HC Deb 19 May 1947 vol 437 cc2139-48

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

10.57 p.m.

Mrs. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

I am in a difficulty. I have been informed only within the last two hours that the Secretary of State for War is not taking any responsibility for answering on the matter I intend to raise and that it has been passed to the Colonial Office. I had no intimation that the Colonial Office had anything to do with the question but, perhaps, that can be explained by the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies when he replies. I wish to bring before the House the question of the conditions under which Services' personnel are serving sentences in the Singapore prison. My attention was drawn to it by a letter, which was, admittedly, smuggled out of the prison. On reading certain items in that letter, and knowing that some of the personnel concerned were men from Liverpool, I was much concerned with the position. Perhaps I can best put the position by reading certain quotations from the letter which I have received. It is dated 19th February, and states: The boys want the public to know under what conditions the British service man is living under, here in Singapore. In here at present there are a few Liverpool boys, and there are others who have preceded them …There are altogether about a hundred Servicemen from all parts of England, on charges which they say should never have been put in prison for, serving as much as three to four years' imprisonment and most of them have served for two years or more out here in the Far East, mostly as occupation forces. If these boys were tried in a proper police court in England they would no doubt be given a fine but decidedly not given a prison sentence. The majority of the boys are in here on a charge of being in possession of arms, there are various other charges such as black market, etc. If a Serviceman is found with a few rounds of ammunition in his kit, which he invariably has, his officer turns him over' to the civilian police and they in turn sentence him to three or more years imprisonment. The letter refers to this place as "a second Belsen," and says that in this place are the men who fought during the war. The letter continues: There is also the matter of lawyers here. Firstly, the Services will not provide us with a defending counsel. Even if we are lucky and manage to retain a Services' officer as a defending counsel, we are told to plead guilty, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court, the jury consisting of seven Chinese and one Tamil, who said that we should get the highest punishment even before we appeared in court. We are advised to retain a civilian lawyer, which we have to pay for ourselves and draw the money from our gratuities. The Services do not help us to pay for these lawyers, but the Japanese prisoners of war are given legal aid, and a fully-qualified lawyer is paid for by the British Government, and they also have the opportunity of being released. This letter also states:

