HC Deb 03 March 1958 vol 583 cc923-38

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

7.40 p.m.

Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)

Last November, on the Adjournment of the House, I spoke of the tragic sex murder in my constituency of North-West Croydon some two and a half months earlier of four-year-old Edwina Taylor. Derek Edwardson, who also lived in my constituency, was convicted of this particularly horrible crime. Although I regret repeating such references, which must inevitably, I fear, reopen the wounds of the parents, I must again refer to this case, for Edwardson, apart from being bound over for house-breaking, had an appalling record of sexual offences against children. Edwardson had, in fact, been sent to prison for three months for indecently assaulting another little girl of five years old. He had been fined £5 on another occasion for indecent exposure, and a year later had been put on probation for two years for another similar offence.

In that November debate, I advocated that the Home Office should immediately establish an institution where such sexual offenders could be detained and treated by medical experts. At that time, a Streatham housewife, Mrs. Welsh, herself the mother of two children, launched a petition calling on the Government to establish such an institution for the detention and treatment of these sexual offenders.

The campaign became known as the "Save the Children" Campaign. It was not seriously undertaken at the time, but it automatically developed and gained such support that today I was able to present to the House a petition signed personally by 13,501 citizens of the United Kingdom. It was supported by the Independent Schools Association, which itself embraces about 600 independent schools. It was supported, too, by a letter from the Rev. Dr. Sangster, General Secretary of the Methodist Church, writing on behalf of the members of his Church, and by the Wimbledon Common Youth Council and by many Other bodies. It was supported by many influential people, including some of my colleagues in the House.

The Petition urged that, in view of the alarming number of sexual offences against young children, immediate action should be taken to establish an institution of the type which I have been advocating. This institution, of course, would be for the detention and, particularly, the treatment of such offenders. The Petition went on to ask that such persons should not be released until cured. When my hon. and learned Friend replies, he may make the point, which occurs to many of us, of course, that opinions differ as to whether such people can be cured or not. I have myself tried to ascertain sound medical opinion on the point, and I have gone to great trouble to discuss the matter with medical experts. It is generally conceded that such offenders would certainly benefit from the type of treatment I am advocating, and, in the main, would respond to it, at least to the extent that attacks by habitual offenders would undoubtedly decrease.

Although it has been very difficult for me to obtain really accurate information with regard to the number of attacks of this type against our children which go on year by year, I have made what I believe to be very reliable estimates—the Minister may pull me up on them later or agree with them—and I consider that, very approximately, 5,000 cases a year are reported. Possibly one in ten of the attackers in these 5,000 cases subsequently repeat the offence, sometimes, unfortunately, on many occasions. It is this hard core of habitual offenders which it is absolutely essential, in my opinion, to endeavour to treat. Naturally, I have had much information sent to me. I will recall one letter only, which I received this morning, reminding me of a case where a person has been found to have made seventy such attacks in one year. That seems absolutely appalling and almost unbelievable, but I am assured that the information is accurate.

Some of the attackers, of course, as did Edwardson, to whom I referred, eventually—very tragically—resort to murder, presumably because they reason that the only witness who knows what happened must be destroyed. In 1955, there were three such murders. In 1957, I think, the number had risen to six. I put it very seriously to the Minister and to the Home Office that, when one thinks of all the tragedy occasioned, no one surely can possibly deny that steps taken to mitigate this suffering would be justified and would have the support of the whole country and, I should have thought, of the majority of hon. Members.

A week ago, my local Press—I have the cutting here—reported the tragic case of a man who had indecently assaulted a little six-year-old girl. He admitted the offence and asked, at the same time, for another seven similar offences to be taken into consideration. Apparently, this man's offence came to light only as a result of a chance remark by the little girl to her mother. The man himself works, or did work, in the ticket office of the railway station and had enticed this little girl into the booking office. It is reported that he stated that he would kill her if she said anything about what had happened.

The man was subsequently sentenced to prison for six months. This is the very type of case which I am endeavouring, once again, to highlight in the House. When this man is let out of prison, if he has not had the benefit of any medical treatment whatever, he will be liable, of course, to repeat this shocking offence. I have had instance after instance put to me where, like this, men have been taken before the courts and have been let out again on probation, without any treatment whatever.

Last weekend, my local Press reported yet another case of indecent assault on a thirteen-year-old girl by a man of forty-five. Although the assault took place in 1956, it has, unfortunately, only just come to light. One cannot help thinking that a large number of such cases must be occurring which are never reported. Therefore, I ask the Minister: do we have to continue to wait before we act whilst the depravity of men of this type drives them to murder children before they themselves are sentenced to so-called life imprisonment and thus restrained merely for a time from harming more children?

