HC Deb 15 February 1968 vol 758 cc1725-32

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

10.35 p.m.

Mr. George Wallace (Norwich, North)

First may I make a short personal statement to the effect that the O'Farrell family who are involved in my debate tonight have not been constituents of mine. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Norwood) and myself have an arrangement whereby one of us is available to the citizens of Norwich every week in order to give maximum service. He has always agreed to my continuing with this case, which is the subject of the debate tonight, as I intend to do; indeed, I have never given up.

Kevin O'Farrell was sentenced to six months detention for shortening a gun barrel, together with concurrent sentences. He had ammunition in his possession. There seemed to be no criminal intent, but this act can now, in the light of medical evidence, be clearly related to his mental condition and the suicidal intent—doubted by medical opinion until the last tragic determined act of this boy, who committed suicide on 23rd September, 1967.

The boy was found hanging by his belt from the door of his cell at 3.25 p.m. Early that evening the parents of the boy were advised by Norwich City Police to telephone Grendon for details. Subsequently they were told by phone that the inquest was on Tuesday, 26th September. After a long journey that day they were told that the inquest was postponed until Wednesday, 27th September. The first written communication from Grendon was received on Wednesday, 27th September, and dated 26th September, stating that the inquest would be held on Wednesday, 27th September. This and subsequent incidents added to the mother's distress and increased her anger and demand for a public inquiry.

Time does not permit me to go into the details now. I have been in frequent touch with the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, and I have had personal discus- sions with him. He has extended every courtesy and explanation and has offered to meet the parents. He repeated his offer on 30th January last. The boy's parents have refused the interview and the mother's mind is fixed on a public inquiry in spite of detailed replies given by Lord Stonham. I support that plea, but I would go further. Kevin John O'Farrell, aged 17 years, committed suicide on Saturday, 23rd September, 1967. An appeal had previously been lodged on his behalf and would have been heard a month later. Tonight's debate I regard as his appeal.

This boy's mother and father had been worried for some considerable time about his mental state, but without avail, as no one seemed to realise his need for treatment until he attempted to cut his wrists with a razor blade when he was confined at North Sea Camp Detention Centre. He was transferred to Grendon Underwood and the parents were told that he had been transferred because he was not happy at North Sea Camp.

Kevin had attempted to take his life twice before this incident. First he attempted to jump out of a window. This was reported to Norwich City Police and the probation officer.

Then, before the Court hearing, he attempted to gas himself. This was reported to the probation officer but not stated at the court hearing when medical evidence was submitted. I accept, of course, that it is not the duty of the probation officer to submit medical evidence, but—and this is an important point—this attempt at suicide only emerged in the medical report dated 4th September, 1967, and I have all the medical reports which were submitted to the boy's solicitors in preparation for his appeal. The medical report of 4th September said that …even the reality of suicidal intent was conjectural". But in the medical report submitted by a senior medical officer to the magistrates when the case was heard it was stated, amongst other things, that its results suggested …that his fantasy life is cut out from reality and under stress he would have no resources of personality to exercise control over impulse. But no recommendation for treatment was made to the magistrates and the lad was committed to North Sea Camp Detention Centre.

At the inquest it was stated that when Kevin was examined at Grendon there was a suggestion of serious mental illness. He was examined by two qualified psychiatrists who did not find any evidence of suicidal intent, in spite of his earlier attempts at suicide, although they did say that he might be suffering from early schizophrenia. Suicidal intent was tragically confirmed when, during a period when he was unsupervised, Kevin hanged himself with his belt from a height lower than himself—from the door of his cell—which was a definite and determined suicide. Kevin O'Farrell indeed had proved the experts wrong when it was too late.

I know that the authorities take a serious view of this tragedy, and I accept, as a result of the various approaches I have made and discussions with my hon. Friend and his officials, that special measures have now been taken to avoid something similar happening again. I accept, too, that one cannot always rule out suicide in a psychiatirc prison. But steps have been taken.

