HC Deb 03 December 1981 vol 14 cc407-25

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

4.21 pm
Mr. Robert Atkins (Preston, North)

I am exceedingly grateful, even at this extraordinarily early hour, for the chance to draw the attention of the House—[Interruption.] I regret to note that some of my hon. Friends are leaving the Chamber. I hope that it is not an indication of their view of the subject that I am about to raise. As I was saying, I am grateful for this early opportunity to draw the attention of the House to the grievance felt against the Government—the Home Office in particular—on two counts by a constituent of mine. The first concerns the Home Office's rejection of his possible re-employment as a prison officer. The second concerns the apparent refusal to tell him exactly what were the reasons for that refusal.

I am referring to Mr. Arthur Green, of Fulwood in my constituency, who applied to be a prison officer in December 1975. After training as a prison officer he had his first appointment, in March 1976, to Maidstone. He was quite happy there, apart from a difficult divorce, which followed upon a separation that he had from his first wife. He was enjoying the work at Maidstone prison as a prison officer on ordinary disciplinary duties.

Mr. Green was given custody of his 10-year-old son at the time of the divorce. That would seem to be an indication of his sense of responsibility in the eyes of the court. I am not an expert in these matters, but I gather that it is unusual for a father to be given the custody of one so young.

Mr. Green applied in March 1978 to become a dog handler, and he was sent on a course which, coincidentally, took place at Preston prison. I say "coincidentally" because Mr. Green is a Prestonian and his family come from Preston. Although he was stationed at Maidstone, he was able to return to Preston prison for the dog-handling course. He was there for two months, June and July 1978. There he met his second wife-to-be. Following completion of training, he has transferred to Risley in Manchester with his dog, Major. There were no difficulties at that time with the dog, with Mr. Green's son or, indeed, with the job. He was living in prison quarters about half a mile from Risley prison.

After a time, Mr. Green decided to remarry. Well before doing so, he had established that his wife-tobe—she had also been rather tragically divorced, and had a 2-year-old son—was petrified of dogs, and particularly in regard to her young child. There was nowhere in the house to which they were planning to move, where the dog could be kept, either in the garden or in the house itself, since Mr. Green's wife-to-be was determined not to have a dog of such size near her child, quite apart from the fear that she had herself.

Accordingly, because of the pressure, Mr. Green sought, through the necessary channels at the prison—through the governor and so on—permission to give up dog handling and to return to ordinary disciplinary duties. He was not expecting any preferential treatment, but by the time of his second marriage, in November 1979, no arrangements had been made for him to leave his dog-handling duties. By now he was living with his new wife in Preston. This necessitated a drive of about an hour each way—sometimes twice a day if he was on the 6 am to 2 pm shift and then had to return for the 10 pm to 6 am shift. In winter time, when the weather and road conditions were difficult, the journey would sometimes take even longer than an hour.

Because of Mr. Green's wife's fear of the dog, and the fact that no arrangements had been made for him to come off dog handling, the dog had to sleep in Mr. Green's van outside the house. He fed it, he cared for it and he exercised it properly, until such time as the strain became too much and he began to worry about the effects on the dog and, of course, on himself. Accordingly, he made arrangements for the dog to be looked after at Risley by the other dog handlers who were resident there.

Mr. Green tells me that he assured himself regularly and continuously that the dog Major was fit and well. He also tells me that any of the dog handlers who were at Risley at the time would bear witness to that fact. Indeed, Mr. Green tells me that he received several compliments from his colleagues and others at Risley on the way in which he was coping with his domestic and his job difficulties at this time of remarriage, and with the move and the difficulties with the dog.

In the meantime, Mr. Green had heard from a recently trained dog-handler at Risley, who had been on a subsequent course at Preston, that this dog-handler had met another trainee from the Isle of Wight who stated that he was taking over Mr. Green's dog, Major, in due course. Not unnaturally, my constituent made contact with that prison officer and offered, at his own expense to take the dog direct to the Isle of Wight. The distance from Preston to the Isle of Wight is, of course, considerable. The offer was refused by the prison service.

Incidentally, following Mr. Green's eventual transfer from the dog-handling section he has maintained contact with the Isle of Wight dog handler, and has on many occasions seen the dog Major since he left the section. The dog has been brought to Mr. Green when the dog-handler from the Isle of Wight has had cause to travel north. Mr. Green has kept in contact with the dog on a regular basis. That is surely not an indication of hostility towards the animal.

Mr. Green heard, on very good authority, that a report was written on the dog Major, soon after it left Mr. Green's care, suggesting that the dog was difficult and hostile and ought to be put down. Apparently, no blame was attributed to Mr. Green for that state of affairs.

The Isle of Wight dog-handler pressed hard upon the prison service to be permitted to take over the dog, as he was an experienced man with dogs, having recently been trained specifically as a prison dog-handler. He fought against the suggestion that the dog should be put down. It was not put down, and he eventually took it over. That at least suggests that the dog was difficult and had been causing problems.

