HC Deb 14 July 1955 vol 543 cc2236-46

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. C. J. M. Alport (Colchester)

I have asked your permission, Mr. Speaker, to raise the question of the reform of the Military Corrective Establishment at Colchester for certain definite reasons. The first is that I think that it is important that public opinion today should be reassured that the methods of maintaining discipline in the Army conform with the needs——

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Alport

—of a peacetime conscripted Army. Secondly, I think it is equally important that the parents of young men being called up to serve in Her Majesty's Forces should be assured that during the time of their service they are not brought unnecessarily into contact with evil influences or subjected to unfair treatment.

A more local reason which I have for raising this question is that during the last few months there have been a number of escapes from the Military Corrective Establishment, which have caused great concern and anxiety to those who live in its neighbourhood. Indeed, there are many people on a housing estate it the vicinity who suffer a certain amour of nervous tension because it is known that among those who are serving sentence at the corrective establishment are some men with extremely bad records of a criminal and violent kind.

Some weeks ago, certain allegations were made by soldiers under sentence at the Establishment about the maltreatment meted out to them by the staff. With the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I visited this Establishment shortly afterwards to try to see for myself the conditions existing there. I must say that I saw no evidence to bear out the allegations which were made, and I think it right that it should be borne in mind that those allegations were made by extremely unreliable men, who were anxious to bring as much discredit as they could upon the Army.

I think it possible that there was, and is, a certain amount of bullying, mostly of a verbal nature, but it may be that the bullying takes other forms as well. I would also say, because I think it most important that this matter should be kept in perspective, that the staff have been subjected on numerous occasions to assault, and that the majority of the men confined in the M.C.E. are extremely un-co-operative, while some fall, as I have said, into the category of violent and confirmed criminals.

I should explain to the House that there are two establishments in the United Kingdom, one at Shepton Mallet, which is a military prison in the normal sense of the term, and the other the Military Corrective Establishment at Colchester, which is a prison without bars, or, in military parlance, a glass-house without panes, though, in actual fact, there is a good deal of pain during confinement there. It is not a pleasant place. The accommodation, I think it will be generally agreed, is not satisfactory, since it was a re-creation of what was during the war a prisoner-of-war camp.

At the time of my visit, 400 men were serving sentence, and during 1954 over 2,000 men passed through the M.C.E. Of this number, about 50 per cent. were National Service men, if we include as National Service men the three-year engagement men, who are Regular soldiers, if I may put it that way, in no more than a technical sense of the term. Another statistic which I think is worth bearing in mind by the House is that of the 400 men who were there at the time of my visit, 220, or over 50 per cent., were second offenders.

The nature of these offences varies considerably. I understand that 97 had been committed for stealing, 192 for absence without leave or deserting, 4 for indecency, 10 for violence, 7 for disobedience, 9 for War Department vehicle offences, 39 for military offences, such as insubordination or striking a superior officer, and 42 for miscellaneous civil offences, such as larceny, wounding and assault. The House will recognise from those statistics that nearly 50 per cent. of the offences comprised absence without leave or desertion and that the vast majority of the offences are military offences in the normal sense of the term which would not be capable of being brought before a civilian court.

I was informed that a large number of the men found guilty of absence without leave or desertion gave as the reason for their offence some kind of family trouble at home. A smaller number comprised soldiers who, for various reasons—for instance, the spoilt only child complex, a weakness of character, or even some degree of mental deficiency—were unable to adapt themselves to normal military life. The point I am emphasising is that the problem of crime in the Army should not generally be regarded in the same terms as we regard crime in the civilian sense. The treatment and approach to it should be different, particularly in a civilian Army serving in peacetime.

I would emphasise that responsibility for this problem does not fall primarily on the shoulders of the Army, the War Office or the military authorities. In my view, it falls, to a very large extent, upon the parents of the men concerned. For instance, I was informed by the padre that about 75 per cent. of the men who passed through the M.C.E. had had at no time, to his knowledge, any previous contact with organised Christian religion. I think that that is an indication of the fact that a great majority of these men are not criminals in the civilian sense of the word, but form a social problem which has to be dealt with in a rather different way from the way in which we would normally deal with crimes in the Army.

If I may give some of the conclusions I came to as a result of the visit, I would say that the first was that no satisfactory solution has been found by the War Office since the war for the enforcement of discipline among young soldiers in a conscripted peacetime Army. I noted a marked difference between the attitude to the M.C.E. of the bona fide Regular soldier and the average National Service man. The majority of Regular soldiers accepted their punishment philosophically. They were anxious to win—and did win by good behaviour—the privileges provided through transfer from A Company, which is the company which takes initial offenders, to B Company, in which they get certain privileges such as being allowed out of camp and to attend cinemas in the evening on certain occasions. They took advantage of those opportunities and made the best of what to them was a bad job. In the end they bore no particular grudge against the Army about their treatment in the M.C.E.

