HC Deb 07 August 1924 vol 176 cc3202-9

called upon, Mr. Harvey.


Could we not have the Treasury answer to the last speech?


I called upon Mr. Harvey.

4.0 P.M.


I am not going to follow the very interesting speech of the hon. and gallant Member who spoke last, but would like to say how heartily I concur in his plea for a restoration of the Treasury grant for the aid of the universities to the full amount. I am sure that is a point that has the sympathy of all Members in the House irrespective of party. I want to raise the question of our prison system as it is shown in the extremely interesting Report of the Prison Commissioners that is issued year by year, and hardly ever gets discussed in this House, although it affects the well-being of thousands of our fellow-citizens, and, ultimately, affects the well-being of the whole social structure. It is a silent service, but it ought not to be shut out from the knowledge of the House or the interest of the House. It is 30 years since the last departmental inquiry into prisons. Some years ago I brought a deputation of Members of all sides of the House to the then Home Secretary, begging him to have another departmental inquiry. He was most resolute in taking the view that the prison system was perfect, and that there was no need for further inquiry. Since then an unofficial inquiry has taken place, presided over by the present Secretary of State for India, and its Report forms a volume which has been read with the deepest interest throughout this country, and in many other countries, and it has, I am glad to say, already produced a most beneficent result. I believe that the present Prison Commissioners and the present secretary of the Commission are among the most ardent and successful of prison reformers, and I think anyone who reads the last two Reports of the Prison Commission will realise that fact. Happily, the Prison Commission is under the guidance of men who have the welfare of the prisoners deeply at heart, and who are doing their utmost, within the limits of the present system, to secure reform. I want to pay my tribute to those gentlemen, and to the great number of officers under their administration who are working in the same direction, in spite of great difficulties. I wish both to record one or two of the points in which the latest Report of the Prison Commission shows the great progress that is being made, and, at the same time, to urge, that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will use his influence to see that those good steps are not the last steps, and that he will encourage and help the Prison Commissioners to go forward more speedily with the good work they have in hand.

Already, in the silent revolution which has been taking place during the last three years, some of the worst features of the old prison system have disappeared. The cruel, horrible silence which was rigidly enforced in other days has gone, although at present the actual statutory rule is still enforced very strictly, and needs modification. It is Rule 114, which says that "an officer shall not speak to a prisoner unnecessarily." It is quite easy to see that the present Prison Commissioners, with their wide outlook, will always interpret that in the right way, and they do encourage officers to speak words of kindness and encouragement from time to time to the prisoners. But in the past, any such words have been interpreted as unnecessary words, and when a prison officer has spoken words of encouragement, he has been punished. I have no fear of that happening under the present administration, but I do suggest that the rule should be modified to safeguard any danger of its recurrence in the future. Association of prisoners has been encouraged within the last two years, with very satisfactory results. A number of prisoners, the starred class particularly, are allowed some opportunities of association, and I believe that principle could be carried further. I hope it will, because everything that helps to bring out the sense of fellowship in prisoners is something that ultimately contributes to the welfare of the whole community. It will help to make them better citizens. In the same way, the introduction of some experiments on the lines of the American honours system will, I. hope, be carried further.

There are several Members of this House who have the privilege of taking part in the voluntary education system which is now being carried out in many prisons. I wish the Home Secretary could get help from the Treasury to strengthen the efforts that are being made in that direction. There are a great number of volunteers who are taking educational classes in prison, at some inconvenience to themselves, and there are many poor men who can hardly do it unless their railway and travelling expenses are provided. The Government, I think, ought to make greater use of help from professional teachers. It need not involve a large expense on the Treasury, but, especially in the case of juvenile offenders, it would be of the greatest value. I would like to thank the Commissioners for the great reform that they have instituted throughout the prisons in introducing the system of voluntary visits of laymen or clergymen, who, for that purpose, are laymen. They visit the prisoners regularly as friends, and are able to bring the spirit of human fellowship in a way that could not otherwise be brought inside prison walls.

A great deal has been done to promote the self-respect of prisoners by the dis- carding of the horrible prison garb, and the encouragement of the use of more ordinary clothes. I should like to see greater liberty given also in the matter of the receiving of visitors and letters to the great bulk of prisoners than is now allowed. I know that valuable improvements have been made recently by the Commissioners, but I think they might be still further extended. In a great prison in America the visits made to the prisoners take place in the large central hall of the prison, where a large number of chairs are placed two by two and the prisoner's wife, brother, sons or friends are allowed to converse with the prisoner sitting at a considerable distance from the others, and they are not under the constant supervision of an officer and therefore no one could overhear what went on between the prisoner and his visitor. That makes the position much better than if the visit took place with an officer within a foot or two of the prisoner and his visitors.

Sometimes there are intimate family matters that can never be discussed satisfactorily in the presence of a third person, and it often entails great suffering to the prisoner and his family if those opportunities for human intercourse are not allowed. In the case of people coming from a distance, I think there should he an extension of the time allowed for the visit. Sometimes visitors come a matter of 100 miles to see a prisoner in a prison or a Borstal institution, and they are only allowed 20 minutes, after having made a whole day's journey at enormous expense relatively to the small income they receive.

