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Prison Security

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about prison security.

I am today publishing the report of Sir John Woodcock's inquiry into recent events at Her Majesty's Prison Whitemoor, and the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, His Honour Judge Tumim, of his inspection there earlier in the year.

Sir John Woodcock's report reveals a dreadful state of affairs at Whitemoor. I shall tell the House this afternoon what happened, the extent of the problems that exist, and the radical action which I believe needs to be taken to remedy them.

I turn first to what happened. On Friday, 9 September six prisoners attempted to escape from Whitemoor. The six prisoners were category A inmates who were held in the special secure unit. Shortly after eight o'clock in the evening, the prisoners, who were in possession of two guns, got out of the special secure unit and scaled the perimeter wall of the prison. A prison officer was injured by a gunshot during the escape.

All six prisoners were recaptured speedily. Four were apprehended almost immediately they got over the wall. The other two prisoners were arrested by the police about half a mile away from the prison. I pay tribute to the actions of the prison staff and police officers who apprehended these armed and dangerous men.

The following day, I appointed Sir John Woodcock, formerly Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, to conduct an inquiry. His terms of reference were: to inquire into all the circumstances surrounding the escape of six prisoners from the special secure unit of Whitemoor prison on the evening of Friday 9 September 1994; to report his conclusions to the Home Secretary; and to make recommendations on any action that should be taken to avoid a recurrence.

On 22 September, police officers conducting comprehensive searches at the prison discovered about one pound of Semtex explosive and three detonators. The find was made within a sealed storage container, which was within the perimeter of the prison but outside the special secure unit and other prison accommodation. Sir John Woodcock agreed that his inquiry should consider how those materials came into the prison.

There was an immediate need to reinforce security at Whitemoor and throughout the Prison Service. The following steps were taken for that purpose.

The special secure unit at Whitemoor was closed. An extensive programme to improve physical security at the prison was instituted, including reinforcement of the prison perimeter fence and provision of additional closed circuit cameras. That programme also includes the strengthening of the perimeter of the special secure unit itself, with additional alarm and detection devices. Additional searching facilities are being installed in the special secure unit, with an X-ray machine and metal detecting portal. The unit will not reopen until the full programme has been completed in the spring. Full searches of all dispersal prisons holding high security prisoners were undertaken. Detailed specialist security audits were carried out at all special secure units.

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All prisons holding category A prisoners were instructed to ensure strict enforcement of the searching procedures that are set out in the Prison Service manual on security.

Security was reviewed at all dispersal prisons, local prisons and category B training prisons, using each establishment's security audit; and all prison governors were instructed to re-examine their physical and procedural security measures.

I turn now to the conclusions reached by Sir John Woodcock. I am extremely grateful to him, especially for the speed and thoroughness with which he conducted the inquiry.

The report conveys a devastating picture of the regime in the special secure unit at Whitemoor. Sir John concludes in paragraph 9.30:

"everything which could have gone wrong has in fact done so". Sir John found that tension was high at the unit from its opening in 1991. He says at paragraph 9.7:

"The Special Secure Unit lasted only three days from its opening before it suffered the first of many challenges from the inmates". That confrontation was about the searching of visitors, following which prisoners were allowed to get what they wanted, and that, in Sir John's words,

"set the tone of ensuing prison officer-inmate relationships". He went on in paragraph 9.8:

"The episode represented a victory for inmate power which was the foundation of more to follow".

The inquiry found many loopholes in the practices and procedures adopted at the prison. Paragraph 9.4 states:

"At times it was difficult to find something being done in accordance with the Manuals."

Sir John also found that the amount of property allowed to prisoners made the searching of cells impractical, but statistical returns purported to show that searches had been fully carried out as required by the Prison Service security manual.

The report also highlights significant management failures. Managers in the prison should have known what was going on. The report also identifies a number of instances when Prison Service headquarters failed to provide the governors with the clarity and strength of support that they had a right to expect.