I should explain that Mr. Green's new wife's father had died just before Mr. Green's remarriage, and that Mr. Green's new mother-in-law, who cannot drive and is not in the best of health, was wholly reliant upon her daughter, Mr. Green's new wife, to help in the small business that she had in Preston market. Mr. Green's father, of 72 years, was alone in Preston and had recently been seriously ill in hospital for some six weeks.

For the above reasons, among others, he had, at the time of the application to come off dog-handling, applied for a transfer to a prison nearer Preston—because of the distance involved in travelling, his new wife not being very keen on large dogs and so on, let alone the family reasons to which I have referred.

Mr. Green was not expecting preferential treatment. He offered to pay any expenses involved in such a move, as opposed to a move at public expense, which, I gather, is the usual procedure. So, on the second occasion, he offered to arrange a move at his own expense, even though he was not expecting the move to take place quickly.

In November 1979 he was taken off dog-handling and therefore returned to ordinary disciplinary duties, which involved his working a normal day. He was reasonably content to await the offer of a move in due course. In December 1979 he was offered a move to London at public expense or to Maidstone at his own expense and was told that he had to decide between these two options as soon as possible. He refused.

I apologise for delaying the House, but I should like to quote from the letter which Mr. Green wrote to me, in which he laid out the problem as he saw it. Although I have sought to explain the case in as careful detail as I can, I believe that quoting Mr. Green's letter will help the Minister to understand the strength of feeling of my constituent in this difficult matter, as it affects him. He says: In the first place, I applied to go on dogs because as far as I was concerned the Prison Service was my chosen career and I was a dedicated officer and, to me, going on dogs was a 'step up'. I was transferred from Maidstone to Risley without any argument on my part despite having been settled, with my young son, in Maidstone for three years. I agree that training specialised officers is expensive, however, I should like to point out that part of the expense involved goes towards training the dog. In my case, Major was posted to Albany, to another officer, and there was no discontinuation of Major's services to the prison. Also, Major's new officer was due to go on an eight week course for a new dog (his own having died or been injured) so causing the service to save money on the dog course and also on any overtime that would have occurred by other officers who would have had to have covered for him while he was absent. However, my domestic situation changed and I tried living in Preston while still on dogs to see if it was at all possible to combine the two. I have mentioned Mr. Green's wife's fear of dogs, and I have spoken of his wife's young child, who was of a boisterous nature and who did not realise the potential danger of the dog. I am sure that I do not have to talk at length about the problems that we have seen recently with dogs that have turned on and savaged young children. It may be only a small number of children who are savaged, and it may not involve many prison dogs, police dogs or trained dogs, but it is a fact that many mothers fear that happening. My own wife feels much the same way.

I have already referred to the health and the stress problems of having to commute between Risley and Preston and the problems that that caused, both financially and in relation to the dog.

Mr. Green continues: I never really wanted to come off dogs because I enjoyed the work but it was impossible to continue on dogs for the above reasons. I still wished to continue in the Prison Service so I applied for a position at Preston or surrounding area, reverting to discipline duties. When I put in for a transfer from Risley to Preston, I was quite prepared to wait my turn until a discipline position became available. In no way did I expect preferential treatment. I emphasise what I said earlier.

Mr. Green quotes from the letter that he received from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, which said: Officers also know that they will be expected to await the appointment of a replacement before reversion can take place. Mr. Green continues: In all honesty, I was never told of this ruling concerning awaiting a replacement, and was assured that my position on dogs at Risley 'would be covered.' When my transfer came through to go to London or Maidstone"— to which I referred earlier—— I appealed and was refused. I felt it was impossible to go to either, because:(a) having only been re-married for a few weeks, I did not wish to leave my new wife and family so soon;(b) it was impossible for my wife to accompany me due to the fact that she had binding commitments in Preston to fulfil. As I have mentioned, that was due to her mother's ill health, and the necessity of running the business after her father's recent death, and his father's ill health, which necessitated hospitalisation. He continues: (c) I did not wish to be parted from my children"— that was the young child of his new marriage, by his second wife, and his son of some 10 or 11 years of age—— at a time when we were all getting used to living with each other in a family atmosphere which both children had been denied up till then. Also, we had just got the children settled in new schools and we did not want them to be disrupted yet again (the elder child (mine)"— the elder boy— having been in five different schools in five years). I suggest that those are sentiments to which anyone in the House could subscribe if he had been through the tragedy of the break-up of a marriage, and facing the serious need to ensure that the children—who always suffer greatest in circumstances such as these—should have their futures protected, particularly at such a young age—2 or 3, and 10 or 11. Surely that is something which all of us would recognise and support. I would define that as being arguably one of the best possible reasons for a sympathetic consideration of this man's case.

