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Prison Services In Northern Ireland

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 30 October 1980

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3.23 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question of which I have given private notice.

The Question was as follows:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the recent developments in Northern Ireland, they will ask the Northern Ireland Labour Relations Agency to activate its services with a view to resolving the problems of the prison services in Northern Ireland arising from the implications of the Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Act 1980."

My Lords, no. The dispute which is giving rise to the current industrial action in Northern Ireland is not a local one. The present action by Northern Ireland prison officers is not in furtherance of any Northern Ireland claim but in support of action being taken by their colleagues in England and Wales over a meal break allowance dispute here. There is therefore no case to refer to the Northern Ireland Labour Relations Agency.

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask whether it is not a fact that the Privy Council met last evening and in an Order-in-Council put into operation certain implications arising from the action taken by prison officers in Northern Ireland? Whatever terms may be used to describe it, is it not a fact that the grievance or dispute (call it sympathetic action or whatever) that is there at the moment is causing considerable concern? Would the Minister not agree that for the very reasons he has given, since there is a separate body of industrial relations legislation procedures in Northern Ireland which is distinct from that in England and Wales, the Northern Ireland Labour Relations Agency, which is an independent body, could usefully undertake a third-party conciliatory role in this delicate matter at this time?

My Lords, an Order-in-Council was brought into operation last night in response to this developing situation: it was not because of it. It provides that remand hearings may be undertaken in the prisoner's absence. However, a court may at any time direct that a prisoner should be brought before it. That was in response to the situation: it did not give rise to it. The action in Northern Ireland is taken in sympathy with conditions in England and Wales, conditions which are not the same as those in Northern Ireland. Therefore, although there are separate procedures available in the Province, the dispute is not subject to them and is not relevant to them. I do not think it would be useful to involve the agency in this process.

My Lords, the Ulster prison officers, who are much respected for the courage they show in fulfilling their arduous and often dangerous duties, work a different shift system and are paid differently from their colleagues in England and Wales. Should not a further appeal be made to convince them that they would not breach solidarity by continuing to perform their duties as usual and that their first loyalty should be to the community? There might otherwise be a much greater risk in Ulster than on the mainland through the present tensions and the fact that a much greater proportion of prisoners in Northern Ireland are committed for serious crimes.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. Agreement was reached in Northern Ireland with the Prison Officers' Association on 17th November 1978, and the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland branch of the Prison Officers' Association were commended by the May Committee for resolving the question; so the situation is different. I am sure that the prison officers in the Province are aware both of the high regard in which their services are held by the public and of the special conditions which make a high standard of conduct there extremely desirable.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that the Bill that we adopted yesterday applies only to England and Wales? What are the Government going to do if prison officers in Northern Ireland take similar action to that which has been taken in this country?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right about the Bill, which is now an Act. But the noble Lord will recall that I have just said that there is an Order-in-Council, which was passed under the emergency procedure last night, to cope with the situation which the noble Lord foresees.

My Lords, will the noble Lord say whether the Order-in-Council is debateable in this House?

My Lords, may I plead with the Minister again? May I ask him to consider the "fire" from the prevention point of view rather than from the salvage point of view? Would it not be ironic if, as is possible, this dispute was to be resolved in England and Wales and for its side effects to continue in Northern Ireland for want of having some third-party communications and involvement?

My Lords, the "fire", as the noble Lord termed it, is burning in England and Wales. The action taken in the Province is by those in sympathy with the situation in England and Wales. The situation in Northern Ireland is not the same as here. Terms of service have been reached on the date that I mentioned, 17th November 1978. They are not concerned for themselves to obtain a continuous duty credit, which is what the dispute is about in England and Wales. Therefore, there is not a case in existence to which the machinery to which the noble Lord referred can be applied. I can undertake to carry to those of my colleagues who have responsibility for the service in the Province the anxiety which the noble Lord feels on this matter; but I fear that the answer will be the same.