It is said in the papers that the police force are bribed to keep their eyes closed to certain things. If you pay a police inspector £250, he will see nothing, and you will remain scot free, but where can an ex-Serviceman get that amount of money to bribe an officer of the law (so-called)? Even in appearing at court, we are ushered in with a crowd of dirty Indians, Malays and Chinese, and placed in a small dock to await the arrival of the judge, who enters at a time convenient to himself. We have never heard a word from him, except a grunt, a stamp and signature on a warrant, and then brought back to this Belsen for another week. This goes on for a month at a time, and there is no heed paid to the amount of time we stay in remand… We prisoners are taking a great risk in sending this letter to you, as it has to be smuggled out of the prison… We are herded into a cell about 30 ft. by 12 ft., in which 17 people have to sleep. The blankets are infested with bugs and lice, and the beds are three wooden boards with two wooden trestles, also infested with bugs. They go on, in this letter, to make reference to the conditions of medical treatment in the prison. This letter caused me to put down Questions on the Order Paper, to which I have received no replies whatever from the War Office, although, when I put down the Question, I sent to the War Office the letter from which I have quoted. The information contained in the letter should have enabled them to provide an answer one way or another. The whole letter was actually sent to the War Office, and, for a long time, I heard nothing at all. I then received further letters, both from the civilian remand gaol, a different place from the Singapore civil prison from which the first letter came. These letters say that, following my question in the House, they had a visit to the prison. They say: We want to tell you that we were awakened in the morning and told that we had to clean up our cells and tidy up everything in general, as a person of importance was to visit the prison. Not one of the men was informed who was coming until there appeared somebody in khaki uniform, but even the most observant man in the cells was quite unable to see him long enough to recognise any badge of rank or any of his features. This person was the Major-General of Singapore, but he never made any comment but turned his back and went away. When we told him that we wanted to give him some information, he said that he had not sufficient time. This letter contains serious allegations with regard to the medical conditions at the prison, and it is one which causes me very great concern, because it says: One man requested to see the doctor about a suspected case of venereal disease, and the doctor told him he would soon be going outside and therefore didn't need the prison's medical supplies, which, according to the medical orderly, the prison had to pay for. Only in exceptional cases will the patient be treated twice a day. Anybody suffering from mosquito or insect bites got no attention at all when they asked for medical treatment. They say that when they went out on the Sunday morning to go down to the toilet, they were confronted by about 30 Chinese, all suffering from skin disease, bathing and washing their clothes in the same water as they had to use. Another point which they consider important is that they are not allowed to go to any church, and they complain that the inspector of prisons flatly refused to consider all communications made with reference to this matter. Following that, I saw the Secretary of State for War and was told that some inquiries were being made, but that the War Office were waiting for a report from Singapore. I received a letter on the morning that I asked my second Question—why my first had not been answered—which gave some information. Perhaps it would be better if I read to the House this letter the contents of which are totally unsatisfactory. It is from the Secretary of State for War and is dated 21st April. It says: On 11th March I promised to write to you when I received a report from Singapore about the Outram Road civilian prison. I am now able to let you have a reply which also covers your letter to me of the 18th March with its enclosure. The civil authorities in Singapore will not allow soldiers sentenced in civil courts to serve sentence anywhere but in civil gaols. The majority of sentences for which the men are convicted are armed robbery and illegal possession of firearms, both of which the civilian government are striving to suppress. It follows that the military authorities exercise no responsibility over such Army personnel while they are under sentence. For a time, owing to lack of accommodation in military prisons, some soldiers sentenced by court-martial had also to be confined in the civilian prison at Singapore. While these men were in civil custody our responsibility was limited to a review of their sentences. On 18th March there were 13 English Army personnel in Outram Road remand prison and 24 in the Outram Road main gaol. Soldiers tried by the Civil courts for civil crimes cannot be represented by Service personnel, but all cases deserving of legal aid, i.e., broadly speaking, cases equivalent to those in which legal aid would be granted by the civil courts in this country, are now referred to War Office to obtain approval for the employment of civil counsel at Government expense. I cannot understand where the difference comes in, or how it is sorted out. The last paragraph is most interesting. It says; With regard to the general conditions in this prison, I am hoping to receive some information on feeding, sanitary and other conditions from my representative who is now touring the area and is to visit the gaol by courtesy of the Inspector of Prisons, Singapore. I will write again when I have seen his report. That, of course, suggested to me that the War Office were responsible for this matter. I was somewhat surprised to learn, as I said in my opening remarks, that the War Office were taking no responsibility and that nobody was coming here to say anything about it, and that the whole responsibility in the matter was being put on to the Colonial Office. Had I known that that was the position, or had I been communicated with before this, I might have been saved the necessity of raising this matter tonight, in an endeavour to get some information, and could have passed my correspondence to the Colonial Office instead of having to raise it now.

Finally, as to the letter from the Secretary of State for War, although, evidently, he could not tell me, or has not told me up to now, the result of the inquiry which was made on his instructions in Singapore, I can yet get a letter from the men themselves telling me exactly what happened when the visit was made, and what the position was in relation to that visit. I received further information which caused me very grave concern when I read it. It said: The governor of this place takes a sadistic delight in using a thing call the rattan as a means of punishment on, the slightest provocation. The nearest thing that describes it is a cat o' nine tails, which I believe is abolished in England. This instrument was used on a Service person, and left his body horribly marked for months after. When one receives letters of this sort from Service personnel who fought during the war, and are in prison far away from their own homes, without any supervision and with no one to take up their case unless they are able to smuggle a letter such as I have read from prison, one thinks that it is about time that whatever Government Department is responsible knew something about what is happening to our lads spread over the earth.

