I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of recent incidents in the Maze prison in the House, and I thank Madam Speaker for affording me that opportunity. Recent weeks have seen a serious decline in public confidence in the Prison Service in Northern Ireland as a result of recent events at HMP Maze, which is in my constituency, as is Maghaberry prison. In 1997, we had at least three serious lapses of security at the Maze prison. The first was the discovery of an IRA escape tunnel in March; the second was the escape of the IRA prisoner, Liam Averill, in early December; and the third was the murder of the Loyalist Volunteer Force prisoner, Billy Wright, on 27 December. Those incidents represent serious breaches in security at the Maze prison.
Following the discovery of the IRA escape tunnel in March, a senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, John Steele, was tasked to conduct an internal inquiry. He produced a report, but unfortunately it has never been published. The Minister must tell the House whether the recommendations of that report have been fully implemented and whether they were fully implemented before the escape of Liam Averill and the murder of Billy Wright. If not, why not? Will the Minister give a commitment to the House that the Steele report will be published so that public representatives can examine its recommendations?
Liam Averill was an IRA prisoner who effected his escape from the Maze prison during one of the Christmas parties held in December. I understand from sources in the prison, which have been corroborated by several other individuals, that the governor held discussions with the so-called officers commanding—OCs—of the paramilitary groupings in the prison. Those discussions concerned the arrangements for the Christmas parties. We have evidence of that in an interview with Liam Averill, published in Republican News after his escape. He said that, shortly before he made his escape, he was approached by a member of the IRA staff in the prison and asked if he wished to take part in an escape. He claimed:
I was told that a successful bid could be made through the Christmas parties for prisoners' children.
How did the IRA know in advance that such an escape could be effected at the Christmas parties, unless it was aware of the relaxation in security that would facilitate an escape?
There undoubtedly was a relaxation in security. None of the women and children who attended the parties was searched when entering the prison. No proper searches were carried out of the gifts that those people brought in for the prisoners. That is a significant breach of security, because it enabled individuals to enter the prison without being searched and facilitated Liam Averill's escape. The IRA knew in advance that that would be the case, or the escape would not have been attempted. How did the IRA know? Did the governor discuss those terms with the OCs of the paramilitary groupings? We need to know the truth about that. If the governor's decision to relax security facilitated the escape of that IRA prisoner, serious questions must be asked about his judgment.
I understand that search equipment—similar to that used in airports—which was installed in the Maze prison was not switched on and was not used by the staff. What is the point of having such equipment if it is not used? How were two pistols, used in the subsequent murder of Billy Wright, smuggled into the Maze prison? The search procedures at the prison must be inadequate if pistols can be smuggled in. I also understand that the governor attended the Christmas party at which Liam Averill made good his escape. He therefore escaped under the nose of the governor himself.
In the circumstances surrounding the murder of Billy Wright on 27 December, one of the fundamental issues which must be addressed is the decision of the governor to place Irish National Liberation Army prisoners and LVF prisoners in the same block. Neither of those groups observes a ceasefire at present. They are both engaged in violence and it is extraordinary that the governor should decide to put those two factions together in the same block. Last night on BBC television, the governor confessed that that had been a naive decision. However, the governor's staff advised him against the decision and, at a governor's meeting, senior staff urged him not to proceed and to take steps to separate the two paramilitary groupings. They were a lethal cocktail and a serious incident was waiting to happen. I submit that the decision to house those prisoners in the same block was a major factor in facilitating the murder of Billy Wright. It was not naivety on the part of the governor: I suggest that it was incompetence. The governor, Mr. Mogg, has wide experience in prisons and has served in prisons in England. I cannot understand why someone with his experience and knowledge would take such a decision.
I also believe that the Minister knew of the situation before the murder of Billy Wright. We know that the Prison Officers Association raised the issue of INLA and LVF prisoners being housed in the same block at a meeting with the Minister, but no action was taken to rectify the situation. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain to the House why no action was taken by the governor or by him in the light of the concerns expressed by prison staff.
