HC Deb 26 June 1961 vol 643 cc141-50

Where any soldier or airman is sentenced to detention under the Army Act, 1955, or the Air Force Act, 1955, he may elect to serve his sentence in a civil prison.—[Mr. Emrys Hughes.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I beg to move, That the Clause be read Second time.

The remarks which the Minister has already made seem to be a justification for this Clause. While, in these days, considerable light has been thrown on conditions in civil prisons, not so much light has been thrown on military prisons. As one who has had experience of both kinds of prison, from the inside, I hope that conditions have changed since I was in the "glasshouse" on Salisbury Plain. If they have not changed, it is time that those prisons were shut.

I do not know whether the Minister would go so far as to welcome an inspection of military detention centres by hon. Members. I followed with great interest the investigation of civil prisons by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), especially some of the interviews which he had with prisoners, notably those at Dartmoor. I afterwards followed him on visits of my own. As a result of investigations of that kind, even with a television camera—a complete innovation—public interest was focussed on life in prisons. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East did a great public service.

Mr. Mayhew

I appreciate very much what my hon. Friend is saying, but noth- ing of those programmes was conveyed to him if he now introduces a Clause to say that soldiers should go to our overcrowded local prisons.

Mr. Hughes

I suggest that my hon. Friend knows a good deal as a result of his experience of civil prisons, but that I have a shrewd suspicion that he does not know much about military prisons. To clear their good name, the Army authorities should allow my hon. Friend, with his television camera, to examine conditions in military prisons and to talk to some of the soldiers there. If that were done, there would be some interesting revelations which would prove what I am saying up to the hilt.

The punishment of a soldier is very severe, and detention, even in an ordinary barracks, can be very severe. I remember that when I was a soldier in the guardroom, soldiers who had absconded, or who were late returning from leave, were sentenced to a few days' imprisonment and were treated very brutally. I do not know whether that still goes on, but I knew of a regimental guardroom where the sergeant-major was a heavyweight boxer. Prisoners who escaped from that guardroom and who were subsequently returned to it were taken back to the guardroom, handcuffed and knocked unconscious.

I do not know whether that goes on today. I would be glad to know that the Army has become more human, but I have a suspicion that there is a seamy side to Army life. If I am wrong I would welcome the opportunity of being proved wrong, but I have an uneasy feeling about this aspect of Army life. We have devoted a good deal of time to reforming civil prisons, and the routine in them is nothing like as bad as it was a generation ago, but military prisons have not been so considered, and a public investigation would be all to the good. If the Minister is unable to accept my suggestion, I hope that he will accept my advice that he should personally investigate the position in military prisons and not be satisfied with a superficial examination of what goes on in them.

What inspection is there of military prisons? A civil prisoner can appeal to the visiting magistrates. Inspections of military prisons are carried out by officers from the War Office; officers whose natural instincts lead them to support discipline; officers whose natural inclinations lead them to support the officer in charge of the military prison against the person who is in it. As I say, a civil prisoner can appeal to the visiting magistrates, but a soldier has no opportunity of appeal. Even though a soldier may have committed an offence against military law, surely he is entitled to consideration as a human being. I have a suspicion that that is not what happens at the moment.

The new Clause would give a prisoner the opportunity to serve his sentence in a civil prison instead of in a military one. What kind of rehabilitation goes on in military prisons? How does one rehabilitate a soldier who has been sentenced to six months' detention and who hates the very name of the Army? How does one rehabilitate that kind of soldier? I cannot believe that he is the kind of person whom the Secretary of State for War wants in the modern Army.

Certain sentences are, of course, necessary if discipline is to be maintained. If a soldier gets drunk, or commits certain offences, and is sentenced to a period of, say, six months' imprisonment, he should have the option of serving that sentence in a civil prison. The Minister says that that would be a disgrace. I do not know whether it is a disgrace to be discharged from the Army for bad conduct. I know that I was, but other soldiers might regard it in a different light. If a soldier says, "I prefer to serve my time in a civil prison; I prefer to serve my time associating with people who have broken the civil law", I do not see why he should not have the option of doing so.

I know that these ideas are strange and novel to people who think in terms of military law and discipline, but they should be seriously considered by hon. Members. The kind of Army to which the Minister referred must consist not of reluctant heroes, but of men who have the will to serve. Men of that type will not be found among those who have been sentenced to military detention and have a grievance against the old routine.

I suggest that this is a sensible new Clause. It has probably never been moved before, and I do not think that it will get the slightest sympathy from people who are used to administer discipline for the War Office, but I am glad that I have moved it, even if it has resulted only in light being thrown on a subject about which more should be known by the House and the people of this country.

