HC Deb 19 July 1956 vol 556 cc1545-54

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

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)

I am raising this question tonight regarding night watchman Winward because I have been so dissatisfied with the replies given to me by the Home Secretary that I feel I am bound to bring it to the notice of the House. Washington Hall, Chorley, is a centre under the control of the Home Office, and is used for Civil Defence training. Night watchmen are employed to see to the security of the grounds at night and they take over certain duties during the evening hours. This case goes back to the end of last year when a party took place in one of the rooms at Washington Hall in which a number of fire instructors and certain women were involved.

The watchman on duty at the time considered that the conduct at that party was against the interests of the place and he reported the persons to the secretary. I am informed that, as a result of the report which he made, the women were discharged and the fire instructors were severely reprimanded. From accounts given by residents, these fire instructors made no secret of the fact that they would "get their own back" on the watchman concerned.

On 4th January night watchman Winward took over duty at ten o'clock at night. After he had been round the grounds to see that everything was secure, he came back to the watchman's hut to write up the block cards, which was part of his duties. This was at about 2 a.m. On looking up, he saw a face peering at him through the window. He went outside the hut and saw a man running away. He followed the man, but lost him. He came back to the hut and saw the man again, standing by the officers' mess. Mr. Winward went to the secretary of the department, who lives in one of the huts, and told what he had seen. The secretary told him that if he saw the man again he must call the police. Mr. Winward went back to the hut and undertook his work again and saw the man looking through the window once more, so he called the police.

Two policemen came from Chorley in a car, and Mr. Winward told them what had taken place. They made a search round the grounds and for a time could not find anything. Then, on a final search, they caught a man. They called Mr. Winward, and the man was identified as one of the fire instructors concerned in the first affair. He refused to speak, and night watchman Winward went to the secretary and told him what had taken place. The secretary said, "Wait outside and I will get dressed and come along."

Winward went outside, and was waiting there when he received a terrific blow at the back of the head which knocked him to the ground. Someone then started beating him on the face and hitting him around the body. He was blinded by the blows, so Winward threw his arms out and caught a leg. He held on to the leg while shouting for help. He successfully held this man until three fire instructors from one of the buildings came running along and took charge of the man.

Night watchman Winward was exhausted by this time. He was blinded by blood which was running down his face. When the policeman came along with the other man they and the fire instructors assisted him to his feet. He was given treatment. He said that he was not severely hurt except that he was badly bruised. Nothing was broken. He was given a wash and treatment, and was sent home in a car.

The following day Winward went along to see his doctor who said, when he saw Winward's face: "If your body is anything like your face you had better strip". He compelled him to strip and said, "Three or four minutes more of this, and you would not be alive now". Night watchman Winward is 63. Shortly before this affair he had had to undergo a very severe operation. His condition at the time was rather precarious. In addition to the bruising there was the shock. He was off work for weeks.

That was on the Thursday night. On the Monday, he was called to see the secretary and the commandant of the camp and they discussed this matter with him. They informed him that if he wished to take proceedings the matter was in his hands, but they asked him to leave the matter with them for them to deal with.

The Home Secretary puts a different point of view on this in the letters which he sent to me. He rather makes out that Winward said it to them and that the trend and direction of the interview was that he should leave the matter in their hands and they would deal with it. They knew full well that here was a man who had no means to take proceedings. Winward considered that it was the duty of the police to take proceedings, as it was a case of assault. After a long time, he got no satisfaction. The matter appeared to have dropped. It was at the end of March that he came to see me about his case and that I took it up with the Home Secretary.

I wrote out the statement as Mr. Winward gave it to me and passed it on to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary made thorough inquiries into the case and agreed with the statement substantially as put forward by Mr. Winward in a letter he wrote to me on 5th April, 1956. He also informed me that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services came to Chorley and held an inquiry into this case on 9th January. This is a sentence in that letter to which I take strongest exception: H.M. Chief Inspector's findings were that the Instructors had been playing a practical joke, in what they admitted to be the worst possible taste, by trying to persuade the night watchman that someone had broken into the Centre; the assault occurred when one of them lost his head. … There was no need for that man to lose his head; he attacked the watchman from behind. The watchman did not know he was present. He did not know there were two men loose in the grounds in this way. He was standing waiting for the secretary to get dressed when the assault was made upon him from behind. It was not just a joke; it was an assault, a deliberate and a very savage one, as the doctor informed him the following morning.

