HC Deb 20 December 1945 vol 417 cc1596-605

3.3 p.m.

Mr. Thurtle (Shoreditch)

I would like to thank you, Sir, for giving me the opportunity of raising this case, which I am bound to bring to the attention of the House. It is that of a constituent of mine, Arthur Clatworthy, a Borstal boy, aged 20, who died recently as a result, I suspect, of brutal treatment in Wormwood Scrubs Prison. My case is necessarily based largely upon hearsay evidence. Nobody sees what goes on inside prison walls, except the officials who are there, and when an incident arises inside an institution of this kind there is hardly ever a conflict of testimony between the officials concerned. They always speak with one voice and. that is probably not very surprising, but it certainly does not lend itself to getting at the truth.

Let me come to my story. According to Clatworthy's mother, she received on 26th September notification fromthe Borstal Institution at Portland that her son was seriously ill with a serious form of anaemia, and had been transferred to Weymouth Hospital. This was the first intimation she had had that there was anything wrong with her usually healthy son. Moreover, she was surprised by the nature of the complaint, since her son had always been a particularly healthy specimen, and so far as his blood is concerned, he had been a blood donor to hospitals. As soon as Mrs. Clatworthy had this news she visited her son,and found him so changed that she hardly recognised him. She said to him, "How did you get like this, son?" The son told her that while he was at Wormwood Scrubs there was a warder named Evans who took a dislike to him and was always giving him a punch whenever opportunity offered.

One day he punched him in his cell, and the exasperated lad hit back. The warder went out, locked the door, and came back with four or five other warders. Then the lad was punched, thrown to the ground, kicked and hit until the cell floor was a mass of blood. He was then lifted up, his hands were handcuffed behind his back, he was taken out of his cell, pushed down some steps, and given some further blows. It appears that some five or six weeks after this Clatworthy was transferred to the Borstal Institution at Portland, and when his mother called at Wormwood Scrubs to visit him in the usual way she was told that she could not see him, but would have to get special permission. It was not until 25th September that the medical officer at Portland wrote and told her that her son was in hospital seriously ill. Then, as I have explained, she went at once to him and heard his story, although he had been in hospital in the Portland institution for two periods of some weeks before he went to Weymouth.

I want to make an observation or two about the way in which the machinery for making complaints operated in this case. After the mother came back from her visit to her son, she wrote to the Governor of Wormwood Scrubs, telling him what she had heard and asking for an interview. The Governor wrote back a courteous reply, saying he could not see her himself, but that the Deputy Governor would be pleased to see her any day she called. Armed with this letter she went to the prison. This is how she was treated: The officers at the gate seemed to consider it a joke that a poor woman should want to see the Deputy Governor. They pressed her to say why she wanted to see him but she refused. After some time they went into an adjoining room and telephoned. The mother did not hear what was said, but the man who was telephoning laughed loudly and appeared to be joking with someone.

Finally, after some time the House Master of the boys' prison, not the Deputy Governor, came out and asked her what she wanted. She told him that she had come to complain of her son's treatment, whereupon he said: "If you have any complaint to make you should apply to the Prison Commissioners." A few days later she received a letter from the Deputy Governor repeating this advice, and giving the address of the Prison Commissioners. She wrote and obtained an appointment to see a Prison Commissioner. She kept the appointment at the appointed time. She was kept waiting for two hours. Then she saw a Prison Commissioner. Shetold this gentleman that she had come to complain of the way in which her son had been beaten. He said, "But your son if suffering from anaemia." The mother replied that she knew that, but that it was all due to the knocking about and the loss of blood he had suffered. The reply of the Prison Commissioner was, "Oh, well, he may have had a hiding, and it may be that he was powerful and had to be restrained." The mother is positive that he used those words.

I wish to make two comments on these matters. First,when a poor woman goes to a prison with a letter of appointment to see the Deputy Governor, it is a shocking thing that prison officers should bully her and jeer at her and make jokes about her. My other comment is that if a Prison Commissioner says of a boy, "Oh, well, he may have had a hiding," it is not unreasonable to suspect that something of a more serious character has taken place. in any case, hidings of this sort ought not to be part of our prison system. So far as restraint is concerned, five or six grown men in a cell could easily restrain an excited boy of 20, even if he were a strong boy, without the necessity of giving him a hiding and in the process, making the cell floor a mass of blood.

