HC Deb 13 February 1908 vol 184 cc284-8
SIR WILLIAM BULL (Hammer smith)

said he wished to ask the Home Secretary a question, of which he had given private notice, or, in the absence of the right hon. Gentleman, anyone representing the Government, whether it was the fact that that afternoon Mrs. Pankhurst was arrested at Caxton Hall on her return from the South Leeds election, and, if so, by whose orders.

MR. CLAUDE HAY (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

asked why the suffragist ladies who were sent to prison as political offenders were not as well treated as men when they were imprisoned as political offenders.

MR. T. L. CORBETT (Down, N.)

desired to know why the Home Secretary, who was specially informed half an hour ago that these questions would be asked, was not in his place. He also asked whether the ladies now in prison were being treated as first class misdemeanants or whether they were being treated more harshly than the hon. Member for North Westmeath (Mr. Ginnell).


who entered the House at this moment: I understand that the hon. Member has asked me two questions. The first is with regard to several arrests this afternoon. As to that I have boon in my room all the afternoon, and have not heard anything about the arrests referred to, but I will, of course, make inquiries. I am also asked with regard to the treatment of the women who have been committed to prison. I understand that the question is asked why they have been sent to the second division and not to the first.


said that perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like the question asked again. It was whether the ladies now in prison were being treated as first-class misdemeanants or whether they were being treated more harshly than the hon. Member for North Westmeath. [An HON. MEMBER: What does he know about Westmeath?]


I have nothing whatever to do with the hon. Member for North Westmeath, whose case has been cited as an example of the treatment of a certain class of prisoners. I have no responsibility at all in that matter. It was the decision of the High Court in Ireland. With regard to the imprisonment of these women, I have to say that in my opinion it is a question for the discretion of the magistrate, and it is no part of the duty of the Home Secretary to interfera with that discretion when he considers it has been properly used upon the responsibility of magistrates or Judges in the public interest.

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.)

said he did not think the Home Secretary quite appreciated the question. They had now a set of political prisoners in England and a political prisoner in Ireland. The hon. Member for North Westmeath, who had been arrested and put into prison by the order of a Judge of the High Court of Ireland after hearing everything that the hon. Member had to say, was being treated as a first-class misdemeanant, while in this country certain ladies who, in con- sequence of their attempt to enforce what they considered to be their political rights, whether wisely or unwisely, dicereetly or indiscreetly, were sent to prison and treated not as first-class, but as second-class misdemeanants. He did not say that the hon. member for Westmeath should be treated in the second class. But the contrast in the treatment of the two classes of prisoners was striking and required an explanation. Perhaps the Homo Secretary would allow him to remind him that although the matter very materially rested in the discretion of the Court which sent a person to prison, it was quite possible for the Home Secretary, and he had often done it, to intervene in such cases and direct that prisoners sent to the second division should be treated in the first. It was done in the cases of Mr. Stead and the present President of the Local Government Board (Mr. Burns). At any rate it had been repeatedly done, and he thought the House was entitled to something more than the ipse dixit of the Home Secretary that he regarded the discretion of the police magistrate as having been properly exercised and that he would not interfere. He thought they were entitled to hear from the right hon. Gentleman some reason why these ladies should be treated in this way.

MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

said the Irish party had always consistently supported the view that political prisoners should be treated as first class misdemeanants. He did not see why the name of the hon. Member for North Westmeath should have been brought into the discussion at all. The hon. Member had been referred to as a political prisoner for the purposes of comparison. But that was not the case. The hon. Member was a contempt of court prisoner, and therefore was entitled to be treated, not as a first-class misdemeanant, but as a debtor for contempt of court and they had a very serious grievance about his case, but he did not think anything was gained by bringing in his name. Whenever these cases had been raised in this House, notably in regard to the Jameson raiders, a Member of the Government which the noble Lord supported, came and asked him if the Irish Members would oppose a proposal to treat them as first-class misdemeanants. Although they were opposed to the raiders, he said the Nationalist party considered that they were political prisoners and ought to be treated as such. At any rate, he held that these ladies ought to be treated as political prisoners. He trusted that the next time an Irish political prisoner was committed to gaol the noble Lord and his friends would remember to apply the principles to which they had given expression.


I did not intervene in this debate on the ground of any principle. I merely wished to extract from the Home Secretary his reason for treating these women as second-class misdemeanants.


Then are we to understand that the noble Lord has no desire to see these ladies treated as political prisoners?


The hon. Member is anxious, if he can, to misrepresent what I said. [NATIONALIST cries of "Oh."] I have expressed no opinion in this matter. My only desire is that nobody should be punished more severely than they ought to be punished; and certainly I think that unless we are given some good reason for the treatment of these women in the second-class they ought to be placed in the first.


said that Members of the House of Commons and the people outside it were entitled to know what the noble Lord's opinion was. Everybody knew what the offence of these ladies was, and the noble Lord could not shelter himself by saying he did not know. The Nationalist party held that these ladies were political prisoners, and said that men or women who founded themselves on political motives ought to be treated on a different footing from ordinary criminals. He was afraid the true interpretation of the noble Lord's attitude was that in England political prisoners, whether men or women, should be treated as first-class misdemeanants, and in Ireland as criminals.

MR. BRIGHT (Oldham)

said he visited one of these prisoners at Holloway, a very worthy woman, however mistaken, and it was distressing to him to see one whom he had known for twenty years dressed in the degrading costume of prisoners in the second division. He thought such treatment was an unnecessary degradation of women who, whatever they might think of their actions, were actuated by the highest motives.

MR. A. C. CORBETT (Glasgow, Tradeston)

thought the condemnation of these ladies to the second class amounted to political tyranny.


May I point out that these ladies can come out of prison whenever they like by giving sureties for their good behaviour. Surely they cannot have it both ways. Last year I did take certain action, and I made certain representations. The offences then committed were committed for the first time, and I hoped that the most lenient treatment would have a good effect. The lenient treatment, however, was used, because of the privileges it conferred in prison, simply for the purpose of encouraging the commission of further offences of the same kind. The magistrates in the exereice of their discretion, having experience in these matters for the last year and a half, came to the conclusion that action on their part was necessary in the interests of the public, and exercising that discretion fairly they have delivered their judgment. To my mind it is no part of the Home Secretary's duty to be constantly interfering with the discretion of the stipendiary magistrates, who are capable and experienced men doing their duty as well as they can in time of difficulty. I further say that if I were to interfere in this case, because of any opinion I myself might hold in regard to the offence, it would be a most serious discouragement to the stipendiary magistrates in doing what they think necessary in the discharge of their duty.

Adjourned at a quarter before Eight o'clock.