HC Deb 17 July 1964 vol 698 cc1686-98

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Williams (Warrington)

I beg leave to draw attention to the suicide of Brian Harry Thomas at Wakefield Prison. This is a tragic story for Thomas and his family, and it is one from which the Home Office emerges with no credit. At the outset I want to say that my object in raising the matter at this time, for, unfortunately, nothing now can restore Thomas to life, is to urge upon the Home Office, first, that a proper inquiry be made into the matters that resulted in Thomas's death, and, secondly, that proper inquiries be made into the circumstances and the factors that played their part within the prison service so that these things can be remedied in the future and proper regard paid to representations made, particularly by Members of Parliament and others, that care may be shown for those who are put into the custody of the prison service.

I ought to say to the hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary immediately that if I do not succeed in getting more satisfactory help from her and her Department than I have had hitherto I intend to raise this matter again on the Consolidated Fund Bill, when I believe that I shall be supported by other right hon. and hon. Members to whom I have spoken about this matter.

The facts relating to Thomas's death are shortly these. On 26th June, 1962, he was sentenced in the Liverpool Crown Court to 10 years' imprisonment for the attempted murder of his wife. Later, that sentence was reduced by the Court of Criminal Appeal to 5 years' imprisonment. On 11th December, 1962, some hundreds of Thomas's workmates and neighbours gave me a petition which I presented to the Home Secretary asking that the Home Secretary look at, very many special circumstances relating to Thomas's case and consider whether it would be possible to make some further remission of his sentence. In a letter which the Home Secretary wrote me in December, 1962, he said that he saw no reason for interfering and that the law must take its course. I was worried about the situation which had been revealed by the petition and by the letters which I had received from Thomas's family.

On 25th January, 1963, I sought and was granted an interview with the hon. Lady's predecessor in office. At that interview I again drew attention to the fact that Thomas's behaviour at the time of his attack upon his wife was so utterly inconsistent with his general behaviour as to give some reason for supposing that his mental state needed examining. The then Under-Secretary agreed that this was a matter which had been brought to his attention and suggested that I could speak to him again some 12 months later and that I should leave the matter in the hands of the Home Office because it was aware of the cause for anxiety about Thomas's unusual behaviour.

I had further discussion with this young man's father and, following an account he gave of this boy's condition when he said that he was then in so depressed a state that his father was afraid he would do himself some injury, I spoke to a psychologist consultant friend of mine who said, without seeing him, that this was the typical behaviour of a manic depressive. This I told to the Under-Secretary who, as the hon. Lady was kind enough to tell me when I saw her, reported the gist of that conversation to the Home Office.

On 4th April, 1963, Brian Thomas hanged himself by his braces in his cell in Wakefield Prison. On 8th April at the inquest on his death it was stated by the coroner, although surprising in the circumstances, that there was insufficient evidence to tell what was the state of this young man's mind. On 9th April Thames's father wrote to me enclosing a letter from a fellow prisoner which stated that this young man's behaviour in prison was such that it was inevitable that he should commit suicide in the way in which he did. He said in particular that he was at that time in debt to protection men, that he was frightened of them, and that he was afraid that his face was going to be cut up. He asked the authorities to protect him but they would not, said the fellow prisoner. He said that some of the hospital people knew the truth and why he died. He told him that he had told the doctor the truth about the things of which he was afraid.

I wrote to the Home Secretary on 10th April and got a reply on 15th May, after considerable correspondence, in which I urged that I should have some information. I learnt from the present Under-Secretary that there was in fact no suggestion that the prison authorities were in any way responsible for the tragedy which had overtaken this young man. She denied that Thomas had asked for protection and that he had shown abnormal depression or threatened to commit suicide. There are these significant facts. As long ago as January, 1963, I had told the Home Office, and the hon. Lady admitted that she knew, that Thomas was a manic depressive with suicidal tendencies. At the time he was admitted to the hospital where he had stayed for a week or so before he died, he had attempted to commit suicide by cutting his wrists.

The hon. Lady told me that he had told the prison hospital staff that he was in debt to other prisoners for tobacco. There was an allegation that he had told them he was afraid and that he wanted to leave the hospital—this was information given by the Home Office—because it was "pay day". I arranged an interview later with the Home Office, having drawn its attention to these factors which seemed unsatisfactory, and eventually, on 29th July, I was given an interview by the Under-Secretary, who was accompanied by the Home Office officer in charge of prisoners.

