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The Prisons: Disturbances

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 1 May 1986

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.6 p.m.

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

"Mr. Speaker, as I undertook in the House last night, I will with permission make a further Statement on the situation in the prisons.

"I reported to the House last night on events at Lewes and Northeye prisons. Disruption continued there during the night but the situation has now been brought under control, though at both establishments, and particularly at Northeye, there has been extensive damage to buildings. Police intervention was necessary at Bristol to regain control of one wing of the prison, and at Erlestoke Youth Custody Centre some 40 trainees made a mass breakout: some 16 are still at large. The other more serious incident was at Wymott, where there was a major disturbance but where staff were gradually able to regain control. In addition, a number of lesser incidents took place at 12 other prison establishments.

"The situation in all establishments has now been brought back under control. I want to take this opportunity to pay public tribute to hard-pressed prison governors, those prison staff who remained at their posts and the members of the police and fire services who have helped to restore the situation.

"There will need to be an inquiry into these events. The form and scope of this will have to be compatible with any police investigation into alleged offences, and I will keep the House informed.

"I have taken immediate steps to try to ensure that, now order has been restored, it can continue to be preserved. Prison governors are in touch with their local chief officers of police about the situation in their establishments. After consultations with me, the acting President of the Association of Chief Police Officers has opened the National Information Centre at New Scotland Yard to collate and disseminate information relating to the police involvement in the current prisons dispute. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has ordered preparations in case military camps are needed to house prisoners as a result of the destruction of prison accommodation. Arrangements have been made to ensure a co-ordinated response by all government departments to the present difficult situation.

"Although some of the violent action by prisoners may have been imitative, there is little doubt that the occasion for it was the overtime ban instituted by the National Executive Committee of the Prison Officers Association as part of its dispute with the Prison Department about manning levels. This both increased the prospect of trouble in the prisons and reduced the resources available to deal with it. I believe that not only the public but many members of the prison service, including members of the Prison Officers Association, will have been appalled by the events of the last 24 hours.

"I therefore welcome the decision of the National Executive Committee of the POA to suspend its current industrial action to allow talks at the Home Office to take place. The POA ask for a reciprocal gesture, asking us to allow staff to work normally and lift threats of suspension. I see no difficulty about this: staff temporarily relieved from duty, that is to say suspended, can lift their own suspension by agreeing to work normally. We cannot start substantive negotiations until the threat of industrial action has been removed. But I have invited the NEC to discussion at the department with a view to the simultaneous calling off of the industrial action and the institution of discussion about the agenda for the future which I set out in my letter of 22nd April to the POA General Secretary. The House will recall that this agenda involved: a rapid settlement of this year's pay claim, including the outstanding question of a reduction in the working week for prison officers; the immediate payment of tax compensation on housing allowance for 1985–86; bringing forward as fast as possible work on new shift systems and pay arrangements for detailed discussion with the POA, with a view to the new arrangements being in place by April 1987.

"I very much hope that the POA NEC will respond positively and constructively to this package and that the talks I have set in hand will find a way through present difficulties. The House may be assured that I shall be doing everything I can to ensure that the control that has been regained in our prisons is maintained and that a constructive way forward is found from this destructive dispute."

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement of the Home Secretary. When we discussed this matter two days ago I ventured to say that we were facing a grave situation in the nation's affairs approaching a national emergency. I fear that the events of last night have confirmed that anxiety up to the hilt. The whole country will have been appalled at the savagery of the events, at their widespread nature and at the anarchy which has prevailed in the prisons.

We deplore and we condemn the violence. What we need, and what I think the nation demands now, is an early resolution of the dispute. As the Home Secretary's Statement has indicated, the Prison Officers Association has today taken a crucial and constructive step towards a truce (which was the phrase I used two days ago) by suspending industrial action. It is therefore essential now for the Home Secretary to respond by taking further steps to facilitate discussions with the Prison Officers Association national executive which could resolve this dispute. Accordingly, I suggest that the Home Secretary instructs his officials to get in touch as soon as possible with the national executive committee of the Prison Officers Association so that they can discuss together the basis for a possible agenda for talks. There is still a good deal of ground to cover.

The House will be aware that the industrial action that has taken place followed a ballot of the members of the association which overwhelmingly supported industrial action. However, an agreement for the agenda as to talks and their resumption could well ease the way for the process that will end this dispute. I hope that the Home Secretary will take action on those lines so that this grave threat to the security of the country and of the people themselves may be met by negotiation—by give and take on each side—in order to avoid a renewal of last night's arson and anarchy. A resumption of that would be intolerable for the nation to endure.

