HC Deb 08 December 1927 vol 211 cc1733-8

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 8th November, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I desire to raise the case of which I have given notice of a girl named Charlotte Leitch in Lochee, Dundee. Her father was wounded in the War and died in 1917 while undergoing hospital treatment. The family pension was stopped five years ago. In this family there were then three children the oldest being 13 years of age, the next 12, and the third is aged three months. After the death of her husband the mother was compelled to go out to work in a jute mill. The eldest girl has been engaged assisting her aunt in a shop. This girl was accused before the Dundee Sheriff of having received goods two years ago—I think they were biscuits—for which the aunt had not paid. The girl declared that she had not received the goods and that the signature on the receipt was not here. This girl has been sentenced to two months' imprisonment without the option of a fine, for a first offence upon evidence which depends on one man's memory—and that one man specifically said he could not identify her. A decision of this kind, based upon what appears to be flimsy and insufficient evidence, which sends a girl against whom no accusation has previously been made to prison for two months on a charge like this, is a crime against modern civilisation. This girl collapsed in prison. A petition has been signed for her release. The Secretary of State for Scotland says that he cannot see his way to reduce her sentence. Another factor in the case is the state of the girl's health. We have evidence that she is unable to stand imprisonment at all; and her family are in great distress. Here you have a girl who is physically weak sent to prison for two months without the option of a fine on a charge which depends on the evidence of one man and upon one man's memory of an incident which took place two years ago. This is something which the Secretary of State for Scotland ought to justify. By the Summary Jurisdiction (Scotland) Act, 1908, a fine is permissible. This girl had not been arrested, she was not out on bail, she came quite freely to the Court to stand her trial.

This young girl, 23 years of age, has had her case taken up by every newspaper of every political opinion in the East of Scotland—by papers which are bitter opponents of ours and strong supporters of the right hon. Gentleman—with such headlines as "Scandals," "Harsh Sentence on Young Girl that ought to be quashed," and so on, in papers which do not support us, but support the right hon. Gentleman and the political party which he represents. In these circumstances I trust the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give this House an assurance that he will at any rate have the most stringent medical examination made of this girl, and, if he can get the slightest medical justification for it, release her, because I am sure that nothing less will satisfy public opinion in Dundee; and, particularly in view of other recent cases, I trust that he will not delay his decision, but will act at once. I do not need to tell the right hon. Gentleman that petitions have been sent to higher quarters than himself; he knows it full well. We have done everything that we can do by private negotiation, through the Press, and by public petition to higher quarters, to have this case re-examined and the girl released, and I beg the right hon. Gentleman not to imagine that there is any political propaganda in this at all, but to act in a humane way and let this girl out of prison.


May I put to the right hon. Gentleman two points? I had an interview with him, and there was his formal answer to a question to-day, which, unfortunately, was against us. In the first place, I would point to the substantial good character of this girl, well confirmed on every hand, and the fact that there has never been any exception taken to her conduct in the past. In the second place, in view of the circumstances, and of there being only one witness, I suggest that there might have been consideration on the part of the Sheriff in allowing, as he had the power to do, a fine to be imposed. I submit respectfully to the right hon. Gentleman that some step should be taken to meet what undoubtedly is felt to be a very gross bestowal of what is called justice from the legal point of view, but which we feel to be from a moral point of view a gross injustice.


This is a case which arose out of a prosecution dealing with a civil action, and the circumstances which were divulged on that occasion led the authorities to take further steps to deal with what eventually was proved to be a case of perjury. I would say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the House in general, that a case of perjury is a very serious case. It goes to the root and foundation of the whole legal structure of our country, and when hon. Members say to me that this is a first offence, and a matter which ought to be dealt with leniently, I am bound to say that I cannot agree with that point of view. Be that as it may, I think it is clear that the greatest care was exercised in dealing with this case, and when the hon. Gentleman says that this girl was convicted on the evidence of a single person who could not speak to her identity, I would remind him that the facts are that this was established on the signature of the girl, that the Sheriff was satisfied that the signature was a genuine signature, and, further that it was admitted—


He said there were points of difference.


Everyone knows that, when any hon. Member signs his name in this House, there are points of difference between the signatures which each one makes from time to time; but the girl herself, as I understand, admitted that it was very like her signature. In any case the Sheriff was satisfied that the signature was correct. Let me add that clearly this is a case where it was proved that the goods were delivered by the railway, that the actual delivery was taken and the credit note given in the shop on the day in question for returned empties. It is evident that the vanman who took this was there at the time, and, in addition, it was admitted by the girl that she was the only individual in the shop at that time. Taking all these circumstances into consideration, I think it is clear that the crime, for such it is, was proved to the satisfaction of the Sheriff who had to deal with the problem.

Now I turn to the question as to the medical condition of this unfortunate girl. She arrived, no doubt, in prison after the proceedings at the Court as many people do, in rather a disturbed state. I caused a report to be submitted to me immediately, in view of the allegations and statements being made in the Press and elsewhere. I ascertained that her condition was not in any case serious or gave any indication of real ill-health. I received a further report yesterday. My information is that her condition is entirely satisfactory and that all such signs of nervousness as were apparent when she first went to prison had disappeared. I have also caused the prison officials to report to me from time to time as to the state of her health. I am bound to say, looking at this case purely on its merits, that I have to decide that the conviction is a proper conviction, and in so far as the question of health is concerned, there is nothing which can be adduced at the present time to make me feel that a modification of the sentence could be given.


I wish to call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that in a case with regard to which I had some correspondence with him, the shoe was on another foot, and he was not very keen that any prosecution should follow. I remember bringing before his notice the case of a man who was acquitted by the Sheriff of Hamilton because he was dissatisfied with the evidence laid by the police. I am sorry that I have not sufficient time to deal with the matter; but I want to add my opinion as to the scandalous nature of the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman. I think there is no other place in the world where cases of the character raised by my hon. Friend could so frequently be brought. Apparently, we can get nothing done; we cannot even get fair play, and we might as well be perfectly frank as to the qualities of the right hon. Gentleman who represents Scotland on the Front Bench opposite.

It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'Clock.