On the other hand, the National Service man regarded the M.C.E. with smouldering indignation. By failing to benefit from the opportunity of training, the average National Service man tended to remain in A Company indefinitely and he left with a bitter grudge against the system which condemned him to that form of training. I would point out to the Under-Secretary of State that the number of second offence men, 220, there shows that the corrective element in the Military Corrective Establishment is not, by evidence, fully successful.

I came, secondly, to the conclusion that since the majority of the men under sentence at the M.C.E. are, in some degree, mentally retarded or psychologically maladjusted they would fall too easily under the influence of the hard core of anti-social and criminal types who find their way into the Establishment, and that, although the commandant and the staff do, their best to separate them, the present organisation makes that contact almost inevitable.

The third point is that, on the whole, in any unit in any of the Services the morale and standards depend upon the morale of the officers, warrant officers, sergeants and N.C.O.s, and I had the firm impression that there exists, particularly among the warrant officers and sergeants, an undercurrent of unease which has had a considerable effect upon their morale and esprit de corps. Although I have no direct evidence, because I have not visited any of the M.P.S.C. establishments overseas, my impression is that this applies not only to the United Kingdom but equally to other establishments overseas.

There were certain aspects of the organisation and training which were admirable. At the same time, I have no doubt that there are many things which should be done to improve the system. In the time that remains to me, I should like to give my hon. Friend some proposals—he is already familiar with some of them because I have submitted a report to the War Office—which I think might help to improve the whole system of corrective training and, indeed, of dealing with the problems of discipline in a peace-time conscripted army.

My first suggestion is that the Secretary of State for War should take steps to reorganise the M.C.E. so as to reduce to the minimum the possibility of contact between the criminal elements which must find their way through such an establishment and those who are there for technical military offences which would not be regarded with any degree of seriousness in civilian life.

There should be a reception centre to which those who are sentenced to detention should be sent, and they should 'remain there for not more than 14 days. While they are there, the commandant and staff, basing their decision not only upon the crime for which the soldier has been sentenced on that occasion but also upon his previous record, should decide whether he should serve his sentence in a corrective training battalion or in the military prison at Shepton Mallet. During the 14 days there would be little danger of evil contact or influence, and I consider that the time would be sufficient for the commandant to obtain a proper appreciation of the individual problem of the soldier.

The corrective training establishment should be regarded as a training unit in the normal sense of the term, and the soldier going there should undergo an intensive course of military and educational training under hard conditions but without the environment and atmosphere of a prison, which exists in the Military Corrective Establishment at Colchester despite its name.

The Secretary of State and his advisers should consider whether it is not time to introduce into the Army Act a new form of punishment called corrective training which would be distinct from the existing punishment of detention. I suggest that no soldier, airman or marine who is sentenced to 28 days' detention or less should go to the corrective establishment. My view upon that is borne out by the advice of a number of senior officers who have experience of the subject.

I recommend to my right hon. Friend that some reorganisation should take place in the Military Provost Staff Corps because I am certain that the whole problem can be solved ultimately only if the officers and men dealing with the matter are of the best quality obtainable and are able to maintain in a small, rather isolated corps a high standard of morale and esprit de corps. I suggest that some of the pre-war privileges should be restored to the Corps, that very great care should be taken in the selection of the officers, warrant officers and sergeants who are to form part of it and that the office of Inspector of Military Prisons, combined, I suggest, with that of Commandant of the M.P.S.C., should be restored in order to make them feel that they have somebody in high quarters at the War Office who has a special task of looking after the interests of what, as I have said, is a small Corps.

I suggest to my hon. Friend that the part which the padres and the educational staff can play in dealing with this problem is extremely valuable and useful. Every facility should be given to the padre, whether Church of England or any other denomination, to carry out their work, as they are most likely to produce the sort of results we all wish to see. Finally, I believe that although I am speaking now of a problem relatively minor in scope, it is a major problem in significance to the Army in so far as the Military Corrective Establishment at Colchester serves the whole of the Army in the United Kingdom and everybody knows of its existence by good repute, or by ill. It is, therefore, vital to the Army that that repute should be as good as possible for an Establishment of that sort.

10.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Fitzroy Maclean)

First, I should like to say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) for the interest which he has shown in this problem and for the trouble which he has taken to investigate. The problem, as his own speech has shown, is by no means a simple one, and we certainly welcome the constructive suggestions which he made on his return from his visit to the M.C.E. at Colchester and the further suggestions he has made in his speech.

Perhaps I might mention at the start, as a matter of history, that the present system which we have in these corrective establishments arose from the Prime Minister's Committee of Inquiry, which was set up under Mr. Justice Oliver in 1943. Therefore, it is not in its origin a purely military system. Since that Committee, which consisted of Mr. Justice Oliver and two other distinguished experts in these matters, was set up, we have had the benefit of a number of visits to these establishments by distinguished civilians, and we keep in touch with the latest thought on prison matters and kindred problems.

When I recently visited the M.C.E. at Colchester, I was lucky to be able to take with me the Director of Prison Administration, and he has been able to give us some very useful advice. I am glad to say that his impression was favourable, and that he felt, I think, that the Army makes a pretty good job of these difficult problems, which it has to face in common with the civil authorities.

