HC Deb 19 June 1963 vol 679 cc454-7

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

63. Mr. Grey

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will publish the report of the inquiry by the Visiting Committee into Mr. Edmund Cronkshaw's allegations of ill-treatment of prisoners at Durham prison; and whether he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House I will now answer Question No. 63.

Yes, Sir, and copies will be available to hon. Members in the Vote Office this afternoon.

Mr. Cronkshaw, a former prisoner, made 11 allegations of ill-treatment of other prisoners at Durham while he was there. The Visiting Committee finds that eight of these allegations were without foundation of any kind.

Of the remaining three, it reports that one involved a conflict of evidence but, even if true, was not of a serious nature; that one disclosed a defect in prison routine, which is being looked into, but no negligence or irregularity on the part of the officers concerned; and that one, which also involved a conflict of evidence, left the Committee with grave suspicion that two officers might have been guilty, if not of an assault on a prisoner, at least of using more force than the circumstances warranted, although no complaint was made by the prisoner concerned or anyone else at the time.

The Visiting Committee itself reported that it could not regard the facts as having been proved, but I nevertheless thought it right that the papers be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. His conclusion is that the evidence is clearly insufficient to support a prosecution of the two officers.

Many of Mr. Cronkshaw's allegations included criticism of the prison medical service. The Visiting Committee finds that none of these criticisms has been substantiated, and that no blame of any kind attaches to the prison medical service.

Hon. Members will wish to read for themselves the comments in the report on the value to be attached to Mr. Cronkshaw's allegations generally. I cannot but regret the wide publicity that was given to them as soon as they were made and before their authenticity had been investigated. It inflicted harm on the reputation and morale of the prison service which the publication of the report, based on thorough investigation, should certainly dispel.

Mr. Grey

I thank the Home Secretary for making that statement today. Is it not rather a coincidence that a few hours previous to the right hon. Gentleman making his statement I received a message to suggest that Mr. Cronkshaw, who made these allegations, is now remanded in custody in Liverpool Prison on charges of forgery. This is the kind of man who made the charges in the first place.

Mr. Mendelson

He has not yet been proved guilty.

Mr. Grey

I did not say that he had.

May I express satisfaction at the way things have gone, although the form of inquiry differed from the kind I asked for? A word of appreciation is due to the Visiting Committee for the lengths that it went to to try to discover the truth. This is already admitted by Mr. Cronkshaw himself, even though he attended for only one afternoon out of six whole days' sittings.

As for the report, I believe that it proves that the prison officers, except in one case—and I am sorry about that case—are doing a difficult job under very diffi- cult circumstances. They are human beings, and ought to be treated as such. I share with the Home Secretary the view that too much publicity was given to the matter before the facts were known.

Mr. Speaker

We must bear in mind that supplementary questions only are permitted on these occasions.

Miss Bacon

May I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), who first raised this question? She wishes me to apologise for the fact that she is not here. She is on her way to Leeds. [Laughter.] It is, of course, an entirely unnecessary journey. We are all very pleased that eight of the allegations have been proved untrue, and we shall all want to read the report to see the seriousness of the one charge which seems to have been shown to have some truth in it.

We may wish to return to the report later, but before that I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman one fundamental question. Is he aware that when he set up this committee of inquiry there was criticism from some quarters over the fact that we had asked a Visiting Committee to undertake this inquiry, and because the committee is a committee of visiting magistrates who themselves have been responsible in the past for hearing complaints from prisoners? Can he give an assurance that this in no way detracts from the value of the report?

Mr. Brooke

I am obliged to both hon. Members for what they have said. When hon. Members have read the report, I think that they will be impressed by the character of the very thorough investigation which the Visiting Committee has carried out. Having read it, I cannot believe that any criticism could fairly be sustained that this is not an entirely independent and objective report.

Sir C. Osborne

Since prison officers are in a difficult position and cannot defend themselves against allegations which turn out to be unfounded, will my right hon. Friend see to it that it is made clear to them that we in this House are grateful to them for the difficult job they do so well throughout the year?

Mr. Brooke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This morning I was addressing a conference of Visiting Committees and Boards of Visitors of Her Majesty's Prisons, and I ventured to say that I thought that prison officers received far too little public recognition for the excellent way in which they do their jobs. I am sure that many of them will read with pleasure what my hon. Friend has said, and take the sense of the House.

Mr. Lipton

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall a recent statement in which he suggested that it would be a good thing if more journalists went to prison from time to time, for the purpose of seeing what conditions are like? Would it not, therefore, be a good thing to make arrangements from time to time for journalists to have an opportunity of visiting local prisons and reporting on the conditions that they see there? I am sure that in many cases this would result in many of the wild allegations made about prison conditions being refuted.

Mr. Brooke

I must choose my words very carefully in referring to this subject. I agree with the hon. Member that it is desirable that responsible journalists should have the opportunity of informing themselves—by short visits—of what really happens in prisons. I know that my prison department will be very glad to make arrangements, provided that they never in any case increase the overcrowding at night.