HC Deb 05 November 1959 vol 612 cc1329-42

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

9.45 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

My first responsibility is to declare an interest. I am a magistrate and I sit on Newcastle Bench, but I have, of course, no personal connection with the Consett Bench and the unfortunate incident in which the boy, Butler, hanged himself while on remand at Durham Gaol. That case is the background for the matter which I wish to raise tonight with my right hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State and the discussions which I want to start with the Home Office, the Ministry of Health and the Treasury.

For the purpose of the record let me make this quite clear. A Question was put in the House about these unfortunate and tragic circumstances, and I asked whether it was true that bail had been applied for by the accused to the appropriate bench, whether bail was refused and whether there had been application in the proper processes of law to a judge in chambers against the refusal to award bail. I was told that application had been made to a judge in chambers und that he had upheld the decision of the bench in this case not to award bail.

I am raising this case because of the lack of facilities on the North-East Coast for enbling magistrates to carry out their duties efficiently and effectively. Of course, if the facilities are not there, as we allege is the case, it affects not only the proper administration of justice and the courts of summary jurisdiction but the police, and, indeed, the security of the public.

I want to say straight away that all the benches on the North-East Coast, and, indeed, stretching to the North Riding of Yorkshire, feel very strongly that it is deplorable that we have no remand centres, because there is nobody connected with the administration of the law, in whatever way, who does not realise that it is inappropriate to have to send young people to Durham Gaol on remand awaiting trial.

Very much earlier this year, before, of course, the General Election, the learned clerk to the Newcastle Bench raised this matter, and the chairman of the Newcastle Bench and I representing the magistrates, in conjunction with the respective Members of Parliament for Newcastle, at that time one Conservative and three Socialists—because this, of course, is not a party matter at all—met together and decided that we should represent to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the difficulties in which we found ourselves. Before that, through the Magistrates' Association, a meeting of representatives from all the benches within the area was summoned to confirm that those representations should be made to my right hon. Friend.

In due course, the proposal having been warmly commended by the courts of summary jurisdiction, we made our recommendations and our appeal to the Home Secretary, saying that we all felt it was most inadvisable that we should have to proceed with our magisterial duties unless the proper facilities were provided for us. We heard in due course from my right hon. Friend. As he has said in the House from time to time, and indeed said today, he replied that he fully supported the view that these facilities were needed throughout the country, but he regretted that in the circumstances it was not possible to take steps to provide a remand centre for the North-East Coast and the North Riding of Yorkshire.

This was a great disappointment to us. This is a difficult matter to deal with within the proper procedure of the House. I have to address my strictures to the Home Secretary, but I know perfectly well that it would be more appropriate if I could direct my remarks to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because as we all know that it is essential that these remand centres should be provided, and the Home Secretary accepts that it is necessary, it is lack of finance that has prevented our moving forward.

When this distressing case arose quite recently—and there was very strong comment on the fact that this unfortunate boy had been remanded to Durham Goal—it was very difficult for the magisterial bench, and, indeed, for all magistrates in that region, who felt very strongly about the matter, to explain to the public that it was through no fault of the bench concerned that this boy of 17 had had to be remanded in Durham Gaol. It is only fair and right, in the interests of the proper administration of justice, that I should take this opportunity of putting to my right hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department our very strong feeling about our having been faced with this deplorable and regrettable decision.

I hope that when he replies to the debate I shall hear that in the circumstances, and in the very difficult conditions in which magistrates on the North-East Coast have to operate, my right hon. Friend has been in touch with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and that we shall receive an assurance that immediate action will be taken to provide these very necessary remand centres.

I want to give one or two illustrations of the difficulties. It is not only the magistrates who find themselves at a very great disadvantage but also the police and the public at large, because if the decisions of magistrates are to be publicly criticised it is very difficult for them to securely protect the interests of the public from some young persons who, possibly through an unfortunate medical background, or for some other reasons, must be remanded until their cases can be thorough dealt with by the appropriate court; and sometimes, of course, there is considerable delay.

