HC Deb 13 February 1946 vol 419 cc493-502

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

9.32 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, Central)

I wish to raise the question of penal reform in this country. While the subject may not be as fascinating as that which has taken up the interest of the House earlier tonight, I believe it is one of the first concern to us as Members of Parliament. It is a subject which has been raised in the House on many occasions in the past; I believe that the present penal system is, firstly, punitive, and I think in that object it largely succeeds. Secondly, it is reformative, and in that direction there is a good deal of leeway to be made up. I realise the peril of sentimentality when turning to this subject of penal reform, and, despite my tendency as a Celt, to be emotional on an issue of this sort, I would not like to lead the House astray. At the present time, I understand, if a prisoner breaks the rule of a prison and is summoned before the visiting magistrates, although he is liable to be sentenced to a severe, flogging, he is not entitled to have representation in his defence. If that be so, I ask that consideration shall be given to the proposition that every prisoner charged before the visiting magistrates with a serious offence should be given, the right to this protection.

Equally reprehensible in my opinion is the fact that these trials of prisoners take place in secret. Secret trials are something which we in this country regard with odium, and the fact that these people have already committed another offence surely does not place them so far outside the law, that they should not have the protecting presence of the Press when they are being tried. This I believe to be in the interest of the visiting magistrates as well as of the prisoners. Recently there was an incident in Cardiff prison, for instance, which was only revealed through the work of a newspaper reporter, who had a friend who had been inside. We discovered by means of Questions and answers in this House that seven boys—I think it was seven but the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—of 17 years of age, had, in secret been ordered nine strokes each of the birch. It may well be their offence justified this very serious penalty but I believe that it is strictly against the standards of justice in this country that anyone should be given the power to sentence a prisoner in private under those conditions. Then there is the silence room. Recently, I visited a prison in which there were prisoners whose ages ranged from 16 to over 60, with small screens protecting the young people, the first offenders, from the older groups. There was deathly silence in that room. I asked if prisoners were not allowed to speak, and I was told that they were, but I suggest to the House that in His Majesty's prisons of today the silence rooms have been abolished in theory, but are maintained in practice.

I hope that the Minister will be able to ensure, through administrative measures, that prisoners have more creative tasks to occupy their time. A young person who has perhaps got into prison through a spirit of adventure, might be one who, with proper training, could gain a responsible position. To put him on to playing about with mail bags, or making mats, is-not to reform him, but to fill him with cynicism, and perhaps make him come out of prison with a worse attitude towards the community than he had before he went in. Everyone who goes into prison ought to be regarded as a patient, not in the foolish sentimental sense, but none the less as a patient. He should receive first-class attention in order that when he comes out he shall not be a further burden to the State, and in order that his life shall be one of greater happiness after he has paid the penalty for his offence. I believe it is conducive neither to discipline in prison, nor to the inculcation of self.'-respect, that a prisoner should be kept in the ill-fitting garb which so many wear, doing miserable little tasks which make a man feel at every moment of the day that he is a creature beyond redemption, beyond any hope of ever returning from prison to be a member of a proud community.

Then I think of the prison library. J know a Member of this House who spent a week in one of His Majesty's prisons, and who said that all he had to read during that time was a Baptist newspaper called "Joyful News ". He tells me that he did not appreciate it. 1 believe it is the custom that every prisoner should have the right to two books a week. That custom may vary in different prisons, but in one prison I know, the prisoners are entitled to two books a week. I suggest that we shall not be pampering prisoners if we say that they shall be able to read, in their spare time, as many books as they want to read. I believe that if books can be graded by the responsible people in charge, they will be of real benefit to prisoners, and keep them from unnecessary brooding.

I also understand that cell confinement is still continued at weekends, through shortage of staff. I appreciate that the unhappy task of the prison warder calls for many special qualities. The noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) rose the other day in the House in defence of prison staffs. I have no wish either to whitewash them, or to cover them with tar today. I would not like their job. I ask the Home Secretary whether it is not possible, through administrative channels, to arrange that a training in human psychology and understanding be given to these people, as it is given to the teaching profession. We ought to have a feeling of responsibility towards the weak who fall by the way-side and do not quite "make the grade." The person who has to look after them has as responsible a job in the community, in his own way, as the teachers and preachers. This may be idealistic, but I would that prison warders could look upon their work as ministers look upon theirs—as tending the weakest members of the community.