Last night on television, the governor said that he had talked to the LVF and INLA prisoners and accepted assurances from them that there would be no trouble. It is extraordinary that the governor of a prison should take assurances from prisoners and give them greater credence than the advice of his senior staff. The position of the governor of the Maze prison has become untenable. Given the serious situation which has developed in Northern Ireland, I submit that the governor has no alternative but to resign. If he has any integrity left, he will do so quickly.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, despite his obvious culpability in this matter, the governor of the Maze prison was also subject to pressure from the Director of Security and the Director of Prisons? Should not their position be examined because they, too, are in an untenable position? The catalyst, which was the murder of Billy Wright, is now spreading throughout society and jeopardising the political process that we have all worked so hard to keep in place.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. There are two issues with regard to the involvement of the Northern Ireland Office in this sorry affair. First, why is Governor Mogg only a part-time governor in the Maze? Why is he also a director of prison operations in the Northern Ireland Office? The Northern Ireland Office tells us repeatedly that the Maze is a special case because it is a high-security prison. Why did the Northern Ireland Office appoint a part-time governor to a high-security prison? Who took that decision and why?
Was the management of the Maze prison given political direction as part of the so-called confidence-building process? Was it told to relax security measures to create an air of confidence among the prisoners during the political process? Did political direction from the Northern Ireland Office contribute to the relaxation of security, which facilitated the escape of an IRA prisoner and the murder of Billy Wright?
May I deal with the events on the day of Billy Wright's murder? I have already asked how it was possible, given that the Maze is supposed to be a high-security prison, for the INLA to have smuggled two firearms into the prison, but that was not the first time the INLA had achieved such a feat. The same prisoners who murdered Billy Wright had already smuggled a firearm into Maghaberry prison some months earlier and used it to hold a hostage for several hours. The fact that those prisoners were then transferred to the Maze and were able to repeat the exercise raises serious questions about the prison management's competence and the security measures in place. I hope that the Minister can reassure us on those points.
Were the INLA and LVF prisoners given a copy of the visits rota on the morning of Billy Wright's murder? If not, how did the INLA prisoners know that Billy Wright would receive a visit that morning? I understand from Billy Wright's father, Mr. David Wright, that Billy Wright normally took visits not on Saturday mornings but on Saturday afternoons. Indeed, Billy Wright never had visits on Saturday mornings. Who decided that that visit should take place on a Saturday morning and why?
At about 9.30 on the morning of Billy Wright's murder, someone in the Maze prison ordered the prison officer manning the observation tower overlooking H block 6 to leave his post and report for other duties. That event was significant because the observation tower overlooks the scene where the murder took place. Had a prison officer been in the tower, he would have seen the INLA prisoners cutting the wire, making their way on to the roof and crossing over into the yard where Billy Wright was subsequently murdered. The fact that no prison officer was in the tower enabled the INLA prisoners to move undetected on to the roof and into that yard.
Who made the unprecedented decision to remove the prison officer from the observation tower and why? He would not normally have been removed from the observation tower, because that H block housed both INLA and LVF prisoners.
My hon. Friend will not be aware that, during yesterday's proceedings of the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] in Standing Committee B, the Minister said that my allegation that Billy Wright was in an INLA part of the prison was fundamentally untrue. The Minister said that he was in a segregated wing of a separate block. In reality, he was in another leg of the same H block, so the Minister appears not to know exactly where Mr. Wright and INLA prisoners were.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
Many serious questions must be answered about security and management at the Maze prison. The events surrounding Billy Wright's murder require a stringent inquiry. Many people in Northern Ireland wonder whether it was a series of coincidences and mishaps or pure incompetence on the part of prison staff, but many others suspect that there was collusion. If those suspicions are to be removed and public confidence restored, we need to know how Billy Wright was murdered and why there were serious breaches in security. Public confidence must be restored and the Minister has an uphill task to achieve that.
