Orders of the Day — Prisoners (Northern Ireland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:42 pm on 17th December 1986.

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Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon , Newry and Armagh 11:42 pm, 17th December 1986

I very much welcome the opportunity to debate briefly the problem of those, especially young people, who are sentenced under the pleasure of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and those who are serving life sentences. This is an opportune time to consider the matter, because the nature of the problem is emphasised at this time of year. It is also important to discuss the matter because, in many ways, we are reviewing many of the provisions and terms of justice in the north of Ireland.

One cannot properly discuss the problem without considering the position of young people in Northern Ireland. They have lived their young lives against a background of unrest and violence. Indeed, an entire generation of young people in the north of Ireland have never known normality, have never known anything but violence and have been unable to adjust to the unrest They are caught in the spiral of violence and they have lived through some very emotional periods.

Youngsters from both sections of the community—Nationalist and Unionist—whatever political opinions they have, have all lived through emotional and emotive times. They include the period after bloody Sunday, when 13 people were killed in Derry, when the Stormont Parliament was prorogued, after the deaths on hunger strike in the prisons. It has also happened because of the catharsis in the Unionist community. Young people have become the pawns in this spiral of violence. They hive become the victims of the godfathers of violence, the hate-mongers, those who wish to incite people to violence. It is for that reason that I ask for a review of the procedure under which their sentences are reviewed, and that should be done in a spirit of compassion and humanity.

I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for the way in which he has approached the problem. I am not sure of the figures, but I believe that about 50 have been released under the review system since 1983, and 12 have been released this year. I ask him, at this time of the year, to take the opportunity substantially to increase that figure, because it is the key to many problems that we are not solving.

We are dealing with legislation that was framed in 1969, when this period of violence, lasting four times as long as the last war, could not have been foreseen. It is inadequate because it was not intended to cope with the problems with which it has to cope. Section 73(1) of the Children and Young Persons Act simply cannot deal adequately with the problems that face it. The period of conflict was not foreseen, and the Act was not drafted to cope with it. It was drafted to ensure two things. The first was that young people did not receive the same sentences as adults, who were in a position to make concious judgments about their decisions. Secondly, it was framed to try to ensure that young people did not serve life imprisonment.

Unfortunately, it has done the opposite. It has ensured that the young person receives the same sentence as the adult prisoner, and is reviewed under the same procedure, with one minor change. It ensures that young people are serving life sentences. I know that it is difficult to define a life sentence, but the same norm is being applied to young people as is applied to adults in the review of sentences. The same procedure and time scale are used, with one small difference of eight instead of 10 years. They are getting roughly the same lengths of sentence, with the added factor that in the case of a young person's sentence under the Secretary of State's pleasure, the sentence is indeterminate. That in itself creates problems that do not exist for the adult person who has been sentenced to life imprisonment.

I ask the Secretary of State to examine the basis of the legislation and the review procedure. We are reviewing the Emergency Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act, and we shall soon review the police complaints procedure. We shall be reviewing the legislation on public order. Why do we not have a review of this crucial legislation and procedure? I ask the Minister to consider not just adopting a piecemeal approach but repealing the legislation and replacing it with adequate, updated legislation that is capable of dealing humanely and compassionately with the problems as it is now, and not as it was envisaged in 1969. The fact that the term "the death penalty" was used in that legislation shows how outmoded it is.

I ask the Minister to reconsider the indeterminate length of the young offender's sentence. It has a tremendous psychological effect, not just on the prisoner but on his family and the community from which he comes. The Baker report drew attention to this problem. It referred to the case for compassion and the giving of hope of release at however distant a date. However distant that date may be, it gives the prisoner, his family and everybody else who is concerned something to hang on to. Indeterminate sentences have a tremendous effect on prisoners. One of the saddest duties is to visit young people in prison who were caught up in violence at a very early age and swept along on an emotional tide, prompted by those who had lost not one minute of their own freedom. They say consistently, "If only I knew when I might be getting out."