I do not honestly consider that mental institutions as such are adequate to treat these cases which are coming before the courts, nor, I submit, are either fines or imprisonment adequate answers to this problem. It is right to claim that everyone is very proud of the fact that London has more open spaces than the majority of other European capitals. But what a disgrace it is to realise that our children cannot enjoy these amenities in safety unless they are under close supervision or in numbers for protection. Every day, too, the national Press reports cases which have occurred in trains, cinemas, public conveniences, staircases, corridors in blocks of flats and even, to our shame, in the open streets. Local authorities have had to be pressed to provide better lighting because of this problem. It is known, too, that unfortunately these attacks often cause psychological injury which, of course, has a serious effect on the victims in later life.

It has been contended that parents may often be to blame because of their own neglect. But even if this were true, surely it would not justify children being sexually assaulted. We must also remember that in this so-called modern world of ours more mothers are going to work than ever before. Certainly there can be no question of neglect in the case of little Edwina Taylor, who was taken from her garden, little Alan Warren, who was enticed from his father's car, or the Sheesby children, who were out for a walk whilst their mother was working at home.

The signatures on the Petition which I have presented today are a mere token of the number which could be obtained. I will go so far as to say that at least 90 per cent. of the public would sign such a petition if they were invited so to do; but a vast organisation, of course, would be needed to handle it. It should not be necessary, however, to go to such lengths to impress upon the House and the Home Office the vital necessity of providing this small measure of protection for our children.

I have with me details of many incidents and cases which are unhappily known to all of us, but time does not permit me to go through them all in detail. But we all know of these circumstances which are brought to our personal attention as Members of Parliament and which we see reported in the Press. I should like to quote one instance, however, of a case which happened in Batter-sea Park. The man was caught assaulting the child. He was taken to court, subsequently put on probation and allowed to walk out of court free. What will happen after that?

It would be remiss of me if I did not pay tribute in this short debate to the work of Mrs. Welsh, of Streatham, who organised the Petition which I have presented, and to her husband and all those good people who have worked with them. They have done an outstandingly good job of work. They have worked extremely hard in trying to focus attention on this urgent need, and the public should be very much indebted to them for so doing. I would also like to say that the national Press, and, indeed, the local Press where it applies, have been most helpful in highlighting this problem, which obviously needs to be tackled urgently.

In bringing this matter before the House by means of the Petition and through the medium of this short debate, I sincerely trust that I have said and done enough to make the authorities realise the extent of public feeling on this vital issue. I am not overstating the case when I say that the people are really angered, and each additional tragic incident intensifies their anger. It is surely the common right of the people to expect that their children should be protected from bestial attacks of the sexually unbalanced, and it cannot be claimed that such protection is afforded to them at present.

Even if my proposal is not one which the Government will accept at this time, I maintain that it is up to the Home Office to take definite steps of some kind for the protection of our children. There can be no possible justification for inertia in a matter which, at best, could amount to psychological injury and, at worst, loss of life to numbers of our children. Nor, frankly, when so much is being done by way of corrective and trade training for prisoners convicted of other offences, is it logical to neglect to provide medical treatment to achieve some measure of rehabilitation for those convicted of these frightful crimes.

Let me quote an extract from a letter which I received on Saturday from a lady in Barnet. She wrote to me, saying: I write to applaud the request of the housewives for a special centre for sexual offenders. I am the wife of a sexual offender and for years have been bombarding Home Secretaries and M.P.s with this very request. My husband has had many prison sentences. They only make him worse and are useless punitively and medically. Doctors say prison is useless but will not take them into hospital willingly, so that such special centres where they can have proper medical treatment without prison rules seems to be the only course left. If the country is prepared to spend money in an endeavour to re-educate a man who preys on the public by housebreaking, how much more worth while it is to spend money in a determined effort to save our children from physical and mental injury or even death at the hands of the sex maniacs. I beg of the Minister to realise that the public wants something done and looks to the Home Office to give that indication and to take decisive action.

7.59 p.m.

Sir Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I shall detain the House for only one minute. I should like to call attention to paragraph 100 of the Wolfenden Committee Report. The Committee expressed the opinion that … there is no justification for the disparity in the maximum period of imprisonment which may be imposed in England and Wales in respect of indecent assault on males (ten years) and females (two years) respectively". It is a shocking thing that the law should regard indecent assaults on young girls as so much less heinous than indecent assaults on young males.

I welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) and agree with every word that he has said.