Those responsible for the prison management—the governor, the Director of Prisons in the Northern Ireland Office, the head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Minister—must reflect on those matters. They must reflect on their judgments, particularly the decision to house INLA and LVF prisoners in the same block.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, the moment Mr. Wright was murdered, I called on behalf of my party for an urgent independent inquiry, which is the only way in which confidence will be restored? Does he share my concern that the distinguished public servant conducting the inquiry will not be regarded as totally independent because he is part of the Prison Service, the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office? Would it not be helpful to have a further inquiry under a completely independent chairman and to publish its report in full? This is not a matter of seeking recriminations; we want to clean the slate, find out exactly what has gone wrong in the Maze and put it right. It does not necessarily matter whose fault it is. Many of us might be to blame, but we must ensure that it does not happen again and that prisoners are kept under a proper regime in the Maze.
I agree that we need a full independent public inquiry into the running of the Prison Service in Northern Ireland. Although I do not doubt the competence of those carrying out the in-house inquiry, there is a complete lack of public confidence in the inquiry. The Minister must deal with that.
The Minister must also say why the governor of the Maze is only part time. Should we not have a full-time governor rather than someone who wears both a policy and a management hat? We need to know the truth behind the escape of the IRA prisoner, Liam Averill. Why were the visitors to the Christmas party not searched? Who took those decisions and why? Most important, we need to know the truth behind the circumstances of Billy Wright's murder within the Maze.
Does my hon. Friend think that the incident will have great repercussions throughout the whole administration in Northern Ireland, given that the people who direct security policy in prisons are also the people who advise on the emergency provisions Acts, the Parades Commission and the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill—the most flawed Bill ever to go to a Committee of the House? Is it not time that we took that issue on board when considering future security administration in Northern Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and hope that the Minister will note his remarks. I hope that the Minister can today allay many of the concerns felt by the people of Northern Ireland about the Prison Service, the competence of those who run the service and those in ministerial positions who have ultimate responsibility for prisons in Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on having obtained this Adjournment debate. In the time available after all the interventions from Opposition Members, I might not be able to deal with all his points, but I shall do my best.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Steele report and it should be put on record that the decision not to publish that report was taken by the previous Government. The incoming Government took on board the range of measures set out in the report, which specifically dealt with a tunnel escape attempt and set out various means of avoiding such escape attempts in future. I shall comment on those measures later.
The hon. Gentleman made several strong criticisms of the operational regime at the Maze and in respect of recent incidents, including the escape of Liam Averill and the murder of Billy Wright. Unfortunately, many of his accusations and the conclusions he draws from them are based on, as yet, unsubstantiated allegations made by a number of sources, some of them anonymous. That is not to say that I am dismissing them out of hand—far from it. There can be no question but that the escape of Liam Averill and the murder of Billy Wright were extremely serious breaches of security. Those incidents have cast considerable doubt on the effectiveness of the security arrangements that were in operation at the prison at the time and, as the hon. Gentleman said, they have seriously damaged public confidence in the management and control of the prison.
Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that I share each and every one of the concerns that he raises. I can equally assure him that all the points that he makes are taken very seriously indeed. Later in my speech, I shall return to the way in which the Government are dealing with them. However, before I do so, it is important to place the Maze prison and those who are held there in proper context.
I have said this before, both in the House and elsewhere, but it is worth repeating: the Maze is unique. There is no other prison anywhere in the democratic world that has such a concentration of terrorist murderers or those convicted of terrorist-related crimes—more than 500 dedicated terrorists who consider themselves to be not criminals, but prisoners of war. It should also be remembered that 29 prison officers have been killed and innumerable numbers threatened, along with their families, over the past 25 years or so. That is the reality not mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.
As many of the murdered prison officers were constituents of mine, let me make it absolutely clear that we deplore those murders. We have nothing but the utmost admiration for the prison officers who serve in the prisons of Northern Ireland and nothing in what I have said is intended as a criticism of them. My remarks are a criticism of management and of those in political control in the Northern Ireland Office; in no way are they a criticism of the prison officers who serve in the Maze prison.
