HC Deb 19 April 1937 vol 322 cc1429-32
61. Mr. Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he can give the House any information in connection with recent trouble at Dartmoor prison?

62. Mr. Creech Jones

asked the Home Secretary whether he will make a statement regarding recent dissatisfaction among the convicts at Dartmoor prison; what are the causes of disturbance; and what steps are being taken to remedy them?

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir John Simon)

I am glad to have this opportunity of correcting certain sensational and exaggerated reports on this subject. The facts are these: on 5th April, owing to a mistake in the prison kitchen, the bacon which formed part of the dinner had been used up when there were 80 rations still to be completed. A further supply was immediately purchased locally; but, as a result, these dinners were served about half-an-hour late. Three prisoners showed their dissatisfaction at the delay by upsetting their food, while another made an improper remark. All four were reported to the Governor, who directed the forfeiture of marks and, in two cases, one clay's dietary punishment.

On 14th April, when a similar dinner was being served, a few prisoners asked, as they are entitled to do, that their dinners might be weighed. This was done, and, in fact, the portions were found to be over weight. One man, however, refused to return to his cell, and he was reported to the Board of Visitors, who happened to be meeting at the prison on that day, and was dealt with by admonition.

There was no violence of any kind, and there is no truth whatever in the suggestion that because of conditions at Dartmoor it has been found necessary to reinforce the staff or to take special measures to preserve discipline. It has been stated that the officers have been specially armed with batons and firearms in view of these incidents. There is no truth in this statement whatever. The facts are that officers have always carried batons, and that certain officers in charge of parties working outside the prison have always carried firearms. Since the escape of three convicts in November, December, and January last, a number of outside officers, who had ceased to carry firearms, had them restored, but at no time have they been carried by officers inside the prison.

These sensational and misleading reports are not limited to Dartmoor. On Saturday a report was published in one London paper to the effect that 24 officers had been rushed from Wakefield to Wandsworth to quell unrest in that prison. Nothing of the sort ever happened, and I am sorry to say that this report was published after the paper had made inquiry of the Home Office and had been informed that the report was untrue. There is no unrest in Wandsworth Prison, and the facts are that, on the conclusion of the training class at Wakefield, eight probationer officers were posted to Wandsworth to fill normal vacancies.

Baseless reports of this kind not only cause unnecessary anxiety to the public and to prisoners' relatives; but, as many prisoners are nowadays allowed to read newspapers, they make the difficult task of the prison staffs more difficult and are calculated to encourage unstable or malicious prisoners to commit offences and so render themselves liable to punishment. To that extent they constitute a definite public mischief, and they will, I feel, be strongly condemned by this House and by public opinion. They are all the more regrettable when they are repeated, as in this case, after a definite and authoritative official statement has been issued.

Mr. Thorne

If any of the convicts have any complaint to make about their food or bad cooking, by what method can they bring those genuine grievances before the chief of the prison?

Sir J. Simon

Provision is made for them, I know, and I mentioned that if any prisoner considers that he is not being supplied with enough, he is entitled to have it weighed. As regards quality, a prisoner is also entitled to make reasonable complaint, but, of course, that is not what happened in this case.

Mr. Thorne

Through what channel can the men in question bring their genuine grievances before the chief of the prison?

Sir J. Simon

I quite follow the hon. Gentleman's question and shall be glad to answer it, but perhaps he will be good enough to put it down, and then I will give him an answer.

Mr. Patrick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the inhabitants of Princetown have been amazed to read in certain papers that they are in a state of terror and alarm, when in fact they are nothing of the kind; and can nothing be done to stop these irresponsible reports?

Mr. Stephen

In view of the unrest in the public mind with regard to this question of prisons, will the Home Secretary consider the setting-up of a committee to inquire into the general question?

Sir J. Simon

The only unrest in the public mind in this case has been caused by these perfectly baseless reports.

Sir Nicholas Grattan-Doyle

Will my right hon. Friend give the name of the paper to which he referred?

Mr. Lambert

Do the Government possess any power to prosecute newspapers which publish this misleading information?

Sir J. Simon

I do not think I could answer that question myself. I think, perhaps, it would have to be put to the Attorney-General.