After this interview with the Prison Commissioner the mother came to see me, and on 10th November I wrote to the Home Secretary. I asked him to inquire into the case as the lad was seriously ill. I had an acknowledgment saying that inquiries were being made. When, more than three weeks later, the mother cameto see me again, alarmed that her son was dying, I sent a reminder to the Home Secretary, and drew his attention to the fact that the boy seemed to be on the point of death. This was on 3rd December. By the time I got the Home Secretary's reply to this letter, which he wrote on the 1oth, the lad was dead, having died on the 6th. This lad is said to have died from pernicious anaemia. I am no medical man— I am just a layman— but I understand from authorities that this is a complaint which affects mainly middle-aged and elderly people; it is abnormal in the very young. And the onset of the disease is very gradual. In exceptional cases the disease attacks young people after, and I am now quoting Black's Medical Dictionary: Severe loss of blood, such as that following childbirth or prolonged loss of blood from haemorrhoids. It is obvious that if there has been severe loss of blood through a beating-up in prison of a young person there is the necessary condition to bring on this disease. In reply to a question of mine yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs told me that the special form of anaemia from which the lad had died was agranulocytosis. But I find on reference to medical authorities that this is not really a special form of anaemia at all; it is a condition brought on by pernicious anaemia.

When I wrote to the Home Secretary on 10th November, and asked him to inquire into the allegations, and received a reply saying that inquiries were being made, I naturally assumed that this was in fact the case. But from an answer I got yesterday from the Under-Secretary, I find that nothing at all was happening. When the mother complained to the Prison Commissioners early in October the Home Office called for a report from the prisonauthorities. This report duly came in and apparently completely satisfied my right hon. Friend that there was nothing at all in the allegations, and no further action was taken. Therefore the reply to my letter of 1oth November saying that inquiries were being made was in fact pure form, and nothing more. Indeed, when I spoke to the Home Secretary two or three days before the lad died, it was quite obvious to me that he knew nothing whatever about the case.

There is implicit in the story I have told the House a charge of sadistic violence on the part of prison officials resulting in the death of this unfortunate lad, a constituent of mine. I submit that this is a serious charge, and the Home Secretary will surely not wish prison officials to lie under it. I quite understand that; it is a perfectly proper attitude and if he takes that attitude it does him credit. But he has a simple remedy. Let him have an inquiry take place, and let it be an inquiry, not by the prison officials themselves, but an inquiry with an independent chairman and an independent medical assessor. It need not be in public. I do not ask for it to be in public; it can be a private inquiry so long as these independent members are present at it. As a matter of fact the onus rests on theHome Office and on the prison authorities, in view of the facts I have stated, to prove beyond a shadow of doubt, if they can prove it, that there was no connection between this lad's death and the treatment he received at Wormwood Scrubs. But if it is not true there is nothing to hide. If the Minister is confident that the version of the facts given by prison officials is a sound one, why should he hesitate about having an inquiry, even if it only concerns the life of a poor Borstal boy? I say it should be a point of honour to spare no trouble to get at the truth in a matter of this kind, and I ask the Home Secretary to see to it that this inquiry that I suggest takes place.

3.15 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

I should like to open my remarks by expressing my sympathy with the parents of this lad in his death. Some of the matters my hon. Friend has raised in the course of his speech are not matters of which he has given any notice, and, therefore, he will not expect me to beable to reply in detail to that part of his remarks. Those are the statements he made in regard to Mrs. Clatworthy's reception at Wormwood Scrubs prison when she called there—this is the first time I have heard there was any complaint about that—and the allegations of discourteous treatment she received during her visit. Apart from what I say on other matters, I will certainly make immediate inquiries into the truth of those allegations, for it is my desire that any person calling at one of His Majesty's prisons on legitimate business should receive the courteous treatment the subject has the right to expect from any public official. But inasmuch as I have had no notice of this point being raised, that must not be taken as an admission at thisstage that the treatment that hasbeen mentioned was in fact accorded.

