HC Deb 18 November 1957 vol 578 cc165-74

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

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

I am most grateful for the opportunity which this Adjournment debate affords me of drawing attention to a situation which is of considerable and grave concern to a large number of people—I am referring to sexual murders of young children. In doing so, I wish to be brief and to the point and to give time, if possible, to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), in whose constituency Mr. Taylor lives, to speak, and, of course, to our very capable Joint Under-Secretary of State to give a very full and, I sincerely hope, helpful reply.

I would also wish to say that the great Borough of Croydon which I have the honour, together with my two colleagues, to represent is particularly sensitive to all tragic crimes of murder, as, regrettably, it has some rather unhappy memories—memories which it wants, as in this very sad case, the Home Office to erase by promoting sound, wise and, above all, protective administrative action.

Mr. Speaker, as you yourself know, but I doubt whether my constituents will realise—and certainly I do not suppose that the public as a whole will, unfortunately, appreciate—an Adjournment debate forbids reference to grievances the remedies for which require legislation—nor would I attempt to do this tonight. The immediate remedy which I am seeking is well within the competence of the Home Office to meet and to satisfy. It is also possible within existing legislation. I also realise that I must not criticise the actions of the courts in an Adjournment debate such as this.

I should briefly like to refer to the facts. On 31st August last a little girl of four years of age—Edwina Marguerite Taylor—was murdered in my constituency by Derek Edwardson, a man of thirty-one, who also lived in my constituency, in St. Aubyn's Road, Upper Norwood. Edwardson subsequently pleaded guilty to the murder. The murder of this child, who could not defend herself, was particularly horrible, the cause of death being a fractured skull and strangulation. Edwardson himself admitted that he had enticed the girl to his fiat and strangled her there.

This murder has not only caused great sorrow to the child's parents and to all connected with her, but it has outraged the feelings of all decent people in the country and, particularly, of my constituents. A Streatham housewife, herself the mother of two children, has launched a petition calling on the Government to establish an institution where sexual offenders against young children can be detained and treated. The response to her petition has been overwhelming and has by no means been confined to the locality. It is estimated that in the first week some 4,000 signatures were obtained, although the petition was not what one would call a properly organised effort. Another petition has been organised by Mr. Taylor, the father of the little girl to whom I have referred. That, too, I understand, has been daily gaining strength. I have had many personal approaches and much individual correspondence, all on the same lines.

The Home Office could immediately, without further delay, establish an institution where sexual offenders could be detained and treated by medical experts. In fact, the anger of the people calls for such administrative action. The people of this country are absolutely shocked at these appalling offences and at a state of affairs under which the Home Office permits such criminals to be released before they are certified by medical experts as cured. As we are only too well aware, such people are released, and are then liable to cause new sufferings similar to those which they previously caused.

I would ask the Home Office what medical treatment on these lines they intend to give to Edwardson during his term of imprisonment to stop him from being a menace and a danger again, should he come out? Edwardson, who had eight previous convictions, had admitted writing a letter threatening to murder his wife, and also to publishing obscene libels. Some months before the murder, he told the police that he had sexual urges but had never carried out his murderous threats. However, Dr. Matheson, the principal medical officer of Brixton Prison, said at the time—I again emphasise that this was several months before the murder took place—that there was always a chance that a person of this mentality would implement his threat. Therefore he should have been detained and treated in the kind of institution which I am advocating the Home Office should provide.

In 1949, Edwardson was bound over for housebreaking. In 1950 he was sent to prison for three months for indecent assault on a little girl aged only five. Later, in 1950, he was put on probation for breach of an earlier probation order, and in 1951 he was fined £5 for indecent exposure. In 1952, he was again put on probation for two years for a similar offence. In 1954 he was sent to prison for three months as being a suspected person and in 1955 he went to prison for six months for stealing.

What a disturbing, absurd and unrealistic condition exists whereby a man with such a record of sexual offences and threats should be able to be free instead of being detained and treated in an institution specially available for all such unfortunate, but nevertheless, very dangerous people. It appears to my constituents and to myself that such conditions are weighted in favour of this kind of crime and against a possible victim. It is obvious to everyone that such a man, guilty of such offences, was at least unbalanced. Furthermore, he was dangerous and surely the public have a right to be protected and have their children protected against him by ensuring that such potential criminals are detained and treated in the kind of institution that I am requesting on their behalf.

No one would deny that such a man needed medical treatment. Surely the public have the right to insist that such treatment should be undergone in a place and under such conditions as would render such a man harmless. A few days ago the Home Office published statistics showing that, regrettably, murders generally had been on the increase in the last three years. I understand also that this type of crime, which I am highlighting tonight, has also tended to increase. I claim that new, modern and realistic Home Office and police action is necessary forthwith to face this situation. Therefore, through the Joint Under-Secretary, I beg the Home Secretary and the Home Office to give great thought to the anger which has been aroused in the people and to realise that some such institution and new administrative reorganisation are urgently necessary to remedy this appalling state of affairs.

