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Remand (Temporary Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1980

Volume 414: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1980

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3.51 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the Remand (Temporary Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th October 1980, be approved.

We had some discussion of this matter on 30th October, when I answered a Private Notice Question from the noble Lord, Lord Blease. I shall not therefore take many words to introduce it now. Prison officers in Northern Ireland have since 29th October been taking limited industrial action in support of their colleagues in England and Wales. They refuse to accept into the prisons new committals on sentence, new remand prisoners and returned remand prisoners. To meet this situation, the Government have taken certain executive action. They have established a temporary prison at Magilligan, known as Her Majesty's Prison Foyle. Headed by a regular governor, it is being run by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with the Army guarding the perimeter. It is receiving prisoners whom the prison officers will not receive into the existing prisons.

The purpose of the Order in Council now before your Lordships is to avoid the temporary prison being immediately flooded by an influx of all the men currently on remand, who are entitled to a remand hearing every eight days. The Order in Council permits the hearings to be heard in the prisoners' absence, unless the court direct in any individual case that he should be brought before them in person.

Under the terms of the urgent procedure used to bring the Order in Council into force, it must be approved by Affirmative Resolution of the House within 40 sitting days of being laid. The Government of course deeply regret the need to make such special procedures. It is for that reason that the Order in Council provides for renewal by my right honourable friend by order at intervals of one month if it is not to lapse. The Government sincerely hope that the dispute which has caused this action will be rapidly resolved, so that the Order in Council may be rescinded. As I explained to the House on 30th October, we in Northern Ireland have very little control over this difference since the prison officers are not in dispute with us in the matter.

The prison officers in Northern Ireland have much to contend with, and discharge their duties with great dedication. Some of the difficulties which they face are much in the news today, but they are not the subject of the present order, and I do not therefore propose to discuss them. I invite your Lordships to approve the order.

3.54 p.m.

My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Lord for his clear explanation of the terms on which this order was urgently introduced and of the unusual way in which the order came into operation on 29th October. He has given a detailed explanation of the reasons for the introduction of the order and the way it is proposed to operate it; and in general terms I understand it to be such.

I think it is right that he should draw attention to the particular role that the Northern Ireland prison officers have performed in Northern Ireland. The role of the Northern Ireland prison officers is the same as that of their colleagues in England and Wales, which is to detain securely in custody those committed to prison under the law and to operate a prison service under public scrutiny and in accordance with humane rules and practices. However, we are all aware of the unique and extended nature of the work and functions of the prison officers in Northern Ireland, which is totally different from the prison service work in England and Wales.

The Minister has already paid tribute to the prison service personnel and tributes have been paid before in this House, and indeed in another place, to the restraint, the calmness, and the devotion to public duty displayed by the Northern Ireland prison officers. Despite the murder of colleagues and of their families, and despite the acute provocation and the terrible strain under which the Northern Ireland prison officers have to work, experienced international organisations and other reputable bodies have placed on record that the Northern Ireland prison staff continue to treat all prisoners alike with fairness and humanity, regardless of the nature of their offences.

I consider it important to understand and to approach the matter of their sympathetic action with reason and with informed good will. I believe that the informal and formal channels of communication require to be exercised to the full at this time and I am convinced that, given these approaches, the prison officers in Northern Ireland will continue to uphold the best traditions of public service for all citizens and in keeping with the understanding and solidarity of their prison officer colleagues in England and Wales.

There are a few questions I should like to put to the Minister concerning the order. As I understand it, the order before us today is being considered for affirmative approval in this House, as it was of course on 10th November in another place. It is due to come before this House again for renewal under the negative procedure within one month of the coming into operation of the order. As I read this order, that is what it states. May I ask the Minister whether this means that we shall not have an opportunity to receive a report of the operation of the legislation or to review the procedural arrangements, or even to debate the circumstances pertaining at a particular time? If this is so, I feel I must give notice that we on this side of the House will wish to consider initiating a prayer against the negative procedure because we consider this is a very important piece of legislation.

As I understand it, the order applies alike to terrorist and non-terrorist offences, and I understand that the prison officers in Northern Ireland have an informal arrangement with the courts regarding the maintenance of custodial procedures for high-risk prisoners. Can the noble Lord confirm that this is so: that terrorist and non-terrorist offences will be treated alike or that this arrangement for high-risk prisoners pertains?

Am I correct in assuming that the cases of remand prisoners will be reviewed by the courts every eight days, either with or without the prisoner being present in the court? Would it not be more in keeping with justice and a fair court procedure that the order should provide for the appearance before the court of a prisoner on remand at stated intervals of, say, every four weeks? In other words, I am suggesting that because of the nature of the order it is important that prisoners on remand should appear before the courts at some stated occasion and that they be given that opportunity.