I took objection to that, and sent another letter to the Home Secretary, pointing out the origin of the case. I received a reply from the Home Secretary on 4th May in which he said: I am afraid I cannot accept the implication that H.M. Inspector's inquiry failed to elicit the essential facts of the case. He was aware that this unpleasant incident started because the Instructors had previously been reported to the Commandant. He admitted there that the instructors were taking things into their own hands. He knew also that their pretence that there was an intruder in the grounds was intended as a form of retaliation. … —admitting that they were getting their own back— But he found no evidence that a physical assault was a deliberate part of their plan … I must say that the whole of the evidence of this attack shows clearly that it was planned, that it was deliberate, and that the manner in which it took place was to let those concerned lure this night watchman into the grounds away from assistance so that they could give him a beating. It shows quite clearly that it was intentional, deliberate, and that they intended to give him a thorough beating up for making the report. Incidentally, they caught the wrong watchman. This watchman had made no report. He was entirely innocent, and as a result an innocent man suffered this punishment.

I want to put one or two questions to the Joint Under-Secretary of State. As I have pointed out, the man who made the attack was not being chased nor arrested, nor was he in any need to defend himself. The attack was clear and deliberate, and in view of all the evidence produced there was no justification whatever for Her Majesty's Chief Inspector saying that this was only a joke. The whole evidence shows that it was a deliberate plan, so deliberate and so savage that the man has not yet recovered after all these months. He has lost his work because he cannot take up night work again. The shock has been so great that he dare not undertake night patrol in those grounds again.

I certainly believe that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector deliberately came to the conclusion in the report that it was a practical joke so as to ensure that the police would not take action. How could the police take action in a matter that was just a joke? Had this assault taken place in a public thoroughfare, the police would have had no hesitation in taking proceedings. They were on the spot and saw what took place. They arrested the men concerned, and yet no action was taken. They knew the serious condition of Mr. Winward.

As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Winward was told that he could himself institute proceedings. I submit that this is not a case in which the injured man should himself take proceedings. Mr. Winward is only an ordinary working man. In order to institute proceedings he would have to employ a solicitor. He has not the facilities or the means to do this. In any case, why should a man who has been criminally assaulted have to take the proceedings?

I say quite frankly that the Home Office has completely failed in its duty in not taking proceedings against the men concerned. It is true that the Department has reduced the status of these men. They have each been reduced two ranks, from sub-officer to fireman, and have lost £1 5s. and £1 2s. a week respectively. But this matter goes much further than that. Mr. Winward has lost his job and is not in a position to undertake this type of work. He has offered himself for day work, but, so far, the Department has not given him an opportunity to undertake such work.

If the Home Office does not institute proceedings in such cases, thus permitting the courts to deal with the offenders, it is abrogating the responsibility for law and order which the citizens of this country are entitled to expect from it. The fact that this assault occurred was published in a Chorley newspaper. The public of Chorley are asking what has happened to the men concerned. They hear that a man has been assaulted and that his attacker has not been proceeded against.

The effect of this situation on public opinion ought to be considered. When no visible action is taken in such a case it only discredits the Home Office in the eyes of the public. They lose confidence in the Department's administration. Quite frankly, I have been very dissatisfied with the way in which the Home Secretary has dealt with the incident right from the beginning and with his acceptance of the findings of the Chief Inspec- tor that what was actually a criminal assault was only a joke.

11.5 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I should like to begin by saying that this was a deplorable incident, and I should not like the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon)—as I think he tends to do—to believe that we have any desire to minimise it. Indeed, I hope to be able to show that our actions show very much to the contrary of what he has suggested. We have taken this matter very seriously, and I do not dispute the broad chronological account of what he says happened on the night of 4th January, difficult though it must be, in any case, to give a strictly accurate account of this kind of nocturnal adventure. What he gave us was a fair account of this incident, and this, I think, is a fair summary.

On the night in question, three instructors who were seconded fire service personnel, planned an encounter with the night watchman. The hon. Gentleman is critical of the description given of the incident, and, therefore, I choose my words carefully. This encounter, as it developed, may well be described as a physical attack on the watchman but, having read the whole of the evidence and the other papers very carefully, I think I can say that it was not so conceived. It was conceived as a practical joke in the worst possible taste and, in common with a great many jokes of that kind, it miscarried and led to most unfortunate consequences.

