HC Deb 22 July 1968 vol 769 cc227-40

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

12.55 a.m.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I do not on principle ask for an Adjournment debate lightly. The reason I asked for this one is that a large group of important and knowledgeable bodies most closely concerned with the problems of girls and women remanded in custody in the Midlands have expressed to me their great and continuing anxiety on the closure of Brock-hill Remand Centre to females.

The centre caters mainly for young male prisoners, but because four years of experience showed all the officials involved how time-consuming, frustrating and expensive it was to travel up to Manchester or down to London with every woman who was remanded in the Birmingham area a special wing at Brock-hill was opened in May, 1965. At the end of June this year, in spite of many representations to the Home Office, it was closed.

To say that this has very greatly inconvenienced and very greatly infuriated all concerned is putting it mildly. The first point is the hardship which this causes to defendants through the many hours of travelling that they must now undertake going between Birmingham and Holloway, where I understand most of them will now go.

Under the Criminal Justice Act, 1967, courts are encouraged to remand on bail where possible for a medical report. Those remanded in custody will, therefore, be the more disturbed, distressed and possibly sensitive individuals, and many of them are first offenders. I question—and I know that the magistrates who are so closely concerned with this also question—the advisability of sending them to Holloway as a good place for them to be cared for on remand.

It is not only a question of the travelling. When they are placed so far away from their homes it is not possible for their parents or their husbands to visit them. I give two examples of the difficulty. They happened last week.

The first case concerns two women from Nuneaton who were remanded for trial, one aged 30 and the other 31. One had a sick son, and the other four young children. Both women begged to be allowed to stay near Birmingham, but both were sent to Holloway. The first was not and is not able to get news about her son from her husband because he cannot make the journey easily. The second, whose four children are being cared for by various officials, does not get the visits she would have had had she been at Brockhill from the officials to tell her how the children are. It may be said that the women should have thought of their offspring before committing whatever crime landed them in this position, but I cannot believe that the Home Office would take such an inhumane attitude, and in any case it is not the fault of the dependants, who also suffer when their mothers are sent so far away.

The second case concerns a 19-years-old girl charged with murder. The murder happened in April. Ever since then she has been in custody, and until Brockhill closed she was there. The case came up last week. It was a very distressing case. She stabbed her husband, and he died of the wounds some days later. She had had a horrifying time. The court found that she had done the crime purely in self-defence, and she was acquitted. But after all this period in custody she had to go through this tremendous emotional ordeal of a court case and travel every night and every morn-to and from Shrewsbury, where she was sent—a round trip of 86 miles. She went to the old prison for women at Shrewsbury where she was allocated a suite of rooms, and it was necessary to provide a night officer, a day officer, and a nurse to look after her. In addition, an escorting officer had to be with her on her journeys to and from Shrewsbury. What this travelling party cost the taxpayer in fares I do not know, but what a loss of time for these officers, and how frustrating it must have been for them.

Every time anyone goes to Holloway from Birmingham, escorts must go with them. This is a tremendous waste of public money. Their lawyers, too, must travel to see them if they wish to do so. One might say that this will not cost the taxpayer anything, but it will if the lawyers are retained on a legal aid basis, and in any case it wastes the time of experts.

The judge at this murder trial had some very harsh things to say about the closure of Brockhill. He also asked what would happen in the winter when there was fog and bad weather? He wanted to know how women would get to the courts on time for the cases to start, and how counsel could talk to their clients and get to them to discuss certain aspects of their cases. The counsel involved said that he would also like to draw the judge's attention to the fact that in future defendants would have to get up at six or seven o'clock to get to the courts on time. That deals with the question of inconvenience to defendants, their escorts, and the officers involved.

Next, there is the difficulty about preparing reports. Probation officers in London will have to prepare and send reports back to Birmingham even though the defendant may be quite well known to the local probation officer, whose job of writing a report on the person concerned is half done before she starts.

We must consider, too, the question of after-care. Personal contact with the officer concerned is very important.

Following the passing of the Criminal Justice Act, under Section 66, Brockhill was designated a place of safety in April last, a place where the violent, uncontrollable types go—the sort of person who cannot be put in a hospital, a children's home, or an ordinary remand home. It is a place to which a girl who causes a lot of difficulty can be sent. I am assured that, in the short time that Brockhill was used as a place of safety for women there was a marked success in dealing with the small numbers of women who went there. Only last Friday a magistrate told me of a girl who would have gone to Brockhill but who, because that was not possible, caused immense trouble. She wrecked the place to which she was sent, and she has since absconded.

Early in 1967 the first three appointments of consultant forensic psychi- atrists were made—one in Durham, one in Leeds, and the third in Birmingham. This imaginative step introduced a new aspect into the problem of the management of mental disorders in offenders. This was done as a result of a report by a working party on the prison medical service in, I think, 1964.

