§ 16. Mr. KING
asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is aware that every man concerned in the demonstration at Dartmoor settlement on 8th February received a charge sheet on 10th instant; that on 9th February these men were confined after labour hours to the settlement precincts and are still being so confined, although no decision had been come to on the charges made; whether it is regular for the Home Office Committee to impose punishments before the case is decided on; and whether he was aware of this detention when he replied in the House on 14th February to questions on this matter?
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Sir George Cave)
On the 8th instant 569 of the men employed under the Committee on Employment of Conscientious Objectors at Prince-town refused to do any work, and as there could be no question that a serious offence had been committed by these men the manager, in exercise of the powers conferred on him by the Committee, confined all the men concerned to quarters after labour hours. The Committee subsequently had before them the explanations 1223 of the men concerned, and the report of an inquiry held at their request by the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester. After consideration, they approved the action of the manager, increased the period of confinement to quarters to fourteen days and reduced all the men concerned to Class E for a period of six weeks. In addition, they requested the Army Council to recall to their units two of the men's leaders who were chiefly responsible for the strike, and these men have now been recalled.
§ Sir G. CAVE
No; on the contrary. It appeared from the statement made in the House on the same day. that the men were temporarily confined to quarters.
§ Sir G. CAVE
Certainly not. An hon. Member asked what disciplinary action would be taken, and I said that must depend upon the result of the inquiry.
§ Mr. KING
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that this punishment, which it was understood would, at any rate, be deferred until after the inquiry, has caused the greatest ill-feeling and discontent even amongst those who have willingly accepted and carried out the Home Office scheme previously?
§ Sir G. CAVE
I am not aware of that. As a matter of fact, the whole period of confinement before the inquiry has been reckoned as part of the period of confinement awarded as a result of the inquiry.
14. Mr. EDMUND HARVEY
asked the Home Secretary whether any inquiry has been made as to the death of H. W. Firth at Prince town work centre; whether attention was called to the state of his health while in prison and while at the work centre; and whether he can state up to what date before his death he was still at work under the direction of the authorities?
§ 17. Mr. KING
asked the Home Secretary whether he is aware that Dr. Battiscombe admitted in his inquest evidence on the ease of H. W. Firth, who recently died at Dartmoor settlement, that when the deceased complained of cold and requested that he might have some eggs for nourishment, he told him that it was colder in the trenches, and that all the eggs were wanted for the soldiers; whether it is in accordance with the traditions of the public service that a dying man should be subject to taunts at the hands of public officials; whether H. W. Firth was dead when the eggs were subsequently supplied; and what action he proposes to take?
§ 19. Mr. ROWNTREE
asked the Home Secretary whether his attention has been called to the case of H. W. Firth, a conscientious objector to military service, who died at Prince-town on 5th February; whether he is aware that this man, when in a state of extreme weakness, was compelled to work in the quarries, and when he complained was accused of malingering, was refused special diet when in hospital until within two days of his death, and was not allowed to telegraph for his wife, on the ground that it was unnecessary, on the evening before his death; and what steps he proposes to take in the matter?
§ 25. Mr. SNOWDEN
asked the Home Secretary whether he has received any request from the Dartmoor settlement to hold an impartial inquiry into the treatment of conscientious objectors in the hospital there; what reply does he propose to make to this request; and whether complaints have been made in the past concerning the hospital treatment at the Dartmoor settlement?
§ Sir G. CAVE
The facts as reported to me are as follows: Shortly before his release from Maidstone Prison, Firth was passed by the medical officer as fit for either class of labour, and there was therefore no occasion for sending a medical report with him from the prison to the work centre. On arrival at Prince-town he was put to winding the quarry winch with three other men. This is work which was formerly performed by two convicts, and when performed by four men it is light work. He asked to be transferred to other work because of the cold. The medical officer was not satisfied that a change of work was neces- 1225 sary, but Firth was allowed to wear his overcoat while at work. He was subsequently put on to indoor work—whitewashing. He was admitted to hospital, suffering from a cold in the head, on the 24th January, and was discharged on the 26th January. He was carefully examined during that period, but no serious symptoms were found, except that he appeared to have lost flesh. On the 30th January he complained of weakness and excessive thirst. He was admitted to hospital. Diabetes was suspected, but on examination no sugar was found. On re-examination on the 5th instant sugar was found in large quantities. He then rapidly became weaker, and died on the 6th instant.
Shortly before his death deceased asked for eggs. The medical officer informed him that they were difficult to obtain as they were wanted for military hospitals, but ordered three, which were obtained after some delay. As regards telegraphing to Firth's wife, I am informed his condition was not regarded as serious until very shortly before his death, and it did not therefore appear necessary to the medical officers to summon Mrs. Firth from Norwich. It was, of course, open to any of his friends to do so, and they did in fact send a telegram. Owing to the suddenness of Firth's death, Mrs. Firth did not arrive at Prince-town until after he was dead. An inquest was held in this case on the 8th instant. The verdict of the jury was that the deceased died from natural causes, and they expressed themselves satisfied with the treatment of the deceased by the doctors who had charge of the case. I have no reason to doubt that this verdict and rider were found by the jury after an impartial inquiry, and I can see no ground for any further inquiry into the matter.
§ Mr. KING
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that those persons interested in the deceased—his representatives— were refused any opportunity of challenging the jury, and that, being only admitted at a comparatively late stage of the inquiry, they consider the whole of the inquiry by the coroner a put-up job?
I suppose it is not possible, is it, to discover medical men who are unprejudiced against these unfortunate men?
§ Sir G. CAVE
I resent that question very much. Medical men employed in prisons, as the hon. Gentleman knows, do their very best to attend to the health of those under their care.
§ Mr. WHITEHOUSE
Can the right hon. Gentleman state whether, in view of the sad circumstances attending this case, and the allegations made, he proposes to hold an independent inquiry himself as head of the Department of Justice in this country, particularly with reference to the failure of the medical officer to discover the serious state of the man's health?
§ Sir G. CAVE
That is quite a fair question. As a matter of fact, there is no more independent tribunal than a coroner and coroner's jury. As the hon. Gentleman knows, they are not dependent on the Home Office or any other Government authority at all. The hon. and learned Member for Gloucester went down to Prince-town and made careful inquiry into this matter, and he entirely confirms the finding of the coroner's jury.
§ 18. Mr. KING
asked the Home Secretary whether he has received a request from Dartmoor settlement asking that an impartial inquiry should be held into the hospital administration and the death of Harry Firth; whether the letter draws attention to two grave irregularities in the inquest proceedings in that the representatives of the conscientious objectors were not admitted to the inquest till the jury were sworn, which prevented the exercise of the right of challenge, and that the Press, the solicitor for the widow, and all conscientious objectors were excluded from the room while the jury deliberated, and that the prison doctors and officials were allowed to remain with the jury; and what action he proposes to take?
§ 26. Mr. SNOWDEN
asked the Home Secretary whether he has received representations from the Dartmoor settlement concerning the irregularity of the proceedings at the inquest held on H. W. Firth; whether the men's representatives in- 1227 structing the solicitor for the widow were not admitted until the jury had been sworn, when the right of challenge was gone; whether the Press representatives, the solicitor for the widow, and the representatives of the conscientious objectors were excluded from the room in which the jury deliberated, but the coroner, the two doctors whose conduct was impugned, and the prison officials stayed behind with the jury; and, if so, whether he will inform the House what action he proposes to take in the matter?
§ Sir G. CAVE
I am making inquiries of the coroner as to these points, and will inform the hon. Members of the result.