and to the outside help they received, particularly through the smuggling in of five guns. It also shows the ruthlessness of the prisoners, who stabbed one prison officer to death and seriously injured five others.

The report is extremely critical of many aspects of security at the Maze. The House will regard these failings with the utmost seriousness. The report points to three main areas where security was inadequate: first, physical weaknesses, in particular in the communications rooms in the H blocks and at the main gate; secondly, poor security procedures, in particular inadequate searching, unsatisfactory control of visits, and flaws in the control of prisoner movement, in the selection of orderlies, and in the arrangements for responding to alarms; and, thirdly, failures by individuals who were negligent or who did not carry out their duties. The report shows that staff at the Maze were complacent about security and that there was widespread laxness and carelessness in the performance of duties at both supervisory and other levels. This conclusion is a matter of the greatest concern.

There is one specific point that I would draw to the attention of the House. The report records that before the escape a probation officer seconded to the Maze prison in January 1983 had admitted to being a member of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. He has since been dismissed from the probation service. Following investigations by the RUC, Sir James says that there is no evidence that he had any involvement in the escape.

The report makes 73 recommendations covering each of the three areas to which I have referred: enhanced physical security measures; improved security procedures; enhanced training and investigations with a view to possible disciplinary action in the cases of certain members of staff. I accept the analysis and all of the recommendations. The most urgent measures were implemented at once, as I informed the House on 24 October. Twenty-one recommendations have already been put into effect. Thirty-eight will be carried out as soon as possible. And the remaining 14, as the report proposes, will be the subject of urgent review.

As a result of the action taken, the control room in each H block has been made secure against armed attack; an electric lock has been installed at the main gate; a control point secure from armed attack is in place and other security improvements have been made. Plans for a new main gate complex with a remote control locking system are being drawn up. A study of closed-circuit television linkage between each H block and the main control room has been commissioned. Changes in the security procedures, most notably searching, have already been implemented and action will follow in other areas. Discussions are being held this afternoon between my officials and representatives of both the Prison Officers Association and the Governors Association in Northern Ireland about the report.

The report analyses the policy changes made at the end of the hunger strike and on other occasions and concludes that, taken singly or together, they played no significant role in facilitating the escape.

The report is critical of the oversight of security arrangements at the prison by the prison department of the Northern Ireland Office and recommends the strengthening of its staffing. This is being done. A team has also been set up dedicated solely to the urgent implementation of each of the recommendations. I have instructed it to report to me on the progress being made.

While recognising the enormous difficulties involved in running an establishment as large and complex as the Maze, the report concludes that the extent of the deficiencies in management and in the prison's physical defences amounted to a major failure in security for which the governor, who carries the ultimate responsibility for the state of the prison, must be held accountable. In the light of the report's observations, the governor has resigned and his successor is taking up his duties today. The governor has served 34 years in the prison service with dedication and courage and that should not go unremarked. I pay tribute to it. The assistant governor in charge of security has been moved today, and the principal officer concerned with security was replaced shortly after the escape. A governor from headquarters has been appointed to investigate the actions of officers named in the report, including the assistant governor and principal officer, and disciplinary measures will be taken if they are found to be justified.

Sir James's strictures do not extend to all staff at the Maze. As he says, the service contains many men of ability and courage who respond well in a crisis and who are ready to risk their lives in doing their duty. A number of such officers, including officer Ferris who lost his life, are specifically commended by Sir James Hennessy. Though for reasons of personal safety it is not right to publish their names I can assure the House that I have noted Sir James's comments and will be taking appropriate action.

As I said to the House in October, the escape of so many prisoners represents a considerable setback to law enforcement in Northern Ireland. It is also a blot on the distinguished reputation of the prison service. This thorough report has uncovered a number of serious shortcomings and some grave operational mistakes, for which the highest price has been paid. The recommendations are designed as far as possible to ensure that the shortcomings are rectified. I am determined to take them forward with urgency and resolution. The Northern Ireland prison service has an enormously difficult task, but it is of the greatest importance to the community at large that it maintains the highest standards of professionalism and discipline which will enable it to carry out its essential role in the maintenance of law and order in the Province. I commend Sir James's report to the House.

Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

The House will wish to congratulate Sir James Hennessy on the expedition and obvious sense of urgency with which he conducted the investigation and produced the report. I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, but he will understand that we have not yet had an opportunity to read the report or to reflect upon it. Discussion in advance of that may be ill advised.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the subject clearly merits a full debate in Government time? Can he assure the House that time will he made available in the near future? If he cannot give that assurance, will he undertake to make strong representations to the Leader of the House?

I should like to ask two questions. First, I make no complaint that the House did not have access to the report in advance of today's statement, but can the right hon. Gentleman explain how The Sunday Times seems to have been seized of its contents by 15 January? Has he taken any action on that? Secondly, I echo the Secretary of State's tribute to the work of many in the prison service in difficult and dangerous conditions, but is it not clear from the most cursory reading of the report that, for whatever reasons, morale among staff is abysmally low at both senior and junior level? Does that not give rise to great anxieties in the community generally and among the families of those in custody? Was the Secretary aware of that prior to the breakout? Has he reflected on it since, and what action does he propose to take?

Mr. Prior

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present and he will have heard what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said about a debate.

It is clear that The Sunday Times report of about 10 days ago was mere speculation. It got most things wrong. I am certain that it did not get a leak of the report which at that time was not available to anyone because it was not even completed.

Morale in the service is worrying. Staff numbers have increased from 300 prison officers dealing for the most part with petty crimes in about 1970 to a force of 3,000 prison officers who now deal with the most desperate criminals in the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that as a result there is a lack of training and sometimes a shortage of people who normally would be expected to join as important a service as the prison service.

I was not aware that following the hunger strike there was the decline in morale to which the report gives substance. I have checked, and it seems from reports that the decline in morale was somewhat exaggerated. One must recognise the great difficulties with which the prison staff and, in particular, the people in charge of them have to operate. One thing after another seems to happen in Northern Ireland prisons, and all involved have a difficult task.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the errors of judgment and organisation to which his statement admits go far beyond any ordinary administrative muddle and must cast the gravest doubt on the whole of the administration of Northern Ireland? Does he agree with me and with the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) that this matter cannot be allowed to pass without a full debate in the House?

Mr. Prior

The seriousness of the situation in the prison service is brought out clearly in the report and we must take it extremely seriously. The report shows that no policy decisions contributed to the escape. For that reason, I believe that there are no grounds for ministerial resignation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will have heard my right hon. Friend's views, and if there is to be a debate I have no doubt that it can be arranged.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is ministerial responsibility for the shortcomings disclosed by the report —and, if not, why not?

Mr. Prior

I think that I have just answered that question.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I support the Secretary of State's remarks about the dedication and diligence of the majority of prison officers. However, is it not clear from the report that some of the prison staff were cognisant with what was taking place? Were not guns smuggled in by visitors, staff, or those supplying goods to the prisons'? That is a serious matter. If the guns had not been supplied, the escape could not have happened.

What will the Secretary of State do about his director at the Northern Ireland Office, who is severely criticised in the report? If the governor of the prison felt that he had to resign, surely the man who was supposed to have been looking after the governor — an inspector of Her Majesty's prisons — must feel that it is his duty to resign.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the responsible Minister in his office, who did not even inform him of the low morale in the prison—as the right hon. Gentleman has admitted today — cannot absolve himself from responsibility? If the governor had resigned and the director should resign, surely the Minister should also resign.

Mr. Prior

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's latter point. There was absolutely no ground for believing that any policy decisions, which are the responsibility of Ministers, were not dealt with expeditiously, and in the manner in which we expected them to be carried out by either the Northern Ireland Office or the governor of the prison.

The governor's duty is to deal with security in the prison service generally, and the report recognises that there were some failings. However, it also points out that when the governor took over the prison there was an enormous backlog of work. It recognised that he had dedicated himself to trying to improve security in any way that he could.

On the first question, undoubtedly one of the lapses was in the proper inspection and searching of those visiting the prison, whether family, lawyers or clergy. As a result, the report recommends considerable changes in the arrangements between open and closed visits. I have instructed that those changes be carried out immediately.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley, Central)

Did not the Prison Officers Association register its concern that the Government's financial restraints were adversely affecting security staffing and security improvements at the Maze?