Mr. Wigg

As I understand, the control of detention barracks and military prisons is vested in the Army Council, and they are under the command of the general officers in command of the areas in which they are situated. I do not believe that all these men are sadists, crooks, vampires and brutes. Most of those whom I have met seem to be kindly men. If my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) dressed himself in uniform he could almost be taken for one of them. I do not believe for a second that they would commit the kind of brutalities which my hon. Friend fought against years ago.

I can well imagine that when my hon. Friend was a young man he was very sure of himself and of the world about him, and that when he joined the Welsh Fusiliers and was sent to detention for refusing to obey an order he was a little awkward. If, at the same time, he had come my way, and I had been a lance-corporal I am sure that for the rest of his days he would have described me as a brute. Knowing him, I am sure that after a day or two we would have got very "fed up" with each other, and as it would not have been me who asked the hon. Member to come inside, he might well have regarded the results of his meeting me as brutality.

I repudiate my hon. Friend's allegations—

Mr. Emrys Hughes

My hon. Friend has never been in a military prison.

Mr. Wigg

No. I had the good fortune never to be caught. My hon. Friend has retained his sense of humour, but he does not always retain his sense of proportion. He says that he does not wish to denigrate the Army, but he says things about it which are horrible—horrible because they are said responsibly—but which relate to an experience which is no doubt fresh in his mind even after forty years. They are not true today. The fact that the Army controls these institutions and that the G.O.C. is responsible for them means that they are visited and inspected.

The other thing that my hon. Friend should remember is that when a man is given detention he remains a soldier. He goes there because he is still a soldier, and when his sentence is finished he will soldier on. That is one reason why he should continue to go to detention barracks rather than to a civil prison. If he is subjected to brutality, the ordinary procedures of complaint are open to him. He can complain to the visiting officer when he is in, and he can write to my hon. Friend when he is out.

I probably have as much correspondence as any other Member on military matters, but I have no complaints of this kind. I have friends who, have, unfortunately, been caught, like my hon. Friend, but I have never had this kind of complaint from them. I do not believe that my hon. Friend's allegations are true, and the suggestion contained in his proposed new Clause is a thoroughly reactionary one. I take great exception to it.

The fact that a man is sent to detention barracks means that the Army still wants him, and sees some good in him. It means that the Army is taking the trouble to try to make him a good soldier. Above all, it tries to keep from him the stain of becoming a convict and so coming into contact, often during his most impressionable years, with people who will lead him into ways from which the hopes of reform are not very good. For those reasons I hope that detention barracks will continue to operate. If facilities are granted I would welcome the opportunity to visit these institutions with my hon. Friend. I am sure that we should not find the kind of things he suggested if we did so.

I now turn to something said earlier tonight which rather amused me. Hon. Members may take what I am about to say as a sign of my getting old. When we were discussing the Army code of discipline it was suggested that the young men of today want a different sort of discipline, and that those who joined the Army as volunteers and Regulars forty years ago, and liked it, were suffering from a softening of the brain, if they had any brain. I repudiate that. When I look round and think of the friends who served with me, and I hear it sug- gested that, as it were, they were a group of soft-brained scallywags, I must say that that is just not true. The quality of the old Regular Army was very good and I hope that it is so at the present day. It certainly does not fit in with the picture given by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire.

Mr. Ramsden

I am glad that the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has answered his hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) on some of the hon. Member's more extravagant speculations about conditions in military prisons. I could not possibly have accepted what he said. It would have been an unjustified reflection on the devoted service of the military prison staff corps and indeed on the administration of the Army Council and my right hon. Friend had there been any verisimilitude in the kind of conditions he purported to describe. I am glad that the hon. Member for Dudley, from his own side, replied to him in objective terms.

9.15 p.m.

It might help the Committee to be clearer about the general position as regards military prisons if I tried to explain the situation today and how it relates to what the hon. Member for South Ayrshire wants, that is the option for soldiers to choose a civilian rather than a military prison. Men who are sentenced to short periods of detention up to fourteen days spend their time in unit detention rooms. It is normal for men sentenced to periods between 14 and 28 days also to serve their sentences with their units. While in the unit detention rooms they continue their military training and are directed to such fatigue work as is suitable for the station that they are in.

Men sentenced to longer periods of detention, who are to return to normal duties with their units after release from detention, serve their sentences in military corrective training centres. That is quite a different thing from what the hon. Member for South Ayrshire referred to earlier as a "glasshouse". They are specifically designed to provide corrective treatment combined with military training. Their object is to return the men who come to them to their units as better soldiers. The emphasis is on education, physical training and other forms of training appropriate to a soldier. It would be clearly impracticable to try to give the men such training in a civil prison. That is the first reason why the hon. Gentleman's Amendment is no good.

I must emphasise the corrective and rehabilitation aspect of the training provided in military corrective training centres. There are men who are not likely to respond to treatment in such a centre or whom it is intended should be discharged during their sentence or on completion of it. They are sent to military detention barracks and given physical training and other training of a rehabilitary nature, but this is directed not towards making them into better soldiers, because it has been decided that they are probably not fitted to be soldiers, but towards fitting them for civilian life. Their education is improved and they are taught a trade.