I hope the House will allow me to deal with the version of the facts as they have been reported to me. I do not think my hon. Friend was quite fair to me when he said that when hecasually mentioned this matter to me in one of the corridors of the House it was obvious I knew nothing about it. He was referring to a letter that had been written to me nearly a month before that date, and I have a very large number of letters and a very large number of individual cases brought to my notice. I think he was coming out of the tea room, and I was going into it, and it cannot be expected that a mere statement that he wanted to say something to me about Clatworthy should immediately ring a bell in my mind and connect my thoughts with the details of a particular case. I apologise to him that I was not able, in those circumstances, to deal with the subject as readily as he might have expected.

Mr. Thurtle

If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I think he is making a valid point but, as a matter of fact, I did write the letter to him and drew his attention to the fact that the lad was very seriously ill, and I thought that would remain in his mind.

Mr. Ede

May I say that that particular type of letter is not an infrequent one for me to receive?

Arthur Alfred Clatworthy, who was 19, was sentenced at the West Kent Assizes on 2nd March last to three years' Borstal detention for offences of office-breaking and shop-breaking and larceny. He was sent to the boysprison at Wormwood Scrubs, pending his allocation to a Borstal Institution. On 27th March he was reported for misconduct at exercise, and ordered to his cell, pending adjudication. During the afternoon of the same day, he was again reported for misconduct and was locked up in his cell. Apparently, he was excited and angry following this second incident, and he proceeded to relieve his feelings by smashing up the contents of his cell and the cell windows. As soon as his duties allowed, the principal officer on duty—not the officer who had reported Clatworthy—visited the cell and observed Clatworthy, brandishing the leg of a chair and bleeding profusely from his hand, which he had apparently cut on the glass of the window. The officer reasoned with him, but to no purpose, and, as Clatworthy threatened violence to anyone entering, called two other officers to his assistance to restrain him. These officers, protected by a mattress, entered the cell, bore Clatworthy to the ground and put handcuffs on his wrists, to prevent him doing any further damage to himself or others. He was taken at once to the hospital, where he was treated for his injury,which is reported to me as being self-inflicted. This injury was to his right little finger. Three stitches were inserted and the cut was dressed and arrangements made for daily dressings to be carried out.

I should point out here, that subsequent inquiries have established that no complaint was made by Clatworthy to the medical officer thathe had been brutally handled by the prison officers, nor did the medical officer find any signs that he was so handled. The dressings of the finger were attended to subsequently by another doctor, who saw him for other medical complaints, such as a sore throat, and Clatworthy made no complaint at all on any of these occasions about his treatment nor can I find that at any time while at Wormwood Scrubbs did he complain to the medical officer, or any other prison officer, of his treatment.

After the wound had been dressed he was taken to a strong cell, and in due course he appeared before the Governor, who remitted his case to the visiting committee On 6th April the visiting committee awarded him nine days' cellular confinement, nine days' No. 1 diet, 21 days' No. 2 diet and deprivation of association for 21 days. I should again point out that he made no complaint cither to the Governor or to the visiting committee, and that he was visited daily during the period of his punishment and made no complaint at anytime. On 17th May he was transferred to Portland Borstal Institution. In accordance with the usual practice, he was medically examined, both before leaving Wormwood Scrubs and on reception at Portland, and the respective medical officers found him in good health. He remained in good health until 13th July when he was admitted to hospital with a headache and temperature. He was treated with M. & B. and was discharged from hospital on 23rd July. On 27th August, he was again admitted to hospital with a temperature and general aching, and he also had some septic sores, a skin complaint from which some other inmates of the institution also suffered at that time. He was again treated with M. and B. and the condition improved until 12th September, when it began to deteriorate. A blood count was taken on 16th September, and showed a condition resembling pernicious anaemia, for which he was given liver extract; but, as he made little response, it was decided to transfer him to Weymouth Hospital for further treatment, and this was done on 24th September.