8.0 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris) has done a public service, not only by drawing attention to this matter tonight, but by the sympathy and help which he has given to those in his constituency and elsewhere who have expressed anxiety about this matter and in connection with the Petition which he presented this afternoon.

The problem of dealing with sexual offenders is a very difficult one. It is a very distressing subject. It is a subject to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and those who advise him and the Prison Commissioners, have given a great deal of thought. It is indeed a difficult problem; I do not agree that it is quite as black a problem as my hon. Friend has painted, but it is nevertheless a serious one.

In considering the problem we all desire to find a way of protecting children against assault and even murder, but for the very reason that we have a horror of the offences which are committed in this way, it is necessary for us to analyse the problem dispassionately and with great care. I think that it is the murders which took place last year which gave rise to the principal anxiety in the public mind, and I propose first to give the House the facts and figures about what we can describe as sexual murders of children.

Between 21st March, 1957, when the Homicide Act came into operation, and 31st December, the number of children between 1 and 14 years whose murder was recorded as known to the police was forty-two. This figure excludes cases which were subsequently found to be manslaughter, other than those in which there was the defence of diminished responsibility. Out of these 42 children murdered, no fewer than 34 were murdered by their parents, the majority of whom committed suicide. Only four out of the forty-two children appeared to have been murdered for sexual motives, and four men were duly convicted of their murders; but there was one case involving two victims in which the murder is unsolved and the motive is unknown. Therefore, for those months of 1957 we have four children certainly the victims of sexual murders, and possibly six. For the period from 21st March to 31st December, 1955, there were thirty-eight victims altogether, and of them thirty-two were murdered by their parents, and only three were murdered apparently for sexual motives.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, one of the four murders last year was that of Edwina Taylor, for which Edwardson is now serving life imprisonment. That, I must stress, was a very rare case. At the time the murder was committed Edwardson was on probation for uttering a writing threatening to murder and publishing an obscene libel. I say that his case was a rare one for this reason. As the now well-known Cambridge study has revealed, there is no evidence that sexual offenders tend to graduate, if that is the right word, from the less serious to the more serious sexual offences. For example there is no reason to suppose that a particular offender convicted of indecent assault is likely later to commit a murder.

It is easy—and perhaps a natural way to approach this subject—to assume that everyone who commits a sexual offence against a child must be mentally abnormal, and to move from that assumption to the assumption that everyone who is mentally abnormal must be capable of being treated and cured. But both those assumptions are erroneous. If the assumptions were well founded we should have an easier and very different problem.

People who commit sexual offences are not usually suffering from mental illness, nor indeed are they as a rule mentally defective. They are mostly people who do not control, or do not know how to control, their impulses. Unfortunately, the number of people who can be successfully treated in any way is small, but, generally speaking, we can say that the younger the offender the better the chance of successful treatment. It is not a question of an abnormality or disease that can be cured in the way that, for example, pneumonia or certain forms of insanity can be cured by well-known medical means. It is much more a question of trying to make the men concerned understand and control their natural impulses.

However, the effort to make a man do that cannot even be attempted, and it certainly will not succeed, unless he has the will and the intelligence to co-operate, and even when he has the will and intelligence, and even when he has tried to co-operate when under treatment, it is impossible to tell whether he will be able to restrain himself when next exposed to temptation and no longer under the guidance of those who have been treating him.

I think it is as well that we should get clear in our minds what the treatment is which has been available. There are three main possibilities so far established. The first is education—perhaps a better word would be "instruction"—instruction by which a youth or a man can be made to understand the need for self-control in leading a happy and useful and law-abiding life. Secondly, there is psychiatric treatment—psycho-analysis and what happens as a result of it. This treatment may take some years to achieve, and is by no means always successful. Thirdly, there is the use of drugs. I must point out that drugs do not result in any permanent cure, and they are useful in prison mainly as an adjunct to psychiatric treatment. Those are the three forms of treatment which are known to us.

My hon. Friend mentioned that he has discussed the matter of treatment with eminent medical men. He has not so far given details, and perhaps it is not a matter in which it would be useful to give details in public discussion, but I should be very grateful to him if he would care to consult me further, and I shall certainly be very glad indeed to consider what evidence he has from those who advise him in these matters. All that I can tell the House is what I have already said, which is based upon the experience of our advisers in the Home Office and the Prison Commission.

I want to come to my hon. Friend's specific suggestion, that we should take immediate action to establish an institution for the treatment of these offenders, with the assurance that they shall not be released until cured. I think it is a fair supplementary suggestion of his that if we cannot take immediate action we should bear it in mind for the future. With regard to men serving a sentence of life imprisonment it follows from what I said earlier that in this small minority of cases the problem is fairly simple, because they can be kept in prison for as long as necessary; but apart from the question of men serving life imprisonment no such institution as my hon. Friend suggests could be established under the present law.

