Northern Ireland (Prison Management)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 4th March 1992.

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Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North 3:31 pm, 4th March 1992

I thank the Secretary of State for coming quickly to the House to make this statement.

Before I deal with the content of the statement, my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) has asked me to convey his apologies for his absence this afternoon. He was on his way to the airport this morning when he came upon ,the scene of the foul murder of one of his constituents, who was known to him. He has asked me to express his horror at such a vicious killing—a horror tht I know the House shares. My hon. Friend was looking forward particularly to making his observations on Lord Colville's important report.

Lord Colville was asked to produce his report in the aftermath of another vile act of savagery within Belfast prison. We owe him our thanks for the thoroughness and rigour of his report—qualities which we have come to expect from him. We welcome the fact that the Government have been prepared to accept his recommendations so quickly and largely in full. Our only regret is that the Government have been unable to follow a similar course with many other recommendations that Lord Colville has made about other issues associated with prisons in Northern Ireland.

It is also proper on such an occasion that we should pay tribute to the staff of Belfast prison. They have to work in very primitive conditions, in a highly charged and emotional atmosphere. The staff, at all levels, conduct their difficult task with bravery and dedication. We should pay them proper respect for doing a job that many in the House and within the country would not be happy to carry out.

A number of questions arise from the report and the incident that gave rise to it. The Opposition are glad that the Secretary of State has decided to accept the recommendations. In particular, we are pleased that he will use his powers to reduce remand periods, a course of action that we have urged on him and his predecessors for quite some time. What time limits is he considering? Will he flesh out what he said about the discussions that he will be having with his ministerial colleagues? The House and the country would like further information on this because the reasons for these long periods of remand in Northern Ireland give rise to many accusations.

Will the Secretary of State accept that the physical state of Her Majesty's prison in Belfast, despite recent improvements, is still very much a blot on the face of the Northern Ireland prison service? We know that much money is being spent and many improvements are to be made, but it is still an old, expensive, badly designed prison, which will always cause problems not only for the prisoners but for the staff.

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that prisoners will be kept in humane, secure, sanitary and safe conditions? Will he assure the House that he will take whatever action is necessary to ensure that this is the case? Lord Colville spoke about the best of private practice in Humberside. Will the Secretary of State be able to establish the same sort of regime in Belfast prison, as we shall ensure that it is maintained in the Humberside prison once it is brought back into public control?