HC Deb 12 June 1961 vol 642 cc33-5

Miss Bacon (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement about yesterday's disturbance at Dartmoor.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

During the showing of the film "The Blue Lamp" at Dartmoor Prison on Sunday afternoon, 11th June, a fight broke out between some prisoners, as a result of which one prisoner died, three other prisoners have sustained injuries, and two prison officers were also injured, though not seriously.

This was an isolated incident and the prison was and remains generally quiet. As the incident may result in criminal proceedings, it would be improper for me to comment further at this stage.

Miss Bacon

I should like to express appreciation of the work of the prison officers, who are having to work in extremely difficult conditions. While recognising the difficulty of the right hon. Gentleman in that criminal proceedings might be taken, I should like him to answer one or two questions which, perhaps, would not infringe the rules of order.

First, who chooses the films which are shown to the prisoners? Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that "The Blue Lamp", which, I understand, deals with the killing of a policeman, is, to say the least, a particularly provocative film to be shown in a prison to prisoners? At any rate, it was at least in very bad taste, having regard to the happenings of this last week.

Secondly, since this is one of a series of recent outbreaks of violence in prisons, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the situation is so urgent and serious that he should give his immediate attention to it, in conjunction with the Prison Commissioners? Would not he agree to the setting up of an inquiry into the present state of the whole of our prison service?

Mr. Butler

I should like to support what the hon. Lady has said about the service rendered by the prison officers. I thank her for what she has said. They are doing an excellent job under difficult circumstances.

The answer to her point about who chooses the films is that they are chosen by the prison authorities. If there is any anxiety on the subject, I will certainly investigate the manner in which they are chosen.

This was an isolated incident. That is all the information that I have up-to-date. I do not think that it was connected with the film. I am inhibited from saying any more by the fact that these criminal proceedings are being put in train, but I have already reviewed the general position of prisons with the Prison Commissioners. I am keeping the situation under review in view of the largely increased prison population, which is what is causing the trouble.

Mr. Thorpe

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how under-staffed Dartmoor is and how many extra warders he wants to bring the staff up to full strength? Is not the real moral of this that it is about time that we paid prison officers the proper rate for the job?

Mr. Butler

The latter point is under consideration, and I think that it is in hand. I should require notice before answering the question about the exact numbers.

Mr. Mayhew

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in spite of the appalling buildings at Dartmoor, this is an exceptionally well-governed and well-run prison? However, can he tell us when the new buildings will be started and this prison will be closed?

Mr. Butler

Again, I should want notice of the question about the exact dates, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the fact that Dartmoor, in its old buildings, is very well run. It is a prison in which prisoners are sleeping only one in a cell. Therefore, one of the main difficulties of prison administration does not arise there. We are starting on the new buildings, which will mean a new history for Dartmoor.

Mr. Woodburn

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of relieving the numbers of the prison population by selecting a large number of prisoners who are not violent and putting them out to work on the land, or some other place, on probation, and not keeping them shut up when that is not necessary?

Mr. Butler

We already have the hostel scheme at Bristol and elsewhere, which is working very well. We already have parties going out of prisons and open prisons. I will, however, bear in mind any constructive suggestions.