Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th December 1973.
asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what financial assistance is available to relatives for visits to prisoners.
Ordinarily, the cost of such visits must be borne by the visitor. Wives and close relatives, however, who are in receipt of supplementary benefits or who are marginally above the supplementary benefit level may receive financial assistance for certain visits to cover the cost of travel by public transport.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the prisoners to whom this Question refers are scattered in gaols from the Isle of Wight to Aberdeen? Two young women are being held in a male prison quite unsuited to the purpose. Many of the prisoners are being forcibly fed and others are in almost constant solitary confinement. Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that all these factors, plus the difficulty of organising visits and of relatives obtaining factual information, mean that these prisoners have become, and I fear will remain, yet another focal point for further troubles in the Six Counties? Will he not now urgently consider the transfer of these prisoners back to Northern Ireland?
The question of the transfer of the particular prisoners the hon. Member has in mind has been settled. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is responsible, has made a clear statement, so I shall not reopen that matter. Generally, the greater number of prisoners of the kind we are talking about who are in this country are here because they requested it. In terms of visits they are all treated the same, and if their close relations, as I defined them, are near or just above the supplementary benefit level, they are all given assistance.
Does not the Minister feel that he should make a distinction for those prisoners who are in prison without being tried? Should not their nearest and dearest be entitled to financial assistance for visits?
I am very happy to put right what I think is otherwise an obvious misapprehension—which is unusual for the hon. Member, who usually does his homework. The relations of detainees, to whom he is referring, are treated in exactly the same way as those of prisoners.
While not entering into the merits of the alleged crimes that these people may or may not have committed, what we are concerned about are the strain and emotional hardship placed upon many of their families in making visits both to the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland and also to prisons in this country. We appreciate what the Minister has said about extra help for those just above the supplementary benefit level, but many hon. Members and members of all communities in Northern Ireland would like a statement that the whole of this matter is being considered much more sympathetically, with the object of giving greater hope, encouragement and assistance to the families, ensuring that they will be fairly treated in seeing their people who are in gaol.
I cannot respond unduly to the hon. Member. I am certain that we should have a totally humane approach where there are very low resources, and that that should be done regardless of the nature of the crime. I take the point that the hon. Member is not condoning the crime. But beyond that the taxpayer should not reasonably be asked to go. I shall gladly look at any particular case if the hon. Member wishes me to do so.
Will my hon. Friend review the practice of granting special political status to prisoners who have been tried for terrorist crimes of violence? Is it right that they should have special privileges? Would it not be a better deterrent if all the prisoners in Northern Ireland were treated alike?
That is a much wider but very important matter. My right hon. Friend has no immediate proposals for changing that status.
Why is it possible for certain prisoners who have been convicted in Northern Ireland to be allowed to serve their sentences in British prisons at their request, while the Minister has consistently refused to allow prisoners who are currently undergoing grossly inhuman treatment in British prisons to be transferred at their request to prisons in Northern Ireland?
The reason, baldly, is very simple. It is that in Northern Ireland we are under great pressure in terms of prison accommodation, for reasons that the hon. Lady will know. Although the matter is in no way in my jurisdiction or that of my right hon. Friend, I must say clearly that the ordinary duty of safeguarding the health of a prisoner is a proper and understood duty over here, and is a very different thing from talking about inhuman treatment.