I say that for three reasons; first, because under our law nobody except prisoners serving life sentence or detained during Her Majesty's pleasure, and people who are insane or mentally defective, can be kept in custody indefinitely; secondly, because, except for life imprisonment, under the existing law the courts are required to name a definite term of imprisonment or corrective training or preventive detention; thirdly, there is the difficulty that criminals can be shut up only because of offences they have committed in the past, and cannot be shut up merely because of a probability that they may commit other or more serious offences, however serious those other offences may be and however great the probability of their committing them.

In any event, in an Adjournment debate we are obliged to confine ourselves to discussing the position under the existing law, and are not allowed to discuss possible legislation, which my hon. Friend's suggestion would involve. Therefore it would perhaps be best if I told the House of the use which we are able to make of the existing law and practice, and it is quite a considerable amount that we are able to do, as I hope I shall be able to show.

I do not believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West would suggest that all sexual offenders should be shut up indefinitely purely for custodial purposes. In any event, that would require legislation. However, if what he wishes is that offenders appearing to need treatment should get it, that is possible under the present law, and there is no need for any special institution over and above what I shall describe.

When a sexual offender is sent to prison he is seen by the prison medical officer, and if he is considered likely to benefit from treatment during his sentence he is sent either to Wormwood Scrubs or to Wakefield Prison, where they have psychiatric units where a man can be treated. In 1956, fifty-six men were treated in those prisons in that way, and of those fifty-six men it will interest my hon. Friend to know that twenty-five had committed offences against children under thirteen. The corresponding figures for 1957 were that forty-eight men were treated in those prisons in that way and twenty-six had offended against children under thirteen.

So much for what can be done in prison, apart from preventive detention, which I will come to later. Under Section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948—and this is really my second point under present practice—the court may as a condition of a probation order require sexual offenders to undergo medical treatment for one year. I appreciate that this power does not wholly meet the suggestion of my hon. Friend, but it has nevertheless already proved to be of considerable use and has led to a number of first offenders being put on the right path.

To bear out that contention, I would remind my hon. Friend of a point which he was good enough to make in his own speech when he said that one in ten repeat the offence. It follows from that that nine in ten, on his figures, do not repeat the offence. In fact, I understand the number of sexual offenders who are not reconvicted of sexual offences is 85 per cent. So this system which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) had the privilege of introducing when he was in charge of the 1948 Measure is indeed justifying itself, this system of placing people under probation on the condition that they shall receive medical treatment.

Let us come to the other end of the scale, the persistent sexual offenders. The Cambridge Study, to which I referred, and which was referred to by my hon. and learned Friend, who is now Financial Secretary to the Treasury, when my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West last raised this matter on the Adjournment, which was last year, shows that 3 per cent. of sexual offenders had had three or more previous convictions of sexual offences and that a considerable proportion of those men had been guilty of a number of other offences as well. Therefore it is not surprising that some of these persistent sexual offenders have qualified for preventive detention.

If I may just remind the House about preventive detention, it is for men of at least 30 years of age who have been convicted on indictment of an offence punishable with at least two years' imprisonment—that includes the offence of indecent assault—men who have been convicted on at least three previous occasions since they were 17 of such offences, and on at least two of those occasions were sentenced to Borstal, imprisonment, or corrective training. Those are, so to speak, the qualifications for preventive detention.

It is hardly surprising that the number of men sent to preventive detention for sexual offences is small, but the sanction is there and available against the persistent offender and is used, and to the extent that it is used it does to a considerable extent fulfil my hon. Friend's purpose, because preventive detention is generally awarded for periods of seven years or more.

In conclusion I should like to say this on the problem generally. There is room for neither complacency nor despondency. The fact that there are very few sexual murders of children does not make us less anxious or less vigilant, and I can assure the House, as I did when beginning my reply, that my right hon. Friend and the Prison Commissioners are keen to do what they can to assist in the prevention of these crimes and in the treatment of offenders. We must not forget that, although the number of children murdered is really very small indeed, the total number of sexual offences of all kinds is very great.

At the same time, although there must be some public anxiety on this matter, I would point out that child murders of this unpleasant kind are mercifully rare, although they acquire much publicity. It should reassure parents of young children—and I am such a parent—to know that of the four sex murderers of children convicted last year three were sentenced to life imprisonment and the fourth is detained, because of insanity, during Her Majesty's pleasure.