4.15 p.m.

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Home Secretary's Statement in the House of Commons, may I ask him whether he agrees that last night's wretched events have undoubtedly done a great deal of damage to the self-confidence and reputation of the British prison service? Can I ask him whether, notwithstanding that, he will pass on to the many dedicated prison governors and staff who did not abandon their positions last evening our congratulations, and I am sure I speak for many in all parts of the House? Without them, people would have lost their lives last night, and it is right that the courageous men who stayed at their posts should have public tribute paid to them. I hope that these words will be passed to the prison service.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one or two questions specifically? There is a suggestion of an unconfirmed report of the death of two inmates at Northeye. If the Minister will forgive my saying so, that is rather a strange statement. Have bodies been discovered? If the prison department now has total possession of Northeye prison, why should there be any doubt about this? No doubt there is an explanation, and I am sure we should like to have it.

Can the noble Lord also say what form of inquiry the Home Secretary is considering setting up into these events? Very naturally, he has said that this cannot get in the way of the police inquiries which are obviously going to have to take place. But is it thought that a member of the judiciary will be involved? I think it would be helpful if he could give us a preliminary indication of what is to be done.

Lastly, may I put this to him again? Does he agree that the background to this problem is twofold? First, there is an urgent need, which I think is recognised by all who care about the reputation of the prison service, to support the position of governors in prison department establishments. We just cannot tolerate a situation where we have this form of anarchy year after year; the often unpublicised anarchy which has taken place. If we are to get some benefit out of the dismal events of last evening, it is critical that the position of governors should be enhanced.

Secondly, does the Minister agree that these very sad events take place in the context of gross overcrowding throughout the prison system? That is emphasised by the fact that military camps may have to be used because of the loss of one prison department establishment; namely, Northeye. Will he consider with his right honourable friend whether it is not necessary once again to look at the provisions of the executive release scheme? The House has discussed this matter on a number of occasions, but unless there is some relief to this huge problem of prison overcrowding, I am afraid there will always be a risk of violence in our prisons.

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for their remarks in expressing horror and condemnation of the violence which took place last night. I am sure that is something which we all feel; and, like both noble Lords, I and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary hope that we can achieve an early resolution of the problems which have arisen.

The Statement made plain the Home Secretary's proposals for talks with the national executive committee of the Prison Officers Association. I hope that the formulation which is spelt out in the Statement is one which covers the suggestions made by the noble and learned Lord that my right honourable friend should respond in the way that has been suggested to facilitate discussions. That is what is suggested in the Statement and that is what will go ahead.

I share entirely the views of both noble Lords when they suggest that any resumption of activities of the type we saw last night would be intolerable not just for the prison service but also for the public. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that I shall of course pass on the congratulations of the House to all those who stayed at their posts and to the governors, who, I can state from experience, having been in the operations room until about two o'clock this morning, were performing a most amazing job in juggling the necessary components of the prison service and the police to meet the need as it arose. I shall do what the noble Lord suggested.

On the suggestion that there may have been a death at Northeye, it has been rumoured—the rumour came from prisoners—that two inmates had died there. I am glad to be able to report that there is no substance in those allegations. The debris of the prison has been sifted and no bodies have been found.

The noble Lord asked whether I could give him any further information about the nature of the inquiry which my right honourable friend has proposed; I cannot at the moment. I hope that the noble Lord will accept the paragraph in the Statement which dealt with the matter. As my right honourable friend has suggested, the inquiry will have to be compatible with any police inquiries into alleged offences. He will of course keep the other place informed and I shall no doubt have the opportunity to keep your Lordships informed.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord that support for governors is essential. Governing a prison is no easy task. There are many competing claims and difficulties facing governors and they therefore need the support of everybody working in the prisons, and people outside, in order to carry out the difficult task that they face, particularly at a time of increasing costs, and, as the noble Lord mentioned, of overcrowding which in some prisons, as he is aware, is acute.

On that matter it must be said again that we have embarked on a huge prison building programme. Over the next few years 16 prisons are to be built. That will be no mean feat. When it is done it will largely meet the concerns which the noble Lord expressed. It comes of course within the whole criminal justice field and there are other matters which must also be looked at. That is a significant and imaginative project which has been taken forward and is gathering speed.