I note the sackings of senior prison staff. However, did not the right hon. Gentleman say that the report had criticised the Northern Ireland Office prison department, which is responsible for overseeing security arrangements in the Maze? It is clearly a departmental responsibility. Why have not the sackings moved into the Department?

Mr. Prior

There was an increase from £61.9 million to £70.9 million between 1981–82 and 1983–84. In the two years before the escape, the number of staff increased by 365, or 13 per cent., at a time when there was no increase in the prison population. I am not aware of any sensible demands made by the prison department that were not met. That shows that there was no lack of available resources. The responsibility of officials in the prison department was less direct than that of the officers at the Maze. The shortcomings in the security and operations division, referred to in the report, were due primarily to a lack of staff of adequate calibre. I have taken steps to strengthen the position. A review of the management structures of the whole Department is being undertaken, as recommended in the report.

Sir James Hennessy specifically concludes that no blame should attach to the Under-Secretary in charge of the prison department.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Because all those who represent constituencies on this side of the water always have to be prepared to justify exceptional public expenditure, notwithstanding the fact that the security of all the citizens of the United Kingdom should not be jeopardised by lack of money, can my right hon. Friend give us an idea of the cost of the measures that he is taking?

Mr. Prior

I cannot yet give a precise figure, but the measures will cost several million pounds. I shall seek to meet as much of the cost as possible from my own budget in Northern Ireland, but I may have to ask my colleagues for additional resources.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Sir James Hennessy has levelled a number of criticisms at the officers concerned, but we must remember the difficulty of maintaining a high security prison in a country where a substantial number of the inmates enjoy a measure of sympathy from local people. I believe that there are over 550 IRA men there. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the standard of the high security perimeter walls is now similar to the high standard now applied to high security prisons in the rest of the United Kingdom? Is there now a separate dogs unit within the prison? Has the right hon. Gentleman implemented the regular movement of high security risk prisoners?

Mr. Prior

Much more regular movement has been introduced, and a separate dogs section has been set up. I am satisfied that the security of the perimeter wall is as good as it can be. Sir James Hennessy asked a number of questions and he asked for a review of the outer fencing protection, which was really only a delineation of the property of the prison and was not concerned with security.

In England and Wales, out of a total prison population of about 44,000, there are about 250 high risk prisoners, or 0.5 per cent. They are dispersed throughout the country. In Northern Ireland, there are 1,000 category A high risk prisoners in a total prison population of 2,500 and they have to be kept in two, or at the most three, prisons.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his honesty and frankness in presenting an alarming report. Will he confirm that the lessons of the report have been taken on board by the Northern Ireland Office and will be implemented not only in the Maze but in other prisons in Northern Ireland? The only resignation that we should ask for is the resignation of the Northern Ireland Office never to let such a thing happen again.

Mr. Prior

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. A team has been set up which will look at every recommendation, and we will chase the team to make sure that everything is put into effect as quickly as possible.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

The report should be studied in the context of the situation in Northern Ireland, but also in the context of the report of the committee of inquiry into the United Kingdom prison service, published in October 1979, which held up Northern Ireland as an example to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Hennessey report refers to failures by individuals who are negligent or who did not carry out their duties. The report shows that staff at the Maze were complacent about security and that there was widespread laxness and carelessness in the performance of duties at both supervisory and other levels. I was the Minister responsible for the prison service in Northern Ireland and for building it up. Indeed, I pay tribute to the prison service and to those who have given their lives for it in Northern Ireland.

Things were not always as they are today. It would be wrong to pass over the remarkable 34 years' service that the governor of the Maze has given. In my time in office I knew him not only as a governor, but as a man. He was the governor not only of the prison at Armagh but of the other prisons in the Maze complex before he went to the Maze itself. The previous Conservative Government as well as the Labour party thought so highly of him that his name appeared in the honours list about two years ago. He is the type of man to accept the report and honourably to offer his resignation.

I was once a junior Minister and I know that such Ministers are in daily contact with the prison system in Northern Ireland and the governors of it. I am not talking about the present Minister in charge, but I find the situation odd. If I had been involved, I would have had to get in very quickly before my resignation was sought. I think that I am honourable enough not to have let Mr. Whittington stand alone, taking the blame.

