Offence of Prison Mutiny

Part of Clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 28th January 1992.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:45 pm, 28th January 1992

I take that point. The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) and I will both have a little gloat and then get on with discussing amendment No. 4, the purpose of which is to improve the Bill still further.

We left the Standing Committee thinking that, if the Government made a concession, the first concession that they were likely to make would be that embodied in amendment No. 4. In Committee, the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West argued persuasively that the number of people whose involvement constituted a prison disturbance or mutiny should be more than two. The Minister of State promised to think seriously about that. As the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West pointed out perceptively, if the figure is set at two, what two or three prisoners get up to in a cell could be construed as a riot under the Bill, and the 10-year penalty could be incurred. We were therefore somewhat surprised that the Government had not moved on the numbers question.

Today, we offer the Government an honest compromise of not 12 prisoners but six. It would be a very positive step if we could agree on six, which is a more sensible number than two. We argued in Committee that the number was too low and suggested that 12 would bring it into line with the offence of riot in the Public Order Act 1986, which also carries a 10-year prison sentence. The Minister was unable to accept that suggestion, but said that there had been forceful argument in favour of a lower number and that she would reconsider the matter. We have not heard the result of that reconsideration. Perhaps when the right hon. Lady gets to her feet she will give us some more positive news. Six seems to us to be the number that reasonable people trying to improve the Bill and to reach an accommodation could accept.

The reason behind the precise wording of the amendment is twofold. First, the notion that two people could commit such an offence in a prison seems far-fetched in the extreme. We have to pinch ourselves sometimes to remind ourselves that this Bill was considered necessary as a result of the Strangeways riot. The Government, again, got their response out of proportion to what had occurred. This was a crisis; a ghastly wave of prison riots and disturbances and the Government had every right to be concerned and to do something about it. But to do something about it in this particular way seems to us to resemble the personal imprint which the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State seems to have imposed on the Home Department.

We have a domestic crisis—it may be dogs one day, a prison riot on another, political refugees on another, the number of offences of taking and driving away cars on another—and the Home Secretary thinks tip yet another piece of instant legislation that he can whip through the House of Commons, because we do not seem to have much of a legislative jam at the moment. We have a small, speedy piece of legislation to react to every ill.