It has been suggested that there should be a fresh inquiry into the whole problem. If I thought that necessary, I would certainly strongly support it, but having had a good look into this question I do not feel that such an inquiry is necessary at the present time, although I emphasise that our attitude in this matter is receptive, and we are very glad to have the benefit of fresh minds, such as that of my hon. Friend, turned upon it.

My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of reorganising the establishment at Colchester. In particular he suggested that there should be a separate reception centre to which soldiers under sentence would be admitted and in which they would spend fourteen days. That, of course, would mean more accommodation and more staff, both of which are in short supply. I would remind my hon. Friend that we already have a separate reception building through which all new arrivals pass, and also that on arrival every soldier under sentence is interviewed carefully by a senior officer in order that some opinion may be formed of his background and the reasons which have brought him there.

Both at that stage and later the Commandant has wide powers to segregate the different types, and to keep what might be termed the "misfits" apart from the hardened criminals; and also to send men away to the military prison at Shepton Mallet. Here I would emphasise the distinction between a military prison, which is primarily for men who will be discharged from the Army on the completion of their sentence, and this military corrective establishment from which men will be sent back to their units, having been made into better soldiers.

It is for that reason that the M.C.E. at Colchester is divided into different wings, A Wing and B Wing. A Wing is for the new arrivals and for the hardened cases. B Wing, which is divided into the first, second and third stages, is where a man who tries can graduate from something which is more like A Wing to stage three, which comes very near to the conditions of an ordinary unit.

The virtue of that system is that it ensures so far as possible under existing circumstances—and it is true that it would be better if we had better buildings—that hardened criminals are segregated from men who have come there simply because they are misfits and cannot get used to Army life. It also enables a man to work his passage and earn better conditions of service by good conduct. We believe that, with certain exceptions—and we admit that there are exceptions—it leaves the man a better soldier than when he first enters the M.C.E.

My hon. Friend mentioned escapes, and said that the local residents were disturbed at the idea of being attacked in their homes by hardened criminals, and by the knowledge that such hardened criminals might be at liberty. I do not think that that is likely to happen. The hardened criminal generally goes to the military prison at Shepton Mallet and not to the M.C.E. Such hard cases as are there are very closely guarded.

Mr. Alport

That may be the case, but my hon. Friend will recollect that among those who escaped recently was one whom I am informed had the character of a gunman from New York, and had an extremely bad record in the Bowery; and that more than one of the soldiers who escaped has now, I understand, been subjected to a civilian sentence.

Mr. Maclean

Yes, I think that there are certain exceptions, but I was speaking generally, and I hope I am right in saying that, as a rule, my hon. Friend's constituents have not really very much to fear from that kind of thing.

Similarly, my hon. Friend mentioned bullying. Here, again, everything is done to prevent bullying. I satisfied myself when I went there that that was the case, and if any cases of bullying come to the notice of the authonities, very severe sanctions are imposed. Any cases that there are of bullying are, I think, very much the exception.

My hon. Friend had some interesting things to say about training methods. He suggested that there should be a new grade called "corrective training," but I think that it would be difficult to introduce any further gradations into the system because when men have reached stage 3 of B Wing they are really living and serving under very much the same conditions as they would be in an ordinary unit. As soon as they are suitable they are moved on.

I have an idea that when my hon. Friend went there he thought that there was rather too much drill and weapon training, that the balance was too much in favour of those things, and that there were not, perhaps, quite enough occupational and educational facilities. But, of course, our object, as I said earlier, is to make better soldiers of these men, and I think that to a large extent we succeed in doing that. On the other hand, I agree that the occupational and educational side of the training is very important, and while the present facilities are good—I went into that particularly carefully—I think that there is room for improvement. In this establishment we are seeing what we can do in the way of giving better facilities for men to learn something about mechanical engineering, carpentry and other such things. We already have a good library.

My hon. Friend mentioned religion. There, again, we fully realise the importance of that, and there are already "Padre hours." My hon. Friend made what I thought was one very good suggestion, which was that the chaplain should, if he cares to do so wear civilan clothes when on duty. That we have accepted, and I think that it will make the padre's job easier.

We are also aiming at having an educational officer. The task of the Military Provost Staff Corps is obviously not an easy one. I think there is no doubt that it would be an improvement if the two functions of the Provost-Marshal, that of Provost-Marshal and Commandant of the Corps, and his function as Inspector of Prisons could be separated. We are looking into that matter urgently to see if we can restore the old arrangement which was done away with as a measure of retrenchment soon after the war.

I mentioned the question of accommodation. I do not think that the present accommodation is ideal, but, unfortunately, like so many other things it has to take its turn in our programme of barrack development. However, that aspect is certainly being watched.

I hope that what I have said will have given hon. Members some idea of the lines on which we are working. As I have indicated, our aim is rehabilitation and correction rather than punishment. It is not a simple problem, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and for that reason we welcome visits from hon. Members or from others who are interested in prison matters.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.