Mr. Prior

I have always made it plain that if anyone were to resign over this matter it would be me. I am primarily responsible. Of course, I have given the matter the most careful personal consideration and have decided that I do not believe that there was negligence in any policy decision by me or by my hon. Friend the Minister. For that reason, I see no need for my resignation on this occasion.

It is difficult to understand how there could have been such laxness in a prison that deals with very dangerous prisoners. It should not have happened, but unfortunately it did. The urgent task is for all involved to work together to restore the level of professionalism needed to carry out a very difficult job. No one can say that the Hennessy report is a whitewash. I asked Sir James Hennessy to get at all the facts. I think that he has done so, and it is now up to us to put the past behind us and to get on and ensure that the recommendations are implemented.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the central finding of Sir James Hennessy's very thorough report implies that the key to the escape lay in the possession of firearms within the prison? If so, is he satisfied that the changes that have been made, or are about to be made, will ensure that no guns can get into the prison in future? Will the Secretary of State accept that the vast majority of people in the kingdom believe that ministerial responsibility goes beyond policy matters and bears on the administration of his Department, which the report found to have been at fault?

Mr. Prior

A prison is only as safe as its weakest link, and that is what Sir James says. I cannot ever guarantee that arms will not be smuggled into a prison again. Indeed, there has been at least one occasion since then when arms have been smuggled in. We are having a complete review and a complete change in the arrangements made for both inspection and the searching of visitors, as well as of prison officers in their own interest. That will have to be stepped up enormously to protect them from the intimidation that is always possible in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Upper Bann)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the reports for the past three years on the Northern Ireland prison service—the most recent of which was tabled in the House by the right hon. Gentleman three months ago — do not contain any reference to the problem of morale or lack of discipline? On the contrary, one after the other, the reports offer compliments and congratulations. Who are we to believe? Can we believe anyone any longer? Can we believe reports any more when they tell us such things?

As the last serious prison escape in Northern Ireland occurred at Crumlin road prison when guns were also smuggled in, why were the procedures that were introduced at Crumlin road following that escape not introduced immediately at the Maze prison? Who was responsible for that?

Mr. Prior

Crumlin road was a different prison, and we were looking at the arrangements that were recommended for it. At that time there was no recommendation that changes should be made.

The point about morale is interesting. I had received no suggestion that morale was bad. I do not believe that on the whole morale has been bad. There have been problems with the Prison Officers Association, as the hon. Gentleman knows. There was a serious problem as recently as August bank holiday Monday. I believe that a number of prison officers expressed that view to Sir James Hennessy, perhaps with a view to putting at least their side of the case in a better light.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Is it not clear that the Leader of the House must arrange for this damning report to be fully debated so that Ministers of the Crown responsible for Northern Ireland may answer the charges and the calls for resignation that have been made in different quarters of the House? Whether or not morale was bad, it is bad now. One contribution that the House can make is to take note of the commendation in the report of a number of prison officers for their courage, devotion and sacrifice. Since the concentration of terrorists is stated in the report to be the largest in western Europe and since the Home Secretary is on the Treasury Bench, will my right hon. Friend consider redistributing some of the worst of those terrorists to others of Her Majesty's prisons?

Mr. Prior

I do not believe that the latter suggestion would be acceptable, but it is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend and not for me. The arrangement of a debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

I join my hon. Friend in his tribute to the vast majority of prison officers who have done their duty with enormous courage. As I said at the beginning of my statement, more than 20 prison officers have been murdered in Northern Ireland during the past 10 years, and much courage is required to live in a community and do a job when one faces the prospect of murder. We should not forget what Sir James Hennessy said about the vast majority of prison officers in the Maze prison.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I recognise that Sir James Hennessy's findings will require careful consideration and the House will need to debate these matters. Is it not already clear that the Secretary of State has misrepresented Sir James Hennessy's findings in saying that the ultimate responsiblity must lie with the governor? Sir James went on to speak of the particular responsibilities of the prison department and the director of prison operations whom he holds partially responsible for what happened. He drew attention to the fact that the Under-Secretary, whom he exculpates, was over-worked and under-resourced.

