HC Deb 30 November 1955 vol 546 cc2469-78

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

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

In September, 1953, a constituent of mine, Alfred George Hinds, was arrested and charged with complicity in the Maples burglary. He was at first allowed out on bail and then subsequently his bail was cancelled and he was remanded in custody in Brixton Prison. During the time that he was awaiting trial, first of all at liberty and later in custody, he formed the opinion that the police were engaging in some kind of conspiracy against him which would deprive him of a fair trial. Whether he was justified in forming that opinion or not is not a matter which I now seek to raise, nor would it be in order for me to raise it.

However, he reached that conclusion, and, having reached it, he wanted to communicate his fears to me as his Member of Parliament. While he was in custody in Brixton Prison, he therefore wrote to me a letter in which, I presume, he set out his fears and the reasons for them. I do not know what was contained in that letter because it never reached me. The letter was stopped by the prison governor in the exercise of his discretion under the prison rules, but from the surrounding circumstances and from correspondence that I have since then had with his wife and with the Secretary of State for the Home Department, I can make some surmise as to the contents of his letter.

Hinds was dissatisfied, for example, because, of the four men charged with that offence, one, who was the security chief of Maples where the robbery took place, and who subsequently pleaded guilty, was allowed out on bail in spite of the fact, one might imagine, that he was more guilty than anyone else, or guilty of a greater offence. Certainly, when he was finally sentenced, the Lord Chief Justice described his offence as the grossest breach of trust. He was allowed out on bail and Hinds, against whom this man Gridley's evidence was perhaps almost the only substantial evidence, was refused an identification parade to see if Gridley could pick him out.

These and other matters persuaded Hinds to believe that he would not get a fair trial. I do not know for certain, but I think that he put some of these matters in the letter which he wrote to me, and which was stopped by the prison authorities. Eventually I got to hear that this letter had been stopped and I wrote to the present Lord Chancellor, who was at that time the Home Secretary. I wrote to him on 23rd November, 1953, and I received only an interim acknowledgment a couple of weeks later. Then, on 22nd December, just a month later, I received this letter: Enquiries have been made about the letter which Hinds wrote to you. I am told that he wrote on 12th November a letter which was by its terms obviously intended to be for you. He put it, however, in an envelope addressed to his wife. The prison governor considered this to be a subterfuge with some ulterior motive, and in the exercise of his discretion stopped the letter. The prisoner has since been given an opportunity of writing the letter again and addressing it properly and was told that if he did so it would be posted to you immediately. He said however that he did not wish to do so. I have no idea why Hinds adopted this procedure. No difficulty need have arisen if he had been perfectly straightforward. My first comment is that it seems to me a trifling reason for a prison governor to stop a letter from a prisoner to his Member of Parliament in circumstances of this kind. One must remember that this man was not a convicted prisoner serving a sentence of punishment. He was remanded in custody in the cells for the purpose of ensuring that he turned up at his trial, and possibly so that he did not interfere with any prosecution witnesses meanwhile. That could be the only object for holding him in custody.

According to the letter from the Home Secretary, Hinds' letter to me was stopped because he did not address it to me at the House of Commons. He did not do so simply because he did not know that he could do so, as many people do not know that they may write to their M.P. at the House of Commons, and Hinds did not know my private address. He enclosed it in an envelope addressed to his wife, and the prison governor thought that a subterfuge, for what ulterior motive I cannot imagine.

When I received the Home Secretary's letter I did not realise that Hinds had been tried at the Old Bailey from 14th to 17th December, and convicted. The letter from the Home Secretary was dated 22nd December, and when I received it Hinds had been sentenced to preventive detention for twelve years. The day on which he had the opportunity to rewrite the letter to me which said that he had reasons to think that he would not have a fair trial was the first day of his trial, when it was plainly useless for him to re-express those opinions. If he was at liberty to rewrite the letter to me, I am compelled to ask why the original letter could not have been sent on and why it was stopped in the post. Unfortunately, it was not for a considerable time that I found out why I never heard again from Hinds and why there would have been very little point in his repeating the letter.

After that, I began to take the matter up again and I received from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secre- tary a very much fuller letter, on 7th November, in which, after an introductory paragraph, he said to me: The letter in question came before the prison censor in the normal course on the 14th November, 1953. It was, on the face of it, objectionable on two grounds. Although it was enclosed in an envelope addressed to Hinds' wife, the letter was clearly intended for a Member of Parliament. I had already heard about that. It does not seem a very serious matter to me.

The letter continued: Secondly, complaints about the courts and the police which are deliberately calculated to hold the authorities up to contempt are, and were at the relevant time, expressly forbidden by Standing Orders. The second ground, therefore, is that the letter criticised the police in a way calculated to hold them up to contempt, I suppose, by me. That is forbidden by the prison regulations and, therefore, the man could not send the letter. This man, however, had not been convicted. He was being held in prison in order that he should be available on the day of his trial, but he was not allowed to write to a Member of Parliament to say that he considered that there was a conspiracy to defeat the course of justice and that he was not likely to have a fair trial.