My first and overriding aim is to put right that which has gone so badly wrong. The Woodcock report makes 64 recommendations under 13 headings. I accept all of them. They cover the need to improve surveillance and observation; to improve the control of prisoners' property and the searching of their cells; to tighten up security procedures for visits and the searching of staff; to improve arrangements for the transfer of inmates' property; to improve security arrangements for new prison construction; to strengthen physical security measures at Whitemoor; to use dogs more effectively; to review the procedure for opening new prisons; to review inmate privileges; to improve staff selection and training; and to improve the effectiveness of management and supervision. Many of those recommendations either have been or are being implemented. I have asked the Prison Service to prepare by the end of January a detailed timetable for each recommendation and the Prison Service has undertaken to provide that. I intend to publish that timetable except where there are security implications.

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I have also considered whether more can be done. I have concluded that it is necessary to go beyond the security recommendations contained in the report. Three additional specific measures will be taken.

First, a more systematic method of recording and evaluating intelligence and security information on staff who might present a security risk will be introduced. Advance warning is clearly one of the most effective means of preventing escape attempts. Secondly, staff in high-security units will be equipped with personal alarms. Thirdly, the walls and fences of high- security units will be reinforced further with additional alarm, detection and anti-climbing devices.

Those measures are designed to address immediately the weaknesses identified by Sir John Woodcock. But I believe that, if public confidence is to be restored, it is essential to go further. An independent assessment is needed to create that confidence. That needs to examine thoroughly every aspect of security, identify any remaining deficiencies, and ensure that they are dealt with. I am therefore appointing General Sir John Learmont, formerly Quartermaster General for the Army, to conduct a comprehensive, independent and authoritative review of security throughout the Prison Service. His terms of reference will be, in the light of the report of the inquiry into the attempted escape from Her Majesty's Prison Whitemoor on 9 September 1994, to review physical security and security procedures in the Prison Service in England and Wales, and to make recommendations.

Sir John will start work immediately. I shall publish his findings, subject to the overriding need not to publish anything which might compromise security. He will be assisted by two expert assessors. One will be Sir John Woodcock. The other will be someone with operational experience in the Prison Service.

Sir John Woodcock's report states that only closed visits would provide completely secure conditions, but he also acknowledges that there are other factors to be taken into account. I propose to ask Sir John Learmont to consider the need for closed visits in special secure units as part of his inquiry. I am also asking Sir John to report to me in 12 months on how far the recommendations of the Woodcock report have been implemented, as Sir John Woodcock suggests should be done.

In addition to security, Sir John Woodcock's report also identifies certain practices which were part of the prison regime, but which I and most hon. Members will consider unacceptable. Those have now ceased. The abuse of telephones identified in the report has now stopped. Controls on the keeping of possessions by prisoners in special secure units have been made more rigorous. The practice of prison officers going shopping at the behest of prisoners has also stopped. Purchases will take place only through the prison canteen. Luxury items will not be allowed.

The House will recall that I am already on record as saying that prisoners must not enjoy privileges as a matter of right, but should have to earn them. The Prison Service corporate plan, which was published in April 1994, already commits the service to put such a system in place. Idle or disruptive prisoners should not enjoy exactly the same conditions as those who are diligent and

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co-operative. Privileges such as additional visits or extra time out of cells should be earned by good behaviour and lost by misbehaviour. The new system will be fully in place by the end of next year.

As part of that new approach, the amounts of private cash that prisoners are permitted to spend will be reduced, and in time the use of unearned private cash will be eliminated altogether.

The measures that I have announced today will deal with the problems identified in the Woodcock report--that is, those relating to security procedures in our prisons. But it is clear from the report that many, if not most, of the problems at Whitemoor arose not because procedures and instructions were not in place, but because they were not obeyed. As paragraph 9.27 of the report points out: "It could be said that what the Prison Service needs to do most of all is to comply with its own written instructions."