Is it not clear also from what the Secretary of State said this afternoon in reply to questions about his inability to understand how the breakout could happen—he not only does not know how it happened but does not know how it could have happened—that the right hon. Gentleman has failed to provide the inspired leadership that the Hennessy report states as being necessary so that the prison should soon become again what it was always intended to be; the most secure prison in Northern Ireland."? In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State abandon the farcical and unconstitutional doctrine that he propounded this afternoon that Ministers of the Crown are responsible only for policy and not for the administration of their Departments?

Mr. Prior

I have nothing further to add to what I mentioned to the hon. Gentleman in an intervention in, I believe, October. Sir James Hennessy, in paragraph 10.12 of his report states: Nevertheless, the extent of the deficiencies in management and in the prison's physical defences amounted to a major failure in security for which the Governor must be held accountable. Since that was the main reason why the escape took place, I do not believe that it was unreasonable that the governor should resign.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although many of us acknowledge the particular difficulty associated with Maze prison both in terms of the people in it and its rapid expansion, the report includes some serious charges? Can he assure the House that no policy changes introduced after the last hunger strike were in any way to blame for this breakout?

Mr. Prior

Yes, I can. The report makes it abundantly clear that no policy changes made after the hunger strike were attributable in any way to the breakout. Sir James Hennessy says two things on that matter. First, prison officers claim that at that time there was a lowering of morale that led them to take less trouble. On checking, that was not something that I found to be a relevant factor. Secondly, Sir James draws attention to the fact that greater association, which was one of the points that we allowed after the ending of the hunger strike and which could have been a contributing factor, was not in operation because it had been stopped a year before because of the dirty protests by Loyalist prisoners.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Northern Ireland Office was warned on numerous occasions by deputations from my party that many of the 73 weaknesses found in the security system were in existence for a considerable time before the escape? On taking the word of the prison department of the Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Gentleman consistently denied that that was the case. Is it right that the Secretary of State should group together deficiencies in management which are the responsibility of the governor with deficiencies in the prison's defences which were the responsibility not directly of the governor but of the prison department of the Northern Ireland Office?

Mr. Prior

Many of the recommendations were already under review and were being implemented following the report on the Crumlin road outbreak about two years previously. It is possible at any time to see certain improvements that should be made in the prison. In this case, the problem was that both the governor and the prison department of the Northern Ireland Office were under such constant pressure in day-to-day affairs—such as averting protests, the hunger strike and a strike by prison officers—that they were never able to get on with the job of carrying out the necessary improvements.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

It is true that hon. Members should pay tribute to the members of the prison service who serve, as most of them have served, with great distinction and honour in a difficult and dangerous job. I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that anyone who has been guilty of criminal neglect is made amenable to the law. I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the paragraph in his statement which states: The report analyses the policy changes made at the end of the hunger strike and on other occasions and concludes that, taken singly or together, they played no significant role in facilitating the escape. The right hon. Gentleman told the House today that the policy changes had played no role. That is not what his statement says. It says that they played "no significant role". Is it not true that the Prison Officers Association had to go on strike at Magilligan to get movement from the Northern Ireland Office on security matters at that prison?

Mr. Prior

I do not think that I need answer the first part of the question again. I referred in my statement to "no significant role". When I referred to "no role" in reply to a supplementary question, I went on to elaborate on two respects in which criticism could have been laid at my door.

As for the prison officers making representations, I can only say that there are 3,000 prison officers. They have had very considerable increases in resources. We need a higher standard and better training for prison officers if they are to perform the duties that we set them, but the problem is especially difficult in Northern Ireland where the force has expanded from 300 to 3,000 in 10 years.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

In terms of the future, what about Maghaberry prison? We already have Crumlin, Magilligan and the Maze. Maghaberry was begun in 1975 and should be ready soon. Will not this help the Secretary of State to get people out of the Maze, which is a most unsatisfactory prison which started out as an old airfield with huts for detainees? Will Maghaberry be used to ease the situation at the Maze?

Mr. Prior

That is a very important point. The problem is that Maghaberry will need considerable changes in the light of the report to bring security up to the level now considered necessary. Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in alluding to the pressure that must exist in the Maze. If we can in any way defuse or disperse some of the very violent, determined and dangerous prisoners away from the Maze to Maghaberry, that would certainly help, and we should like to do so as soon as we can.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House and the rights of Back Benchers who wish to take part in the subsequent debate. I call the Leader of the House to make the business statement.