Following my Question about the troops, I received a letter from a Service man's mother in Bradford, in which she told me that her son had been in prison and had received treatment similar to that which I have recounted to the House. In fact, some of the comments made led me to believe that the letters I have received do not give the full facts of what is happening to our lads who are prisoners in civilian or military gaols. This is a matter which affects the wives and mothers of Service personnel, and there should be some way for these people to find out what is going on and what is happening to their menfolk. I see no reason to believe that these are not genuine letters. They are intelligently written, and they seem to have been written under a great deal of stress. Also, they had to go to a lot of trouble in order to find somebody who was prepared, in the first instance, to smuggle the letter out of prison. When the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies replies I hope he will let me know how it is that there has been a change in the Department responsible for this matter since I put down my first question in February. I received a reply to one of my letters from the War Office on 21st April, and although I have requested information since it was only very recently that the Colonial Office told me that they were responsible. This shifting of the matter from one Department to the other, is not in the interests of the men or their relatives, and I should like to know which Department is responsible.

11.14 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Ivor Thomas)

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mrs. Braddock) has been disappointed in the Minister whom she expected to reply but I must do the best I can to answer her questions. The question she has raised is about members of the Forces who have committed civil offences and are in a civil prison under the control of the government of Singapore. She will see that it was not clear which Department was responsible for the reply and we could not anticipate her speech. Now that I have heard her speech I am reinforced in my view that the Colonial Office is the proper Department. The only question which I do not feel is within my competence is the question of legal aid to the prisoners at the time of their trial, and I will ask my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office if he will provide a reply in writing to that question. If there is any criticism of the fact that I am speaking here tonight, I take the responsibility. After discussions with my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office, I felt that the charges were for my Department to answer. I admit at once that, in one respect, the conditions in this prison in Outram Road, Singapore, are not satisfactory. The hon. Lady has quoted the expression "Belsen," and that is, of course, a complete exaggeration. The respect in which I admit that conditions are bad is overcrowding. There were, at a recent date, 82 Europeans, including 66 members of the Armed Forces, in the European quarters of this prison, which were built over seventy years ago and which, before the war, normally accommodated twenty persons. The reason for this increase is in the first place the big increase in the Armed Forces in Malaya, and the prevalence of crime by members of the Armed Forces as well as by civilians in Malaya. Another cause of this overcrowding is that the other gaol in the colony, the Changi Gaol—of infamous memories under the Japanese—is now used to accommodate Japanese war criminals. 1t is the policy of the Government that war criminals should so far as possible serve their sentences where their crimes were perpetrated, and so this other building is not available for prisoners convicted of civil crimes. These are the reasons why there is overcrowding, and before long I will mention what we are proposing to do to remedy this position.

The hon. Lady has also made allegations about the inadequacy of the medical treatment in the prison. I can tell the House that in the very full information I have received about conditions in the prison I have found no evidence to support what she has said on this subject. Naturally, I will have the fullest inquiry made into the matter now that the hon. Lady has raised it, but I shall be surprised if it is found that matters are as she has stated, or that in such questions as she has mentioned the medical autho- rities are not very careful indeed. The hon. Lady has also made reference to church services. It is true that, on Christmas Day, when a number of prisoners asked for the ministrations of the clergy, it was not possible to find a clergyman as the clergy had so many other duties that day. But a Chaplain to the Forces regularly attends the prison and services are held regularly.

I have mentioned that there is at present overcrowding in the prison, but it is hoped that this wave of crime is not permanent. I ought to interpolate that these prisoners are not serving sentences for light offences. My hon. Friend has mentioned that some are being punished for the possession of arms, but the possession of arms is not a light matter in Singapore at the present time. There is a wave of serious crime in the colony, and many of the prisoners are serving sentences for armed robbery with violence. I have no reason to doubt that 'the administration of justice in their case was as careful as in all cases.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

Why, when it is almost a universal practice to bring Europeans, who have been sentenced to long periods, back to this country, is not the practice followed here?

Mr. Thomas

If the hon. and learned Member had waited for just two more sentences, he would have found that was a solution to which I was going to refer.

