HC Deb 03 May 1867 vol 186 cc1987-91

said, he objected to the withdrawal in order to give an opportunity to the Home Secretary to reply to the following Question, which he had put on the Notice Paper—namely, Whether the attention of the Secretary of State for the Home Department has been called to certain statements which lately appeared in the public newspapers in reference to alleged harsh and cruel treatment of prisoners undergoing penal servitude for political offences; and, if so, whether he has made any inquiry with respect to them, and taken any steps or given any instructions in consequence?


My answer to the Question put by the hon. Member will at the same time answer to the wish he himself expressed when putting the Question—namely, that he hoped the statements to which he referred would be found devoid of foundation. As soon as I received notice of the hon. Member's Question, I directed inquiries to be made, and the result has been a Report upon the subject. I will not trouble the House by reading the lengthened statements which I hold in my hand, but merely the short answer to the allegations which have been made. It had been stated that Lynch died of the treatment which he received in gaol. The fact is that he died of consumption of long standing. Luby and Keane were said to have suffered from dysentery caused by gruel which was given to them. The fact is not so. To the assertion that the prisoners were all stripped naked and kept one hour waiting for the doctor at Portland, the answer is, "This is false." These papers enter into the circumstances of a variety of cases. One man was said to have broken two of his fingers. That is untrue. [Mr. MAGUIRE: What about Roantree?] Roantree was said to have been suffering from a painful disease, and to have been kept at work till he was pronounced incurable. This is not true. O'Donovan Rossa is said to have undergone constant punishment. This was his own fault, for he seems to have been constantly rebelling against the laws of the prison. The allegations that the cells are damp and that the convicts were forced to work in the rain and were kept in their wet shirts are reported to be untrue. I wish to remark that I am giving merely a summary of the answers which are contained in the Reports. I am perfectly willing to put the Reports themselves into the hands of the hon. Member, and before I came down to the House I said that if there was any case in which, having read the papers, he was not satisfied, it was my wish that the hon. Gentleman should, by communication with Colonel Henderson, have the fullest opportunity of prosecuting further inquiries. As to the general question about prisoners undergoing penal servitude as Fenians being treated differently from those placed in penal servitude for other crimes, that is a very grave question to be discussed and decided, independently of present considerations. I do not offer any opinion upon that question at the present moment. It is a fair subject for discussion. But this is evident that there would be great difficulty in drawing a distinction between different classes of offenders condemned to similar punishments, and treating them in different modes. The hon. Member said the Fenian prisoners were classed with common felons and murderers. That is not correct; the Fenian prisoners, instead of being classed with such offenders, were kept apart.


You have not said anything about Kickham and the "monster of iniquity."


The statement was that Kickham was associated at Woking with a monster in human form. The answer is that it was not so.


said, that the subject, because it was an Irish one, was treated with an amount of levity which would not be tolerated if the complaint proceeded from an English Member of irregularities in English prisons. The statement made by the Home Secretary was anything but satisfactory. In reply to allegations such as had been put forward, the fullest details instead of short answers ought to have been given. The statement as to the water-closets and several others were not denied. As regarded Lynch, said to have died of consumption of long standing, nothing was so likely to accelerate the fatal effects of consumption as depriving the invalid of his flannels. The answer of the Secretary of State and the reception given to this Motion showed that the House did not care what the opinion of Irish Gentlemen might be on this subject. A solemn silence would be preserved if complaints of cruelties in prisons were preferred with regard either to England or to Naples.


I think the remarks made by the hon. Member who has just sat down upon the reply of my right hon. Friend are very unjust. My right hon. Friend said he was quite prepared to place all these documents at the disposal of the hon. Member (Mr. Maguire), that the hon. Member might have an opportunity of verifying by these Reports the correctness and incorrectness of the statements made by him; and that it would be for the hon. Member, after perusal of those documents, in case he considered that course desirable, to say whether or not there was anything that he still thought it necessary to bring under the notice of the House. These documents are statements of great length, involving the most minute details, and it would be perfectly impossible for my right hon. Friend, within the ordinary limits of a speech, to go into all the questions to which they refer. If the hon. Member, having read these papers over, thinks that the prison officers have behaved in a cruel and unnecessarily harsh manner, it will be for him to bring those points in their conduct tinder the notice of my right hon. Friend, and if he fails to receive from my right hon. Friend that satisfactory answer which he thinks his inquiries deserve, he still has this House to appeal to. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the last thing any Member of the present Government would sanction would be any unnecessarily harsh treatment of prisoners. The larger question, whether political prisoners ought to be treated in a different way from ordinary criminals, is one that cannot be decided now. There are arguments in favour of such a course, and there are, I think, stronger arguments against it. It would certainly have the effect of throwing upon the Executive Government the invidious duty of determining under what class of treatment particular criminals were to fall. Still, as I have said, the subject is a legitimate one for discussion. I believe that if the hon. Member for Cork will now make inquiries —and after what has passed to-night he is bound to make inquiries—and if he will examine carefully into these reports he will find, I think, that a great number of the statements which he has put forward have been grossly exaggerated. For those which he may find to be substantiated he will have no difficulty in obtaining a remedy.


said, he would appeal to the indulgence of the House to grant him a hearing. He had not made the statement on his own authority. He had given his authority, and had inquired from the Government as to the accuracy or non-accuracy of the facts put forward. The challenge thrown out by the noble Lord he was willing to accept, but only in this sense:—If the Government gave him authority to examine the prisoners themselves. ["Order!"]


It does not appear to me that this is a matter of such immediate urgency that the hon. Member should ask to put on one side the ordinary rules of the House. At the same time, and with the permission of the House, there would probably be no objection to his offering any remarks that may be necessary to clear up any point of moment; but for him to enter into a general statement would be irregular.


said, that if he got permission to make a fair and not an ex parte investigation, he was willing to do so. If allowed to examine both sides in the prisons, he would devote a week to the purpose; otherwise he must decline.


said, he thought the proposal just made a very reasonable one. The truth could not, he believed, be elicited if the reference were merely to be to the gaol authorities, because they would not be expected to criminate themselves. He should be glad, in conjunction with his hon. Friends the Members for Cork and Tralee, to form a trio to examine into the subject if the noble Lord would give them the necessary authority. With respect to the man who was alleged to have died of consumption, if he had consumption no better way could be devised of accelerating his death than to take his flannels from him. The physician should have interfered to prevent that proceeding. There could be no doubt but that taking away the man's flannels had hastened his death.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.