The hon. Member may say that these men should be in civil prisons, but this would be worse for them, first because they would come out with a stigma which does not attach to them from having been in a military detention barracks and, secondly, because the type of men with whom they are likely to have to associate in a civil prison will be different from those with whom they are likely to be associated in a military prison. There are people who cannot put up with the Army and who are perhaps driven by this inability to adjust themselves to a life of Army crime, but they are often quite different from the type of man found in a criminal prison.

In the old Army Act of 1881 there was some doubt about the length of time a soldier sentenced to detention should be required to serve in a civil prison under certain conditions. The Committee of 1952–54 bearing in mind the stigma attached to being in prison, formed the view that there should be no doubt at all on this point, and Section 124 of the Army Act, 1955, lays it down that detention may not be served in a military or civil prison, and for the reasons given that is sensible.

What the hon. Member proposes from the point of view of Army penal practice would be putting the clock back ever a hundred years. In 1836 a commission of investigation was appointed which recommended that separate places of confinement should be provided for soldiers. The reasons given for this recommendation were that a soldier, though under punishment"— I am quoting from the Committee; it is rather good— should not lose sight of the profession against the rules of which he has offended, nor should he be placed where he is in contact with men whose notions of crime are not very strict and who have none whatever of the nature of a military offence From 1844, when changes consequent upon that Report were made, right up to 1941 there is a steady history of development in the penal philosophy and the penal practice of the Army. I think that if the hon. Member studies it in detail he will admit that it is a not-discreditable story. I will not rehearse all these changes before the Committee tonight, because it would take some time, but before I try to answer some of the specific questions put by the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) I should mention one development which is planned to take place in the near future. The military prison and detention barracks at Shepton Mallett—

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I know it.

Mr. Ramsden

—at present houses soldiers under sentence of imprisonment by courts martial and soldiers under detention—

Mr. Hughes

Is this the old prison at Shepton Mallett or is it a new prison?

Mr. Ramsden

As far as I am aware it is the only prison at Shepton Mallett. I have not seen it. I am sure that it has evolved since the hon. Member's day, in conformity with the principles of evolution in our penal practice which I have described. Those who are there are under sentence of imprisonment or soldiers under detention for whom rehabilitation as soldiers is not considered a possibility.

Shepton Mallett is due to be closed—the hon. Member will be interested to hear—in 1963. It will be handed back to the Prison Commission, and thereafter the Prison Commission, which I believe I should technically call the Home Office since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, has agreed to take all those who are subject to sentences of imprisonment. For those under long sentences of detention a new wing will be built at Colchester alongside the military corrective training centre there. Shepton Mallett for Army purposes will come to an end probably in 1963.

I hope that, having heard my explanation, the hon. Member will agree that there is some justification for our view that detention is in many ways better for most soldiers under sentence than a term in a civilian prison. I hope that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman of the merits of the system which has grown up over the years.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East asked me some specific questions. One was about the effectiveness of our system as shown by results. The best figure I can give him is that 76 per cent. of one year's intake into the Corrective Training Centre at Colchester, where most people subject to all but the longest sentences of detention go, were first offenders, 21 per cent. were second offenders, and 3 per cent. were offenders for the third time. That indicates quite a successful rate of non-return, though it is not as precise a statistic as I would have wished to give. If 76 per cent. of all those who go in a year to the main corrective training centre in the United Kingdom are first offenders, it must be evidence that we are successful in seeing that the rate of recidivism is not unduly high.

Hon. Members asked about the numbers in detention and the average length of the sentence. The average length of sentence is three and a half months. There are at present 400 in detention at Colchester. This does not include those at Shepton Mallet. This represents 0.16 per cent. of Army strength. I have not available the comparison with earlier years. I will try to find it and write to the hon. Member about that and any other specific question raised by him which I have not covered.

Hon. Members will probably agree that this has been a useful little debate. I hope that for the reasons I have given, the hon. Member for South Ayrshire will not press the Clause. I hope that, having heard my explanation, he will be good enough to withdraw it.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I have certainly broken new ground by moving the Clause. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) and other hon. Gentlemen who have spoken were quite honest in expressing their point of view, but it is not the point of view of the man who has been inside. The attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley is understandable: he knows an enormous amount about the Army. He does not know the inside of a "glasshouse". He knows only the point of view of the man who has sent somebody there. That is true of Ministers reading out their briefs. They are doing their duty in their own way. I should welcome any investigation. I know that I shall not get any support for the Clause, but I hope that as a result of what the Under-Secretary has called a useful little debate this will not be the last we shall hear of what I think is a rather important subject.

The Temporary Chairman

Does the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) wish to withdraw the Clause?

Mr. Emrys Hughes


Question put and negatived.