The Birmingham consultant was doing extremely valuable and important work at Brockhill in improving the level of assessment, diagnosis, management and treatment of those in custody there. There will now be no consultant working with these women. It is true that only a very small number of women had this advantage, but that is no reason for not mourning the fact that none of them now has that advantage.

As I understand it, the Home Office says that Brockhill can no longer be used for women and girls because of the shortage of nurses. The Statute says that there should be two state registered nurses at Brockhill, and it is said that it is not possible to find these women, but there are three doctors available, and there is a staff of very experienced prison officers. If, therefore, a woman was sick, or was about to be confined, she could be sent to hospital. She would not stay at Brockhill. I understand that one reason why it has not been possible to recruit these nurses is the distance of Brockhill from Birmingham, but the main reason is that women are bored to tears because they have nothing to do there.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

It may be a long way from Birmingham, but it is equidistant from Bromsgrove and Redditch. It is very easy to get these nurses to and fro.

Mrs. Knight

I am delighted to hear this. I have gone into this very carefully, and I take my hon. Friend's point.

I recognise that women who are disturbed are liable to do themselves harm when in a remand home. The staff of Brockhill is very anxious that this home should be kept open to women in their care. These are the very people who take responsibility. Boys in Brockhill are catered for quite adequately under the present arrangement of doctors and prison officers. They do not have any nurses, and nobody seems to worry about that.

Only a small number of women get themselves into trouble in this way—it is true that my sex is a great deal more law-abiding than yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker—but this does not seem to be a good reason for making this small number of women accept unnecessary hazards and difficulties.

I spoke earlier of the number of people who are concerned about this. There are the police, the probation service, the Magistrates' Association, the Birmingham City Council, the doctors involved with the prisoners, the Birmingham Law Society, the National Council of Women, the Chairman of Worcestershire Quarter Sessions, the Chairman of the Visiting Committee of Brockhill—all of whom have been in touch with me to stress how anxious they are about the closing of Brockhill to women and girls. These are not a bunch of ignoramuses; they know what they are talking about.

The ideal thing would be for the two nurses to be found, so that Brockhill did not have to close, but these people have been weighing up the difficulties of having the women there with no resident S.R.N.s and the enormous difficulties that would flow from the closure of Brockhill, and on doing this they are further asking stridently that the Home Office should consider weighing up these two courses also, because they believe that if it did so it might, even at this late hour, reverse its decision on Brockhill.

1.7 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

The decision to close the Women's and Girls' Wing at Brockhill Remand Centre has understandably caused deep concern in the Midlands, and I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight)—

Mr. Dance

On a point of order. As this centre is in my constituency cannot I say a few words, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

The hon. Member will appreciate that the usual custom of the House is for the Minister to be called when he rises, especially as, on an Adjournment debate, the time is limited. After the hon. Member who has the Adjournment has spoken it is reasonable to give the Minister the opportunity of replying.

Mr. Dance

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend spoke very briefly because she knew that this remand home was in my constituency and was going to give me time to say a few words. With due respect, it is a little much to call the Minister to reply before I have had a word to say, when this home is in my constituency.

Mr. Morgan

Further to that point of order. I believe that I am correct in saying that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) has not made application for his name to be considered for an Adjournment debate on this matter. I have no objection—it is entirely in your discretion, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to the hon. Member's being called, but I would point out that a number of points have been made by the hon. Lady, in correspondence, and in Written and Oral Questions in the House, previously to this. I have therefore many detailed points to make, which will cover every minute of time available if I am allowed to proceed at this stage.

Mr. Dance


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not know whether the hon. Member is addressing those remarks to the Chair, but, if so, he must withdraw them.

Mr. Dance

Of course, I do not mean to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I do think that the Minister is treating my contsituency in a disgraceful way in not allowing me to say one word about this remand centre, which is in my constituency, and that subject to which my hon. Friend has raised so admirably. I would have said only a very few words, and the way that the Under-Secretary is treating me and my constituents is quite disgraceful.

Mr. Morgan

I am sure that the House appreciates that this is not in my discretion, and that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have exercised your discretion in calling me. If the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) felt so strongly about the rights and welfare of his constituents in this matter, he could a (least have applied for an Adjournment debate.