Steps have been taken indeed! But Kevin O'Farrell is dead. The build-up of medical evidence on his obviously stricken mind was too late. Having dealt with this case—and I am not a medical expert but a layman—I say that this lad should not have been sent to prison. He was mentally sick. He needed treatment and, in view of the medical evidence and the evidence of suicide, the only reparation that can now be given is a pardon, and for his mother's sake I ask for just that.

10.45 p.m.

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

This is a very sad case indeed, and everyone in the House and outside will share the feeling of deep sympathy that Kevin's parents and his family have had to bear this blow. I must also acknowledge on behalf of myself and my colleagues in the Home Office, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, who has dealt with this, the efforts which the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Wallace) has made to assist the boy's family in giving some relief to their feelings by clarifying the situation which led to Kevin's untimely death.

I hope, too, that it will be accepted that the Home Office, for its part, as the hon. Member has accepted, and those concerned with the running of the establishments where he was held in custody, have done everything before and after the event which could reasonably be expected of them.

I propose to give the House a resume of the events which led to Kevin's suicide, but I first wish to emphasise three points which I regard as fundamental to the issues raised by the hon. Member. In the first place, those in charge at the North Sea Camp acted urgently to deal with the situation as soon as the extent of Kevin's need for treatment was realised. Secondly, if there are any complaints that lie against the staff at Grendon, these cannot be complaints of neglect, they can only be concerned with medical judgment. Thirdly, since the events, the Home Office and my right hon. Friend the noble Friend the Minister of State, have done everything possible to investigate this case and to meet the requests for information that the hon. Member, quite rightly, made, and that Kevin's family have made.

I want to turn now to the events of the case. I cannot really comment on the decision reached by the magistrates. It would not be proper for me to do so. Subject to the maximum penalty prescribed by law, the penalty in each case is entirely a matter for the court to decide, and it has to have regard to all the circumstances of the offence and the offender. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no authority to give directions or advice to the courts on the nature of the sentence that should be imposed, or to interfere with the decision on any particular case. My hon. Friend has asked for a free pardon. This is not really a case in which any grounds can be said to exist of the kind in which a free pardon is granted.

I now turn from the decision of the court to a matter for which the Home Office does have responsibility, and that is in the matter of the probation. Since complaints have been made about the way in which the probation officer concerned dealt with the case, it is only right that I should say why I think that these were unfounded. Kevin was under the supervision of a senior probation officer in Norwich for two years before his court appearance last July. During this time close supervision by the probation officer was not possible because Kevin failed to report and because he refused the probation officer's help in obtaining employment.

The probation officer also had difficulty in contacting the boy's parents, who later told him that Kevin must have intercepted the written messages which he left at the house for them. Although this was not obviously apparent at the time, Kevin's failure to keep in contact with the probation officer was no doubt, in part at any rate, due to the progress of his mental condition.

As to the complaints which have been advanced though not by my hon. Friend, that the probation officer did not make a medical. report to the court, there was a medical report made by the medical superintendent at Hellesdon Hospital, Norwich. He was a proper person to make such a medical report. It would have been not only unnecessary, but improper, and might have been felt by the court to have been outside the jurisdiction of the probation officer if he had made a report.

He made it clear to Mrs. O'Farrell that he would not be giving a medical report to the court and, so far as I am aware, Mrs. O'Farrell did not mention to the probation officer a previous attempt by Kevin to commit suicide. The probation officer was unaware of this. I hope that the House will accept —and this is extremely important—that the probation officer concerned, far from failing in his duty to the boy and the parents, did as much as he could in handling this particularly difficult case.

Let me now turn to the events which follow on Kevin's reception into the North Sea Detention Centre on 31st July last. At the camp his behaviour was correct, but he caused concern to the warden and the staff by his withdrawn mariner and negative attitude. Efforts were made to ease him through his training at the camp, but he resisted all attempts to get to know him. An incident occurred on 13th September which, in the light of future events, was of some significance.