We cannot contemplate the building of additional prisons in Singapore. We hope that the present large number of prisoners is a temporary phenomenon. The building problem in Singapore—there was much damage during the war—is extremely serious. We cannot build additional prisons. What we do propose, on the recommendation of the Governor of Singapore—who has himself visited the prison—is that we should take advantage of the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act of 1884 which, in Section Two, provides that where members of the Armed Forces are imprisoned abroad they may be brought to this country to serve their sentence. The Governor recommends that after European prisoners have served twelve months of their sentence they should be brought to the United Kingdom to serve the remainder and my right hon. Friend has accepted the recommendation in principle. It remains to be seen, of course, whether there is accommodation in this country for such prisoners, and the question of their transport will also give some difficulty. But in principle the suggestion has been accepted. Its detailed application will be followed out in discussions with the Home Office and other interested departments. I trust therefore that my hon. Friend will see that we are concerned about the question of overcrowding, and as for the other points that have been raised, although I have no reason to think that the hon. Lady's information is correct, I will bring them to the notice of the proper quarters.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Will the hon. Gentleman address his attention to the alleged use of a whip as a weapon of punishment on the prisoners? It is shocking and illegal if such a weapon were used.

Mr. Thomas

I cannot make any comment on a statement quoted by the hon. Lady from a letter. That is one of the matters which I will certainly bring to the notice of the Governor of Singapore.

Captain Marsden (Chertsey)

; The hon. Lady has given us a great many complaints against the treatment of prisoners. I hope that she will not forget that there is a great deal of feeling against the crimes these men have committed. There is one point with regard to the question of these men being represented in court. When a naval rating goes before a civil court, an officer in the ship in which the man serves goes to the court and watches the case and reports if he thinks there has been a fair trial or otherwise. Can the Under-Secretary give us any information to show that these men, when before a civil court, got any help in the matter of representation, or whether anyone watched their interests? I think that is a question we should ask.

Mr. Thomas

That is a question for the War Office, as I said at the beginning of my speech.

11.24 p.m.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

My only excuse for intervening is that I was closely in touch with the authorities at Singapore, and I know the Governor personally. I feel that a little first-hand evidence may be of use. There is a lot of violence in Singapore, and a very un- healthy state of affairs. That violence must be dealt with by severe punishment. When there are cases of people being held up in the streets, and cases of robbery with violence, and so on, it is necessary to take steps to deal with them effectively. Whether the man should be represented by lawyers at his trial, is a matter of which I do not want to speak, but with regard to the suggestions almost of inhumanity and neglect against the medical services, I frankly do not believe that of the medical services in Singapore. I was in contact with the heads of the Colonial Medical Service and others who seemed to me to be extremely conscientious, and trying to carry out their work in very difficult circumstances. The same applies to the Service personnel, the Navy, the Army, and the Royal Air Force. Why these men were not represented from the legal point of view in court is a matter which is not, as I say, within my field, and I do not wish to comment on that. But I think the picture which has been given to the House is unfair to those who are concerned with the administration of Singapore. Take, for instance, the question of removing the people from Singapore to this country to serve the remainder of their sentences. An admirable thing, but when I was there, after a long and exhausting journey in the Far East, I particularly and anxiously wanted to return to this country by ship instead of by plane; but there are just not the ships to bring the people over, even if they have priority. The accommodation on the ships is tremendously overcrowded, and people are waiting months and months—people who have been out there a long time and who are wishing to rejoin their families in this country, people who have not committed any crime, and have every reason to get a passage back. They must be given priority over those sentenced to imprisonment.

Mr. Pritt


Dr. Guest

Because they have a prior claim. I consider that a man who has been serving his country in an honourable capacity, and doing good work, if he wishes to come back should have a prior claim over a man who is serving a sentence for a crime.

Dr. Morgan

There may be a miscarriage of justice, when the man has not been properly defended.

Dr. Guest

That matter can be raised, and I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised it this evening. I am putting the point of view of one who was out there. The Governor of Singapore at present is a man who was himself in prison under the Japanese, and he is the last man to be unjust to prisoners. I hope that point of view will be kept in mind as well as what the hon. Lady has put to the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTYSPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put. pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at Twenty-seven Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.