I want to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Dr. D. Johnson) asked me to put a case on record in which two young people at Carlisle were sent to Borstal. There was no place available for them in Borstal and, therefore, they had to spend some considerable time in Durham Gaol, which I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree was most unsuitable.

I was also asked by the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the case of a boy of 15 who was remanded to Durham Gaol. As I have said, I sit on the Newcastle Bench, and again and again we have been faced with the difficult problem of what we are to do with the accused when we feel that he should be sent to a higher court for trial Then, again, fairly recently there was the case of a young man of 19 whom the police thought was the head of a gang.

I am bound to remind my right hon. Friend that a report was issued recently which was sharply critical of the police. It stated that the police were slow to detect the criminals concerned with various offences. Yet when the police brought an accused before the court, and he was considered to be the leader of a gang and was remanded to Durham Gaol, he was released on the grounds that it was unsuitable to detain a young man of 19 in gaol. We cannot have it both ways. It is no use criticising the police if we do not give them the facilities to help in the detection of crime.

There was also the recent case of a young lad of 15 who had been sent to Wellesley Training School, which is a form of approved school. He was alleged to have committed some robberies and was no longer acceptable to that school. He came up before the court and should have been sent to a proper remand centre but he had to be sent to Durham Gaol. Again, these arrangements came under close and considerable criticism from the learned judge, Mr. Justice Elwes.

So our position on the North-East Coast is one which demands the immediate attention of my right hon. Friend. Although we all believe in the effectiveness of the voluntary service rendered by our courts of summary jurisdiction, where a great deal of admirable work is done, I think that the time will be coming, if my right hon. Friend cannot remedy the position, when magistrates will have to make themselves more vocal in demanding that if they are to be asked to continue to administer justice on the benches in their areas, their needs, their demands and their desires shall be met, because at present we are not receiving a fair deal from my right hon. Friend. I do not want to over-emphasise our own position, nor do I want unduly to cast strictures on my right hon. Friend, because I am well aware that this is all linked with the finance not being available from the Treasury.

Now I turn to another aspect of the same problem. In this connection, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health. At the same time, I congratulate her, because although she is not going to speak, this is the first occasion since her new appointment that she has appeared on the Treasury Bench, and I think it is extremely kind of her, under rather unequal circumstances, to come along and listen to what I have to say.

What I am now putting forward raises the question of another bench on the North-East Coast. There was an unfortunate circumstance in connection with two boys of 16 who were mentally unstable. This bench deals with some of my constituents, and so I must declare that interest, also. When the boys came before the local bench it was decided that they ought to go to a mental deficiency school.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Dame Irene Ward

The bench of magistrates decided that these two unfortunate boys—it was particularly at the request of their parents, which is an important aspect—should go to a school for the mentally deficient. The parents felt that this was in the interests of an elder daughter aged 17. Also, the unfortunate boys had been brought before the bench for causing annoyance to young married women. There were, unfortunately, no suitable places for the boys in our accommodation on the North-East Coast.

I raised the matter with my right hon. Friend, and the Newcastle Regional Hospital Board wrote a most sympathetic letter saying that this was a most distressing and disturbing case but no accommodation was available for the boys. Since then, fortunately, accommodation has been found for one boy, and I think this was because I wrote one of my usual disagreeable letters to my right hon. Friend.

Since the case was brought to my attention, I have heard from members of the bench concerned that when they learnt that their recommendation had not been put into effect they wrote to the Home Secretary pointing out the dangers which the public in the neighbourhood would face if their decision was not quickly put into effect. I feel that I am entitled to say that it is absolutely intolerable that such questions should arise, that benches should discuss and decide these cases with the greatest care and then facilities should not be available to carry out their instructions.

There is another case which I will mention, because I wish to give the whole picture, and it is important that that should be done. A young man who had previously committed a number of sexual offences was put on probation. Within a short time he had brutally murdered one of my constituents. At his recent trial he was imprisoned for life. I cannot help feeling that if there had been some better way of dealing with the young man my constituent might have been alive today.