My right hon. Friend shares the concern which has been expressed tonight and in letters from individuals and organisations in the Midlands since the closure decision became known. It is, of course, highly regrettable that this wing of a purpose-built establishment, providing first-rate accommodation and medical facilities, should have had to close. Hon. Members will need no assurance from me that the decision was taken only after every endeavour had been made to keep it adequately staffed and every possible alternative had been examined. The investment in buildings and equipment will not be wasted, because the wing has been taken over to provide increased accommodation for the boys at Brockhill remand centre, but it is sad, nevertheless, to have to give up remand places for women and girls in the Midlands which we can ill afford to lose. The main factor—

Mr. Dance

. On a point of order. How is a Member able to raise a point affecting his own constituency in a debate like this? Of course I did not put down my name for an Adjournment debate when I knew that my hon. Friend had done so. Why am I completely stifled and unable to say one word on behalf of my constituents?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can understand the hon. Member's difficulty, but I am sure that he will equally understand the procedure on these Adjournment debates. Time is very limited and the opportunity of raising a matter on the Adjournment is determined by Ballot. When questions are raised, whether affecting the hon. Member's constituency or not, it has always been the custom of the House that the Minister should have adequate time to reply. If the Minister rises, the Chair is bound to call him to answer the case which has been made.

Mr. Dance

Further to that point of order. I spoke to my hon. Friend and we agreed that she would be reasonable in the time she took, and she was extremely reasonable. Surely a Member speaking on behalf of his constituency— and this remand home is in my constituency—should have been allowed a few minutes to speak.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

All that I can say is that it is a pity that this was not arranged with the Minister before the debate began.

Mr. Morgan

The main factor in the decision to close the wing was the intractable problem created by Brockhill's isolated position, which prevented the recruitment and retention of adequate nursing staff, and the choice was between keeping open the wind with inadequate nursing provision and making alternative arrangements which, while they might have involved some inconvenience for those concerned, would nevertheless ensure that there was proper care at all times for the women and girls on remand. As the Home Secretary said in the House on 4th July, our first concern had to be the proper care of these women and girls. In view of this and of our inability to retain the necessary nursing staff, there was no alternative but to close the wing.

It may be helpful if I describe the background to the closure. Brockhill was opened in May, 1965, to serve the Midlands. That was as the result of a decision made by the then Home Secretary, Mr. R. A. Butler, in 1961. Brockhill had accommodation for up to 30 women and girls in the special wing provided. The choice of the Brockhill site in 1961 was dictated by the urgent need to provide a remand centre in the Midlands, and, in view of the difficulties of finding sites for prison establishments, the decision to use a site already in the possession of the Prison Commissioners, in the grounds of Hewell Grange borstal, was clearly understandable. With hindsight it may be thought that difficulties might have been foreseen in staffing a centre, holding women and girls who have special needs, 15 miles from Birmingham and Worcester and with inadequate public transport to the nearest towns of Bromsgrove and Redditch, each three miles away. But at the time the decision was taken, Hewell Grange borstal had experienced no difficulty in staffing its matron posts and the recruitment problem at Brockhill has derived from developments which have occurred throughout the country since 1961, in particular the rapid turnover in the employment of women and a widening range of employment opportunities for older married women.

At virtually no time during the period the women's and girls' wing at Brockhill was open was it possible to maintain the full nursing establishment of three state registered nurses and one auxiliary. In December, 1965, there were one senior sister and two part-time auxiliaries in post. A year later there was only one sister and one auxiliary in post—and that for a total of 848 receptions in 1966 and 964 receptions in 1967. To make good the deficiency, qualified staff were provided from other prison service establishments on short-term detachment, with resultant difficulties for them. Clearly this was a position which could not be accepted as a permanent arrangement. In all, seven nursing staff resigned from the prison nursing service while in post at Brockhill.

It was finally decided by my right hon. Friend in April this year that the wing should be closed at the end of May. There has been criticism of the fact that this decision was taken without advance consultation with those concerned, but the Visiting Committee was informed at the earliest opportunity, as is our practice, and before any public announcement was made. Since three years' experience in this case had proved conclusively that Brockhill's isolated position prevented the maintenance of nursing staff to the required level, there would have been little purpose to be served in discussing in advance with those affected the decision to close the wing. However, my noble Friend, Lord Stonham received a deputation on 21st May following representations against the decision by the Visiting Committee, supported by magistrates and others affected in the West Midlands, and he agreed to postpone the closure until the end of June so that the Visiting Committee might present a resolution, as they had given notice of doing, at the annual conference of Visiting Committees and Boards of Visitors on 12th June.

Mr. Dance

This is disgraceful.

Mr. Morgan

We also considered most carefully a number of representations and suggestions from organisations and individuals in the Midlands area, but there could be no question of reversing the decision to close the wing in the absence of a practicable alternative. Indeed, it was only with difficulty that we were able to maintain nursing staff throughout June and then only at a level which fell short of that required by the medical advisers.

Mr. Dance

On a point of order. This is complete nonsense. We have produced answers to all this. In view of the unsatisfactory answer, I do not know whether I can raise the subject again on the Adjournment, but I should certainly like to do so, because the Minister's answer is making no sense.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member will understand that that is not strictly a point of order. I have no doubt that his point will have been noted.

