HC Deb 27 November 1945 vol 416 cc1225-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Mothers.]

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Driberg (Maldon)

Had I been fortunate enough to persuade Mr. Speaker this afternoon that the subject which I am bringing up now was a definite matter of urgent public importance, I should not be detaining the House at this late hour. I am enabled to do so by an intervention of Providence in the shape of the hon. Lady the Member for the Combined English Universities (Miss Rathbone) who was courteous enough to notify me that she had abandoned her right to the final half-hour Adjournment Debate.

I wish to refer to the subject of the Stakehill Detention Barracks and the court of inquiry which is to open next Tuesday at Ashton-under-Lyme. When I suggested this afternoon that this ought to be a public inquiry and not exclusively a military inquiry, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, who has been good enough to return to his place at very short notice in order to reply—and I apologise both to him and to the House, but there was no other opportunity of raising it—said that when he announced a week or two ago the setting-up of a military court to inquire into con- ditions at Stakehill, where, unfortunately, one of the prisoners had committed suicide, he had gained the general approval of the House, and that unanimously at that time the House had agreed, by implication or by its silence, that the inquiry should be held in secret and should be exclusively military. It has since further transpired, in answer to a question, that the relatives of the dead man would not be allowed the right to attend or to be represented at the court of inquiry.

My right hon. Friend may be perfectly justified in saying that; but, since that debate a few weeks ago, new facts have come to light. It was only this last weekend that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aston (Major Wyatt) was apprised of circumstances which, although they relate to a tragedy which occurred a long time ago, last year, none the less cast such a suspicion on the conduct of those in charge of the detention barracks that they make the case very much more serious. After all, the case which we were debating a week or two ago was of a man who had committed suicide; he may have been a neurotic type. But the case of which my hon. and gallant Friend has particulars, of which he will give the House a few details if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is of a perfectly or apparently fit man who went into the detention barracks and was dead within three days. He was seen afterwards by his relatives with his forehead bruised and a bruise on his neck, and no inquest was held at all. This seems to me to cast a totally different light on the necessity for a real and thorough inquiry as to what has really been going on in these barracks.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Will the hon. Gentleman say what these bruises were? Were they real bruises, or post-mortem changes, or what were they?

Mr. Driberg

I can only say that if the authorities of the barracks waited so long before calling the relatives of the dead man that his body had begun to decompose to the extent my hon. Friend suggests, then that casts even more of a reflection, surely, on those authorities.

Dr. Morgan

On the contrary. The hon. Member knows very little about post-mortem changes, because postmortem changes in the skin take place with remarkable rapidity in men who die ordinarily.

Mr. Driberg

I entirely accept the medical advice and authority of my hon. Friend, but I do not honestly think he is helping either side in this dispute very much, because all that I want to suggest is that there is a strong prima facie case for a full public inquiry into conditions at Stakehill Barracks. I would not wish for a moment to do anything that might prejudice justice for all concerned, including the authorities of the barracks. I absolutely accept that, of course. The fact that this second death—I refer to it as the second death, although it was not the second chronologically—occurred last year does not seem to me to diminish in any way the urgency of considering this matter before next week's court of inquiry opens, and it is indeed a little disquieting that the undoubtedly peculiar and suspicious circumstances of this death should only just now have come to light.

One of the main points that my right hon. Friend made this morning in his replies to supplementary questions was that he did not think the court of inquiry could be public because that might prejudice the proceedings of a court-martial which might have to be held later. In a supplementary question, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) dealt with that point rather neatly, I thought, by citing the common practice in ordinary criminal cases, where there is always a preliminary public hearing before the magistrates before the case finally goes to the criminal court; and that is not held in any way to prejudice the final hearing. Since this afternoon's Question Time, an hon. and gallant Member who has served for some years in the Forces arid who sits on the other side of the House has put a point to me which I thought very reasonable, and, therefore, I want to put it to the House. He said that it might prejudice the court-martial if the court of inquiry were held in public because the court of inquiry is not held according to the ordinary laws of evidence. Hearsay evidence is admitted; anything can be said; people's characters can be defamed; and, therefore, it might really be prejudicial. That seemed to me a substantial point until I looked up the actual Regulations, and then I found that no evidence that is taken in a court of inquiry is admissible at a court-martial. So that does seem to confirm the validity of the point made by the hon. Member for North Hammersmith. Furthermore, as the hon. and gallant Member for Aston said this afternoon in a supplementary question, the court of inquiry is not allowed to express any opinion at all. It is confined to ascertaining the facts.