Whilst working with a party of boys on the camp estate, Kevin was noticed to have some scratches on his left wrist. He refused to show his wrist or to produce the razor blade which had been in his possession. It was considered that this was a gesture rather than a true suicide attempt. The medical officers were of the opinion that Kevin's state of mind merited a thorough investigation. He was therefore seen by a medical officer from Leeds prison on 15th September, and the medical officer concluded that psychiatric investigation and treatment was urgently necessary. Arrangements were immediately made for Kevin's transfer to the Grendon Psychiatric Prison. He was in fact transferred to Grendon on the day the examination took place. His parents were informed immediately and the probation officer, although it was no longer his case—again I should mention this—also visited Mr. and Mrs. O'Farrell the same evening to tell them about Kevin's transfer.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, at Grendon Kevin was seen by two qualified and experienced psychiatrists, neither of whom, in the course of their examination, found any evidence of intention to commit suicide, although they thought he might be suffering from early simple schizophrenia. He was not placed on special watch, because the condition which they had diagnosed in fact calls for full association with other inmates. He was also allowed to wear ordinary dress in the hospital.

As my hon. Friend has said, tragically, on 23rd September, about 3.25 p.m., he was found hanged. Attempts were made to revive him by artificial resuscitation, but unfortunately he was already dead. Shortly afterwards the Deputy Governor phoned the police and asked them to notify Mr. and Mrs. O'Farrell of their son's death.

I am extremely sorry that there was in fact a misunderstanding about the inquest. As I understand the position, the dates were slightly different. Kevin's parents were asked to attend at Aylesbury on the afternoon of Monday, 25th September, to identify the body. There appears to have been a misunderstanding —it is by no means clear how this arose— as a result of which they were undoubtedly under the impression that the inquest itself had been fixed for that date. But this was not the case; the Coroner had fixed the inquest for the Wednesday. I am told that the parents were informed of this at the time of the identification. They attended the inquest on the Wednesday, which was completed on that day. There was no question of a postponement of the inquest. This question never arose.

As my hon. Friend has said, we have tried since that date, in correspondence and in meetings with him, to answer all the questions which have been put, and, as has been said, Lord Stonham has offered more than once to receive the boy's parents for a personal discussion in the hope that he could do something to satisfy them in their distress. Unfortunately, this offer has been rejected, although the noble Lord would still, very willingly, be glad to discuss the case with Mr. and Mrs. O'Farrell if they felt that that would be of any help.

In view of our inability to satisfy the parents in this matter, they have asked, as has the hon. Member tonight for a public inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has considered this request most carefully, but he has come to the conclusion that since this case has already been very fully investigated and since the real issue turns on a question of medical judgment, a public inquiry would not produce any significant information that is not already known and would not serve any purpose in relieving the parents of their distress or preventing a similar occurrence in future.

Perhaps I should say something in general about tragedies of this kind. Medical officers attached to prison hospitals are fully qualified, and, particularly at Grendon, in view of the number of disturbed persons who pass through their hands, have special experience in dealing with cases such as this. It is only fair to say that from time to time, despite the closest supervision, as my hon. Friend very fairly recognised, a patient determined on suicide will succeed in taking his own life. There are, fortunately, very few of these cases, and my noble Friend Lord Stonham has said that each of these cases haunts him. The number is about 15 a year, whereas before they used to run into the 20s. They are few in number, but they happen. It is an unfortunate and inescapable fact that they happen, that determined patients succeed in taking their own lives, and I would only be misleading the House if I were to suggest that there are any absolute safeguards which can be devised.

Before I end I would like, and I know that I can associate the House with this, to repeat the very deep sympathy which I and my colleagues at the Home Office have for Kevin's parents and his family who have had to bear the sorrow of this very sad and tragic event.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.