The letter from the Home Secretary continued: The matter was referred by the censor officer to the Governor, who had no hesitation in stopping it in exercise of the discretion conferred on him by the Prison Rules … The Governor called up the prisoner on the 16th November, told him of his decision and said that the prisoner could petition about the matter. The letter added that the prisoner did not in fact petition about the stopping of his letter but he petitioned about what was in the letter, that is to say, he presented a petition through the prison authorities, apparently on the same grounds as had been the subject of the letter to me. He did not petition expressly about the stopping of the letter and, therefore, nothing further happened about it until I wrote to the then Home Secretary in November, 1953, and I had my answer a month later, when Hinds had already been sentenced.

There is nothing further that I can usefully read to the House from the Home Secretary's letter, since he merely states that these were the two grounds for the action taken—that it was authorised by the Prison Rules and that the Governor was entitled to exercise his discretion. The Home Secretary added that the letter still remained part of the records relating to my correspondence with his predecessor and he did not think that there was any reason for treating the letter exceptionally.

I have examined the Prison Rules and I find that they cover the action that was taken. That is why the notice which I have given for this Adjournment debate is entitled "Prison Rules." The Governor was entitled to do what he did, but I do not think that he exercised his discretion rightly, nor do I think that the Prison Commisioners were right in upholding the decision. Standing Order No. 623 Of the Prison Rules states that a prisoner can communicate by letter with a Member of Parliament but that among the matters which cannot be included in the letter are complaints about the courts and the police which are deliberately calculated to hold the authorities up to contempt. I submit that that is a quite improper Prison Rule, at any rate in relation to a man who has not been convicted but who is being held in custody pending trial.

This action concerns a man who is presumed to be innocent, and who, were it not for the fact that he was not allowed bail, would be at the fullest liberty to write to me from his house telling rue anything he wished. The Post Office could not refuse to carry the letter merely because it contained allegations against the police. He is put in custody in order to ensure his attendance at his trial, or may be, as is sometimes the case, because the prosecution does not want its witnesses approached. The prime object is nothing but precautionary. In such circumstances a man should be fully at liberty to write to his Member of Parliament complaining about the activities of the police, expressing an opinion about the courts or anything else. The letter is not for publication, but addressed to a Member, who can exercise his own discretion as to whether he should take any action.

I do not know whether Hinds was rightly or wrongly convicted, but I think the whole of the circumstances are deplorable. I shall not say more than that, because I do not think it would be in order—and certainly it would not be right—to raise the question of the administration of justice on the Adjournment, but I am thoroughly unhappy about this whole business. This incident of the letter makes me even more unhappy.

I raise the matter, not only in relation to the man concerned, but as something which affects the rights and privileges of this House. It seems to me that our constituents should have the fullest access to us. We can act as filters, sifting the frivolous matters and those about which we do not choose to press Ministers. It is essential, however, that such men as the one I have been speaking about should have the right to make representations about matters vitally affecting their liberty.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)

The hon. Gentleman has allowed me one minute of his time. This is a matter of considerable importance. We must recognise the relationship of a Member of Parliament to his constituents. The letter was stopped, according to the Prison Rules probably rightly—because the discretion was there—but I do ask the Joint Under-Secretary to remember what has happened in the last fifteen years in relation to the Armed Forces. There is there, also, a very strong prohibition against Members of Parliament being communicated with on certain subjects by serving members, but, in fact, that has been applied by the Service Departments to allow communication. We have to recognise the changed relationship between Members and their constituents. I know of no stronger case than that raised by the hon. Gentleman this evening.

11.48 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

The censorship of prisoners' letters is always a difficult question, and not least when it concerns letters to Members of Parliament. On the one hand, it is important that prisoners should have reasonable means of communicating with their families and, in a proper case, of asking a Member to look into a complaint. On the other hand, many prisoners suffer from illusions about the attitude of those in authority, and some will not hesitate to abuse any right or privilege which they may be given.

The censorship of prisoners' letters is governed by the statutory Prison Rules, and I will read one paragraph from Rule 75: Every letter to or from a prisoner shall (except as hereafter provided in these Rules in the case of certain communications to a legal adviser), be read by the Governor or by a reasonsible officer deputed by him for the purpose, and it shall be within the discretion of the Governor to stop any letter on the ground that its contents are objectionable or that it is of inordinate length. That rule is in wide terms and it is necessary that it should be so, but, in practice, it is administered liberally. A letter is not stopped unless it is against the spirit as well as the letter of the rules.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

Does that apply to prisoners on remand?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Not very much time remains for me to speak, but I will deal with that point.

Among matters which may not be included in a letter are first, discussion of methods of committing crime, instigation of criminal offences, attempts to defeat the ends of justice by suborning witnesses or tampering with evidence, or attempts to facilitate escapes; second, complaints about the courts or police which are deliberately calculated to hold the authorities up to contempt; third, threats of violence; fourth, matters intended for insertion in the Press; fifth, grossly improper language; and, sixth, attempts to stimulate public agitation about matters other than the prisoner's own conviction and sentence. These rules apply as much to letters to Members of Parliament as to letters to anyone else. Clearly, if any of these matters are dealt with in a letter to a Member of Parliament, they are just as offensive as if they were found elsewhere.