It was not until 22nd October that any suggestion was made that Clatworthy had been illtreated the previous March. On that day Mrs. Clatworthy saw the housemaster at the Borstal Institution, and told him she had seen her son at Weymouth Hospital, and he had said something which greatly distressed her about being taken into a cell by a number of officers and being kicked. A statement was taken from Clatworthy at the hospital, the effect of which was that at the timeof the incident at Wormwood Scrubs, the previous March, six officers had rushed into his cell and overborne him, and thrown him on the floor and punched and kicked him. In view of this statement, the Governor of Wormwood Scrubs instituted the most careful inquiries. Records were examined, and information obtained from all the officers concerned. As a result of his inquiries, he was quite satisfied that only the three officers mentioned— not six — were involved, and that no more force than wasreasonably necessary to restrain Clatworthy and take him to hospital had been used. Unfortunately, in spite of every care and treatment at the hospital at Weymouth, including blood transfusions, Clatworthy's condition did not improve, and he died on 6th December. The medical name for the condition is, I understand, agranulocytosis, a severe form of anaemia. With regard to this particular form of anaemia, I am as much a layman in this matter as my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle), but I am informed that it is a severe form of anaemia which sometimes occurs after treatment with M. and B.

I have given the House the facts of the case as they have been reported to me, on the points which were raised in my hon. Friend's original Question. I would like to assure him and the House that I regard the custody of these people, who are committed to prison and to Borstal institutions, as one of the most responsible duties placed on me by the House, and I am exceedingly anxious that that duty should be discharged by those responsible to me with due humanity towards the people committed to my charge, for,after all, I am ultimately responsible. There have been, as the House knows, some difficulties at Wormwood Scrubs and at some of the other places that have been temporarily over-crowded owing to the difficulties with regard to Borstal institutions which have formed the subject of Question and answer in this House. I propose, in the light of the further statement that has been made by my hon. Friend today, to give further consideration to this case. I will undertake to the House that I, personally, will see the officers at Wormwood Scrubs who were involved in this particular incident— both the subordinate officers and the senior officers who are responsible for the discipline of the place— and I hope the House will allow me to leave it at that stage for the moment. If, as a result of these personal inquiries of mine—and I do not wish to push my inquiries on to anyone else—I think the inquiry for which my hon. Friend has asked should be held, I will not shrink from holding it.

Captain Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)

Will it be a public inquiry?

Mr. Ede

That again is a matter which should be left to my discretion for, asI had to say in answer to a Question today, it is sometimes in the interests of some of the parties other than the prison officers concerned that these particular inquiries should not be held in public, but I will assure the House that I desire to see that in the prisons and Borstal institutions in this very difficult time, when every prison is understaffed, and when all sorts of additional difficulties beyond the normal have to be faced by prison officers, the highest possible standard shall be maintained, but, at the same time, I must protect my officers, if, in fact, they are in danger of assault or injury in the course of their duty. I thank my hon. Friend for having brought the matter forward. I regret that he did not give me notice of the further issues that he intended to raise, and I hope he will feel that I have gone as far as it is possible for me to go in meeting him.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

May I ask my right hon. Friend a question on this matter from the medical aspect? The illness from which this young man eventually died was connected with what is called agranulocytosis— ashe correctly described it, a rare form of anaemia. I would like to deal with this aspect of the matter because I think that it is on the medical side that a solution will be found. I would like to know whether, in making the inquiry, the question can be raised as to whether the attack of violence to which this man gave vent on the occasion related by the Home Secretary was the cause of his illness orthe result of a pre-existing medical condition; and what was, in fact, the exact nature of the misconduct at exercise which led to his being sentenced, because agranulocytosis is a condition of the blood which may lead to death in a few days and sometime is very difficult to diagnose. The key to it may be this curious and rather obscure condition of the blood.

Mr. Ede

I am sure the House will sympathise with me in having to answer a technical question of that kind from a doctor. It appears to me that he had far better be an expert witness at the inquiry than put these questions to one in the House. This is the point, as I am advised. The violence occurred in March. There was no sign of this particular disease until some months afterwards, and my medical advisers, in the light of the information before them, say there is no connection between what happened in March and the illness that occurred later in the year.