I do not want unduly to emphasise all the difficulties, but those of us on the North-East Coast and in the North Riding of Yorkshire who are responsible for the administration of justice expect support from the Home Office and the Ministry of Health, and if the Ministers in charge of those great Departments are unable to bring pressure to bear upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer I think that it is time that Parliament made it very plain indeed that a situation of this kind must not be allowed to continue. That is why I am raising this subject tonight. This is a matter which is of interest to all Members of Parliament, all the police forces in the areas covered by the complaints that I am making, and the general public as a whole.

Unfortunately, when there is a circumstance such as that when the wretched boy Butler hanged himself at Durham Gaol, the Press gives a great deal of publicity to the comments made by a learned judge. Until this afternoon, nobody had defended the magistrate concerned and given all the facts. I should very much welcome it if Mr. Justice Elwes would accompany me, or, having regard to his distinguished position, if he would like me to accompany him, to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer, upon whom we might be able to impress the fact that at the very highest level of our judicial administration our deficiencies and our inability to administer the law properly and humanely are due to lack of facilities. If a distinguished and learned judge would add his voice to mine and to those of the other magistrates for whom I am speaking tonight, perhaps we could make some progress.

Finally, I hope that after the very unfortunate criticisms which were unjustly and unfairly levelled at the magistrate concerned, my right hon. Friend—I have written to the Lord Chancellor about it—will ask the learned judge, Mr. Justice Elwes, whether he will be kind enough to apologise.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady may not criticise a learned judge's pronouncement in the course of his judicial duty.

Dame Irene Ward

I fully realise that, Mr. Speaker. I am not criticising his verdict, but only asking that he should be made aware of all the facts. I am sure that, great man as he is—and we all accept that of all our judges—he would not like someone who cannot defend himself to have to stand under his caustic tongue when the facts have been incorrectly stated. I end my appeal tonight by hoping that the situation which I have depicted will be remedied without delay.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. William Stones (Consett)

Twice today the attention of the House has been drawn to a tragic occurrence in Durham Prison. I intervene tonight because the boy who so tragically ended his life in Durham Prison resided in my constituency. Immediately the matter was brought to my attention, I communicated with the Home Secretary, drawing his attention to the facts. That was almost two weeks ago. I asked the right hon. Gentleman to make the fullest inquiry into the occurrence and to let me have his observations and comments.

I am awaiting his reply with patience, for if an hon. Member asks for a full inquiry, one expects that he will at least give the Department responsible an opportunity to make the fullest inquiries. Consequently, out of courtesy to the Home Secretary and to the House, I have not raised the matter on the Floor of the House and do not intend to make any specific comments on it tonight.

However, I wish to refer to a newspaper report, a copy of which I have sent to the Home Secretary, in which the Chief Constable of the County of Durham is reported to have said: Unfortunately, a boy of this age is too old to go to a remand home. If the magis- trates had to put him in a place of safety, a prison was, I am afraid, the only place that the boy could go. The hon. Lady the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) mentioned that she had raised this matter to defend the magistrate, and that this was the only occasion on which he had been defended. I drew attention to this in my letter to the Home Secretary, and in my statement to the local Press in Consett I stated categorically that I attached no blame to the police or to the magistrate.

I have no desire to repeat the arguments put forward by the hon. Lady except to emphasise the need for more suitable accommodation for young offenders on remand. I hope that the Minister will favourably consider the plea that has been made.

The Gracious Speech states that a Bill will be introduced to provide more effective means of dealing with young offenders and to extend compulsory aftercare to prisoners. When the Bill is brought before the House I will have something more to say about the case that is being considered now.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I want to intervene for only two or three minutes to support the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) in the plea that she has made to the Home Secretary to provide the kind of accommodation for which she pleaded on the North-East Coast. Durham Gaol is a prison that is completely out of date in 1959. It has been out of date for a very long time. It is quite useless thinking that we can apply more humane methods of dealing with some of these young people whose lives are not so wrecked at the moment as to be incapable of reformation and improvement if we have to rely on those buildings. I know from my own experience in the past how important it is that new facilities should be provided.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary of State on again appearing on the Treasury Bench. I know from experience in my constituency that when he was in the Ministry of Education he was sympathetic in dealing with local problems and in helping people who were faced with great difficulties on occasions because of inadequate buildings which were provided at a time when ideas were very different from what they are today. Because of the tragic case that we have heard today, I hope that the Home Secretary will deal with any opposition that there may be on financial grounds to providing what we so urgently require.