At that interview, it was admitted that the information I had given to the hon. Lady's predecessor had been passed on, that it was known that tobacco-running was going on in the prisons and that if inquiries were made it would probably be possible to uncover the so-called "tobacco barons". It was admitted that the cuts on Thomas's wrists were some sort of suicide attempt and were so recorded by the hospital authorities, though they did not take them seriously, and when Thomas some days later had recovered from the cuts he was returned to his cell without supervision.

The Joint Under-Secretary then said that she was not disposed to take the matter any further. I asked a Question on 21st November, to which I received an equivocal reply, and on 27th November I wrote again to the Home Office, sending a letter which I had received from Thomas's father which contained what is my submission were very serious allegations. That letter was one which itself enclosed a letter from Thomas which had been written to his father some time before. It was a letter which Thomas had smuggled out of the hospital in which he said to his father that he was in debt to people and that he was concerned about the position in which he found himself and suggested that his father should send sums of money to people whose names and addresses he included in the letter. I sent that letter to the Home Office and enclosed in it Brian Thomas's letter to his father and also the addresses of six people to whom separate sums of money were sent by Thomas's father.

I have no doubt—and I am assured by other to whom I have spoken who have equal and perhaps more experience than I have—that this is almost a classic form of protection racket which is exercised in prison, namely, that if a man is in debt to a fellow-prisoner who is exercising terror over him, the way in which that debt is paid is by money sent by some relative of his outside the prison to a relative of the protectionist outside the prison. I hoped because of this that the Home Office would make a proper inquiry into the prisoners and their relatives to whom these sums of money were sent.

I bore in mind in doing so that the Home Office agreed that it knew that a protection racket was going on in Wakefield Prison and I hoped that by this means it would be able to uncover the names of these so-called protection barons. The only reply I received from the Home Office—and this is what I regard as discreditable—to these serious allegations resulting in the death of this unfortunate and bemused man was the criticism that the letter had been smuggled out of the prison and that Mr. Thomas, who had sent it to me, had connived at the evasion of prison rules. It seems to me extraordinary that the Home Office was concerning itself about that when it had on its hands the death of this young man.

The hon. Lady the Joint Under-Secretary devoted the whole of her answer to ways and means by which Thomas if he had been so really concerned about: the matters mentioned in the letter might have made them known to the Governor of the prison, and this in spite of the fact that these circumstances had resulted in this unhappy man's untimely death.

The matters about which I complain are these. Although, months before, I had given warning of the state of this man's mind, no notice, apparently, was taken. At the inquest, these things, if they were not hidden, were at least, glossed over, for it would have been impossible, if all the facts had been made known about Thomas's mental condition, to have reached the conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to tell his state of mind.

I complain that, in spite of the letters which I wrote, the interviews which I sought and the information I gave, no attempt, apparently, was made by the Home Office to uncover the processes of intimidation within the prison, of which the Home Office declares itself to have been aware. I am concerned and alarmed that no action seems to have been taken, other than this frivolous and trivial letter which the Under-Secretary wrote to me, to follow up the very serious allegations which were made in Thomas's letter which I sent to the Home Office in January of this year.

Although nothing now can restore this unhappy man to life, we are entitled to know—I shall press the case again if I do not get an answer today—that full and proper inquiries are being made to uncover all the circumstances of this man's death, and all the matters which led up to it, and to ensure that the sort of thing which played its part in bringing him to his suicide will not happen again, so far as it lies in the power of the Home Office and its prison officers to prevent it.

4.17 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

I regret that the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Mr. W. T. Williams) has seen fit to regard my reply to his letters and inquiries as trivial and frivolous. He said that he had sought interviews with the Home Office and had repeatedly pressed this case upon us. He will remember that he sought an interview with me on only one occasion, about 12 months ago, when we had a very full and frank discussion of the whole case. It is true that he wrote, I think, one subsequent letter and raised the case by one subsequent Question in the House.

I would remind the hon. and learned Member that the Home Office has gone very thoroughly and sympathetically into the case. We are by no means concerned to hide anything. Our main endeavour is to ensure that the prison officers are responsible in their duties and that, equally, we play a responsible part in ensuring that we get the full facts of the case.

As the hon. and learned Member said, this was a very tragic case. The events took place more than a year ago, and I am sorry that I must inevitably revive painful memories for this unfortunate prisoner's family and friends, for whom we all have the deepest sympathy.

First, I wish to outline the facts of the case itself, separating, as far as I can, those which are supported by firm evidence from those which are purely conjectural. On 26th June, 1962, Brian Harry Thomas was sentenced at the Crown Court, Liverpool, to 10 years' imprisonment upon a plea of guilty to the charge of wounding his wife with intent to murder her. He appealed against sentence to the Court of Criminal Appeal, which, on 21st July, 1962, allowed the appeal and substituted a sentence of five years.