I suggest that a psychiatrist should be appointed to each prison. Here I may not carry the whole House with me, for I realise that, during the war years, there were two very definite opinions about psychiatrists. There are good and bad psychiatrists, as in other days there were good and bad Ministers—I mean, in this instance, Ministers in the Government, and not ministers of religion. I suggest that all the skill of the psychiatrist ought to be available where obviously it is needed most. Many of the people who languish in our prison cells today are misfits in society, and they can be put right, if only the right treatment is given at the right time; but unhappily, every prison governor would be able to tell the Minister and the House that he has a large number of recidivists. It may be our view, that in any case these people would be bad. I do not know. But I do know, from my own experience, that there are people who could have been saved from a life of crime, but who were not helped by the experience they had in their first dose of prison. They came out of prison with a sense of evil bitterness in their hearts.

My last point is on the question of youths being kept too long in His Majesty's prisons. We know it is a deplorable thing that they are sent to His Majesty's prisons at all. We understand the Minister's difficulty in regard to lack of space, but I suggest that when a lad is sentenced to Borstal training and then has to spend a long time in prison, it may mean that the Borstal training will prove ineffective and come too late. The question of people who land themselves in prison is one about which the average citizen is not disturbed, but ever since I first entered a prison as a visitor, I have felt that it is a monstrous crime against the fair name of Britain that, in so many of our cities, where there is a real civic sense among the citizens, there should be these places where the unfortunate are not receiving that treatment, the need for which their crime makes manifest. I have not spoken about the gangster type. The House will appreciate that I have been speaking of the person who commits an offence perhaps for the first time, the person who comes within some category of crime which is something less than the gangster type, the person who is not beyond reform, or, in the words of the Methodists, not beyond redemption. I hope the Minister will be accommodating in his reply.

945 P.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not think me patronising if I say that I think he put his case extremely fairly and I would like to add something about this matter, in regard to which I have some experience because, when I was at the Home Office, I think I visited as many prisons as it was possible to do in that short period. In the first place, I would like to pay a tribute to the Prisoners' Aid Society, of which I have the honour to be a member. I would also like to pay a tribute, which I am sure will be endorsed by the Home Secretary, to the share which governors of prisons take in the Prisoners' Aid Society and to show the House that the success of the work of the society is measured by the number of cases in which they have been able to help an ex-prisoner to earn an honest livelihood.

In the absence of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown), who takes a very proper interest, as the representative of certain trade union societies, in the prison service, I would like to say that I think that service is a magnificent one and to press, as I have pressed before in this House, for the earliest possible amelioration of some of their conditions of pay and work. I cannot go into details now, but I believe it would be impossible to find a body of men who carry out an unpleasant task more fairly, efficiently, and, I must admit, humanely, than do the members of the prison service. Unlike the hon. Gentleman who spoke earlier, I stand here definitely, as does the hon. Member for Rugby, in support of the prison service. We are always stopped by the Rules of Order from discussing the biggest reform of all in the prison service, because it can only be brought about by legislation to which we cannot refer. But one may mention in that connection that there was an encouraging observation the other day by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister in reply to a Question.

I make no comment on the accuracy or otherwise of what the hon. Member for Central Cardiff (Mr. G. Thomas) said, but I should like to mention that anyone who has visited either the original Borstal, or Wakefield, will agree that there is no prison system in the world which does more to prevent recidivism or tries harder to make the inmates young or old into good citizens than does the British penal system at any rate in those particular places. I would ask the House, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary will be grateful to me for doing so, to show some sense of proportion in this matter. The prison service is under a tremendous strain. at the present moment. We cannot treat the cases of these gangsters, or these boys who wave pistols at people's heads, as a matter of no account.

Mr. G. Thomas

I did not say that.

Earl Winterton

I do not suggest that the hon. Member did. I am dealing with a different point. There do appear in the Press from time to time, and occasionally perhaps in speeches, suggestions that everything is wrong with the prison service today. I do not think that is true, and though, as a Member of the Opposition, I would be the last person who would want to pay a tribute to the Government, I would say the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary and his very expert staff at the Home Office are doing their best to deal with a very difficult problem.

9.50 p.m.

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

This is a somewhat unusual Debate. Usually an hon. Member puts a Question to a Minister who replies from this Box. The Minister is then subjected to two or three supplementary questions and the Member who put the original Question arises in his wrath and says that owing to the extraordinarily unsatisfactory nature of the replies he gives notice that he will raise the matter on the Adjournment. My hon. Friend, with truly Celtic ingenuity, has raised the matter on the Adjournment to-night, and has given notice of the Question for Thursday, 7th March. I am not at all sure whether, if I go too far into some of the points which he raised, I shall not find myself out of Order on the ground of anticipation but I will do my best in the circumstances. I do not object to the Debate coming in this unusual order, and I hope that when I have finished my reply this evening my hon. Friend may feel that he can take the Question off the Paper.

