HC Deb 08 November 1966 vol 735 cc1272-80

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Grey.]

9.31 p.m.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

The Order Paper states that on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House I shall be raising the case of Mr. E. Bright. I suppose that the first question which comes to the minds of hon. Members is: who is Mr. Bright? I find that a slightly difficult question to answer. Mr. Bright is not very well known to me. I do not think that he is very well known to Bournemouth. His connection with my constituency appears to be of a somewhat tenuous nature for he has, in his own words, accumulated a very thick record for a variety of misdeeds. Mr. Bright has, in fact, seen the inside of a number of prisons. He has become familiar with the architecture of Brixton, Pentonville, Manchester, Parkhurst, Wandsworth, Lincoln and Dartmoor Prisons—quite a record. He is now in Lancaster, serving the remainder of a five-and-a-half years' sentence for receiving and other offences.

The second question which hon. Members might quite legitimately ask is: what claim has Mr. Bright, in these circumstances, upon the time of this House, and why should any hon. Member seek to raise his case on the Adjournment of the House? My very simple answer is that he is labouring under a deep sense of injustice and I believe it right, no matter what the circumstances of a constituent, and no matter whom he may happen to be, if the individual Member of Parliament is convinced that that sense is genuine he should do whatever lies in his power to see that the doubts are resolved and to ensure that there is no justification at all for any feeling that an injustice has occurred.

I want at the outset to say that the Home Office has been extremely patient throughout the whole of my dealings with this case, and that I am grateful to the right hon. Lady the Minister of State, Home Office, to the hon. and learned Gentleman, and to other Ministers in the Home Department for the care with which they have already looked into the claim of this particular gentleman.

There are certain points which I wish to press further, and on which I would welcome an answer from the hon. and learned Gentleman. The particular episode which first gave rise to Mr. Bright's present detention occurred in 1964. Early that year he went from Bournemouth to London and stayed with a friend called Peter Solez. In March, 1964, Solez, together with another friend, arrived in a stolen car with stolen property. They then sought Bright's assistance to secure the services of a receiver in order to dispose of the stolen property.

Bright co-operated with them and apparently said he would lead them to some way in which they could dispose of the stolen property and he went with them in the car. On the way in the car they were involved in an accident which resulted in Bright's sustaining serious injuries—in fact, he fractured his cervical vertebrae. In words of one syllable, he came near to breaking his neck, and was lucky not to have done so. He was within an ace of doing so. So it was that on 9th March, 1964, he found himself in Hampstead Hospital.

I hold that every hon. Member will agree that this was an extremely serious accident; and yet less than two weeks later, on 20th March, he was brought before the Harrow Magistrates' Court, and he was there remanded in custody to the same court on 24th March. On 24th March he pleaded guilty to the charge of receiving, and later, on 6th April, he was sentenced at the Middlesex Quarter Sessions.

It might be argued that there is no further case to be answered, that the man pleaded guilty and there was an end to it; that he received his just deserts, that he was sentenced to five and a half years, and there is no further point in discussing the matter.

However, no one can exclude from his mind the impact of the accident, the effect and consequences of the accident. I cannot help wondering whether anyone who had been through such an experience could really be expected to have been fully in command of his faculties at the time he was confronted with the charges. It is true, of course, that Bright was discharged from hospital; but when he came before the magistrates' court, and even when he came before the subsequent Middlesex Quarter Sessions, in April, 1964, he was still wearing a neck support which restricted the movement of his head. Further, for the injuries which he then sustained he is still receiving specialist treatment, and ever since that time, early in 1964, when he suffered the accident, he has been in constant pain.

I cannot escape the feeling that a man in such a condition, still suffering from a sense of shock from the accident itself, was in no fit state to plead one way or the other. It is said—and this has been emphasised in the correspondence I have had with Ministers of the Home Department—that Bright admitted that had there not been an accident, and he had been successful in securing some way of disposing of the goods, he would then have got a share of them. The stolen goods never changed hands. They never passed into the possession of Mr. Bright. They remained in the possession of Mr. Solez, who pleaded guilty to the charge of taking them.

Mr. Speaker, I might admit that later during the course of my speech I intend to use unparliamentary language, but I do not suppose that you would now rise to your feet and rule me out of order. You would quite properly wait until I had committed the misdemeanour before calling me to order. If that is so in the ordinary course of debate, there must be a similar ruling in a court of law. I cannot believe that the fact that a man has said that, had certain circumstances arisen, he had the intention of becoming a party to a crime to the extent of receiving stolen goods is a justifiable reason for assuming that he had so done and sentencing him on that assumption. It cannot be right that a man is guilty of receiving when in fact he has received nothing.

