HC Deb 26 March 1946 vol 421 cc183-90
17. Mr. Driberg

asked the Secretary of State for War if he will now make a statement on the report of the court of inquiry into conditions at Stakehill detention barracks and on his intentions in regard to a civilian inquiry in public, with safeguards for the anonymity of witnesses, into conditions at Stakehill and/or in detention barracks generally.

Mr. Lawson

Yes, Sir. I have recently received the final report of the court of inquiry, and have prepared a statement of the conclusions I have reached which, as it is somewhat lengthy, I will, with permission, circulate in the OFFICIAL REPORT. The general conclusion is that the allegations which have been made in the public Press and in letters to the Rev. Urien Evans or to Members of Parliament, are either unfounded or grossly exaggerated. The court of inquiry, which included among the members a K.C. and a psychiatrist, examined every aspect of the problem in great detail. Every effort was made to call as witnesses all those who had made allegations about the treatment of prisoners at Stakehill, and also all soldiers under sentence who had any complaint to make. They examined in all 195 witnesses, including 47 members or ex-members of the staff, 117 who were, or had been, soldiers under sentence, and a number of civilians as many as were willing to attend, who had made written complaints about the treatment of their relations who were serving sentences at Stakehill. The completion of the report was considerably delayed by difficulties in obtaining typists, and particularly because the shorthand-typist who had taken down the records of the court of inquiry in shorthand went sick before his notes could be typed. I wish, therefore, to apologise to the House for the delay in giving the further information which I had promised. I see no need for any further inquiry into conditions at Stake-hill. But I am considering whether I ought to take further steps to allay the disquiet of those members of the public and of this House who feel that there is still cause for anxiety about the Army system of detention and the conduct of detention barracks.

Mr. Driberg

Could my right hon. Friend say what are those further steps he proposes to take in the last part of his reply?

Mr. Lawson

I would rather wait to give the matter more consideration, because since the inquiry into conditions at Stakehill there are other matters with which I am going to deal after Questions.

Mr. Lipson

Could the right hon. Gentleman say whether the court was unanimous in its recommendations?

Mr. Lawson

I think it was unanimous, but I would not be absolutely certain.

Following is the statement:

I have carefully considered the findings of the court of inquiry, and the opinions of my advisers whose duty it is to consider and comment on those findings and I have reached the following conclusions:

(1) It is quite clear that the allegations which have been made in the public Press and in letters to the Rev. Urien Evans or to Members of Parliament, are either unfounded or grossly exaggerated.

(2) As regards the two deaths of soldiers at Stakehill, which largely gave rise to this inquiry, I am satisfied that the allegations made were without any foundation.

In the case of Private Hanlon, it is not in doubt that he committed suicide by hanging, but it was alleged that he had been beaten up before he died. This is quite untrue. There is no reason, in my opinion, to attribute his suicide to any other cause than his domestic worries. I consider, however, that the staff were open to criticism to this extent, that talk of suicide and an alleged attempt on the previous evening were not taken seriously enough, but were treated rather as an endeavour to attract sympathy, with the result that the attention of the medical officer was not specifically directed to his case, nor was the soldier deprived—as in the light of what occurred I think he clearly should have been—of the means to do what he did.

In the other case, the soldier died from sudden and unpredictable heart-failure while practising running in physical training dress of shorts and running shoes, and I do not consider that any blame for his death can be attributed to any Army authority. Among the more serious allegations in connection with his death were suggestions that the death certificate was given without a post mortem, that there was delay in summoning the relatives, and that there was a conspiracy to prevent the relatives properly examining the body. I am satisfied that none of these charges is substantiated.

(3) Examination of the complaints received from relatives has disclosed nothing which I consider calls for serious attention. Generally speaking, they are all either trivial, untrue or much exaggerated. The explanation of these unfounded complaints is, I think, that soldiers under sentence not infrequently attempt to divert the attention of their parents and friends from their own misdeeds by inviting sympathy for their sufferings, which they invent or exaggerate while undergoing punishment.

(4) I am satisfied that there is no truth whatever in the allegation that soldiers under sentence were Systematically "beaten up" or that there was habitual and deliberate persecution or victimisation by members of the staff.

(5) Stakehill, which we had been compelled to take into temporary use as a detention barrack during the war, was admittedly unsatisfactory in many respects. The accommodation, messing (although food was always adequate) and sanitary arrangements were below standard and the buildings gloomy, depressing and inconvenient. The barracks were already scheduled for closing and were, in fact, closed down completely on 7th January.

(6) Medical, training, education and welfare arrangements were well up to standard.

(7) I do not consider that any fault can be found with the policy adopted with regard to discipline at Stakehill, though I am not prepared to say that its application by the staff was always above criticism in every respect. I am inclined to think that the supervision of discipline may have been left too much in the hands of the Regimental Sergeant Major. There may well have been an undue tendency to check men for slight mistakes without discrimination, and it is probable that orders were sometimes given in a bullying and domineering manner. On the other hand, I think too much can be made of these faults, and too little consideration given to the great forbearance often shown by the staff in very trying circumstances.

(8) I am satisfied that there is no substance in the allegation that "cleaners" were sometimes ordered, or permitted, by the staff to assault other soldiers under sentence.

(9) The staff was in accordance with the scale recommended by the Oliver Committee, but its quality in many cases left something to be desired. This was inevitable with manpower shortages, and rapid turnover due to the release programme.

This difficulty can only be overcome by the provision of the right type of man in sufficient numbers in the Military Provost Staff Corps, and in this connection I would like to make an earnest appeal to hon. Members and to the Press and public to show fairness to these men who are doing a vital and difficult job, the aim of which is not simply to punish a soldier who has committed a military offence, but to train him to be a good soldier. Hon. Members will recollect that the Oliver Committee reported that again and again they came across evidence of the ill-effects that unfounded allegations of brutality and ill-treatment had had upon the lives of the staff of military detention barracks.