Sir John Woodcock's inquiry was not a disciplinary inquiry. Staff whom he interviewed were given an undertaking that their responses would not be used in any disciplinary proceedings. Accordingly, I now need to appoint an investigating officer to carry out a disciplinary investigation. The investigation will consider all levels of the service.

The scope of the investigation and the importance of ensuring fairness and impartiality require the appointment of a person unconnected with the Prison Service. I intend to appoint Sir David Yardley, the former local government ombudsman, to conduct the inquiry, and have today informed the unions of my intention. This inquiry will determine whether evidence exists to institute disciplinary proceedings or any other action against any member of the Prison Service.

In the light of events at Whitemoor, I have considered whether any change is necessary in the arrangements for the supervision of the Prison Service. [Hon. Members:-- "Yes: resign."] I intend to set up a new unit outside the Prison Service to strengthen Ministers' ability to supervise the performance of the Prison Service in accordance with the framework document. [Interruption.] The country will see the frivolous way in which the Labour party is reacting to these serious matters, and will reach a judgment on the fitness of the Labour party even to debate these matters.

I am also publishing today the report of the inspection of Whitemoor by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. The inspection took place in March, and the inspection report was submitted at the end of July. The chief inspector, Judge Tumim, and Sir John Woodcock agreed that the inspection report should not be published while the inquiry was in progress.

The inspection report makes recommendations to the director general, the area manager and the governor, but none to me. When the chief inspector submitted the report, he made three points to me in a covering note. I quote from that note. He said:

"The prison is developing satisfactory regimes despite the difficulty of having to manage two population groups which have to be kept apart. The quality of throughcare needs to be improved. Parts of the prison are very dirty."

The overall conclusion in the report is that Whitemoor had opened successfully. The regime was undergoing severe testing, but its potential to become an effective prison was clear from the enthusiasm and commitment of managers and staff.

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The Prison Service is today publishing its response to the inspection report. I am placing a copy in the Library. The majority of its recommendations have been accepted and are already in hand. What happened at Whitemoor was wholly unacceptable. No one can read Sir John Woodcock's report without being shocked by the catalogue of errors which occurred. The measures I have announced today are designed to ensure effective security in our prisons. They will make the lives of the most dangerous prisoners less comfortable, but they will help to fulfil what must be the first duty of the Prison Service: to keep prisoners in secure custody. I commend them to the House.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn): We fully support the recommendations that Sir John Woodcock makes in his report.

Will the Secretary of State accept that the report describes the most serious breach of prison security for over three decades? Will he also accept that, the breach having occurred, the public owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the prison officers of Whitemoor and to the police, who showed such personal courage and dedication in tackling some of the most dangerous men in Britain?

Will the Secretary of State agree that the first and most fundamental duty of a top security prison such as Whitemoor is to keep the public safe from Britain's most violent criminals; and that the Woodcock report shows that the Prison Service failed in that most basic duty?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the report lists a series of failures which simply beggar belief? They include placing staff in a position where they were manipulated and intimidated by prisoners, so that the prisoners ran the prison. They further include allowing prisoners an inordinate number of possessions which were then used to conceal hacksaw blades, knives, razor blades and a screwdriver, and which prevented prison cells from being properly searched. Inmates in the regime accumulated so much material that it took the police four days to search and log just one inmate's property during the criminal inquiry which followed the prison escape.

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the Prison Service failed to provide adequate monitoring and surveillance of visits, exercise and the hobbies room, which was described as

"an Aladdin's cave of equipment"?

Will he acknowledge that the Prison Service gave prisoners the chance to make their getaway equipment behind net curtains in the hobby room? The report describes it as

"by far the most disturbing and frankly quite bizarre" aspect of this sorry situation? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that, most disturbing of all, the service allowed the highly dangerous bomb-making explosive, Semtex, to be smuggled into the prison?

Against the background of this damning report, does not the Secretary of State understand that, after 15 years of the Conservatives posing as the party of law and order, the truth about this Government is that, while they are strong on words, they are extremely weak on action?

