HC Deb 10 December 1959 vol 615 cc896-906

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

10.52 p.m.

Captain M. Hewitson (Hull, West)

From time to time hon. Members have to raise unpleasant subjects and to make accusations, well-founded or otherwise. At the outset I want to make it clear that what I say tonight is not an attack upon the governors of the prisons in this country, because by and large the governors of our prisons are good men doing a very difficult job, and they measure up to that job. Periodically, however, there are rumours and stories of some who do not measure up to that calibre. I shall suggest that the Governor of Exeter Prison does not measure up to that standard.

Incidents have been happening in Exeter Prison, and incidents have happened in the prisons where this governor has been in charge before, but in Exeter Prison stories are being told that are appalling. A few weeks ago we had Press statements to the effect that there had been a fracas in the mailbag shop. If there is one place in any of our prisons which should be abolished it is the mailbag shop. We often find that when difficulty or trouble occurs in a prison it is in the mailbag shop that it starts, because of the shocking working conditions.

I should like hon. Members to take the opportunity to visit some of our prisons and examine conditions in the mailbag shops. The whole thing lends itself to seething difficulties, and to violence on occasion. Sometimes it is prisoner against prisoner, sometimes prisoner against warden. The allegation at Exeter Prison on this occasion is that it was prisoners against the Governor of the prison and against the Chief Officer.

A prison regulation lays down that if a man wants to make some appeal or to speak to the Governor he must put in a notice to that effect, and it then rests with the Governor, or someone else at that level, whether or not the appeal is granted. At about 11 a.m. on 23rd October, the Governor of Exeter Prison went with the Chief Officer through the mailbag shop. A man stood up, and said to the Governor, "I would like to speak to you, sir." He was immediately pushed down, whereupon the other prisoners present started a demonstration.

One of the men was called Fraser, sentenced to seven years for violence. I say at once that I do not seek to whitewash him. He is a violent man. He has a record of violence, not only out of prison but inside it. Two of the three men accused on this occasion have been sent to other prisons, but Fraser has been kept in Exeter Prison. He says himself that he would rather go to Dartmoor, because he was happy there and is not happy in a place like Exeter. Dartmoor, of course, is looked upon by those who do not know anything about prisons as one of the "hell-hole" prisons. That is the reaction of the ordinary man in the street and, to me, Dartmoor—its very name—conveys something horrible and very terrible.

As I have said, a fracas started. On such an occasion, naturally, riot conditions are declared, prison officers are brought in, and the men are immediately hustled away to the cells.

About two hours after the incident. five officers went into Fraser's cell, as they later went to the cells of the other two prisoners, McVitie and Andrews. The five officers were Officer Mather, Officer Watson and Officer Mann. The fourth was the Chief Officer's clerk, and the fifth was not identified. They went into Fraser's cell, and so ill-used him that he had to be taken to an outside hospital for treatment.

I heard of that, and I put down a Parliamentary Question to the Home Secretary, for a Written Answer, asking if he was aware of this. I got the following shocking and rather misleading reply: On the evidence before me, I have no reason to believe that Fraser was, in fact, injured in the manner suggested. It was necessary to restrain him while he was resisting the officers escorting him after he had himself committed an assault, and medical examination revealed only trivial abrasions and no evidence whatever of serious injury."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th November, 1959; Vol. 613, c. 63.] I saw the man two days afterwards in the prison. He had a split two inches long across the top of his head. and his right arm, from the shoulder to the elbow, was literally black. That is not hearsay. I saw that myself. To receive an Answer like that from the Department really makes one feel a little ashamed.

These things are not new in this prison. I have had sent to me from the West Country a newspaper cutting which says: 'Beaten up by warders' alleges accused man. This, of course, is not one of these three but another man altogether. Producing a torn and bloodstained shirt which he said he had smuggled out of prison, a 22-year old self-employed builder told Crewkerne magistrates yesterday that he had been beaten up by warders whilst on remand in Exeter Gaol". These are common stories coming from this prison. They tell that the Governor of the prison is absolutely intolerant. If anyone wishes to speak to him, it just does not come about. It is alleged that, if a man is standing in his way, he will physically push him out of the way. The fact that we have incidents similar to the one I am reporting now means that there should be some investigation, not a public investigation but a Departmental one, at this prison to ascertain what the usages are and what has happened.

After this fracas in the mailbag shop on the Saturday, at 7 a.m. on the Monday Fraser was served with a summons to appear before the visiting magistrates. The charge on that summons was assault. Two hours later, at 9 a.m. that Monday morning, officers entered the cell of Fraser and took from him by force the original notice to appear before the visiting magistrates and served upon him another notice charging him with gross personal violence. In other words, the powers-that-be in that prison had had second thoughts; they had probably had a consultation or a small conference about the summons which had been served on this man and had decided that they had better have something that would he tough.