There is much more I should like to have said, but I am afraid that the narrow boundaries of an Adjournment debate forbid it. I can only hope and trust that the strong feelings of my constituents, myself—and, I feel sure, the public generally—which I have tried to stress tonight will result in Home Office and police action to give a measure of protection to our children from the sexual criminal. If this be achieved, much will have been gained by this debate tonight.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) has done a great service by drawing attention to this terrible tragedy. I believe we are on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, the British public is jealous of its liberties. It does not like to see people detained for long periods in prison without good cause. It does not like to see people detained for long periods in mental hospitals without good cause. On the other hand, many people, in particular many parents, are perturbed by the thought that every day, or almost every day, people who have assaulted young children—who habitually assault young children—come out of prison uncured, unrepentant and, in some cases, even untreated.

Since this terrible tragedy, many suggestions have been put forward to the Home Office. Some have been made by my hon. Friend and others by myself. The Joint Under-Secretary has had his attention drawn to the Swedish system of indefinite sentences. He has also had his attention drawn to a most moderate suggestion put forward by Mr. Taylor, the father of this unfortunate young girl, a suggestion in which Mr. Taylor proposed the setting-up of a register for certain people who commit sexual assaults. All I ask at the moment is that my hon. and learned Friend should set up an inquiry into the suggestions he has received, that he should consult his experts and ask them whether there is anything that can be done to help to solve this great problem.

What really bothers my constituents and, indeed, all constituents is the fact that Mr. Edwardson, and Mr. Edwards who committed a murder at much the same time in very similar circumstances, had very recently been in the hands of the police. It was known to the authorities that Edwardson had committed assaults of this sort and it was likely—one might almost say probable—that he would commit further assaults. Yet society could do nothing to protect itself until a murder had been committed. Must we always wait until it is too late?

10.16 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

This debate has been introduced and supported in most moving terms, and I should at once like to express my very deep sympathy with Mr. and Mrs. Taylor in their tragic loss. The murder of a child, and particularly the murder of a child in circumstances associated with sexual perversion, fills us all with horror and revulsion, and I can well understand the feelings of those who demand that some drastic action should be taken.

Nevertheless, we here in this House have a solemn responsibility for national policy, and horror and revulsion are not good counsellors. I hope I shall not be thought insensitive to the indignation and fears of parents if I try to bring this problem into perspective.

It has been stated in some quarters—in fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) himself said it this evening—that there has been a great increase in child murder since the Homicide Act became law or within the last few years. This simply is not true and it does no service to parents to alarm them by exaggerated stories.

I wonder if I may give the facts. Between the time when the Homicide Act received the Royal Assent on 21st March this year and 30th September, 32 children between 1 and 14 years of age were murdered. The number during the corresponding period in 1955, which was, in fact, a year when the total number of murders was low, was 34. In both periods, the large majority of the victims were murdered by their parents, and in most cases the parents either committed suicide or were found to be insane.

In the first period—that is the 1955 period—there were three murders of children which appeared to have a sexual motive—only three. In the 1957 period there were four, and in addition in that period—the six months in 1957—there was one case in which two children were killed with motives which were not clearly established. What we have is, in 1955 three sexual murders of children in a period of about six months, and four or possibly six this year.

I am not suggesting for a moment that these were other than abominable crimes, but do not let us terrify parents into the belief that child murderers are stalking the streets of every town. That simply is not true. I think that a tragic measure of the scale of the problem which has been raised tonight is provided by comparing those figures which I have given with the number of our children who, to our shame, are killed on the roads. There were over 700 last year, compared with the three or six to which I have just referred.

Much of the emphasis in this evening's debate and the discussion in the Press has, very properly, been on the importance of preventing offences against children. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) referred to the proposals put forward by Mr. Taylor, the father of the murdered child, proposals which, I need hardly say, we have considered very carefully. The persistent sexual offender is not readily deterred by fear of detection and punishment, and that is precisely because he acts on impulse without considering the consequences.

Mr. Taylor's proposal, that there should be a periodical report to the police by anybody convicted of a sexual offence, as I understand it, is made with the intention of impressing on the offender the fact that he is known and that, if he commits an offence, he is likely to be found out. But the efficacy of this as a measure of prevention depends precisely upon the point at which he is weakest, namely, on his ability to refrain from criminal conduct because he knows of the possible consequences.