Not being an unreasonable man, Mr. Green goes on to say: My wife and I did give great and careful thought to the matter of me moving either to London or Maidstone by myself so continuing my career in the service, but we really felt that our private lives and those of our children deserved some consideration at the critical stage they were in at that time. I could see no alternative but to resign from the service, even though I considered this as a last resort. I had to do something that was alien to me simply because of the circumstances I found myself in. I honestly believe that no one had better reasons for wanting to be in the North West area than myself, which I was prepared to do at my own expense. I cannot emphasise this point enough. On two particular occasions, in order to be seen to be reasonable and helpful, Mr. Green offered to take these options at his own expense, even allowing for the fact that he did not expect preferential treatment.

Mr. Green goes on to say: The prison service has already trained me as a discipline officer and if I was allowed to resume my duties, the money already spent on me would not be wasted. I am sure that many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, heard yesterday, during the debate on the prison service, of the pressures upon prisons at all levels—the staff, the prisoners, those administering them, and those responsible for them. It seems to be amazingly shortsighted that an officer who is so keen and so dedicated to the job has found himself in this position wholly and absolutely against his will.

Mr. Green goes on to say: I could take up my duties without the Prison Service having to incur any further training expense on my behalf. In view of the present desperate shortage of prison officers, and new recruits, it would seem prudent to allow me to resume my duties, so fulfilling two causes…the use of an already trained and dedicated officer, and my own cause, in that I am eager to resume service in my chosen career, which, I must stress again, I never wanted to leave in the first place. Mr. Green goes on to refer to a letter—to which I shall refer shortly—which was sent to me as his Member of Parliament. He says: it was stated that I was being posted to London because they were so short-staffed there. However, about three weeks after I resigned I was told that officers at Risley were offered Wymott"— a prison near Leyland, adjacent to Preston— at public expense. The Home Office must have been aware of the reorganisation at the time I applied for the North West and I cannot understand why I was not offered Wymott at my own expense, which would have answered two problems in one fell swoop. Since joining the Prison Service, I have always given 100 per cent. of myself. I believe I have a good record. I have never argued about any of my past postings or detached duties. My constituent's letter shows his concern about what happened to him. When he was presented with these difficult options he appealed to the governor, the Home Office, the Prison Officers Association and to the welfare section—to no avail. As he says, he had no alternative but to resign from the service, much against his will.

My constituent was told before leaving by the then chief prison officer at Risley, Mr. O'Rourke, that he was very sorry to see Mr. Green going and that he would be prepared to give Mr. Green an excellent reference for any job for which he might apply. I am not wholly familiar with the prison service, but I imagine that the chief prison officer is equivalent to a regimental sergeant major, if I may draw that analogy. I was only a part-time soldier, but I know, had I been a professional soldier, that if the RSM had said to me when I left that he would give me a reference I should have regarded that as the highest accolade that I could have within the ambit of my regiment or battalion. I am sure that my hon. Friends recognise that when a chief prison officer is prepared to offer such a reference it is a demonstration of how highly my constituent is thought of, at least by the chief prison officer.

Only three weeks after leaving the prison service my constituent was told by a friend, still at Risley, that prison officers were being transferred to Wymott at public expense. One must bear in mind that on two separate occasions Mr. Green had offered to move at private expense—out of his own pocket—rather than incur public expenditure. Not unnaturally, when hearing this Mr. Green re-applied for a post as a prison officer, and/or a trade officer and as a civilian bricklayer at Wymott. He was not even granted an interview.

In September 1980, Mr. Green went to the jobcentre where he noticed that there was a prison service recruitment drive. He was again refused consideration. This is a man who had been a prison officer, done the job, and been harshly treated, as I maintain that he has, and I am sure that hon. Members, on hearing about the case, will agree. Having done all this, he decided, as a last resort, to come to his Member of Parliament.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Quite right too.

Mr. Atkins

I thank my hon. Friend for his sedentary support. I took up the case and wrote to the Home Office, which, at my instigation, granted Mr. Green another interview in April 1981. I was subsequently told that he would not be re-employed because of his unsatisfactory performance and cruelty to his dog.

I shall quote from the letters that I have received because the case does bear repeating. It will take me some time to work through my complicated file—I hope that the House will bear with me just a moment. While I am looking for the letter that I wish to quote I shall add that it is difficult for an hon. Member faced with a problem put to him by a constituent to judge in the early stages of the case whether his constituent is trying to pull the wool over his eyes. I am sure that many of my colleagues occasionally find that a case has been going from one hon. Member to another. I must emphasise how strongly I was impressed by my constituent, his complaint and the manner in which he laid the complaint before me. I support him strongly in the applications that he is making.

In a letter written on 21 January 1981 the Under-Secretary of State says: I should also add that when Mr. Green applied to rejoin the prison service in February of last year the usual inquiries were made of his former Governor as to his suitability for reemployment. As a result it became apparent that although his reports had been generally satisfactory… there was a considerable cause for concern. That does not seem to tie in with what the chief prison officer had to say. The Under-Secretary continued: Indeed the deterioration had been such that his local management had been compelled to take Mr. Green's dog away from him because of his neglect of the animal. My constituent tells me that that is absolutely not true. He says that it bears no relation to what he experienced.