As I say, officers took away the original summons. I have in this envelope the top section of the summons, so it is no use denying that it was ever served. I have it here. He was charged with gross personal violence on the second summons, and, when he went before the visiting magistrates with the other men, he lost one year's remission of sentence and was to receive eighteen strokes of the birch. During last week-end, the Home Secretary, in his wisdom, decided that the birch should not be used under this sentence.

These events disclose something. Warders could not go into a prison cell and misuse a prisoner to such an extent that he had to be taken to an outside hospital unless there were there a "Belsen" mentality, with hoodlum warders going into a cell and beating up a prisoner. That is the name the prison is given, the "Belsen" prison of this country. These things could not happen if the people at the top were not agreed upon it.

I have not met the Governor. I do not know the man. But I have seen the Chief Officer. My impression and reaction to the Chief Officer is that he is of the loud-mouthed sergeant-major type who would agree to anything that was brutal.

When prisoners are sent to prison, they are in the custody of the State. One thing upon which we pride ourselves is justice to every man and woman, no matter whom they are or what they may do. When a man is sentenced by our courts and goes to one of these institutions, the State has a duty to ensure that he is not ill-used in the same way as concentration camp prisoners were ill-used during and before the war in other countries. That is what we are facing if we are not careful.

I know that the Minister will give me a string of statements about Fraser's violence. Fraser is a violent man. He is a small fellow and, in my opinion, he is a case for a psychiatrist, but he has a record of violence, both in and out of prison. The other two men, McVitie and Andrews, who are serving sentences, have been taken away from this prison. McVitie, with two others, was accused of a crime. One of the men was sentenced to seven years. On appeal, the judge has released two of them, but McVitie is still in prison and has been refused the right of appeal by the Governor of Exeter Prison. That in itself is shocking.

These things could be brought to light by investigation. I ask the Minister, first, to agree to an investigation, not a public inquiry, but an investigation from his own Department, into the usages and practice and the running of Exeter Prison. Two prisoners who were accused of this assault were sentenced by the visiting magistrate and have been taken to other prisons. I ask that the third man be taken to another prison. If it is possible to agree to a prisoner's request, send him to Dartmoor. He says that he is happy there. Let the Minister do that.

I should like the right hon. Gentleman seriously to consider these suggestions. They are not made lightly. I repeat that the majority of governors in our prisons are good men doing a difficult job, and they are getting on well with the job. Where we have cases like this, it is up to the Department to investigate them to ensure that similar happenings are not repeated.

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

I do not propose to take up more than a minute or two of the time of the House, but as the Member of Parliament for the constituency in which Exeter Prison is situated, I should be allowed to express a personal opinion. Unlike the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, West (Captain Hewitson), I know Mr. Rundle Harris. I know Mr. Honey also. I know them well personally.

I also know many of the officers, on both the men's and the women's sides. and I can say without question that the speech which the hon. and gallant Member has just made will be greatly resented in the City of Exeter. The staff of the prison, the Governor, and the Deputy-Governor, in particular, are greatly respected in the vicinity. To say that they would tolerate any situation bordering on the state of affairs that existed in German concentration camps is monstrous, and, in my opinion, an abuse of this House.

The attacks which have been made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman on the prison staff of Exeter Prison can result only in more trouble there. In fact, the very fact that he has been down to see this violent criminal has already caused tension in the prison. I very much regret that Fraser was not thrashed, but that was the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary who, I am sure, weighed the situation very carefully before making his decision.

I am certainly very glad that this man is not to be released on the public for another year. I hope that the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will do something to dispel the damage done by the gullibility of the hon. and gallant Gentleman.

11.10 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

At the outset, I should like to say that, although I am sure that the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Hull, West (Captain Hewitson) has put forward his views in good faith, all the evidence, very considerable and well documented evidence, which I have seen in this case leads me to the conclusion that he has been gravely misled in what he has told the House. I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Rundle Harris, the Governor of Exeter Prison, but what I have heard about him endorses the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams).

The hon. and gallant Member based his charges upon the remarks of one Francis Fraser, a prisoner in Exeter Prison. It is therefore necessary for me to give my account of the events which led up to this incident. On 24th October, four prisoners, including Fraser, applied to see the Governor and complained about an event on the previous day. Later that morning, the Governor on his rounds went into the mail bag shop, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman said. While he was talking to an instructor, he was savagely attacked from behind by a prisoner named Andrews. Meanwhile, Fraser attacked the accompanying Principal Officer who seized and restrained him. Both prisoners allowed themselves to be removed from the shop, but subsequently Fraser broke away from the escort and ran off and had to be forcibly put into a cell and searched.

That afternoon, Fraser was seen by a doctor acting for the medical officer. He complained of some pain in his right ankle, but made no other complaint at all. The doctor examined him fully and found no evidence whatever of serious injury. The ankle was not bruised or swollen and it had full movement. Fraser did have trivial abrasions on his scalp and the left side of his back, which were not serious enough to require treatment.