Surely the whole House must share my utter astonishment that, in all 46 paragraphs of the statement this afternoon, there was not a single indication that the Secretary of State was willing to accept any personal responsibility whatever for this monumental failure. [Hon.

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Members:-- "How could he?"] Let me explain how he could. Will the Secretary of State accept that two different people have claimed that he was warned in advance about the situation at Whitemoor --the former chairman of the board of visitors, Mrs. Paddy Seligman, and his hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland)? Why did he not mention either of those claims in his statement?

Let us deal first with the allegations by Mrs. Seligman, who complains in her 1992 and 1993 annual reports of the extremely lax security at the prison, and of an

"apparent disregard by the Home Secretary of recommendations in our Annual Reports."

Where those reports drawn to the attention of the Home Secretary or to any other Minister, as Mrs. Seligman claims, and what action was taken in respect of them?

Secondly, there are the even more grave allegations by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. There is no doubt that, so important did she regard the allegations, that she personally wrote to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and saw him. Does the Secretary of State now accept that he made a serious error of judgment when he wrote back to the hon. Lady, dismissing her complaint in a letter in which he justified the lavish surroundings of that high-security unit as ones

"which were designed to compensate to some extent for the regime inside the unit"?

Did the Home Secretary not compound that error of judgment in the same letter, when he denied that the prisoners had access to a workshop, when the hobbies room was the very workshop in which the getaway equipment was made? Did he take any action following those representations, and does he now accept the claim reportedly made by the hon. Lady in The Observer of 4 December that, had the Home Secretary

"acted on her warnings, the breakout might never have happened"? Will the Home Secretary concede that the delphic wording of his proposal at the end of the statement, which caused much mocking laughter a moment ago, to set up a new unit outside the Prison Service, to strengthen Ministers' ability to supervise the service, amounts to an extraordinary admission that existing arrangements for holding the director of the Prison Service and himself to account have all but broken down? Is that not confirmed by paragraph 9.19 of the report, which says that the so-called "changed agenda", which is all about privatisation and performance indicators, has meant: "There was no space--

no time--

"for senior people to spend time checking compliance with basic procedures."?

Is not this breakdown in accountability right up to Ministers also confirmed by paragraphs 9.28 and 9.29? At paragraph 9.28, Sir John Woodcock writes:

"There exists at all levels within the Service some confusion as to the respective roles of Ministers, the Agency Headquarters, and individual Prison Governors.

In particular, the Enquiry has identified the difficulty of determining what is an operational matter and what is policy, leading to confusion as to where responsibility lies."

Is not the truth that, far from the report exonerating the Home Secretary, as he implied throughout his 46 paragraphs, it simply says that the issue of his accountability is

"beyond the remit of the Enquiry to comment further"?

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Against that background, and given all the other disasters over which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has presided, will he now begin to acknowledge that his position is becoming increasingly untenable? Is not the truth of the situation that the report reveals a catalogue of incompetence and negligence on a truly monumental scale, which has been compounded today by buck passing by the Secretary of State, and by his failure properly to recognise his responsibility for this appalling state of affairs, in which the safety of many prison officers and the public was put at risk? Because of the Home Secretary's failure and that of the Prison Service, public confidence in the prison system has been woefully undermined.

Mr. Howard: Of course I entirely agree that we owe a debt to the prison officers and the police who apprehended the six men who attempted to escape from Whitemoor on 9 September. I acknowledged that debt in my statement, and I pay tribute again to them for their actions.

Of course I agree, as I made plain in my statement, that the state of affairs at Whitemoor which is disclosed in the report is wholly and completely unacceptable. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I was warned in advance of that state of affairs, and he relied on two reports to support that allegation. I shall deal with each of them in turn.