(10) To sum up, I am quite satisfied that there is no cause for any apprehension in the minds of the public that there was any maltreatment of the soldiers under sentence at Stakehill, or that there is anything materially wrong with the general system of detention. A number of detailed recommendations and suggestions with regard to the organisation and administration of detention barracks in general are being examined, and will be implemented where it is practicable to do so.

18. Mr. Driberg

asked the Secretary of State for War if he has now received a report and will make a statement on the recent disturbances in Aldershot detention barracks and on the conditions there of which complaint was made.

Mr. Lawson

I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement at the end of Questions.


Mr. Lawson

I have now received a report on the disturbances which took place at the military prison and detention barracks at Aldershot on 23rd and 24th February, 1946. The course of events was as follows: At 4.30 p.m. on 23rd February one soldier under sentence contrived to unlock his cell door. He promptly released another, and the two together overpowered the N.C.O. on duty and locked him in a cell. The alarm was given by another N.C.O. at the Gate Lodge, but by this time a considerable number of additional soldiers under sentence had been released. They started to smash everything that could be broken. Non-participants were intimidated into joining in. The duty officer, with all available staff, concentrated on preventing the men breaking out of the hall, and, quite properly, made no attempt to subdue the soldiers under sentence by force. The Commandant was quickly on the scene and tried to speak to the men over a loudspeaker warning them that they were taking part in a mutiny. This had no effect. Reinforcements soon arrived and were stationed round the block. The District Commander decided to surround the block so as to prevent escapes, in the hope that the men would come to a more reasonable frame of mind.

Next morning, men were still on the roof of the building throwing missiles but the District Commander addressed them through a loudspeaker asking those who wanted to come out, to do so. About 5o men complied, and were followed soon after by a further 5o. At 10.30 a.m. the District Commander personally got into touch with men who were still on the roof and a deputation came out. They were told that the disturbance must stop and that if they came out, meals would be prepared and grievances gone into. The men agreed, and soon after the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Command, went into the hall and spoke to them. At the very last moment about 40 soldiers under sentence tried to set fire to the hall, but the disturbance was over by 12 noon.

There seems to be no doubt that the disturbances were a development from a frustrated attempt to escape by six soldiers under sentence recently transferred from Northallerton and were not a general and concerted act of mutiny. The immediate factors which gave opportunity for the outbreak included the faulty design of the door of the cell from which the first soldier under sentence contrived to escape, the fact that only one N.C.O. was on patrol in the hall and that he was unarmed.

In view of the speed with which and the extent to which the disturbance developed, it is a matter for satisfaction that it was quelled within 20 hours with only a few minor injuries and no escapes. Disciplinary action is being taken against 25 soldiers under sentence.

While, as I have stated, the outbreak was not the direct result of complaints about conditions at Aldershot or unsatisfied grievances, it is clear that numbers of soldiers under sentence, some of whom have criminal records, were in a mood to take full advantage of the opportunity to join in this act of mass indiscipline, and that this may be attributed, at least in part, to the existence of a sense of grievances, real or imaginary. The men have accordingly been given ample opportunity to put forward any complaints or grievances they have and these are now being examined to see how far there is substance in them. I cannot say more on this point at present, but hon. Members may rest assured that in so far as they have substance, I shall see that the complaints are rectified as soon, and as far, as possible.

Mr. Driberg

Does not this kind of incident, which has become regrettably frequent, illustrate the necessity for a speedy review of the whole question of detention barracks, and of the sentences imposed during the war on men who have not criminal records but who. have committed technical offences only, and is it not time that the Government themselves started smashing up some of these obsolete and barbarous prisons?

Mr. Lawson

So far as the detention of prisoners is concerned, the House will remember that I have already this afternoon given a very definite promise to review this matter. So far as the review of sentences is concerned, I shall want to have a careful look at that matter. As I have told the House, I have in mind a review of the whole system of detention.

Major Guy Lloyd

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that this business would never have spread as it did had not a few been able to intimidate the many, and does that not equally apply to the repeal of the Trade Disputes Act?

General Sir George Jeffreys

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that what is required in detention barracks is not a slackening of discipline but a tightening of discipline; and is he further aware that it is not so many years ago since those detention barracks in Aldershot were familiarly known among the worst characters as "The Rest Cure "?

Mr. Gallacher

Why does not the hon. and gallant Gentleman go and take a rest cure?

Mr. Lawson

I hope the House has rioted that this incident largely arose because there was only one man on duty, and that the men who got out of the cells put the warder into a cell. I think it is rather a serious matter for a man to be on duty by himself, and I am giving very careful attention to it. But I ask the House to remember that there have been very great changes, through demobilisation, among warders as well as among other men, and also that warders are not easily to be had nowadays, not only because of the great changes that are taking place but because of a good deal of publicity that has taken place.

Mr. Gammans

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that when he is reviewing these sentences, offences like desertion will not be regarded as technical offences?

Mr. Lawson

I made a very long statement on that matter some months ago, and those who heard it will remember that I did deal with mitigation of sentences to a considerable extent.

Captain Crowder

Will the right hon. Gentleman see that there are adequate staffs for detention barracks all over the country, because they are grossly understaffed, and at Aldershot they have been for the last two or three years?

Mr. Lawson

Yes, Sir. That is one of the objects of the review that I propose to make, but I told the House—it may be that some hon. Members were not present at the time—that I apprehend considerable disquiet in the public mind about this matter.

Captain Crowder

Is not that disquiet due to the inadequacy of the staffs?