The prisoner, Mr. Bright, my constituent, has never denied that he was assisting those who had taken the goods. He has never denied that he is certainly an accessary, that he associated with and assisted those who committed the crime. If that is the case, the charges should have been much less than those which were in fact brought against him and he should have attracted a much less severe sentence than that which he incurred. As he himself puts it, would not two or even three years have been sufficient punishment; and, apart even from that, has he not more than paid the penalty through the pain and anguish he has suffered?

Mr. Bright now has about one year of his sentence to go. He is currently engaged in vocational training on radio and television, which has helped him a lot. He is desperately anxious to get out. He is resolved—I have his assurance on this—never again to return to prison, or never again to be involved in circumstances which are likely to result in his being sent there.

Hon. Members may be excused a wry smile at this point. Judging from Mr. Bright's past career, part of which I have outlined, it could be assumed that he is no paragon of virtue and that he has been an habitual criminal. It would be quite wrong if we were now to judge him in this way. It would be quite wrong to assume that, because of his past behaviour, there is no hope whatsoever for this man going right in the future.

The main point of my plea is that we must judge Mr. Bright in the light of what he has been through. I am not thinking of past sentences. I am not thinking of the past years spent in prison. I am thinking of the grievous sense of injustice under which he is at present labouring and of the great pain and physical hardship which he suffered as a result of the accident. I believe and hope that these things together have taught him a lesson. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State can show some way for Mr. Bright to find a new lease of life. If he is to continue to serve out his sentence I feel that there will be no prospect for his retaining any sense of hope in the future. I may have understood him completely wrong, and the hon. and learned Gentleman may have other reports on him. I admit that I have only the correspondence by which to judge him, but we have exchanged many letters.

I emphasise that his experiences make me feel that there is every justification, even at this late stage in a somewhat protracted criminal career, for giving him the benefit of the doubt. In these circumstances, can the hon. and learned Gentleman say at the very least that there is a possibility, or that he will examine the possibility, of giving Mr. Bright some form of extended parole, or at any rate of relaxing the severity of his detention during the remaining months that he is in gaol, so that he can be assisted to become a more useful and helpful member of the community?

That is the sum total of the case I have to put. It is the case of a man who has not been a useful member of the community in the past; who knows the inside of a great number of prisons; who has known what it is to be punished; who has a curious sense of fairness in these matters, and who feels that when he has committed a crime and been found guilty he should pay the penalty, but who in this instance feels that there has been a gross miscarriage of justice. He therefore pleads for special consideration, and it is that plea that I put before the House tonight.

9.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) for raising the case in the way he has. It has always been treated as part of the job of the Home Office to consider representations by hon. Members on behalf of prisoners that they have been wrongly convicted or sentenced too heavily. Therefore, when the hon. Member took up the case of Bright with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State early last year it was examined very carefully by the Home Office, and as a result of the hon. Member's present representation we have again examined it very carefully.

It is very important to bring before the House the main facts as we see them, some of which have already been referred to by the hon. Member. Then I can deal with the specific points which the hon. Member has raised. The facts of this case are that on the night of 8th-9th March, 1964, a tobacconist's and confectioner's shop in Harrow was broken into, and cash, cigarettes, cigars and other property worth a total of nearly £500 were taken. A stolen Vauxhall motor car was used for the escape, and it was later involved in a serious collision with a taxi cab.

Bright and another man, Solez, were found in the wreckage, surrounded by cartons of cigarettes, the rest of the stolen property and house-breaking equipment. Both men were taken to hospital, Bright with a suspected broken neck. There was no sign of the third man who was later said by Bright to have been in the car with them, and it has been impossible to trace any such person. The other man in the car with Bright was discharged from hospital next day and charged with breaking and enterings, stealing from the shop in Harrow, being in possession of house-breaking equipment, and taking and driving away the Vauxhall car and using it without insurance. At Harrow magistrates' court on 17th March he pleaded guilty to all the charges and at Middlesex Sessions he was sentenced to Borstal training.

As Bright was in hospital, there was delay in dealing with him, but he was discharged from hospital on 19th March and he was then charged at Harrow police station. The story he told was that he had been asleep at the home of the man found in the car when, early in the morning of 9th March, this man and the third person had arrived in a stolen car with a quantity of property which they had stolen, and—as the hon. Gentleman said—they had asked for his help to dispose of the goods. He said he would agree to go with them to a receiver in return for a share of the loot, but on the way he met with the accident with the taxicab.

