HC Deb 09 July 1958 vol 591 cc397-401
Mr. H. Morrison

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Health whether he will make a statement about the escape of an inmate from the Broadmoor Institution.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Derek Walker-Smith)

Yes, Sir. I regret to say that Frank Samuel Mitchell escaped from the Broadmoor Institution in the early hours of Tuesday morning. He was in the maximum security block, and consequently occupied a single room with the door locked, and the window barred and shuttered. His day clothes had been removed from the room. I understand that he escaped by opening the window shutter with a duplicate key, sawing through the window bars, and climbing 30 yards along a high coping. Subsequently, he climbed the outer wall. At or about 4 a.m. he broke into a, house at Wokingham and stole clothes and a a car, in which he drove away about an hour later.

Shortly before 5.30 a.m. the institution were informed by the police of the events in Wokingham. An immediate check was made but, since Mitchell had left a dummy in his bed, no patients were observed to be missing. At 7 a.m., when the doors were unlocked, Mitchell's absence was discovered, and the police were at once informed. The search for him is being prosecuted vigorously.

A full, detailed report is being prepared by the Medical Superintendent, and should reach the Board of Control tomorrow.

Mr. Morrison

Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman say why this particular inmate was given a room to himself? Can he also tell the House why there was, apparently, a material delay in sounding the siren after the escape, and, indeed, after the escape became known? Can he assure the House that an inquiry—which, I suggest, might be an independent inquiry—will be instituted into this escape?

Mr. Walker-Smith

Mitchell was accommodated in the way considered appropriate for the maximum security block in which he was.

Regarding the siren, at the time when the institution became aware of the escape, that is to say, at 7 a.m., the staff were acting on the information that Mitchell had made his escape in a stolen car. In those circumstances the Medical Superintendent considered that it was highly improbable that he would be in the locality, and did not, as I understand, give the immediate signal for the siren because of that circumstance; and his desire not to alarm the neighbourhood in what—if that hypothesis had been correct—would have been an unnecessary way.

I think that perhaps it would be better for me and for the House that I should await the report which the Board of Control is receiving from the Medical Superintendent before deciding on the point about an inquiry which the right hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Does not the fact that this man returned to the neighbourhood of the establishment show that the decision not to sound the siren was an unfortunate one? Would not it be better for a standing instruction to be given that the siren should be sounded as soon as an escape has been discovered? Can my right hon. and learned Friend also tell me—if it lies within his Departmental responsibility—whether any delay occurred in informing police stations in the surrounding countryside of the escape of this dangerous person?

Mr. Walker-Smith

The question of action by the police is not a matter for me, but for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

The principle is that the warning siren should be operated by the responsible officer on duty "as soon as an escape has been detected"—that being the phraseology of the Scott Henderson Report. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it obviously right now to say that the judgment was an unfortunate one because, so far from Mitchell having left the locality in the car, it was subsequently discovered that the car had been abandoned. But that is not to say that the appreciation which was made at the time was not a reasonable one, or might not have been a reasonable one, in the light of the facts as then known to the Medical Superintendent.

Mr. Lipton

As one who lives in the immediate vicinity of Broadmoor, may I ask the Minister very seriously to bear in mind that there is considerable local misgiving about this episode, which is not the first one of its kind—I will not refer to an unfortunate previous case? Will not he now consider that, so far as security precautions are concerned, there is reason for saying that the administration of Broadmoor should be returned to the Home Office?

Mr. Walker-Smith

I have every understanding and sympathy for local feelings and apprehensions, as expressed by the hon. Gentleman, but I think it right that the right perspective of this matter should be borne in mind. The hon. Gentleman speaks of a number of escapes. It is right to say that this is the first escape—with one relatively minor exception, which was a break-away from a working party—since the publication of the Scott Henderson Report in the summer of 1952, and since action was taken following on the recommendations made therein.

The hon. Gentleman's question about the transfer of jurisdiction raises a rather wider issue which I should not wish to enter into at this time.

Mr. Hurd

Does not this episode raise again the whole question of the desirability and wisdom of keeping dangerous criminal lunatics in a district which is fairly thickly populated? Is it really reasonable that the people of Berkshire, and particularly the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Remnant)—unfortunately, my hon. Friend could not be present this afternoon—should be put in jeopardy by a man who can escape, is determined to escape, and, within a few miles, and a short time after escaping, breaks into a house, terrorises people, obtains clothes, steals a car and is away, and neither the police, nor anybody at the institution have a clue as to where he has gone? Is that reasonable?

Mr. Walker-Smith

Institutions of this sort, obviously, are not a popular or an agreeable feature of any locality. While I have every sympathy with the point of view which my hon. Friend has properly expressed on behalf of his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Remnant), I must remind my hon. Friend that Broad-moor has been used for this purpose uninterruptedly since 1863.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

Is it not a fact that a substantial number of cures have been effected at Broadmoor, and that that would be less likely if the inmates were cut off from ordinary contact with their families, and people outside? Is the Minister aware that, while all of us insist on the maximum security arrangements, many of us would regard it as a retrograde step if the institution ceased to be a hospital and reverted once again to control by the Home Office?

Mr. Walker-Smith

In all these matters we walk the razor edge between trying to have the maximum security, on the one hand, which is a very proper objective of public policy, and on the other, ensuring the maximum possible rehabilitation which, as the hon. Gentleman has said, works very well in a large number of cases. It is along that rather difficult razor edge that we try to make the best progress we can.

Mr. Gough

In view of the information that this man was possessed not only of a skeleton key, but possibly also of some form of saw, can my right hon. and learned Friend tell us how often thorough searches are carried out both of the men themselves and of the rooms in which they live?

Mr. Walker-Smith

I am awaiting that information, as part of the expected contents of the full and detailed report from the Medical Superintendent to the Board of Control.