My right hon. Friend may say to us this evening that it is too late to alter the arrangements for next Tuesday's court of inquiry at Ashton-under-Lyne. I hope that he will not, and that it is still possible to alter the arrangements so that the inquiry can be held in public, and so that it need not be exclusively military; but, in any case, I hope he will say he is seriously thinking of setting up. a general inquiry of some kind, whether a judicial committee such as the Oliver Committee, or some other kind of inquiry, which can look into conditions, not only at Stake-hill, but at other detention barracks throughout the country, and see, incidentally, to what extent the recommendations of the Oliver Committee have really been put into practice.

I venture to make again the suggestion I made in the adjournment debate a few weeks ago, which seemed to some Members a little ridiculous at first hearing: that on such a committee, a not strictly military committee, there should be invited to serve ex-Servicemen of other ranks, including, perhaps, one man of generally good character who had served time in a detention barracks himself. Since I made that suggestion, many hon. Members, I am sure, will have seen the most interesting contributions to the "Manchester Guardian" and the "News Chronicle" by Mr. G. E. Hobson, a respected insurance broker of Manchester, who, when he was serving in the Navy, for some technical military offence served time in Winchester Gaol and has now published some scathing criticisms of the sentences imposed on the unfortunate servicemen who have to go to that gaol. He, I suggest, would be an admirable person—I have no personal knowledge of him—to serve on such an inquiry as I have suggested. I do not want to take up more of the time of the House, because 1 hope my hon. and gallant Friend will be fortunate enough, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to catch your eye. I will end by saying that it is not only wrong, but damnably wrong, that a man should always have to die before our attention is directed to conditions in detention barracks.

11.27 p.m.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

I only want to take up a minute. I think there is only one thing on which judges and lawyers of every conceivable outlook in politics and profession are agreed, and that is that for psychological and practical reasons you always get a better hearing and a better result if you hear any kind of judicial proceedings in public. It is universally held by lawyers and judges that there is only one excuse for not doing this and that is the type of reason we generally describe as security. The suggestion that we might prejudice some subsequent proceedings by holding this in public is one to which no lawyer would agree.

11.28 p.m.

Major Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

I would like to refer to the circumstances of the case which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) has put forward. The information I have received presents the following story. I am not going to stand here and vouch for all the facts of the story, but I suggest that it supports a prima facie case for thorough investigation in public of the circumstances which could lead to such a thing happening. On 15th August, 1944, a private soldier was sent to the Stakehill Detention Camp to undergo detention for the crime of having been absent for one day and five hours. On 18th August he was dead. His sister and eldest brother and brother-in-law went to the Stakehill Detention Camp to identify the body.

Mr. Stokes (Ipswich)

What date was that?

Major Wyatt

I do not know. A few days later. On looking at the body the brother noticed that there were two marks on the forehead and one behind each ear. He went to look closer at the marks and was told to leave them alone and not to examine the body further. No inquest was held on the death of this man, but a certificate without post-mortem was signed by a coroner, which said that the man died of heart failure. Death apparently took place after this man had been made to run a mile in seven minutes wearing full kit. Apparently, on entering the camp he had been passed by the camp doctor as fit to take such exercise, so even though there may not have been any suggestion of foul play to account for his death, it is obvious that he should not have been passed as fit if he was going to collapse and die of heart failure after running a mile.

Now there are certain circumstances in this case which, I think, deserve attention. There was a priest available at the Stakehill Camp, but none was called. There was only one person present at his death, a sergeant. After he had died and the relatives had identified him, the coffin was sent back to his home without a Union Jack; this caused great pain and distress to the relatives concerned, and, indeed, they are still distressed by this fact. They feel as if this man had died after committing some crime, although he had been absent only for one day and five hours. They feel the stigma very deeply. They made a number of attempts to get into contact with the Stakehill camp authorities to find out something about the circumstances of the death and every time they were more or less rebuffed and told that no further information was available. They even thought of having the body exhumed, in order to have these marks examined and see that the matter was taken further. They were prevented from doing this: they were told that the cost would be excessive. They were not rich people, or highly educated or literate, and they found it difficult to pursue this matter further. It was only on seeing that there was going to be a full-scale inquiry into conditions at Stakehill Camp that they thought it worth-while and advisable to take the matter up again, and see whether, at this late date, some thorough investigation could be made into the circumstances of the death. I feel that this case really does require thorough investigation by a public inquiry.