The present position is precisely the same as it was when the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) made a statement in the House on 29th July, 1949. A prisoner is not allowed to complain of his treatment in prison to an outside person, except that he may do so by letter to a Member of Parliament, provided that he has already raised the complaint through one of the usual channels; that is to say, through the Visiting Com- mittee, or a visiting Commissioner or Assistant Commissioner, or by a petition to the Home Secretary. Insistence on this machinery is essential.

Mr. R. Bell

Would my hon. Friend—

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I have not much time left to reply, and I am going to deal with a number of points. If there is any time at the end, I will answer any questions.

That insistence is essential in order to preserve discipline and the Home Secretary's responsibility for good order in prisons. Whether or not a prisoner's letter is proper is not always an easy question to answer. Some prisoners are adept at keeping near the borderline of propriety, and, of course, some prisoners are apt to express themselves forcefully when they do not really intend to go over the borderline. However, when a prisoner does go over the borderline, he is told that his letter is being stopped and he is given an opportunity to rewrite it properly.

In the case to which my hon. Friend has referred, the prisoner was awaiting trial. The same rules about correspondence apply in the case of a prisoner awaiting trial as in the case of a prisoner who has been convicted.

Mrs. Braddock

Under what section and what authority?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The prisoner is governed by the same rules under the same authority. All the reasons which I have mentioned against a prisoner's dealing in a letter with objectionable matter apply equally whether or not the prisoner has been convicted.

Mrs. Braddock


Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

There is one aspect of the matter which applies with special force. A prisoner in gaol awaiting trial may have been refused bail on the ground that he is likely to abscond or he may have been refused on the ground that there is a risk of his tampering with evidence. I will tell my hon. Friend that in the case to which he has referred that is the ground on which the prisoner was refused bail, and, therefore, there was a special reason in that case why his correspondence should be carefully looked at.

The only difference, apart from such facilities as the provision of writing materials, is that a prisoner on remand awaiting trial, may send to his legal adviser confidential writing prepared as instructions to his legal adviser, and such writing is not subject to censorship unless there are special reasons for its being suspect.

In this case, the prisoner wrote a letter, the one to which my hon. Friend has referred, which came before the censor on 14th November, 1953. It was objectionable on two grounds. In the first place, the envelope was addressed to the prisoner's wife, while it was quite clear that the contents were addressed to some Member of Parliament, not necessarily my hon. Friend, though that appeared to be likely. In the second place, the letter contained abusive matter about the police. That is one of the grounds on which a letter is stopped—

Mrs. Braddock

It might be quite true.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

—and that is provided by the Prison Rules.

The governor saw the prisoner on 16th November and told him of the decision to stop the letter, and of his right to petition the Home Secretary. The prisoner submitted a petition on 20th November, and he then included, as has been pointed out, practically all the contents of the letter which had been stopped; but he made no complaint, in the petition, about the letter having been stopped. In fact, a reply to the petition was sent on 25th November.

I would point out that if the prisoner had included the point about the letter having been stopped, he would have had three weeks before his trial in which he could have taken up the matter with my hon. Friend; but it was not until 25th May, 1955, more than eighteen months later, that the prisoner asked the governor for a copy of the letter. At that time he was at Nottingham, and the letter was not among his papers there. The governor wrote to Brixton Prison, where the prisoner had been, but the letter was not found, and the prisoner was told that it could not be traced. That was, of course, wrong, but it was not an unnatural mistake because stopped letters are usually kept with the prisoner's papers; however, owing to what had already occurred in this particular case, the letter had been sent to London and kept there.

Had the prisoner petitioned, the letter would have come to light immediately. I would tell my hon. Friend that I have personally seen the letter, and am satisfied that it was addressed as stated, and that it did contain objectionable matter. The prisoner was told of his right of appeal, but did not exercise that right, and I am satisfied that he was treated strictly in accordance with the regulations, which are fair and proper in the circumstances.

Mrs. Braddock

Badly treated.

Mr. R. Bell

I agree with most of this, but my complaint is that the Prison Rules do cover such action for a man on remand in custody. Am I now going to get the letter, or a copy of it, because if my hon. Friend can read it without being corrupted, why cannot I?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The reason for not sending on the letter is not because of any danger of corrupting my hon. Friend's morals. It is essential that discipline and good order should be maintained in prisons. If a prisoner, even one awaiting trial, sends letters which are abusive of the police, or worse still, might tamper with evidence, then there would be an end to good order.

The prisoner could have written to my hon. Friend, or to any hon. Member of this House, making any valid point which he chose. But this prisoner refrained from doing that, for his own reasons—which I cannot know—and from taking advantage of his rights. If he does that, he cannot get round the rules by getting the matter raised in this House and by saying that the letter has been stopped contrary to the rules. I can only add that my hon. Friend would be sadly disappointed if he saw the letter, but in any case, since we cannot act contrary to the rules, the letter must remain where it is.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.