When I passed that letter to Mr. Green he was extremely angry. He took exception to the suggestion that he had been cruel to his dog. I took the matter up with the Home Office again and received a further reply on 27 February which states: Notwithstanding any impression that Mr. Green gained about the value of his work when he left the Prison Service"— that again differs from what the governor said— it is a matter of record that local management do not support his request for re-employment. Earlier the letter states: the dog was taken away from him and removed to civilian kennels. My constituent emphasises strongly that the dog was put in civilian kennels, but that he put it there when he went on a week's leave. He picked it up at the end of that week's leave. The dog was never taken away from him. He took the dog to the kennels and made the necessary arrangements. That clashes with what the Home Office tells me.

Mr. Gow

I am trying to follow my hon. Friend's most interesting story. Did not the first letter from the Minister say that the conduct of my hon. Friend's constituent was generally satisfactory? Will my hon. Friend elaborate on that, because the letter seems inconsistent?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have received a number of letters from the Home Office which seem to express different opinions in terms of the original statement that my constituent's performance was generally unsatisfactory. I pointed out that the chief prison officer was prepared to go out on a limb to support my constituent's position to the extent of offering him a reference for any job for which he might apply. That appears to be acknowledged in the second letter. It acknowledges at least that there is a difference of opinion between the governor and the chief officer about my constituent's performance. There is a difference and I hope that the Minister will explain it.

I am impressed by the manner in which my constituent has put his case to me. He has said that he is prepared for the case to be taken to the highest possible level. I ask hon. Members to consider that. Not every day of the week is a man who has a grievance prepared to allow the full spotlight of public attention to be put upon his case in the national media and the House of Commons. He is prepared for his name to be bandied around. I should think twice about that unless I were absolutely certain that my case was right. That is a sign of how strongly my constituent feels.

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

I concur with what my hon. Friend has said. Does he agree that it is regrettable that such cases have to come under the full spotlight? Is it not regrettable that one sometimes has to represent an individual by raising his problems in the House?

Mr. Atkins

I am grateful for that comment. It is difficult to raise a constituent's personal grievance on the Floor of the House. Occasionally that has to be done and that is right, but one must think carefully before doing it. One cannot do it lightly. I am sure that there will be some difference of opinion between my hon. and learned Friend the Minister and me on the merits of the case. I can speak only as I find. I am impressed by my constituent. He and his wife have come to see me on numerous occasions at my constituency surgery. I am impressed by that and because he is prepared to take his case to the highest possible place so that his grievances might be rectified. That indicates to me how strongly he feels and how committed he is to seeing his name cleared and getting his job back.

At no time before Mr. Green came to see me as his Member of Parliament had he been informed of any blot on his record, been given the chance to know what was held against him or been allowed to challenge it.

I had to find out the reasons for the apparent refusal of the Home Office to take him back. That in itself is slightly worrying. I am not sure of the procedure in such circumstances. I look forward to hearing my hon. and learned Friend's reply.

Mr. Green was not sacked. He was not forced out in the sense that he was told he was unsatisfactory and asked to go. I hope that hon. Members will accept that he had the best possible reasons for refusing to move to London or Maidstone—a sick mother-in-law, a sick father, a new wife and two young children. If those are not the best reasons for refusing a move, I do not know what are. He was put in the position where he had to resign because he would not go to the other end of the country.

I wonder if it is normal practice that someone put in this position should not be allowed to know the reasons for his not being re-employed when he was led to believe by the chief prison officer and colleagues that he was doing a good job. This was a man dedicated to the job he had taken up three or four years previously. He enjoyed the job. Allowing for the difficulties that arose with the dog and his new family—he had no trouble with the dog—I would be interested to know my hon. and learned Friend's views about the propriety of not allowing him to know why he was not readmitted to the service, particularly when the Home Office was prepared to tell me the reasons.

There is clearly some element of privilege attached to the records of individuals. I accept that there must be qualified privilege in some respects in relation to references for jobs. Surely, however, the Minister agrees that my constituent was at least led to believe, by the comments of his friends at Risley and the chief prison officer that he had done the job pretty well. The chief prison officer almost went so far as to say that he was sorry to see him go and that a reference would be given.

I believe that this is important. My constituent feels deeply that he has a justified grievance against the Home Office on the basis that he was not allowed to continue to do the job he wanted to do and that he was harshly treated over his domestic situation, especially as he was willing to pay the necessary expenses on two occasions to take the dog Major to the Isle of Wight. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how keenly I feel that commitment. The normal procedure is for payment to be made at public expense. On two occasions, my constituent made the offer out of his own pocket either to take the dog to the Isle of Wight or to make the move to any nearby prison. He never wanted to leave the service to which he remains dedicated.