On the next day, Fraser saw another doctor and complained of various aches and pains, including pains in the right shoulder. On examination, there was tenderness over the tip of the shoulder, but no evidence of bruising, swelling, or gross deformity. There was, however, a slight click when the right shoulder was moved, and this, together with the fact that Fraser had not complained of pain in the joint at his initial examination, led the doctor to the conclusion that the condition was probably the result of an old injury. But as a precautionary measure, he arranged for an X-ray to be taken the following day. The X-ray revealed nothing contradicting the doctor's view that the condition was the result of an old injury.

Fraser and Andrews were both charged before the Visiting Committee with gross personal violence. They refused to call witnesses or give evidence and demanded to be dealt with by an outside court. Both were found guilty.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to the serving of the summons. I do not attempt to deny for one moment that the summons was varied. The original summons was varied from one of assault to one of gross personal violence. The reason was as follows: the Governor, as one of the victims of the assault, thought it right to propose the lesser charge, but, having been involved in the matter himself, he would have nothing to do with the adjudication and the Deputy-Governor amended the charge to one of gross personal assault

I should explain to the House that when prisoners are charged with serious offence like this, the Prison Rules require the Governor to report to the Prison Commissioners and that until then the charge is provisional. The point I wish to make is that even if the Deputy-Governor had not upgraded the charge the Prison Commissioners, on reference to them. would have upgraded the charge to one of gross personal violence. That in no way prejudiced Fraser's evidence, and he had a week in which to think it over.

It is true that the original charge was torn up, but the facts which I have quoted are supported by evidence, much of it given on oath by the Governor and the prison staff, and this shows conclusively that these charges are without foundation.

lf, however, the hon. and gallant Member still prefers to believe what he has been told, I had better place on record something about Fraser. Throughout his prison career, both he and his family have been only too ready to make allegations of ill-treatment, but none have been found to have any foundation. In this connection, I should add that Fraser and his family between them have made allegations of this sort about no fewer than seven different prisons. He is at present serving a sentence of seven years' imprisonment for wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm as one of the gang that attacked the notorious Jack Spot.

His record, in and out of prison, has been deplorable. In prison, he has been reported for no fewer than thirteen assaults, or attempted assaults, on other inmates or staff. and I do not think for a moment that anyone listening to this debate will accept the evidence of such a man, with such a record, in preference to the sworn evidence of the Governor and his staff.

The hon. and gallant Member has referred to another incident, which concerns a prisoner named Cook. He was a remand prisoner, and the facts are that on 18th November, Cook, having been awarded minor punishments for misbehaviour, attacked one of his escorting officers and had to be pulled off by another officer. Cook was one of a party of four prisoners which had staged a violent demonstration in the police cells and had arrived at the prison with an escort of no fewer than twelve police officers. However, he made no complaint either to the Governor or to the Medical Officer. The Governor investigated the incident, but was satisfied that no unnecessary force had been used. The following day, in court, he produced a prison shirt with spots of blood on it. asserting that he had been beaten up by officers at Exeter. He was committed for trial, and taken to Bristol prison.

There, he made no complaint to the Medical Officer on reception, and there were no visible signs of violence having been used against him; but subse- quently he said he wished to make a complaint of assault against officers at Exeter. Later, he said he did not wish to pursue the matter.

It might be added that the shirt in question is being examined by New Scotland Yard, but the preliminary report on the matter has led me to the view that one should doubt the statement made in respect of this alleged assault.

All the indications are that, although a small minority of the local prisoners in Exeter have been coerced into making allegations, the great majority of the population has stood apart from the trouble-makers and refused to become involved. Many of the prisoners have told the Governor of their disgust at the behaviour of Fraser, Andrews, and McVitie, and one former prisoner has taken the trouble to telephone the Assistant Commissioner concerned and express his sense of outrage on learning of the attack on the Governor.

None of the prisoners who has alleged brutality against themselves, or in respect of whom this allegation has been made by others, has made a proper written complaint in the normal manner.

Perhaps I should add a word about the prison itself. Exeter prison is a small prison, which suffers from two faults. It is over-crowded, and it houses a group of prisoners from the London area, such as Fraser. Violence was virtually unknown in this prison, and the matter with which we are concerned tonight is the first incident of its kind since Mr. Harris became Governor four years ago. The prisoners make toys for children, and on a recent visit of the blood bank no fewer than 220 prisoners gave their blood. That seems to me to be significant.

The hon. and gallant Member suggested that we should hold an inquiry. Even before he tabled his Question, I had examined all the facts of this case. I have more than reasonably satisfied myself that the administration of this prison compares more than favourably with the high standard which the Prison Commission set.

Furthermore, a senior member of the Prison Commission, the Director of Prison Administration, himself visited this prison yesterday morning on a routine visit. I have seen him within the last two hours, and I am satisfied with his assurance that life and routine in the prison are good and that the atmosphere is perfectly normal. Like him, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has every confidence in the Visiting Committee. the Governor. and the staff. and I see no need to hold a further inquiry.

In these circumstances, I hope that the hon. and gallant Member will accept my assurance that I am satisfied that this prison is being properly conducted, and will consider withdrawing his allegations against the Governor.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Eleven o'clock.