I would remind the House that fear of detection may operate in two ways. It may restrain a man from offending, but it may also cause a man, after he has committed an impulsive assault of a sexual nature, to panic and kill his victim in the hope of avoiding detection. I know that my hon. Friends would agree that there is some reason to think that that was so in the case they raised this evening. We should not forget, in considering this suggestion, that Edwardson himself was on probation at the time of this terrible crime and reporting regularly to a probation officer.

One must face the fact that the only way of making absolutely certain that sexual offenders do not repeat their offences and, in particular, do not commit murder, is either to detain them or to put them under a supervision so close that they are never out in public alone. The House should consider what would be involved in such a course. Some 5,000 people are convicted of sexual offences annually. Hon. Members will know of the valuable study of sexual offences undertaken by the Cambridge Department of Criminal Science, which tended to show that over four-fifths of the total number of persons convicted of sexual offences were so convicted for the first time, and that of those first offenders only one in ten was subsequently reconvicted.

It would clearly not be right to put under prolonged supervision, still less detention, the many persons who will not be convicted again. But, of course, no one knows who is going to be convicted again and who is not. Under one-fifth of offenders were found to be recidivists, that is, in the sense that they had one or more previous convictions for sexual offences. The longest records were most characteristically of those found guilty of indecent exposure and homosexual offences, but no tendency was observed for offenders to progress from less serious to more serious offences.

The figures I have quoted suggest that persistent offenders form a very small proportion of those convicted of sexual offences and that, if one were to apply special measures, they could be justified only in relation to that very small group.

Further, a great many sexual assaults are of quite a minor character. If the House reflects on that, I would ask it in all seriousness to consider whether we should be justified in putting people repeatedly guilty of, say, indecent exposure or of minor assaults, but not certifiably insane or mentally defective, under detention or supervision on the offchance that they might one day commit a murder. My hon. Friend really came to that point when he mentioned the potential criminal. It would be absolutely alien to all that we believe constitutionally or in the way of our social life that we should lock up anybody because he might be a criminal. That is how the argument tended. It would be a serious invasion of the liberty of the subject. It would require the strongest justification and, indeed, would involve new legislation, which we cannot discuss, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, on this Adjournment.

I would, however, remind my hon. Friends and other hon. Members that the courts have the power to sentence the more serious sexual offenders to preventive detention if they have the necessary qualifying sentences. Many sexual recidivists also have a record of nonsexual crime which may in itself qualify them for preventive detention. Obviously, before arriving at that sort of stage, one would hope that remedial measures had been employed. My hon. Friends very rightly drew attention to the need of remedial treatment. I am sure they have in mind that at Wormwood Scrubs, at Wakefield and also at Holloway, there are psychiatric units which have had, it is fair to say, a singularly high degree of success. They will be aware that the Prison Commissioners are this year starting building the psychiatric prison at Grendon Underwood, for which we have been looking for so long.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham raised the question of indefinite sentences. I had already covered that when I spoke of keeping a man in detention on the ground that he may become a criminal, as a potential criminal. Certainly, any such innovation in our system of criminal jurisprudence would require the most careful examination and would certainly require legislation, which we cannot discuss this evening.

I would say that the proposals put forward, including Mr. Taylor's proposal, deserve the most sympathetic consideration, both because of their source and because they are put forward as a constructive solution. Having said that, however, I am not convinced that they would help us with the difficult problem of protecting the public, and particularly children, from sexual offences. I do, however, assure my hon. Friends that we shall continue to study this problem and discuss it with those who are best able to throw light upon it.

There is one final word which I should like to say, because it was really raised by my hon. Friend when he dealt with the possibility that anyone in the position of Edwardson might come out of prison and commit fresh offences. I should like to offer a word of reassurance to those who believe that sexual murderers who are now sentenced to life imprisonment will serve a relatively short term and then be let loose to repeat those offences.

It is true that hitherto the normal run of reprieved murderers have been released after something like nine years—that was the average figure given during the debates on the Homicide Bill. It should, however, be remembered that these have been cases in which mitigating factors already existed to justify the reprieve. Even so, there have been exceptional cases in which it has been thought necessary to detain a man until he has reached an age at which he is no longer a danger to the public.

We now have a new problem with those murderers who are not capital murderers and, indeed, with those who are guilty of manslaughter because the jury has found a diminished responsibility. We do not know how long it may be necessary to detain some of those in these classes who are now being sentenced to life imprisonment, but it was stated in our debates on capital punishment that some of them may have to be detained for a very long time indeed.

I hope that hon. Members will assure those of their constituents who are worried about this that before any murderer is released, the most careful consideration is given to the question of whether there is a risk of his repeating his offence and that no murderer is discharged merely because a given time has elapsed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.