The Foyle Prison in Magilligan has been in existence for some time. May I ask the Minister, whether a new wing has been erected or new premises built there recently, or is it still the old Magilligan prison that these remand prisoners will be detained in?

Even in terms of Northern Ireland the Magilligan site is in a very inaccessible area, and I can understand the circumstances that make it so. I understand that there are about 50 persons on remand there at present. What facilities are readily available for persons on remand to contact and consult solicitors, legal representatives, advisers, welfare personnel or social workers? What arrangements or facilities exist for relatives to visit prisoners? Can the travel expenses of approved visists be reimbursed to relatives? Like the Minister, I am hopeful that the difficulties which give rise to this order may soon be resolved. At the same time, I must say that we on this side of the House have grave reservations about the procedural arrangements relating to this particular order, but we do not wish to oppose it on this occasion.

My Lords, I am sure the whole House must join in hoping sincerely that the present industrial action by prison officers in Northern Ireland will be speedily brought to an end. As has been said, they are not in disagreement with the authorities on the issue which has caused the dispute in England and Wales, but at present are taking action purely in sympathy with their colleagues over here. We must all hope that those in Northern Ireland may speedily see fit to resume their duties in full, in the execution of which they have earned so much respect. In the meantime, I cannot see that it is profitable to oppose this Remand (Temporary Provisions) Order for the Province, which has to be renewed a month at a time. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for his introduction of it; and I was also interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, had to say, and the questions he asked.

This is not a good time for a lengthy debate on prisoners and prisons in Ulster today, but perhaps I might take the opportunity to pay a tribute to Mr. Gerry Fitt for what he said in the debate in the other place on Monday. He not only condemned in the strongest terms all terrorist attacks, by whomsoever committed, as outrages on the community and declared that no concessions should be given to evil men; he also admitted, with unusual frankness for a politician, that he had made a grievous mistake in 1972 by pressing for the introduction of special category status for supposedly political prisoners. He is a man of very great real courage and integrity, and it is only a pity that Church leaders have, it seems, according to some reports, taken offence at some of the things he said. That sounds very sad. I say again that I shall be interested to hear the answers that the noble Lord gives to Lord Blease, particularly about what I think is called the negative procedure; but I repeat that we feel we should support this order as a temporary measure.

4.3 p.m.

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lords opposite for their reception of this order, and I should like to reply as best I can to the points which the noble Lord, Lord Blease, has raised. He started off with a concern, which he shares with the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, about the parliamentary procedure. I said at the outset that we do not like using this procedure, but it is necessary in order to ensure proper parliamentary supervision. First, there is this debate today, which is necessary for the order to remain in force for the first period; and thereafter the negative procedure is applied to the order at monthly intervals. That procedure in fact means that the order is laid, but it suffices for the order to be laid for it to remain effective unless it is prayed against.

The noble Lord has suggested that it will be a good thing if we see how this is going on and look at it from time to time. The negative procedure does not provide for this except by means of a prayer. The noble Lord, I think, might consider, through the usual channels, discussing whether that would be the most appropriate way to institute the supervision he quite properly desires, or whether this would have the effect of making him at least appear to be opposed to the order in principle, and whether possibly an Unstarred Question or some other device might be employed; but that can be pursued outside the Chamber.

The procedure applies to all types of offence, without difference. The noble Lord is anxious about high-risk prisoners. I can tell him that the Foyle Prison is a secure prison if high-risk prisoners should go there. The best answer, of course, is for the prison officers to end their action so that prisons specifically designed for the purpose can be used. He asked where the prison was, and whether it was new. It is not the old Magilligan Prison; it is a new prison, and is not adjacent to it. The facilities there include facilities for prisoners to receive visitors; and families of both sentenced prisoners and prisoners on remand who are entitled to supplementary benefits may claim reimbursement for one visit per month. I think that is information for which the noble Lord asked. There are no other financial provisions from Government sources for that purpose.

There is a total of 50 prisoners in the Foyle at the moment, 21 of whom have been sentenced and 29 of whom await trial; and there are six buildings occupied. The noble Lord also wondered whether it would be possible for prisoners who were on remand under this procedure to be assured of a hearing in person, say every four weeks. This is entirely a matter for the courts. The order places it in the hands of the court to require a prisoner to be presented before them, and, if it so requires, the court's wishes will be met. The prisoner, of course, will not then be returned to the prison from which he has been brought unless it is a temporary prison; he will be taken to Her Majesty's Prison at Foyle. My Lords, I think those are all the questions which the noble Lord asked me, and once again I commend this order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.