On the point about the 1992 and 1993 reports from the boards of visitors, I did not see them-- [Interruption.] I shall tell the House what the reports contained. The 1992 report made no reference to security whatsoever. The 1993 report made a reference to the fact that the large amount of possessions in cells at Whitemoor--not in the special secure unit, but in the rest of the prison--did impede searching. However, that report was accompanied by an addendum, which was submitted later that year, saying that the position had considerably improved. There was therefore no basis in either of the reports for a warning of the sort to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the correspondence I had with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). Indeed, the relevant part of that correspondence is included as an appendix to the Woodcock report. My hon. Friend will, I know, be the first to acknowledge that there is no reference to security in her letter, and that her concerns did not raise the question of security. She has indicated to me that the report in The Observer to which the hon. Gentleman referred was not an accurate report of what she had said.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the changed agenda in the Prison Service. There is indeed a changed agenda in the Prison Service: everything in the report--which is the product of a culture that has existed in the Prison Service for a very long time--underlines and reinforces the need for change. I am determined to ensure that the necessary changes in the Prison Service are made, and that steps to put right what went wrong are implemented; that is the task to which I intend to address myself.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the public will be appalled and astonished at what he has had to tell us today, but will equally feel that his immediate response when these matters were brought to his attention was perfectly adequate? Is he aware that the account he has given today

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of the fuller response that will be delivered in the fulness of time, following Sir John Woodcock's report, will be welcomed by all? There is obviously a temptation for Opposition Members to scoff and to demand my right hon. and learned Friend's resignation, but that is silly. What we need to do is improve the functioning and operation of the Prison Service, so that surveillance and supervision are better than they have ever been.

As for the list of recommendations for the future, does my right hon. and learned Friend not consider that the time has come to consider dividing visitors from prisoners far more effectively than they have been divided in the past? Is it not time to adopt the glass partitions used in other countries? It is clear that most of the material got into the prison from outside; it ought to have been stopped, and it must be stopped in the future.

Mr. Howard: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his introductory remarks.

Sir John Woodcock considered the possibility of making all visits to special secure units closed visits. It is dealt with in his report, which states that that is the only way in which complete security can be achieved. Sir John acknowledges that other factors must be taken into account. I have decided that the appropriate course is to refer the matter to Sir John Learmont, as part of his general review of prison security.

My hon. and learned Friend has raised an important point that merits serious attention. It will receive that attention from Sir John Learmont.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Home Secretary confirm that it is clear from the report that a previous Minister of State sanctioned the temporary abandoning of thorough searching; that it is clear that dedicated search teams were not used because of a lack of resources set aside for the purpose; and that it is clear that recommendations of previous security inquiries simply were not implemented? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that Ministers were not asking the most obvious questions about security in prisons with which they were supposed to be familiar?

How is it possible that, after all this--and after the sight of a prison being run according to the convenience of its inmates--no one is resigning, the Home Secretary refuses to take responsibility and the director general of the Prison Service is awarded a substantial bonus?

Mr. Howard: Let me deal with those three points in turn. First, the retrospective sanctioning of the temporary abandonment of rubdown searches was put to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold)--on, I believe, the very day on which the 1992 general election was called--in the context of a review of search and security measures in special secure units. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, having had an opportunity to read the report, instructions were given for rubdown searching to be recommenced at Whitemoor and other special secure units before the Whitemoor unit was reopened.

Secondly, it is not true that the recommendation for dedicated search teams was not implemented because of resource implications or anything of that nature. Governors were consulted about it, and were left to decide

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the extent to which priority should be given to specialist search teams in that context. The decision, however, was not taken on resource grounds.

On the right hon. Gentleman's third point, it is true that I am responsible for all the Home Office's activities and for the Prison Service. I am accountable to Parliament for the Prison Service. The director general is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Prison Service.

The bonus to which the right hon. Gentleman referred was paid in respect of the year that ended in March 1994. It was paid in accordance with particular indicators that were specified in the director general's contract, including the number of escapes, and that year saw a considerable reduction in the number of escapes. The director general has agreed that there is no question of a bonus during the current year-- [Laughter.]