My hon. Friend raised the question of prisoners being granted legal aid when accused, before visiting magistrates, of offences for which severe penalties can be imposed. May I point out that the visiting magistrates are engaged on a fact-finding inquisition, and that any sentence of the kind which they impose comes to me, personally, as Secretary of State, for confirmation before any such punishment can be inflicted? In the short time that I have been in office, I have had a few, not very many, of these cases brought before me. In every case, as I have no doubt my predecessors did, and as no doubt my successors who do, I have taken the greatest care to see that the prisoner has been given the fullest opportunity to state his view of the facts, and to rebut and refute any statement of the facts that may be made by the prison officers concerned. I am not prepared this evening—I only had notice of this Debate just before noon today—to give any pledge on that matter at the moment. On the question of secrecy, again I am not, this evening, prepared to say that it would be possible to arrange that these inquiries should be held in public.

I did have in front of me the question of floggings that were ordered in Cardiff gaol. That was a case of a most deliberate and well thought out attack by young gangsters upon a prison officer, in circumstances which made it impossible for the.man to. defend himself. I am bound to: say that I. think the action taken by the visiting justices in that case was fully justified, - When -we come to some of the other matters which my hon. Friend has mentioned— [Interruption.] Well, there are some crimes of brutality so great that there is no other fitting punishment for them. I am all against flogging except in cases where the brutality of the offender is such that common sense would be outraged unless adequate steps were taken to convince people that they cannot do such deeds without incurring very severe penalties.

My hon. Friend raised one or two other matters on which I would like an opportunity of saying a few words. I agree entirely with him. that we must try to provide for the young offender and the first offender opportunities of reform that will not break their spirit, and will enable them to go back into the world with the feeling that they can resume their place in life as normal, honourable citizens. In that I am sure, as he mentioned, that the provision of more creative tasks is a very important part of our work. I know that one of the reasons for some of the trouble which we have had at Aylesbury for instance, is the fact that during the war the girls at Ayles-bury were given opportunities of doing certain comparatively skilled jobs, such things as assembling radio equipment, and other tasks which gave them a sense of achievement when the job was done, which enabled them to feel, even in those circumstances, that there was something which they could do which was fitting them to resume their place as normal, honourable members of. society.

I desire to see that kind of opportunity increased, and during recent months I have permitted prisoners to be employed outside the prison walls, by assisting various authorities, and in many ways giving them an opportunity to prove that they could. do reasonable jobs which would give them that sense of achievement. As far as possible, I have tried to arrange that this should be done in circumstances which do not expose them to public exhibition as prisoners. I have endeavoured to see that in places where they can be seen by the public, the supervisor shall not be too obviously a prison officer or warder, and subject, of course, to the necessary security regulations, they are given a chance of demonstrating that they are good and reasonable people. I am gravely handicapped at the moment in carrying out these and other reforms by the shortage of staff, and by lack of experience on the part of the staff at the present time. I am quite sure that, particularly in the women's prisons, when some of the present staff have a little more experience, and consequently a little more confidence, some of the troubles will disappear.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Central Cardiff (Mr. Thomas) I am a teacher, and I had inflicted upon me lessons in psychology. I never met a boy afterwards who responded to the theories of the psychologist. The psychologists appear to know about everything except human nature. Psychology may have improved since it was inflicted on me, but I agree that one of the things we desire to encourage prison staffs to undertake is a study of human nature, and its probable reactions to various courses of conduct. Only this evening I was talking to one of the most distinguished of His Majesty's judges, and he drew my attention to what he regarded as an encouraging sign, that 60 to 70 per cent. of the persons once sentenced to imprisonment, never come back for a second term. That is a very high proportion, and indicates that there is some success on the reformative side of our work.

Mr. G. Thomas

Are those the officialfigures for the country?

Mr. Ede

The judge gave them to me. I know that what the soldier said is not evidence but this is what the judge said. I cannot say the source from which he obtained it, and I have not had time to check it. I agree also, with what my-hon. Friend said about Borstal. As the House knows, I was forced into a course, which I regarded with distaste, in my determination that boys should not be left doing nothing in prison. Borstal is a system of training, and although I had to do something I disliked very much, I felt it was better to give the boys training, even under circumstances that were not ideal, than leave them in a prison doing nothing but picking up habits of dilatoriness that certainly are of no great advantage to them. I assure the noble Lord that I am grateful for what he has said, and I join with him and my hon. Friend in feeling that at the present time our prison staffs from the governors downwards, are doing their utmost to carry on the best traditions of this service, in circumstances of great difficulty.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten o'Clock.