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Brixton Prison Escape

Volume 416: debated on Monday 2 February 1981

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3.40 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"On 16th 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 in connection with the escape which are being taken, I am advised by my right honourable 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 Brixton 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. He 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 their surveillance during the night hours, the staffing level was entirely adequate. Further, he found that 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 occurring over a period of time, at all levels of staff concerned.

"The Director-General of the Prison Service and I accept these conclusions, and the specific recommendations for restoring a satisfactory level of security that flow from them. The Director-General of the Prison Service 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 principal 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 then 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, Mr. Speaker, 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 previously 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 H.M. 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."

That, my Lords, was my right honourable friend's Statement.

3.47 p.m.

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement made in another place by the Home Secretary. Of course we fully understand why the full report of Mr. Fowler cannot be published at this stage in view of pending criminal proceedings arising out of the escape, but it is useful that the Home Secretary, nevertheless, has given the main outlines of the report, because there is no doubt that there has been grave public concern about this escape of Category A prisoners, an escape of a particularly serious kind.

The failure is attributed in the report to—
"human errors in the establishment over a period of time at all levels".
What was the nature of the human errors involved? Were they errors due to lack of attention, incapacity, failure to follow procedures, inadequate drill or inadequate supervision? What was the nature of the human errors? I do not like using the word "scapegoat" in relation to Mr. Selby. Your Lordships may recollect that when in this House we debated the problem of remand prisoners, tributes were paid to Mr. Selby by Members of the House who had been to visit Brixton. One sees a slight contradiction between the tribute paid to Mr. Selby in one part of the Statement, congratulating him on—
"a record of real achievement in difficult circumstances",
and the fact of his removal from his position.

There is one other matter in the report about which your Lordships may like to know a little more. It is said that,
"although Brixton 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".
That is a rather unhelpful piece of "double-speak". Was it a "factor"? Was it easier to bore a hole in the wall of Brixton in the security wing? What has been done about that? It really will alarm the public that this escape should have been possible.

Above all, what the public would like to know is whether the lessons—and it is not very clear what they are, except for undefined human errors—that should have been learned from the Brixton experience will be brought to mind not only in Brixton, but in other security prisons up and down the country. It would be tempting, also, to comment on the fact that the escapees had been in prison awaiting trial for over a year. One can think of the connection between that and, at any rate, the will to escape. But, of course, a Category A prisoner must be kept in confinement until he is brought to trial, and the public will be glad to know that at any rate some steps are being taken to see that this kind of failure will not occur again, so far as human judgment can prevent it.

3.52 p.m.

My Lords, I have two questions which I should like to ask the noble Lord the Minister. First, are there not other prisons, both in the London area and within daily travelling distance of London, which are structurally far more suitable for housing maximum security prisoners? And will the Government consider, particularly in the case of such prisoners as IRA prisoners on remand, using those other prisons in future rather than Brixton?

Secondly, may I ask the noble Lord this question—and I do not want in any way to seem vindictive about this matter: Does this Statement not really amount to the simple fact that there has been demonstrated to be gross negligence by a number of Government employees over a period, leading to the escape of a potential mass murderer? Would the noble Lord the Minister not agree that, if similar negligence were proved in the private sector, far more stringent steps would be taken than the Government appear to have taken in this case?

3.54 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, for the questions which they have put on what was, of course, a very serious matter involving men who were on remand on very grave charges. The noble and learned Lord asked me to give more details about what the Statement calls various "human errors". Mr Fowler's recommendations were directed towards securing the appropriate application of security procedures—that is his main recommendation as recorded in the Statement—within Brixton prison.

Since my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General has advised that publication of the report at present might prejudice criminal proceedings—a fact which the noble and learned Lord was good enough to say he perfectly understood—I do not think it would be satisfactory to go into further detail on that particular matter. The noble and learned Lord referred particularly to the former governor of Brixton prison and mentioned the possibility of using the word "scapegoat". It is made clear, I think, in my right honourable friend's Statement that there were major failures in the way in which security procedures were carried out at Brixton—I repeat, the main recommendation of Mr. Fowler's report—and that Mr. Selby, as governor in charge, bears, and very properly has made it clear that he accepts, the main responsibility. However, Mr. Selby has a future in the prison service and I think those noble Lords who know Mr. Selby will endorse the view which I have just expressed.