There is one other thing I would like to draw to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman. I understood from a reply that the right hon. Gentleman gave to the hon. Lady this afternoon that the magistrate before whom this youth originally came was not asked to grant bail. Does the right hon. Gentleman know if the lad was represented, or if any person was in court who could have made the appropriate application to the bench on his behalf? In view of the particular circumstances of this case, it is highly desirable that, if possible, a competent person should be there to advise a young person as to what are the possibilities when the bench decides to remand him.

10.15 p.m.

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

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) for his kind remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) has raised a matter which, as I know from my study of the papers, she has pursued vigorously in recent years. I know, also, that she is voicing the views of many people on the North-East Coast, and particularly of the magistrates. I say at once that I accept entirely what she said. I do not think that I would dissent from anything that has been said in the debate, and I agree that remand centres are urgently needed on the North-East Coast and elsewhere. This is recognised in the White Paper on Penal Reform, and I hope, following the right hon. Gentleman's words, to be able to assist my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Prison Commission in developing this programme.

I am glad to have the support of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, whom I know my hon. Friend welcomes as another Member of her sex in the Government. I am not entitled to speak in respect of the problem which my hon. Friend raised, except to say that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has noted it and has asked me to say that she understands that in the case mentioned twins were concerned, only one of whom has even been before the court. For that one a place has been found, and she is hopeful that a place will be found for the other member of the family.

The case which my hon. Friend raised in the first instance has been brought to mind, as the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Stones) reminded us, because of a recent tragic event in the North-East, which was the subject of Questions earlier today. I thank the hon. Member for Consett for his very considerate remarks, and I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will send him a reply. I should also like to be associated with the remarks of sympathy expressed for the boy's family.

I would not wish to speak at length about this case, but I should once again make clear certain facts. The boy in question came before the magistrates' court on several occasions in July. On none of these occasions did he apply for bail. On all those occasions his father was in court. The boy was not legally represented, and did not ask for legal aid. He later applied to a judge in chambers for bail, and this was refused. The police opposed bail, but my right hon. Friend has no reason to think that they acted unreasonably—a view which was apparently shared by the judge in chambers. It would certainly be improper for my right hon. Friend to seek to instruct magistrates on the way in which they should exercise their discretion to refuse bail.

During the period of remand and committal the boy was in Durham prison, in the absence of a remand centre, but it would be fair to say that the same tragic sequence of events could have occurred had there been a remand centre.

I would say one word on the question of custody, which is a matter of some public concern. The whole question of the length of time spent in custody awaiting trial is one of the subjects being examined by the Inter-Departmental Committee on the business of the criminal courts, which is sitting under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Streatfield. I believe that reference to this was made in the White Paper on Pena Reform.

One factor which causes concern is that a large number of those committed to custody either on remand or for trial are not subsequently received into prison on conviction. In Durham, however, the number of offenders under the age of 21 who were received again in the prison on conviction in 1958 was as high as 400 out of a total of 567. I make that point because it does not suggest that any excessive use of remands in custody was made during that period.

Nevertheless, we must accept that the problem exists, and that the solution of this case and the other cases mentioned lies in the provision of remand centres.

I should like now to say a general word about their nature, because I think it is a fact that their purpose is not always fully understood. They are sometimes confused in the public mind with remand homes, and the fact that their nature is somewhat misunderstood may account for some of the apparent delay in setting them up. The Criminal Justice Act, 1948, which the right hon. Member for South Shields knows well, empowered the Secretary of State to provide remand centres; that is to say, places for the detention of persons not less than 14 but under 21 years of age who are remanded or committed in custody for trial or sentence.