Until he came to see me, my constituent had not been able to ascertain any reasons for his continued rejection. Following my intervention, the allegation of cruelty to his dog was serviced. My constituent wishes to make it crystal clear that these allegations are untrue and that he resents strongly the imputation on his character. I would suggest that for the reasons I have enunciated my constituent has a real case that must be answered by my hon. and learned Friend. My constituent wants his job back. If that is not possible, for reasons that will have to satisfy me, I would contend that natural justice, if nothing else, dictates at least that his integrity and good faith should remain unimpaired.

Mr. Gow

I regret that I was unable to hear the opening sentences of my hon. Friend's speech. Can he inform the House where Major now is?

Mr. Atkins

I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to the dog rather than to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major). I understand that the dog Major is at present in the Isle of Wight. When my constituent came off dog-handling at Risley, the dog was taken over by a newly trained dog handler at Albany prison in the Isle of Wight, where I understand the dog is now being looked after.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) missed my early remarks. With permission, I shall refresh the memory of the House. My constituent informs me, on the best authority, that when the dog left his care, a report was prepared which has perhaps gone to the establishment division of the Home Office. The report would indicate that the dog had been a difficult and perhaps hostile dog, that my constituent had been skilful in being able to maintain the dog in difficult circumstances but that, because of the difficulties, the dog should be put down. It is a credit to the new handler, an experienced animal handler, although not particularly experienced in prison dog handling, that he persuaded the prison service to allow him to take over the dog so that he could study the dog's difficulties, help it along and bring it back into the fold of dog handling.

My constituent has an extremely good case. I hope that I have been able to lay out that case to the best of my ability as I see it. I strongly support my constituent in his plea. He would like his job back. With the pressures that exist on the prison service, a man of his trained ability should not be thrown overboard when he could be reemployed by the service. If, however, he cannot have his job back, the least that can be done in the interests of natural justice is that his name should be cleared of any imputation of cruelty to the dog. This is what particularly upset him. It should be removed completely from the record.

I hope that my remarks will be well received by the Minister and that he will be able to say that my constituent has a case. In that way, some of the wrongs that have been done to him can perhaps be righted.

4.58 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Huddersfield, West)

I shall not detain the House for long. When I heard that my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) intended to use this Adjournment debate on behalf of one of his constituents, I felt compelled to come and listen. I think this a worthy cause, although I know none of the details and nothing of Mr. Arthur Green. My many years as a magistrate have taught me to be cautious and not to prejudge an issue.

As hon. Members know, every story has two sides. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North is a sensible Member. Because he feels so deeply that there has been an injustice done in respect of his constituent, it is right that other hon. Members should not only hear his contribution—I congratulate him on his delivery—but give him some support if they feel that his case is strong and sensible.

I cannot claim to be an expert on dogs apart from the fact that I used to breed great danes and judge them in the show ring. I also ran an animal boarding establishment that catered for police dogs. As a magistrate, I have served as a prison visitor. I therefore feel qualified to make a modest and brief contribution. Everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North says has led me to believe——

Mr. Atkins

I do not wish my hon. Friend to mislead the House. I am grateful to him for the remarks that he has made but, much as I would wish it, I am not yet a right hon. Member.

Mr. Dickens

It shone crystal clear through the speech of my hon. Friend that there was a love between Mr. Arthur Green and his dog. In the early part of his speech, we heard that there was a difficulty with Mr. Green's second wife, to such an extent that the dog could not stay at home. She had a fear of dogs. One appreciates that, because many people are afraid of large animals. There is no blame attached. However, having heard my hon. Friend's speech, it is inconceivable that there was the alleged cruelty towards the dog Major by Mr. Green. Everything that I have heard this afternoon leads me to believe that there was a tremendous bond of love between the dog and the dog handler.

Notwithstanding that, we must be cautious. I shall be interested to hear the reply of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I have not attended a debate since I have been a Member of Parliament where an hon. Member has felt strongly enough to come into the Chamber and fight against what he believes to be an injustice to one of his constituents.

We heard in yesterday's debate about the deplorable state of Britain's prisons, with overcrowding and insanitary, vile conditions. I do not need to repeat anything that was said in that debate. We should ask the prison service to reconsider not only the reinstatement of Mr. Green to the service for which he was trained, but whether he should be given a sensible acknowledgement so that his name may be cleared. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North well. If he was not convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was an element of injustice or some root cause behind the prison service's conduct—although he may have been misguided in some elements—he would not have made a plea on behalf of his constituent. I shall be interested to hear the reply of the Minister of State.

5.3 pm

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for bringing to the Floor of the House the question of an individual, his employment and his right to redress if he has been dismissed abruptly. However, I do not wish to anticipate the Minister's reply. The situation is serious or my hon. Friend would not have brought it here. I have been stirred by the fact that he has. I feel that it is a great tribute to democracy in Britain.

I have an interest in prisons and prison officers. For many years I have been interested in prison education and in trying to achieve access to education for all those in custody. I have been told many times that we are dependent upon prison officers and what they can be asked to do. We must have a sufficient number of prison officers if prisoners are to be escorted to classes for the purpose of being educated, so the loss of one officer could weaken the position even more.