Thomas had never been in prison before and, following the usual practice in circumstances such as these, he was allocated as a star prisoner to Wakefield and arrived there on 14th November, 1962. I give this account to the House to explain why he was in Wakefield and to show how long elapsed between the final disposal of his appeal and his suicide, which, as we have heard from the hon. and learned Member, took place on 4th April, 1963.

Wakefield is a prison the staff of which have considerable experience in dealing with star prisoners and are used to the special difficulties presented by their first reactions to long terms of imprisonment for a single grave offence. The hon. and learned Member said that he consulted a friend of his who had said that Thomas was a manic depressive, and that we, therefore, knew that this was so. I remind him that this, also, is conjecture and is not supported by any of the facts.

To continue with the story, Thomas's wife decided to institute divorce proceedings against him, and, although the staff at Wakefield knew that this was causing him distress, he appeared to take it in a mature and sensible way. The staff knew of this development and did what was possible to help him.

On 22nd March, 1963, Thomas was admitted into the prison hospital at Wakefield with symptoms of sub-acute appendicitis. His symptoms subsided, but while in hospital he told the staff that he was in debt to other prisoners. He was advised to give further details but refused. He did not ask for protection or for transfer or special segregation. He did make a demonstration on 28th March while in hospital by making a superficial cut on his forearm, but this was not an attempt at suicide. He could have stayed in the prison hospital had he so wished, but, instead, he asked to go back to ordinary location in the prison, and he returned there on 4th April.

On the same day, at 12.40 p.m., he was discovered hanging in his cell. The principal offier had seen him at 10.30. He appeared his normal self.

His landing officer says: He appeared to be in a normal frame of mind when I left him". This is what one of his mates said: He was a happy sort of lad and never seemed in trouble of any kind. I talked to Thomas on Thursday morning and he seemed in good spirits. He asked me how I was and I asked the same. The officer then told him to take his bedding upstairs. That is the last time I saw him". I have given the House excerpts from reports made on the day of Thomas's suicide or the day following, before the hon. and learned Member had drawn public attention to it and before any of the staff had any idea that their conduct might be the subject of criticism.

As the House will be aware, if a prisoner dies in prison the Governor has a duty under the statutory Prison Rules—new Rule 19(2), then Rule 28—to give notice to the coroner having jurisdiction, and this was done in his case. The Governor has also to report the matter to the visiting committee or board of visitors and to the Secretary of State and this was done also. In suicide cases the Governor, chaplain and medical officer are required to submit to the Secretary of State special full reports on the case. The Governor is required, among other particulars, to give dates of interviews during the six months preceding the suicide and this was done in this case.

On 3rd December, 1962, Thomas was seen by the Assistant Governor in change of the induction wing, one of whose special jobs it is to explain to the prisoner what his duties and privileges are, to sort out his difficulties both inside and outside prison, and to give him every possible help to settle down and make the most of his training.

Thomas made no mention of any incident causing him trouble or of any exceptional difficulties. He was seen by the Governor and on application given permission to send out private cash to his father.

From 22nd March to 4th April, the period he was in hospital, he was seen daily by the Governor. He mentioned his tobacco debts, but refused to give any names. The chaplain found him a quiet and well-disciplined man who appeared to be quite stable.

He did not appear to be unduly worried about the prospect of divorce. The petition had been served on him but the case had not been heard. The chaplain had a private interview with him on 11th February about his domestic situation. He was hoping that the welfare officer might make arrangements for his two year old son to visit him.

The medical officer reported on Thomas as a quiet man who appeared stable, of good general health with no morbid symptoms.

His state of mind on reception was cheerful and placid, his general health was good until 22nd March, when he was admitted to hospital with abdominal pains. The doctor does mention that Thomas stated to him that he was in debt and was afraid of attack because of this. Had the doctor at the time had reason to suppose that this fear was well founded he would not have released Thomas from hospital even though Thomas wished it.

I have gone into some detail deliberately. Whether the staff of Wakefield prison fulfilled their duty in this case is to be judged on what they knew or ought reasonably to have known at the time and as the matter then appeared to them, and not on what has been discovered or conjectured since as a result of the exhaustive inquiries that have been made subsequently.

I think that the picture that is revealed at this stage is of a man apparently reconciled to the domestic tragedies—his offence and his wife's petition against him for divorce—that had befallen him, in some but not very serious difficulties over debts in prison, who thought little enough of them to ask to be returned to ordinary location in prison.