Bright was charged with the same offences as his companion in the car and also with receiving stolen property and allowing himself to be carried in a stolen vehicle. On 20th March at Harrow magistrates' court he was remanded in custody till 24th March, when he elected for summary trial. He pleaded not guilty to the breaking and entering and taking and driving away charges but guilty to the other four charges, including that of receiving. These pleas were all accepted. All the facts of the case and details of his previous convictions were presented to the court and he was committed for sentence to quarter sessions on the charges of receiving and being in possession of house-breaking implements, the other two charges connected with the unlawful use of the Vauxhall motor car being adjourned sine die.

He was sentenced at Middlesex quarter sessions on 6th April to five years' imprisonment on the charge of receiving, to one year's concurrent imprisonment for possessing housebreaking implements, and in addition he was dealt with for an offence for which he had been put on probation on 27th February, for which six months' imprisonment consecutive to the five years was imposed. His earliest date of release, with continued good conduct, is 23rd November, 1967.

The hon. Gentleman raised the following points: first, the question whether Bright was really fit enough to deal with his own case; second, whether the charge against him was incorrect because the goods were not in his possession; third, whether or not the sentence was too severe and, I gather, whether the Royal Prerogative can be used to reduce Bright's sentence; fourth, the question of parole.

It is true that Bright had had a serious knock, but he was discharged from hospital and was not dealt with by the magistrates' court until five days after his discharge. He still wore a neck support which restricted movement of the head, but there was no evidence to suggest that he was not in full possession of his faculties then or, for that matter, when on 6th April he appeared before the Middlesex quarter sessions for sentence.

Was the charge incorrect because the goods were not in Bright's possession? Quite apart from the hon. Gentleman's representations, Bright has himself made similar representations that he was merely an accessory and, therefore, the maximum sentence was two years' imprisonment only. But the difficulty from Bright's point of view is that, according to his own story, the terms on which he agreed to lead the thieves to a place where they could dispose of the stolen property were that he himself would have a share of the proceeds, and it was this fact which led to the charge of receiving being lodged against him.

Sir J. Eden

Did he in fact share in the proceeds?

Mr. Taverne

I am coming to that. The law on receiving is not quite as simple as, perhaps, the hon. Gentleman or laymen generally may believe. I have no authority to give a binding ruling about the application of the law to a particular case. All I can say is that there is no reason to suppose that this was a wrong conviction. The fact that the accident prevented Bright from taking his share of the proceeds and that he has, therefore, been convicted on the basis of his intentions and not his deeds does not lead to the conclusion that he was wrongly convicted. This appears to be the misconception. It seems to be the fact that Bright became a receiver the moment that he agreed to accept a share of the stolen goods, and what happened later is irrelevant.

Was the sentence too severe? The sentence to be imposed for a particular offence is, subject to any limitation by statute, entirely a matter for the courts to determine in the light of all the circumstances of the offence and of the offender.

The maximum sentence for receiving stolen property is 14 years' imprisonment. When Bright was sentenced in 1964, it was, as the hon. Gentleman has said, not the first occasion on which he appeared before the court. He had previously served two terms of imprisonment which were longer than the present term for serious offences against property, in addition to a number of shorter sentences.

The Home Secretary has no authority to act as a further court of appeal or as a reviewing body. He can recommend the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of mercy or remission of sentence, but it would be right for him to do so only in the most exceptional case and only where new circumstances had come to light. There is nothing new in this case. The court passed sentence on Bright in full knowledge of the circumstances in which the offences were committed and also of the very serious injuries he had received and the condition he was in when he appeared before the court.

The last question is whether, in the absence of special remission, perhaps there might be some provision for parole. I am afraid that the question of parole would only become possible under the new proposals which will be contained in the Criminal Justice Bill. They were outlined in the White Paper, The Adult Offender, which envisaged that prisoners not regarded as a risk to the public and likely to respond to generous treatment should be eligible for release on licence after serving one-third of their sentence or twelve months, whichever is the longer.

Legislation is required before this proposal can be brought into effect and if it is approved by Parliament I hope that the proposal will become law during the present Session. But one cannot forecast when it would come into operation, so again I cannot say what the effect would be on this prisoner.

In conclusion, I can only say that I can understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised this case. We have very carefully considered it on several occasions at his request and also in response to petitions from the prisoner, but I am sorry to say that there are no grounds which can be found which would justify my right hon. Friend's taking the very exceptional course of recommending any remission of Bright's sentence.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Ten o'clock.