The function of a remand centre is to provide secure accommodation other than a prison in which to hold young persons on remand who are thought to be unsuitable for bail, and also to afford facilities for the provision of physical examination and general observation of accused young persons. Two further purposes have been added to these. It is now intended that they shall provide similar facilities for adult persons awaiting sentence, and for the observation and classification of convicted prisoners. I make that clear because the purposes envisaged are wider than was the case ten years ago. A remand centre must provide maximum security, and it is not practicable to adapt existing buildings, as can be done in other cases. That is an important point to make. Houses cannot be adapted for the purpose in the space of a few days.

I have mentioned all this because it should be realised that the remand centre is a new development as complicated as it is expensive. This may surprise hon. Members present, as it certainly surprised me, but the cost of any one centre is likely to be well over £1 million. For example, the first centre, which is to be at Risley in South Lancashire, and I think my hon. Friend knows this, will accommodate over 600 prisoners, and will include a central hospital and separate cell blocks for men, boys, women and girls.

In this remand centre and in all the remand centres to follow, there is to be a very special hospital, and this will be an important feature of the work of remand centres. This first remand centre at Risley in South Lancashire has been the result of considerable work by a development group, and it means that subsequent centres will be much easier to plan.

My hon. Friend has said that the real responsibility was that of the Treasury, and that financial resources were the limiting factor in this case. It is true that the White Paper on Penal Practice in a Changing Society stated that financial restrictions have hitherto prevented the establishment of any remand centres. I realise that to my hon. Friend this explanation, when it is often repeated, is not found very acceptable.

Dame Irene Ward

Hear, hear.

Mr. Vosper

During the last ten years there have been tremendous demands on social capital, and I do not believe that my hon. Friend would argue that the priorities accorded, first, to housing and, secondly, to schools and technical colleges, and more recently to hospitals, have been wrong. It is only with the publication of the White Paper on Penal Reform that this aspect of social reform and social investment has been able to receive the capital allocation which is now its due.

The estimates of the Prison Commission for new buildings for this year, and I hope for next year, have been considerably increased. Therefore, I should like to absolve my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, who attended the beginning of this debate, from any suggestion that finance is now a limiting factor. It is true that it was when this project was first raised by my hon. Friend, but that has ceased to be so. High priority is now being given to this work, and although. I suppose the present overcrowding in prisons must be the first consideration of the Prison Commission, it is agreed that the provision of remand centres, and this particular project which is in the mind of my hon. Friend, must receive a very high place in the Prison Commission's programme, and, in fact, it does.

The first centre will be at Risley in South Lancashire. Site clearance is at present being carried out and the building of the centre will soon be ready to start. I do not know whether my hon. Friend knows—if not, I am glad to tell her—that the second centre will be located in the North-East. I know that she will be disappointed because I cannot be more positive than that. But I cannot report more progress because there has been considerable difficulty in finding a suitable site. I shall be glad of any assistance which she or any other right hon. or hon. Member can give in this respect.

In the spring of this year inspections were carried out of all surplus Service establishments and Government property in the area and in the early summer the Durham County Council was asked to suggest alternative sites. Its reply was received last month and is now being examined by the Prison Commissioners. I know from my own very recent experience that, although there is a general demand for provision of this nature, local opposition is always very strong when a particular site is suggested. This is a real difficulty which now we have to face when looking for a site for this remand centre.

Public opinion which, quite rightly, is indignant about this particular incident may be also indignant about any particular site in Durham or in the North-East being chosen for a remand centre. In this respect I plead for the support of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I cannot, therefore, give my hon. Friend a complete assurance that this centre will start at any particular date or in any particular place. But I can give her, and I repeat this, an assurance that it will receive a high priority, that it is next on the list and that I shall give it my personal attention during the coming months.

As I said at the beginning, there is no dispute in principle about this but hitherto financial priorities have not given it the high place which it now merits. I hope that the physical difficulties which we now face may be overcome and that the hon. Lady will not have to continue her campaign very much longer.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.