It is debatable whether this encounter was encouraged by the alleged action of one of the watchmen in reporting these instructors; indeed, having gone into the case very fully, I find the true motive difficult to decide with any degree of certainty. What I do assure the hon. Gentleman is that the Home Office and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary have not dismissed this incident as a practical joke; and if the hon. Member so interprets our letters, to which he refers, I do ask him to believe that he is mistaken. I will come to that in more detail in a moment.

Whatever the motive, two of the three instructors—the third had left and gone away—unquestionably carried out an assault on Mr. Winward, although not, as the hon. Member asserts, simultaneously. What was the action taken immediately afterwards? I can find no evidence at all—indeed, all my evidence from Washington Hall and the Home Office and the police is to the contrary—that there was any attempt to hush this matter up. I have here a Lancashire County Police report, beginning at 2.25 in the morning, with the evidence of two police officers who interviewed Mr. Winward, and a report on his injuries which, outwardly, appeared to be slight, although he was naturally upset and in a highly nervous state as a result of this incident.

I do assure the hon. Member that a great many people took an interest in this matter. A police inspector visited the doctor who had treated Mr. Winward. The doctor thought that his injuries were superficial, and his evidence is important. The doctor could not recall saying, as the hon. Member suggests, that Mr. Winward was fortunate to be alive. If he did say that, it was because of what Mr. Winward stated himself and not because of what he found as the result of a medical examination.

On 9th January, four days later, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services visited Washington Hall to inquire into the incident. He saw Mr. Winward and heard his account. He said in his report that Mr. Winward was still suffering from shock but was feeling better and expected his doctor to allow him to return to duty within the next few days. He interviewed all three instructors in the presence of the commandant. Time prevents my reading his full report, but it is comprehensive, and I assure the hon. Member that there is no disposition in the report to treat the incident at all lightly or to gloss over it.

There remain three principal matters arising from the incident about which the hon. Member has felt much disquiet. The first question is whether Mr. Winward got the help that he had a right to expect in any action he wanted to take against his attackers. On the evidence before me, I would say that Mr. Winward was fairly informed by the police and by the commandant of his rights. Obviously, it was open to Mr. Winward from the start to bring proceedings for assault against his attackers and to apply for legal aid for that purpose.

The hon. Member should not confuse Mr. Winward's rights with the disciplinary action which had to be taken against the men concerned. If there was a misunderstanding as to what the authorities said or did not say to Mr. Winward, it appears possible that the authorities decided to assure him that the three instructors involved would not go scot-free and that he could leave the authorities to take suitable action in that respect.

Although the hon. Member has said that Mr. Winward desired assistance in making a claim, he has not yet made any specific application for assistance. I have been fairly fully into Mr. Winward's attitude and, making full allowance for his experience, I do not think that he has been entirely helpful to himself in making clear what action he desired to be taken on his behalf. It would be unusual for a Government Department to assist a person in its employment who was suing as a plaintiff in a civil case. The main question is whether Mr. Winward was properly advised throughout by those responsible, and I think that he was.

On returning to their brigades, the men responsible were reduced two stages in rank, with the financial consequences to which the hon. Member has referred. The third man, who took no part in the incident, was severely reprimanded. It is fair to add that the prospects of promotion for these men will not be improved by the incident. I should have considered it obvious that an incident of this nature against the men on their records—I do not say this vindictively, any more than would the hon. Member—must inevitably cast a fairly heavy shadow over their immediate future.

The final question concerns the financial arrangements with Mr. Winward. There is no suggestion that he had to go back to work before he was fit because he could not afford to lose money. Under the scheme of paid sick leave, he was eligible for 13 weeks' full pay less industrial injury benefit. He was away for four weeks, and returned to duty with a final certificate from his doctor. He did lose overtime pay and so on, and pay for the Sunday work which he normally did. Inquiries revealed that through an error he had been over-paid 41s. 6d. That has been written off.

Mr. Winward has had to resign his job. He was considered for employment on general duties, but made it clear that he was not prepared to consider such work. He was also considered for employment as a chargehand fitter and as a fitter. I would draw attention to a letter dated 16th July which has been received from him. It was addressed to Mr. Cochrane, the secretary of Washington Hall. The letter was unsolicited. It states, As you are no doubt aware, I was unsuccessful in my application for position of fitter. I wish to thank you most sincerely for your helpfulness and consideration shown to me before and during my application. Your kindness is very much appreciated. Yours faithfully, R. Winward. I only mention that to show that the authorities did their best to help him. Mr. Winward shows a proper appreciation of that.

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

Adjourned at a quarter past Eleven o'clock.