I have visited many prisons—training prisons, women's prisons, men's prisons——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject is the decision of the Home Secretary in respect of Mr. Green. We must stick to that and not get on to the general principles.

Mr. Greenway

I was not going to stray from the subject, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the loss of one prison officer weakens the establishment of officers throughout the service and weakens the ability of the prison service to provide education for prisoners in all its establishments. One must concede that, and I draw the House's attention to the need to do something about the position.

I could not stand by and see any possible loss, whether Mr. Green has been dismissed or not. We do not know what the position will be until after the Minister has spoken, but the chance is that we may lose a prison officer and therefore further weaken the prison education service, which is in an unsatisfactory state. The effect of not having prison education on the scale required is to throw prisoners together to discuss the one thing that they have in common—crime. Prisons become universities of crime. The possible loss of such an individual furthers the situation.

I wish to hang my protest upon that. It furthers a situation in which many courses for prisoners and young people in prisons are more restricted. The House must be concerned about that. In this brief intervention, I ask the Minister to be concerned about the establishment and number of prison officers, and the effect of what my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North has said upon the prison education service and therefore upon the morale of prisoners——

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has now reached the general subject of morale in prisons, the shortage of prison officers and overcrowding in prisons and asks the Minister to reply to that. I submit, on a point of order, that that is not relevant to this Adjournment debate. I also submit that the speech of the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) was not relevant, in that he said he knew no details of the case and nothing of Mr. Green. It seems quite wrong that a limited constituency case—a personal grievance that has been raised by an hon. Member in the House—should be exploited in order to abuse the procedure of the House. In my view, it is an attempt to prevent a debate coming on about the plight of the unemployed.

I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ensure that any further contribution to the debate deals specifically with the very limited point originally raised by the hon. Gentleman—the reappointment of Mr. A. G. Green as a prison officer.

Mr. Gow

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is it not the case that if the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) had been out of order, you would not have allowed him to make it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair is concerned that every speech that is made shall be in order. All the speeches that have been made today have been in order, or I should have ruled them out of order. I have told the hon. Gentleman now making his speech that he cannot discuss the general principles of education in prisons. He must confine himself to the particular case.

Mr. Greenway

Of course, I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was interested to hear that intervention. I am in no sense seeking to extend the debate unnecessarily. I had a broadly similar case in my constituency. All hon. Members have prisoners in their constituencies who are affected by this type of case. I simply sought to point out that if the establishment at one prison is weakened by the loss of a single prison officer, that will have a broad effect on the whole service. That is the reason for my concern.

5.10 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I wish to intervene briefly because my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) has drawn to my attention the case of Mr. Green. My hon. Friend sought my advice because I am a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and have relevant experience of the prison service and what happens within it.

I do not wish to detain the House too long, but some points should be raised in connection with Mr. Green. I understand that he first served as a prison dog handler in July 1978 and continued in that service until December 1979. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that before Mr. Green could serve as a dog handler he had to be carefully selected to see whether he had the right aptitude to undertake that duty and whether he was a suitable and fit person to have charge of an expensive animal—a specially acquired dog—for use in the type of duties that have to be undertaken in the prison service.

It may help the House to know that there are about 250 dogs in the prison service. They are expensive to acquire and train. Mr. Green would have undergone the training courses and the examination necessary to determine whether he could perform that duty and whether he would be able to serve in the different prison establishments. Therefore, I am concerned that if Mr. Green is removed from that duty in the prison service, the expense of training and preparing him for it will be a charge on the taxpayer and a denial of Mr. Green's career structure.

In today's modern prison service, the establishment division of the prison department attempts to create a sensible and realistic career structure for prison officers. A man like Mr. Green would have been invited to perform that duty and he might have expected to stay as a prison dog handler for at least the duration of the dog's life. If a trained dog handler is separated from his trained dog, the two essential elements that are expensive to obtain are lost. The dog does not easily adapt to a new handler, although that can be done with additional resources and expense. However, Mr. Green possessed the aptitude to perform that duty. Therefore, an explanation should be given to the House, which is the sovereign body in such matters, as to why his service had to be terminated and why he cannot resume his duties as a dog handler.

Mr. Robert Atkins

I realise that this is a complicated case and my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) has been extremely kind in taking an interest in it. As my hon. Friend said, I went to him because he is an expert in such matters and I am not. Perhaps I did not make myself absolutely clear. Although my constituent was a dog handler for 18 months or so, he had to come off dog handling because his wife disliked the dog. I understand from Mr. Green that he did not dislike being a dog handler—after all, he had been picked and trained to do that—but that there were special domestic pressures which provoked him to make his move. That is the cause of my concern. If Mr. Green were to be re-employed by the Home Office, he would be given normal disciplinary duties, in the training for which a great deal of money will have been invested.

