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 Peter Brooke Mr Peter Brooke The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 3:31 pm, 4th March 1992

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's tribute to Lord Colville and the prison staff. His first question related to the de facto arrangements within Belfast prison. Following representations in 1990 by certain public representatives, the Government introduced new unlock arrangements to reduce the possibility of confrontation between the factions. Those involve staff making an assumption about which faction will accept the offer of exercise or evening association. Those sensible and pragmatic arrangements fall far short of segregation, and I confirm that the position will remain as the hon. Gentleman asked.

The hon. Gentleman asked about remand times. When the enabling powers on the application of statutory time limits to which I referred in my statement were taken in 1987—they were renewed in 1991—the then Minister of State said that the Government would have to be confident that any scheme was unlikely to have the effect of procuring the release on bail, or even the discharge, of a person indicted for serious terrorist crime. That prospect was still a possibility when the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 was debated, and it remains so today. Therefore, that consideration will weigh with us in examining the issue.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the difficulty of raising the time limit. Several conditions will apply. He will know from his research that the number of weeks on remand had been falling and that the trend then reversed. One of the questions that we have been asking ourselves is why that change occurred. The upsurge in terrorist violence since 1989 greatly complicated investigations by the RUC and has resulted in a number of complex, multi-defendant trials, which largely negated the effectiveness of our initiatives.

There is no value judgment in what I am saying—I am simply being descriptive. Additional factors have been the increasing tendency of the defence to challenge police notes, and to request ESDA—electrostatic data analysis —tests and the problems experienced by the RUC in interviewing witnesses in certain areas.

I reiterate that the issues responsible for the delay in remand times are being considered urgently in the light of the reversal of the trend.