The noble and learned Lord put to me a question about the security of the fabric of Brixton. I should not want to add to the words which I used in the Statement, and which the noble and learned Lord repeated, but I would remind the noble and learned Lord that in the past Brixton has had a good security record. For example, until the escape in question only two prisoners had escaped in the previous four years, despite the pressures of an increasing prison population. The failure to maintain that record was, as Mr. Fowler has said in his report, a lapse from the professional standards expected by the prison service—and, of course, a very serious lapse indeed.

Finally, the noble and learned Lord asked me about the lessons for the prison service, which was, if I may say so, a very proper question. I accept that the main lesson of Mr. Fowler's inquiry is that the existing security procedures must be applied rigorously. The whole prison service has been forcefully reminded of this by the Brixton escapes.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, asked me about the use of other prisons in the London area for remand prisoners. I think it is worth repeating for a third time that, if the main recommendation of Mr. Fowler's report is put right, as we are now taking steps to see that it is put right, then it is perfectly proper for remand prisoners to be kept in Brixton prison although, as my right honourable friend's Statement accepts, Brixton is a very bad example of the worn-out state of many establishments in the prison service.

I should not want to make a comparison between this unhappy story and what might have been done by way of reparations in other walks of life or in other occupations. I think that this matter has been dealt with with promptness by my right honourable friend, and with correctness by the Director-General of the prison service.

My Lords, when the Minister was referring to Mr. Selby, the former governor at Brixton prison, he looked in my direction as though inviting my comments, as I was one of those who, during the debate on remand prisons and prisoners, spoke very highly about Mr. Selby. I take this opportunity most gladly to repeat that my opinion of that officer is a very high one and I am glad to hear that he has a future. As I am on my feet, and without wishing to probe the Minister any further on the details of the circumstances in which these escapes took place, it may help the House to assess the extent and magnitude—if that is the right word—of the errors and omissions if we had some idea of over what period of time things had been going wrong, and when things started to go wrong at Brixton prison in regard to security.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said, and I am sure there are others who will be grateful as well. I do not want to appear unhelpful, but as it is not possible, for the reasons I have given, to publish Mr. Fowler's report at the present time, it really is not possible for me to start to go into the details which, quite naturally, I know the noble Lord would wish me to do. I am afraid that I really cannot be any more helpful on the particular point which the noble Lord has put to me.

My Lords, the House will, I am sure, appreciate the difficulty of the Minister in replying in regard to Mr. Selby. But I hope the Minister will appreciate that, until all the facts are known, Mr. Selby is in a very difficult situation. I therefore hope that the Minister will undertake that, once the court proceedings have been concluded, the Government will consider making a full statement on the whole situation, other than that which has arisen in the courts. May I ask the noble Lord whether there is not an officer superior to Mr. Selby who must, equally, carry the responsibility of Mr. Selby in this respect? It seems to me that the responsibility is being placed very prominently upon one individual, whereas the whole service might perhaps be involved.

My Lords, so far as the first question which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has asked me is concerned; namely, his call for a further statement after court proceedings, what we are really talking about is whether or not publication of the report should take place. Again without in any way wanting to be unhelpful, I know that my right honourable friend would have to say in answer to that question, and I must say in your Lordships' House, that it will be necessary for the Home Secretary to take the advice of the Attorney-General at the relevant time.

With regard to the noble Lord's second question, again at the risk of repeating what I have already said I must say that the operational responsibility in the establishment is a matter for the governor to accept and, very properly, Mr. Selby has made it clear from the outset that he accepts it. However, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I am most anxious to say that the Statement makes it clear that there are others all the way through the establishment who did not put into effect the procedures which are necessary with reference to Category A prisoners. So far as those officers are concerned, the appropriate action has been and is being taken.

My Lords, as a fellow visitor to Brixton with my noble friend Lord Hunt, I should like to be associated with his tribute to Mr. Selby, who seemed to us then to be doing a very remarkable job in appallingly difficult circumstances.

My Lords, may I be allowed to join in these tributes? I paid a tribute to Mr. Selby, after long conversations with him before a debate in this House. Perhaps the noble Lord would allow me to repeat those remarks now.