I hope some further extension may be granted in this direction. I should like to have dealt with other points, but time does not allow. I think our present system must be judged more oy its success in keeping people out of prison, because we do not want a large prison population. The passing of the Criminal Justice Administration Act has been instrumental in keeping a large number of people out of prison, and I want to see that Act carried still further. This Measure allows the payment of fines by instalments, and I think this should be made more effective and the principle extended. A great number of people go to prison because they cannot find bail, and for various reasons which, in the long run, amount to poverty. I want to see equal justice done to the rich and the poor in that respect. I should like to have given some personal instances of the way in which these cases are dealt with, and I am sure it is a matter which could easily be looked into, and if dealt with it would make a great difference to the lives of some of our unfortunate fellow citizens. Above all, more should be done to extend the probation system, and make it more effective. After all that is, perhaps, the best way of keeping people out of prison. I think there ought to be a probation officer in touch with every Court, and I hope this Government will carry out that object.

In the case of a first offender, and where juveniles are concerned, the probation officer should be a friend able to assist and advise these people in Court, and he should be allowed to speak for the prisoner. Very often when the offender is a young person he is speechless and unable to present his case, although he might be able to bring forward overwhelming evidence to prove his innocence. If the probation officer was able to see a boy offender before he was brought into Court, and was able to get his case from him, then he would be a real friend in Court, and we should do away with a great deal of the sense of injustice that still rankles. I hope we shall have a further extension of the probation system by applying it also to prisoners after sentence, especially to first offenders—something better than the "ticket of leave" granted to convicts—by which, in cases where the Prison Governor thought it desirable, the sentence might be suspended after a short time of imprisonment, and the prisoner placed on probation. I do not want to trespass on the time of the House and I will conclude by commending those considerations to the Under-Secretary.


I wish to congratulate the hon. Member upon his persistent interest in this very important subject. I agree with his point of view with regard to the general principles which ought to guide the Prison Commissioners in this matter. In studying some of the Reports issued in connection with prison work it has struck me as being very remarkable that the prison population of this country is decreasing yearly. In 1903 the receptions on conviction numbered 167,100, but by the year 1923 they had decreased to 47,371, which is a very remarkable decline. Another fact that the House might take into account is that in 1913 the convictions for drunkenness were 51,851, but in 1923 they were only 11,010.


What country was that?


Those figures relate, I believe, to England and Wales only. In Scotland, I am sorry to say, that crime is a little more prevalent, comparing the prison population with the whole. Whereas the prison population of this country in the past had to be dealt with in the mass the time has now arrived when it can almost be dealt with individually. That is a great step forward. With regard to the problem of the old offender there were 14,500 men and 3,004 women who had been previously convicted came into prison; they had been convicted from one to five times. There were 2,082 men and 3,127 women who had been convicted before 20 times and over. Those are the prisoners who give the Prison Commissioners and the Home Office a great deal of trouble. In the year 1907 there were received into prison 572 persons under 16 years of age. In 1921, only four under that age were received. The best feature of our work—and I think I may claim credit to the present Government for it—is that we have set aside, by arrangement with the Treasury and for the first time in the history of this country, a sum of £22,250 in order to establish a probation system. That probation system, if carried through on the lines which we are proposing, will mean, not necessarily that we shall secure one probation officer for every Court in the land, but that every Court shall be covered.


Does this £22,000 apply to Scotland as well?


If I remember rightly, all questions in relation to prisons in Scotland should be addressed to the Scottish Office.


The Treasury are making a grant of 222,000 for probation officers in England, and what I want to know from the hon. Gentleman is whether Scotland will get any share of that money, because it is as important that the work should be carried on there as here?


I think the allocation is to be settled later on.


Then Scotland will get a share?


I will inquire into that, but I imagine that will be so. That, after all, is the best piece of work which we are attempting to do. I agree with the hon. Gentleman (Mr. E. Harvey) on probation, and I must confess that I have been a little annoyed to see some cases which, in my view, ought to have been put on probation sent to prison. I disagree entirely with the attitude that persons guilty of minor and petty offences, especially young persons, should be sent to gaol at all on the first or, even, the second conviction. Time, of course, will not allow me to reply to all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I can assure him that we shall scrutinise all the points that he has made. One of the difficult problems in connection with the prison population of this country is the debtor.


Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that some of us have been waiting here for hours?


I am finishing now; I have only taken three minutes yet. The debtors give the Commissioners a great deal of food for thought. In 1919 there were only 1,830 debtors in prison, whereas in 1923 there were 12,995. I want to conclude on this note. So far as I understand this problem—and it may interest the House to know that I have myself been in prison; I have been there officially and not as a prisoner—the stages of the treatment of the prisoner have been these. Long ago he was treated in a spirit of revenge; then he was punished, and later on he was restrained. The time has arrived, in my view, when the prisoner ought to be dealt with as an individual. We ought to train and reform him and make him, if possible, a better citizen. Bulwer raid that "Society has erected the gallows at the end of the lane instead of fixing guide-posts and directions at the beginning." Our task is to fix the guide-posts at the beginning of the lane.