To the question, would any prudent and experienced officer of the prison have expected suicide in these circumstances, I think a fair answer is "No". Certainly, it took by surprise those who had most to do with him. The coroner's inquest was held on 8th April and the following verdict was returned: Suicide by hanging himself with a belt from his cell window—insufficient evidence being available as to his state of mind at the time. All the facts known to the prison authorities were at the disposal of the coroner.

On the day after the inquest, 9th April, however, Mr. Thomas, the father of the prisoner, found awaiting him an anonymous letter which he quite properly sent on to the Governor of Wakefield. I will read what it said: SIR, Brian had to do this thing because he was in debt to the protection men. He could not pay them and was going to have his face cut up. There are plenty of people in here who can vouch for the hell he had to suffer in this place. He asked the authorities to protect him but they would not do it. Some of the hospital people know the truth of why he died. He told me that he had told the doctor the truth. If I tell you my name I will be next to be done up. Please believe me and trust this to be the truth. Your friend, CON. The letter was immediately sent to the coroner. The fact that Thomas was in debt to other prisoners was known to the coroner before he reached his decision. Indeed, the coroner's officer, I am informed, produced a note which he had taken from the cell which appeared to refer to tobacco debts. The coroner commented that there was no evidence to show that the note or its contents had anything whatsoever to do with the suicide.

The hon. and learned Member wrote to my right hon. Friend on 10th April asking for inquiries to be made, including the matter of the anonymous letter. I wrote to him on 10th May after having made exhaustive inquiries. Further correspondence ensued, during the course of which I told the hon. and learned Member that despite a thorough inquiry there was nothing to suggest to the staff that Thomas was intending to commit suicide. At I have said, on 31st July I saw the hon. and learned Member and at the interview we discussed every aspect of the case then known. These matters rested until 21st November, when my right hon. Friend answered a Question by the hon. and learned Member.

The hon. and learned Member again wrote to me on 27th November sending a letter and documents which he had received from the father of the deceased prisoner and asked me to make further inquiries. It appeared that the father had somehow got the idea that his son's death was not suicide and also that the father had discovered documents which seemed to him to suggest that certain named prisoners had been involved with the deceased in tobacco transactions. This was the first time that any names had been mentioned and I had immediate and exhaustive inquiries made to see whether any further light could be thrown on the circumstances leading up to the death of Thomas. There was no evidence whatever to suggest that the death was other than suicide, and the hon. Member did not press this point.

My inquiries about the persons named disclosed that both were friends of Thomas, one of them a close friend. They were both questioned very closely by the prison staff and one of them, a very close friend of Thomas, was not aware that he had any particular worries and was astonished at his death. The other prisoner worked in the same shop. All the financial transactions of these two prisoners, as well as the transactions of Thomas himself, were minutely examined over the relevant period but threw no light on the circumstances leading up to Thomas's death.

There is nothing whatever to support any suggestion that either of these men was involved in any threat to Thomas or attempt to extort money from him. I gave these particulars to the hon. and learned Member when I wrote to him on 18th December, 1963.

The hon. and learned Member passed a copy of my letter to the father, and the father then sent to the hon. and learned Member a letter written to him by his son and smuggled out of prison. In this letter, the deceased asked his father to send a postal order to a prisoner and to send 30s. by postal order to a relative of another prisoner. This smuggled letter, together with the documents which the hon. and learned Member had earlier sent on to me which he had received from Mr. Thomas, suggested fairly strongly that money was being passed unlawfully between Thomas the deceased and the other two prisoners, but there was no evidence that any pressure was being exerted on Thomas.

One point I would emphasize. As the letter was smuggled out, it seems reasonable to conclude that if Thomas had been seriously worried at the time, he would have taken the opportunity to tell his father. I suppose that it was too much to expect the father on receiving this illicit letter to communicate with the Governor, but by concealing this fact he put it out of our power to take any remedial action. Even this new material does not provide evidence to establish a connection between debts and the suicide.

It is a mistake to think that all borrowing and lending is "barony" and supported by bullying. In prison, as outside, it can be, and often is, a friendly affair.

The hon. and learned Member is clearly dissatisfied that the results of the inquiries which I have had made have not produced more precise information about why Thomas took his own life, but I am convinced that no more precise result could have been obtained whatever form the inquiry had taken. The hon. and learned Member is concerned, as I am, to find out whether the prison authorities were negligent in the discharge of their duties. I am satisfied after the most exhaustive inquiries that there is no evidence that there was any negligence.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.