Mr. Peter Lloyd (Fareham): The report reveals a shocking story, and no one who has been connected with the Prison Service at any level can feel anything other than shame at the position that it reveals. I am sure from what my right hon. and learned Friend said, however, that he will agree that the energy, effectiveness and sheer personal courage of the officers on the spot who recaptured four of the escapees show a different but equally revealing picture of prison staff.

Will he also accept from me, as the Minister who oversaw the transition from department to agency, that he is wise to establish a new unit to keep him more systematically informed of developments in the prison system? Will he, however, take especial care to ensure that the unit works in a way that clarifies and promotes the sensible division and devolution of responsibility for operational matters in what is an extremely complex service, where the reins can never be kept in a single pair of hands effectively, however much Opposition Members pretend that they can?

Mr. Howard: My right hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the prison officers who were responsible for the speedy apprehension of four of the six inmates who attempted to escape from Whitemoor on 9 September. In considering the basis on which the unit is to work, I shall carefully bear in mind the remarks that he has made, coming as they do from someone with considerable experience in these matters. Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. I deprecate introductory remarks during questions. We are here to question the statement and the Home Secretary. As the House saw, a number of hon. Members rose to ask questions. It will be impossible for me to call all of them if they make long statements and introductory remarks. I must now have brisk questions and brisk answers.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North): Does the Home Secretary accept that his statement sounds more like scenes from a "Carry On" film on prisons than a statement on a high security prison? Having accepted that a Minister was responsible for scaling down searches, will the Home Secretary tell us why searches were not reintroduced until

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after the prisoners had escaped? What was the cost of the phone bill? Having considered everything, will he tell us why he did not consider resigning from his position?

Mr. Howard: I told the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that instructions were given that rubdown searches should be resumed before the Whitemoor special secure unit was reopened. It was not until the publication of the Woodcock report that it became clear that they had not been resumed, in contravention of those instructions, which were clear, specific and absolutely explicit. They were no doubt one of the things that Sir John Woodcock had in mind when he concluded, in the passage that I read out, that "what the Prison Service needs to do most of all is to comply with its own written instructions."

That is the truth about the searches. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I set out in my statement the steps that I took in the immediate aftermath of the attempt to escape on 9 September as to the need to implement all instructions relating to searches and other security measures across the prison system.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham): Does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that Sir John Woodcock's conclusion would have been substantially different had he been asked to produce his report a year earlier? Is not the most disturbing part about the report the fact that it reveals a culture in our prisons where everything is done for the benefit of the prisoners--or, if not for them, for the benefit of the prison officers?

Is my right hon. and learned Friend saying that there is a real distinction between what the report reveals and what happens in all other prisons throughout the country? If that is not the case, what is my right hon. and learned Friend going to do about the conduct of the Prison Service and responsibility for it?

Mr. Howard: There is a great deal of truth in my right hon. Friend's sombre analysis. The extent to which the regime and the failures at Whitemoor exist in other prisons is precisely what Sir John Learmont's review will examine. That review will indicate what action needs to be taken beyond the 64 recommendations of the Woodcock report which I have accepted, and the three further measures beyond that which I said that I have put in hand. It is precisely the analysis behind my right hon. Friend's question that has led me to establish Sir John Learmont's review.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): Has the Home Secretary considered resigning?

Mr. Howard: I have looked very carefully at what others in my position have done in this type of situation. In 1983, a number of terrorist prisoners escaped from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. Many of them got away. At the time, my noble Friend Lord Prior said:

"If I had felt that ministerial responsibility was such that in this case I should have resigned, I certainly should have done so. It would be a matter for resignation if the . . . inquiry showed that what happened was the result of some act of policy that was my responsibility, or that I failed to implement something that I had been asked to implement, or should have implemented. In that case, I should resign."--[ Official Report , 24 October 1983; Vol. 47, c.23-4.]

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