Now it is quite true that the relatives of this man—and I think quite rightly —did not wish his name to appear in the Press. We know that the Press always observes the request made by the President of an inquiry to keep the name out of the papers. There is no question, if this inquiry is held in public, of publicity being given to the name of the man concerned, and as the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) has said, having an inquiry in public will have the effect of seeing that it is really a searching and thorough inquiry.

11.33 p.m.

Major Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I would like in two minutes to protest against the suggestion, both explicit and implicit, in the speeches to which we have listened that a military court is not a proper and competent body to investigate a matter of this sort. I have had some experience of military courts of inquiry and they have this merit in greater degree than civilian courts, the merit of understanding ab initio the military background and the military circumstances, and they start with that advantage in investigating a matter of this sort over any civilian court or tribunal. However eminent its composition, the question of the openness or otherwise of a military court of inquiry is a matter solely to be dealt with in accordance with King's Regulations. The point that is important is that this is precisely the sort of matter which is normally, according to King's Regulations, dealt with by a military court of inquiry and although what has been said on the other side- gives manifest grounds for the calling and convening of a court of inquiry it does not, in my view, give any reason whatever for departing from the normal practice.

The right hon. Gentleman, if I may say so, has taken a perfectly proper course in ordering a court of inquiry to be convened. It has been done with commendable punctuality. It sits next Tuesday, and may I express the hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not take what he himself described this afternoon as the easy course of yielding to pressure, but will say that the military court of inquiry which has been convened shall be allowed to sit. What follows after that must be for him and his advisers in the light of the findings of that court of inquiry, but I would protest against the suggestion that has been made here this evening and which was made here earlier this afternoon, that for some reason or other, the ordinary normal procedure of a court of inquiry is inadequate to deal with cases of this sort. It has dealt in an admirable and satisfactory manner with many cases involving deaths of soldiers. It is a procedure by fair, competent and trained people, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will adhere to it on this occasion.

11.36 p.m.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

I am only interested in this matter because it happens to be on the borders of my constituency and there is a certain amount of feeling in my constituency about it. Constituents have written and asked that there should be as public an inquiry as possible and if possible that it should be held into the question of detention camps as a whole; I want to ask the Minister if he could see his way to do that and to see that proper mental arrangements are made from the psychiatric point of view. There are very few psychiatrics attending camps and I want to see this put on a proper basis.

11.37 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. J. J. Lawson)

When I announced this inquiry, in the particular circumstances as they were then, the House welcomed it emphatically and, I thought, unanimously. I stated that I was going to set up a military inquiry because there were certain irregularities shown by the previous inquiry and I thought that the best way to get at those irregularities and find out what had been done in this particular case was to have an inquiry in which those who gave evidence would be put on oath. To do that, you cannot have a public inquiry; you must have a military inquiry. When I receive the report of the inquiry I shall have to consider what to do about the report. That does not rule out, when I give my consideration to it, the possibility of a more public inquiry into the wider aspect of the question of Stakehill itself. But in this particular instance, I was sure, and I am still sure, that it is necessary to have this military inquiry in order to deal with this particular case.

Mr. Driberg

Why is it necessary to have the inquiry in private so that people can be put on oath? I do not quite understand that point.

Mr. Lawson

The military inquiry is, in essence, a private inquiry; it is not a public inquiry, it is not a court-martial, for instance. It is, by its very nature, private, and it is necessary to do that to put the people on oath. When it is over and I get the report, it does not exclude a public inquiry into the general question of Stakehill itself.

As to this regrettable incident that is said to have happened, this was the first I have heard about it. The hon. Member did say he did not wish the names of the people concerned mentioned. If he wishes, it can be dealt with by this inquiry. As I said this afternoon, it would have been easy for me to say—and from my own point of view I should like to have said it —that a more public inquiry would be held. But I wanted to have an inquiry that would probe to the roots certain statements that were made, certain results that come from the previous inquiry. I wanted an assurance about those matters, and I thought this was the best way to do it. I definitely say that not because I was against a public inquiry. It certainly does not rule it out.

Mr. E. L. Gandar Dower (Caithness and Sutherland)

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, if he undertakes a general inquiry into conditions at Stake-hill, whether it would be possible to raise these cases again?

Mr. Lawson

In these matters I have to go very carefully, because military law is complicated. I have been in many investigations on matters of discipline in connection with courts martial. I know quite a little for a layman. But I would hesitate to give a definite reply to that question.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.