There are other consequences. People, especially young people, become institutionalised very quickly. It centres on the despair of not knowing when they may once again experience freedom. They become alienated from the outside world and locked into a very introverted society, where they do not benefit from the good influences that they would experience outside prison. They see no future for themselves. They become disoriented from other influences and displaced in time—like something out of a Kafka novel. That is not a humane way in which to deal with young people who were sentenced before they reached the legal age for sentencing.

I know that the Minister of State is aware of the effect on the family and the community. Parents fear that they may not live to see the release of their son or their daughter. That nagging fear is with them day after day. They become bitter against society and against the process of law. Their bitterness starts to translate itself into what can be a very dangerous factor in the community. They look upon their sons and daughters as the forgotten tools of the manipulators of violence and believe that they are carrying the can for them. Their cases should be considered much more seriously. I do not suggest that the Minister is not considering them seriously. I know that he is, but he ought to be provided with the power to deal properly with them.

I do not think that there is a simple answer to the question, but I ask the Minister to consider two options. The legislation ought to be repealed, and the Government ought to consider replacing it with a maximum sentence for young people. I realise the dangers. There are obvious dangers connected with maximum sentences, but they would mean that young people had a date in mind from the beginning of their sentence. It would have to be accompanied by a review half way through the maximum sentence. Or perhaps there could be new guidelines—perhaps a judicial review, when evidence could be given. The details would have to be teased out, because dangers and problems accompany each of those lines of approach.

At present, the prisoner does not appear at any of the review board hearings, nor can he be represented at those hearings, when a competent person might put forward his case. He is unaware of the information that is presented to the board, he is provided with no details of it, and he is not advised of the reason for the refusal, if and when his case is reviewed. That is serious, because if the prisoner knew why there was a refusal, when the final review came he could re-examine his position with a lot more efficiency and accuracy. These review boards are held in camera and there is no accountability. That is surely wrong in a place where there is a crisis of confidence in the process of law. We must have accountability, and at present there is no accountability to the prisoner or to any body.

Those especially interested in the cases of young people should be given some role on behalf of the prisoner. As it is, the only role open to such people is to make representations. Beyond that they cannot go. As I said yesterday in relation to the judicial system, the greater the number of minds working on a problem, the better the chance of a proper resolution of that problem.

One of the conditions of a review, an obvious renunciation of association with paramilitary organisations or political organisations which are associated with paramilitary organisations, is an almost impossible condition for people in prison. It is a closed society and pressures are very strong. People feel isolated if they cannot cling to the one bulwark that they know. I know of the need to protect society and to ensure that people will not return to violence, but this condition should be re-examined, because the weight of pressure, especially on young people, during a long prison sentence is quite enormous. Indeed, the pressure is enormous for the ordinary life prisoner. We must seek for and find some way around that.

I am also worried about the dependability of the lower ranks of prison officers. Many of them are not properly trained and do not have the experience to make the type of judgment that is expected of them. I do not rule out the possibility of prejudice. In prison where people live closely together, there is almost a hothouse atmosphere and ordinary likes or dislikes start to come into play. A way must be found of getting round the problem of people who do not have basic training or expertise and a way must also be found to assess the attitudes of people employed in the prison system.

I conclude by making a plea to the Minister. As we approach the season of peace, and as the bells start to ring in a new year, I ask him to be generous and humane in his provision for parole and for the release of prisoners, especially young people sentenced at the pleasure of the Secretary of State and people who have spent a long time in prison under a life sentence. I suggest to the Minister that the greatest enemy of peace in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, is despair. He has an opportunity to foster hope by taking the type of action that I suggest, not as a gesture, but in the sure knowledge that such releases in themselves release a new spirit in the family and in the small community areas. That new spirit will expand and will have a tremendous influence.

I know that the most potent weapon against hatred and violence is compassion and benevolence. I have seen the effect of those things on communities that are regarded as very hardline. I know that substantial releases would be reciprocated 100-fold and would help us to continue with the task of creating peace in Northern Ireland, a peace based on humanity and compassion.