Mr. Morgan

I should like to turn for a moment to some of the suggestions which have been made in correspondence with Ministers and in Questions in the House. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove in a Question on 14th June suggested that women and girls on remand from the Midlands should be accommodated in the former women's wing of Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, as was the practice until 1961. It was found on investigation that the accommodation at Winson Green had already been converted for other use and that, quite apart from the question of the cost of re-conversion, it could be made available again for remand purposes only at the expense of adding to the already serious overcrowding in the male cell accommodation at the prison.

It was also suggested that the Home Office had been unnecessarily rigid in insisting on a full nursing complement at Brockhill in view of the availability of the medical officer in the remand centre and of nearby National Health Service hospital facilities.

It is quite true that Brockhill was well served as regards cover by a medical officer and support from National Health Service hospitals which could have taken women and girls suffering from acute physical illnesses. But of the comparatively few women and girls remanded in custody a very high proportion— and this was a point not made by the hon. Lady—are mentally or emotionally disturbed, and many of them are remanded in custody specifically for observation.

Mrs. Knight

I did make this point. I said that these are disturbed, distressed and sensitive individuals. I made this very point.

Mr. Morgan

I am happy to correct myself on that point. The purpose quite often of the observation is that reports of their mental condition may be given to the courts.

Since such women and girls might be received at any hour of the day or night, and since crises might equally arise at any hour of the day or night in the condition of those already in custody, the health and indeed the safety of the inmates require that constant trained nursing supervision should be available.

It has been known for women and girls to do serious harm to themselves or their fellows, and it is not without significance that on some nine occasions seriously disturbed women and girls had to be removed from Brockhill to Holloway or Risley to enable them to receive the necessary care.

Mr. Dance


Mr. Morgan

I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to protect the House, and indeed myself, from the constantly frustrating interjections of the hon. Member.

Mr. Dance

It is because you are not telling the truth.

Mr. Morgan

I do not know whether the hon. Member's attitude or conduct is anything to do with the hour of the night, but I am sure the House would wish him to behave in a different way.

It has also been suggested that an additional deterrent to recruitment at Brockhill was the situation of the hostel for nursing staff one mile from the centre itself and reached by a lonely road through the borstal grounds, and that the provision of transport between the hostel and the centre might have helped to retain nursing staff. The question of providing such transport was considered, as was the possibility of using living accommodation for nurses nearer to the centre, but even if this had been possible it would have done nothing to solve the larger problem for nursing staff of getting to neighbouring towns in their free time.

Following the closure of Brockhill, revised arrangements have been made for women and girls remanded by courts in the Midlands. Those committed by courts in Radnor, Worcestershire and North Herefordshire now go to Puckle-church, near Bristol. Those from Mont- gomery, Shropshire, Staffordshire and South Derbyshire go to Risley, near Manchester, and those from the east and south Midlands to Holloway where there is now a separate remand centre for girls under 21. It has also been possible to arrange for overnight stay accommodation at Shrewsbury prison for women and girls, with their escorts, who may have to appear in court on consecutive days. This will have the effect of reducing the travelling involved, and we are urgently examining the possibility of making similar arrangements elsewhere in the general area.

It has been represented to us very strongly by magistrates and lawyers that the new arrangements will greatly increase the burden of travelling for prisoners and make it difficult for them to remain in contact with relatives and legal representatives. I would not wish to minimise the problems that undoubtedly will arise in some cases, but although travelling distances will sometimes be greater under the new arrangements, in many cases, particularly where reliance has to be placed on public transport, communications will be easier than they were with Brockhill.

Finally a word about the future. Although there are no immediate plans to provide alternative remand centre accommodation in the Midlands, the possibility of providing a remand centre for women and girls in the Midlands will be kept under review. For the time being we want to see how the new arrangements work out, but we shall watch the effect of the closure closely and the trend in the number of girls remanded in custody. If an addition to the number of women's and girls' remand centres appears to be justified, priority will be given to the Midlands.

I ask the House to accept that the decision was taken, reluctantly, in the full knowledge of its effects and after every effort failed to remedy the problem.

Mr. Dance


Mr. Morgan

This is, after all, a balance between the disadvantages now suffered and the very grave danger that would inevitably ensue were the position not to be corrected in this way.

Mr. Dance

Why will not the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Morgan

Indeed, if any woman had been imperilled or if a death had occurred, I am sure that the hon. Lady —and the hon. Member for Bromsgrove, had he brought himself to do this—would have applied with every fervour for an Adjournment debate on that very question and the failure of the Home Office, as would then have been the case, to take proper action in that connection, since the responsibility for the health and safety of women and girls in custody falls squarely on the—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKERadjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes past One o'clock.