Mr. Wheeler

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

The background to the case is interesting, because dogs are generally quartered separately from prison officers, their families and homes. However, in this case, the prison officer will have been selected for duty because of his dedication and length of service. It is most unfortunate that the training and skills that Mr. Green acquired are no longer available to the prison service, particularly when there are staff shortages in the prison services and when overtime is being worked because of the limited number of people who wish to undertake such difficult duties. Given the training that Mr. Green will have enjoyed he should be capable of being re-employed.

Mr. Green would be a suitable candidate for employment in several prison service establishments. He could probably be considered for an open prison or for a prison in his immediate home area. Indeed, there are several possible prisons, such as the remand prison at Preston. I am sure that the Minister will agree that there are some vacancies at prison officer grade, and Mr. Green may be eligible for such a position. Given the expenditure of taxpayers' money, Mr. Green's case should be carefully reviewed.

The Minister is always fair in such matters, and I hope that he will find it possible to review the case with the care and courtesy for which he is known to see whether Mr. Green can be found a place within the prison service.

5.18 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

There are probably not many sovereign legislatures in the world where individual cases receive as much attention as they do in this House. It is a great tribute to our system of legislation that we can raise important individual cases in this way. However, the debate raises slightly broader issues, with which I have had to cope over the past seven years when dealing with individual cases in my constituency.

Existing employment regulations often do not deal properly and capably with individual cases because the individual concerned feels aggrieved if his job application is not granted, and if an employment opportunity is no longer available. In the private sector the individual can move and find another position and so perhaps the damage is not as great as it might otherwise be. However, in the public sector things are quite different. That is why this case should be treated carefully and why those responsible for employment in the public sector should give special consideration to the employment of those within that sector, particularly in areas such as that which I represent, which is strongly associated with the Ministry of Defence and where there are few opportunities for employment outside that sphere.

Mr. Green's employer was the prison service. There are other employment opportunities within the prison service for individuals such as Mr. Green, and also employment opportunities in the area in which he previously worked.

I have represented my constituency for seven years. The Ministry of Defence provides the overwhelming majority of employment opportunities. Should an individual not gain the job that he seeks within the MOD, it is difficult for him to challenge the lack of employment opportunity and obtain satisfaction. The facts revealed by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) are relevant to the cases that I have handled.

One constituent told me that his application for employment by an MOD establishment had been refused, but the reasons for refusal had not been made available to him. The problems of security pose real problems for the individual——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister cannot reply on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. We are dealing with the case of an individual employed by the prison service, and the Minister responsible is here to reply to that. The hon. Gentleman should stick to the subject.

Mr. Viggers

I am sorry if my remarks did not appear to be directly related to Mr. Green's case. Mr. Green could not obtain satisfaction other than through the House of Commons and the good offices of his Member of Parliament, who has so willingly taken up his case. In the cases about which I have been consulted, it has not been possible for the individuals to gain satisfaction other than by taking up the matter through me. On occasions I have had to obtain a statement from the appropriate Minister showing why the individual had not been eligible for employment.

Can the Minister give any guidance on the matter? The Home Office, as well as the MOD, is involved in matters of security. It must be difficult to state the reasons for non-employment or a refusal to grant a certain job. Should there be some other way open, perhaps a tribunal, to individuals who cannot obtain satisfaction? It is peculiar that individuals need to go to their Members of Parliament and the relevant Ministers to obtain satisfaction.

I hope that our brief debate will enable the Minister to give some guidance on that point. That would be helpful to us when dealing with cases like that of Mr. Green.

5.22 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for raising this matter this afternoon, and for giving me the opportunity to explain the decision of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary not to reinstate Mr. Green, who is a former prison officer. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens), Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) and Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for their contributions to the debate.

It is an important function of this legislature that there should always be time for the individual cases of our constituents, where an injustice is perceived—rightly or wrongly—to be aired and debated. It should be an occasion upon which the responsible Minister is required to come before the House and explain what has been done on behalf of the Executive. The time that we have spent on the debate today has vindicated that important principle.

The facts are that Mr. Green joined the prison service in December 1975. After training he was posted to Maidstone prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North said that Mr. Green appeared to have settled there quite happily, and reports have shown that he settled into his duties reasonably well. In January 1978 he applied to become a dog-handler and, following an interview, was selected for training in those specialist duties. He completed the initial training course and was subsequently posted to Risley remand centre in August 1978 as a dog-handler. In September 1979 he applied to revert to discipline duties—that is, he wished to cease his work as a dog-handler and return to the important work carried out by discipline officers on the landings within the prison. At the same time he asked for a transfer to either Wymott or Preston prisons.

The grounds for his application were that he had an elderly father living alone in Preston, that his fiancée lived with her mother in the same area and that it was too far to travel daily from Preston to Risley. I have no reason to doubt what my hon. Friend said in amplification of those grounds—the family reasons that he outlined, including the fact that Mr. Green's wife had to help in the family business. I do not contest what my hon. Friend said about Mr. Green offering to pay the cost of removals. The application was not supported either by local management or by the staff welfare section.