Of course, I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but he did not mention the Maze prison's uniqueness; nor did he try to place what happens in that prison in context or acknowledge the pressures on serving officers resulting from having to deal with those difficult prisoners. That creates unique and difficult conditions which run throughout the management of the prison, from bottom to top and from top to bottom. That reality should never be ignored by those who comment on events and the regime at the Maze.
Given those conditions, the attendant security and control problems are understandably and uniquely complex and difficult when balanced against the need to maintain a humanitarian regime. Those who are charged with the management responsibility of undertaking such a challenging role are regularly faced with the need to make difficult and sensitive decisions about security at the prison. That is an unenviable task which they have to perform on our behalf.
That situation is what the Government have faced since taking office last May and what previous Governments faced in the years before that. It is why the Government have put in place a progressive programme of tightened security measures, including twice daily head counts; cell fabric checks; a comprehensive search of cells and the blocks; control of materials available to prisoners; the installation of enhanced closed circuit television coverage in the blocks; and the scanning of all visitors along with other management measures, with more to come.
It is not the case, as the hon. Gentleman maintains, that security has been relaxed since May. The opposite is true, as the measures I have described prove. Of course, the matter does not rest there. In the light of the most recent, extremely serious, breaches of security, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has commissioned a full, rigorous and independent inquiry into events at the Maze. She has also asked Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons to carry out a full inspection at the Maze prison when the inquiry team has completed its work and reported its findings. Both those reports will be published and copies placed in the Library of the House.
The inquiry is well under way and its report is expected soon. I understand that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley has taken the opportunity to put his views directly to the inquiry team and I have no doubt that what he has already submitted and what he said to the House today, if that differs from his submission, will be fully considered by the inquiry team. However, as the inquiry is not yet complete, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand why it would be inappropriate for me to respond today to his detailed points.
I am, of course, only too well aware of the considerable speculation about what actually happened before, during and after the circumstances that led to the murder of Billy Wright. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that murder is the subject of a Royal Ulster Constabulary investigation and I must take care not to prejudice the outcome of that investigation and any criminal charges which may flow from it. The hon. Gentleman clearly has his own views on what went wrong, or what seemed to go wrong, on that occasion and in relation to the escape of Liam Averill.
The hon. Gentleman may well have obtained his information from sources inside the prison—sources who may have identified or commented on real or perceived shortcomings in security procedures generally within the H blocks. I hope that, if he has not done so already, he will encourage those who gave him that information to speak frankly to and co-operate fully with the inquiry team.
I see the hon. Gentleman nodding, which is good, as such action will help the inquiry team in its investigation. His sources should give the same evidence and views to Her Majesty's chief inspector during his investigation. It is clearly in the public interest and certainly in the interests of the Prison Service that all relevant information is made available to the inquiry team and to the inspector.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's views on the matter of attributing responsibility and accountability for the serious security lapses. I am aware that, in response to public concern, there have been calls for the resignation of Ministers and officials. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made it clear that resignations or dismissals are not an issue. The causes of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers will be clearer when we have the inquiry team's report and the report of Her Majesty's inspector of prisons. It would be wrong to prejudge or to speculate about what will emerge from that inquiry and that inspection; but, I repeat, those reports will be published and I have no doubt the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members will return to the subject at that time.
Let me make it clear that the Government inherited the regime at the Maze. The hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) should reflect on what the Governments he supported did during their 18 years of administration of that prison and on what they bequeathed to the present Government. Before issuing demands for full and independent public inquiries, he should remember that the decision not to publish the Steele report was made by a Conservative Government.
Since May, we have put in place a range of improved security measures. The most recent events have all too graphically highlighted that complacency is not an option and that security needs to be reassessed constantly and changes made where appropriate. The independent inquiry and the inspection to be carried out by Her Majesty's—