I congratulate my hon. Friend. I am grateful to him and we shall pursue this matter with all the earnestness that we can command.

Mr. F. Harris

Whilst thanking my hon. and learned Friend for his most important statement, may I ask whether there is any possible way in which his remarks could be brought to the attention of magistrates in this country? It may be possible that all of them are not fully aware of the facilities available to tackle this problem.

Mr. Renton

As my hon. Friend may know, it is a constitutional principle that it is not for the Home Secretary to advise magistrates on the way in which they should discharge their duties, but no doubt what my hon. Friend has said will come to the minds of many people in the country.

8.22 p.m.

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

I know that there will be no Minister here to answer what I want to say, but I want to put on record in this debate on the Adjournment the fact that the House was previously discussing a most important matter affecting many thousands of people. I understand that today is an Opposition Supply Day. It is customary, and I understand within the Standing Orders, for the Chairman of Ways and Means to take one day, or part of a day at seven o'clock, from the Opposition's time and part of a day at seven o'clock from the Government's time in Supply, for the discussion of Private Bills. I understood that that is usually done when there is a good deal of controversy about the Private Bill which the House is asked to discuss.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

Order. I do not think that this matter arises on the Motion, which is a Motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mrs. Braddock

I am raising the matter on the Adjournment, and I am raising it so that I can make some comment upon it and say what I should have said had the time of the House not been taken over by Private Bill procedure at seven o'clock. When I left the House at seven o'clock there were many of my hon. Friends and many hon. Members opposite who—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

This matter cannot be raised on the Adjournment. There must be Ministerial responsibility, and there is no Ministerial responsibility for putting down Private Bills for seven o'clock. The conduct of the Chairman of Ways and Means cannot be discussed except on a substantive Motion.

Mrs. Braddock

The Ministerial responsibility is that of the Leader of the House, and I raise this matter now because I want to have some reply on it tomorrow. I want to know why the House can bring its Sitting to a close at 8.25 p.m., when we were in the process of discussing before seven o'clock a very important national matter affecting so many electors who cast their votes for hon. Members of this House.

I raise this matter now so that tomorrow, at the end of Questions, when I shall raise it again, we can have some explanation and some reason given why so many of my colleagues and hon. Members opposite have been denied the right to continue to express the indignation of people in the country about measures taken under the Rent Act and about the possible eviction of tenants.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Lady cannot raise that matter on this Motion. Sir George Benson.

8.24 p.m.

Sir George Benson (Chesterfield)

I was interested in the figures given by the Joint Under-Secretary as to the number of people who are seeking psychiatric treatment in prison. I think he said there were 56 in 1945 and 48 in 1956—

Mr. Renton

The years were 1956 and 1957.

Sir G. Benson

That is a very small number, but I think that everybody who has studied the problem knows that psychiatric treatment in prison is still largely in the experimental stage. The hon. Gentleman said that Her Majesty's Government could not instruct courts on what to do. That is true; courts are independent, but I am not sure that Her Majesty's Government have not the right to point out to courts those facilities which are available to them and those which are not.

It is a frequent occurrence in the case of a sexual offence that the chairman of magistrates will tell the defendant that he is sending him to prison in order that he may have treatment. There are a large number of persons serving imprisonment at present with that statement behind them who feel that they are cheated. Even if they do not feel they are cheated, they feel that they have an excuse because they have not had the psychiatric treatment which the court said they would get.

It is important, therefore, that courts should realise how small are the facilities for treatment in prison. At present this is purely experimental work. The work at Wormwood Scrubs is a valuable experiment and so is the work at Wakefield. If, therefore, the court wishes sexual offenders to have treatment, I hope the Joint Under-Secretary will see that the courts realise that the only method open to them is to put such offenders on probation because, with the exception of a very few, they will not receive this treatment inside.

This is a serious and difficult problem. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that there were four sexual murderers. The number of adult males in the potential murderer range must be somewhere about 15 million at the very minimum, and it is impossible for any legislation to deal with four cases out of such a great mass. This problem is difficult because some sexual offences, but by no means all, are serious. I suspect that the great majority are extremely trivial, but it is because the serious ones are rare that there is such difficulty in dealing with them.

One thing which induces serious sexual offences is the way they are splashed in the Press. The type of man who is capable of a sexual offence against a child is obviously unbalanced, and these in- cidents splashed in large headlines across the Press can be extremely suggestive. I suspect that this plays some part in producing these extremely unpleasant events. I know that the Government cannot control the Press, but I wish that the Press would treat these things with more reticence and more decency.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eight o'clock.