The subject of executive release was raised by the noble Lord the other day, I think. The early release power contained in Section 32 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 is intended for use only in extreme circumstances. I do not believe that those extreme circumstances have yet been reached. It is important to bear in mind that only a dozen or so prisons out of about 125 were affected last night. It speaks volumes for those concerned in the other prisons that nothing more serious happened. Nevertheless, my right honourable friend has said that he is not prepared to use that early release power except in extreme circumstances.

I believe that I have covered most of the points raised by noble Lords opposite.

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether, apart from the 16 young offenders whom he mentioned had escaped from the Wiltshire centre, in the course of those horrible events any other prisoners, and if so how many, have escaped? Can he also confirm, in the light of the better news that he has given us today, whether the normal working of the criminal courts has been resumed?

My Lords, the latest information I have is that 16 prisoners from Erlestoke are thought to be still at large and 10 prisoners from Northeye are similarly presumed to be at large. Those are the only prisoners at large I know of. With regard to the courts, my right honourable friend issued instructions to the courts yesterday in the form of a circular which I announced to your Lordships the other day. It is too early to say whether that should be withdrawn.

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord one question. Nobody can deny that the work of a prison officer is highly skilled and demands a long training and, let us face it, considerable courage. Can he say what steps, if any, the Government are taking to draw more young people into the service, because I understand that one of the great difficulties has been due to understaffing in the prisons?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the task of a prison officer is a difficult, dirty and often dangerous one. Nevertheless, many of those who work in prisons are extremely highly motivated and do a great deal for the benefit of the prisoners. Current plans are to recruit at least 1,200 prison officers during the present financial year. As I said the other day, between 1979 and 1985 the number of prison officers rose by 18 per cent. to nearly 19,000 while the prison population rose by only 12 per cent.

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House how far existing prison officers' salaries compare with equivalent grades in the police force? If that information is not immediately available, will he let me have it in writing?

My Lords, I do not have a direct comparison with me. I shall let the noble Lord have details in writing. The average earnings of prison officers is in the region of £15,000 a year.

My Lords, bearing in mind that the level of overtime has been and is an emotive issue, does the noble Lord the Minister now appreciate that the working of overtime is called for wholly in the interests of the prison service and that hitherto prison officers have worked overtime to avoid the kind of situation that occurred yesterday? Now that the prospects of talks has emerged, does the noble Lord the Minister accept that prison officers recognise their great responsibility to the service, prisoners, the public and their members and that there must be a successful outcome to the talks? I wish the Home Secretary and the prison officers a fair and honourable resolution acceptable to both parties.

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says about overtime, but I am sure he will realise that the amount that is being worked to achieve an average figure of about 16½ hours of overtime a week must in many cases lead to excessive amounts of overtime. I must say that while it is important that one's response to these issues should be measured, there are many examples, of which the noble Lord will be aware, which lead to inflexibilities in the system and to a promotion of overtime. That is why it is suggested that we discuss the package set out in my right honourable friend's letter of 22nd April. I hope that what has been said in the Statement today will go some way towards that.

My Lords, has the Prison Officers Association made any claims or set of demands that can be put on the record so that the public may understand what the dispute is about? If we are to resolve it, is it not a good idea to know what it is about? Although I have followed all the events, I have great difficulty in knowing what the row is about and what justifies the action. The public must be as uninformed as the rest of us. What is the reality of the dispute?

My Lords, there is, I suppose, a fairly substantial history to what has arisen over the past few weeks. The Prison Officers Association says that it is concerned about the maintenance of safe manning levels and regimes. It seeks the right in negotiations to determine what those manning levels should be. My right honourable friend and I are as concerned as the POA about the safety of prison officers and their professional standards, and we have repeatedly made clear that management is ready to consult the POA about manning levels. But I cannot concede that the union has a right to determine those levels. In effect, that would give the union and not Parliament the right to set the budget for the prison service.

My Lords, I rise from these Back-Benches for a reason that the House will know, by virtue of the fact that I have disclosed an interest in that my firm acts as legal advisers to the Prison Officers Association. I think we all welcome the Minister's Statement, as repeated in this House, and the words of wisdom that fell from my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones. May I suggest, in view of the fact that discussions are to take place, that further questions of the nature of the last two are not very helpful? Could we therefore proceed to the next business?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what I think was a suggestion that, at a time when emotions run fairly high and considerable damage has been done, it is not sensible to raise the temperature any further than it has already been raised. I am grateful to him for suggesting that.