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Standing Committee D
Thursday 1 April 2004
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 27, in
clause 12, page 8, line 42, leave out 'should' and insert 'may'.—[Mr. Swayne.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 5, in
clause 12, page 8, line 42, leave out
'in the interests of maintaining security or good order'
'because of his serious misconduct or with his consent, for his own protection, or, in the interests of maintaining security'.
No. 19, in
No. 20, in
No. 21, in
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Before the Committee adjourned this morning, I was drawing my remarks to a close. The Minister gave us the benefit of a description of a situation in which the power under clause 12 to transfer prisoners would be most useful. He described a prisoner who had not been convicted of a misdemeanour but who was clearly the ringleader and was involved in planning and directing others. He said that, for the good order of the prison, that person would best be removed.
However, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, some of whose members are present and may cast further light on their deliberations, had fears about precisely such a course of action, which prompted its recommendation. The person described is precisely the sort of person for whom there might be a great deal of support were the proposed action taken, and agitation might result. That is the key issue. My understanding of the Select Committee report is that, if a ringleader was identified in that way and transferred out of the prison, it would lead to agitation that could set the whole prison alight, as it were, whether through a dirty protest, a hunger strike or
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whatever. It was for that reason that the Select Committee advised such caution.
I understand the problems associated with the issue, but I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to place on record the Government's commitment to the sanction and indicate with what caution or robustness they would use it in such circumstances. I hope that we will at least get on the record some indication of their appreciation of the Select Committee's concern.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I was a member of the Select Committee that produced the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers. As he suggests, a difficult situation has arisen. Many of us felt that the step that we are discussing should not have been taken, but now that it has been, we are in the awkward circumstance of having to get it right. He was right to table probing amendments to ensure that the Minister responds to these rather awkward conditions. The dangers to which the Select Committee pointed exist, and what should we do in such conditions?
Mr. Swayne: That was a helpful intervention. I, too, hope that the Minister will be prompted to cast further light on the measure. He has been helpful so far, but he might share the deliberations of the Government further, particularly in respect of the Select Committee's recommendation.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): I thank colleagues for the thoughtful way in which they have addressed this difficult issue. Everyone has recognised the difficulties associated with any course of action, as well as with inaction. I assure hon. Members that the decision to transfer prisoners will be made by Ministers who are conscious of the background to individual cases and alert to any ulterior motives that may lie behind a prisoner's disruptive behaviour. I stress that it is envisaged that the power will be used sparingly and will be subject to regular review. Prisoners will be returned to Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity unless there are compelling reasons why that should not happen.
Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke) (Ind Con): I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Before he concludes his comments, will he turn from politician to historian and contemplate the fact that a significant dimension of problems was added to the so-called troubles by previous Governments taking precisely this type of decision? Will he include in his comments an awareness of that fact and assure us that the mistakes of the past are not being repeated?
Mr. Spellar: I have outlined that there are consequences of inaction as well as of action. Northern Ireland Ministers realise more than most that the hand of history lies on them, and they consider precedents, as those in the Select Committee that made the recommendations would have done; indeed, all of them were extremely experienced in such matters, not least the Chairman. We recognise the difficulties of any course of action, but we think that the provision strikes the right balance and is prudent.
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Mr. Swayne: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Spellar: I beg to move amendment No. 62, in
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 63 to 65.
Mr. Spellar: The amendments provide that prisoners may be transferred to either Scotland, England or Wales. Prison matters are devolved in Scotland, and to legislate in the UK Parliament for prisoners transferring from Northern Ireland to Scotland, a Sewel motion was required in the Scottish Parliament. Such a motion was approved on 18 March, which allowed us to table the amendment.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 63, in
clause 12, page 9, line 1, leave out 'England and Wales' and insert 'that other part'.
No. 64, in
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Barnes: The issue of the transfer of prisoners arises in relation to the problem at Maghaberry and the matters considered by the Select Committee. Clause 12 contains a paradox on the transfer of prisoners. If provision for such transfer had existed prior to the Steele inquiry, the case for separating prisoners would have been weaker because it may have been possible to transfer paramilitary prisoner ringleaders despite the potential problems. That would have removed the need for separations, which cause problems and which the Select Committee correctly accepted as having taken place. The Committee was concerned that they had happened but wanted a firm line, and prison officers and others indicated that, given the word, they would hold the line. It is odd that the same proposals could have been used earlier in different circumstances.
My second point is that the clause contains no distinction between the two sets of prisoners in Maghaberry prison, despite the fact that the case for transferring prisoners out of Northern Ireland seems to relate to paramilitaries in that prison. Why is the clause a general provision applying to all prisoners? I realise that dividing the two sets of prisoners might alter the whole climate in the prison, which may affect ordinary, decent criminals, as they are usually called, as distinct from the paramilitary criminals. In certain circumstances, some ordinary, decent criminals may seek to claim paramilitary status, not least because the provisions for paramilitary criminals may be better.
Mr. Swayne: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as critical mass is important to paramilitaries, some
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prisoners may be pressurised or even intimidated into declaring themselves to be of that persuasion?
Mr. Barnes: There is that difficulty, which is part of my concern. Is it fair for ordinary decent criminals to get caught up in these arrangements? They may do so because of pressure from paramilitary prisoners and outside communities with links to paramilitary prisoners, and because the provisions for paramilitary groups appear to be better. That may be why we are introducing provisions that will be applied across the board, but it is unfortunate that we are introducing a general solution for all prisoners in Northern Ireland because of paramilitary problems.
Mr. Swayne: I want to expand briefly on my intervention. After this morning's proceedings, I handed my copy of the Select Committee's report to the Hansard reporter, but I recall that the Select Committee expressed the strong opinion that there had to be an absolute ban on self-selection in which ordinary prisoners simply declare themselves to be a member of one paramilitary group or another. It said that such a process would lead to precisely the sort of intimidation to increase paramilitary numbers that I described in my intervention, and suggested that paramilitary status be designated only on the clear evidence of police officers and the proper authorities.