I do not doubt that my hon. Friend was right to say that, subsequently, Mr. Green learnt that other prison officers had been appointed to Wymott and Preston, at public expense. The issue has nothing to do with whether the officer pays for his removal expenses or whether they are paid for at public expense. It is a long-standing practice in the prison service that if a person who is trained in specialist duties, such as a dog-handler, wishes to revert to ordinary duties, he is required to return to his former establishment or another establishment of the Department's choice. That is the practice. It is referred to in a notice to staff, serial number 54/1978, which is promulgated to all prison department establishments and is known to prison staff generally.

The relevant paragraph states: It must first be emphasised that because of the cost of specialist training, all such training is provided on the strict understanding that an applicant accepts an obligation to serve in the specialist grade at whichever establishment he may he required. Because of the limited number of specialist posts availble it is not always possible to offer a successful candidate a choice of posting, but every endeavour will be made to take account of previously expressed wishes and circumstances. Reversion to discipline duties will not normally be allowed without good reason. An officer wishing to revert to discipline duties will be expected to await the appointment of a replacement and may have to accept a liability for transfer to another establishment of the Department's choice.

Mr. Robert Atkins

I have a copy of the document from which the Minister quoted. It says "allowed without good reason". Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that the substantial reasons that I enunciated—family, new marriage, children's education, sickness of both father and mother-in-law, a recent death and the difficulties with the dog phobia of the new wife—are good reasons? Does he accept that my constituent never expected preferential treatment at any time? He was reasonably content to stay at Risley on ordinary discipline duties until a transfer could be effected. In those circumstances, while I recognise my hon. and learned Friend's reasons for emphasising the paragraph, I should have thought that there were reasons as good as could be found anywhere for being reasonable towards my constituent.

Mr. Mayhew

If a prison officer's wife does not like dogs and does not want her husband to have anything to do with dogs, I accept that that is a good reason for a prison officer not wishing to continue to handle dogs. However, that is not the point. As my hon. Friend has fairly said on many occasions, and has just repeated, Mr. Green did not want preferential treatment. I shall explain why it was not possible to allow him to transfer either to Wymott or Preston prisons.

One can understand the reasons for the rule that is promulgated in the notice to staff. It is expensive to train people for specialist duties and therefore those people are expected to carry out those duties. If for good reason—I do not quarrel with Mr. Green's reason—they want to give up those duties, the notice says that they must expect to have an obligation to serve at another establishment of the Department's choice in some other capacity, whether as a discipline officer or not.

At the time, there was a long list of officers already waiting for transfer to the Preston area. Some of the officers on the list were serving at Risley, where Mr. Green was. Accordingly, Mr. Green was told that, on reverting to discipline duties, he would have to return either to his former establishment, which was Maidstone, or to a prison in the London area, because there were vacancies in the London area. He was given that option. Of course, he could have elected to remain at Risley as a dog-handler, has he wished to do so, and await his turn in the queue for a transfer to the Preston area.

The policy was not to give Mr. Green preferential treatment in the form of an immediate transfer to Wymott or Preston by allowing him to go to the head of the queue that already existed of officers who had registered applications for such a transfer. He was told that he could either wait at Risley as a dog-handler or go to Maidstone or to London. It is important to emphasise that, contrary to what was said in error by my hon. Friends the members for Ealing, North and Paddington, Mr. Green's employment was not terminated. He was not dismissed. He resigned in circumstances which I shall now describe.

Mr. Green gave notice on 17 December of his intention to resign, and he resigned from the service on 29 December 1979. As was pointed out to my hon. Friend in correspondence with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, between Mr. Green's application for transfer and the date of his resignation his attitude towards his duties deteriorated remarkably and culminated in his dog being taken away. Mr. Green had said that since his marriage he could not take the dog home because it did not suit his new family. He requested that it should be placed in the prison kennels, and that was done. However, instead of visiting the dog and maintaining regular contact with it until another dog-handler was found, he failed to attend to the dog as he should have done. On occasion, the intervals between his visits were in excess of two days, and his senior officer noted that the dog's performance began to deteriorate.

Mr. Green had been informed why the dog had been taken away from him, and he was given the reasons on or before 4 December 1979. Subsequently, arrangements were made for the dog to be transferred to a new handler on the Isle of Wight.

Three months after Mr. Green resigned, he requested reinstatement. I shall describe in a moment the steps that were taken following that request. However, as my hon. Friend referred to correspondence with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, I shall quote the relevant parts of the correspondence, particularly the letters from my noble Friend.

My noble Friend said in a letter dated 21 November: In accordance with general Civil Service policy, it is not the practice to give specific reasons for rejecting a candidate but I can assure you that Mr. Green's application for reinstatement was carefully considered. I think, however, it may help if I explain briefly the circumstances leading to his resignation. In 1978 Mr. Green successfully applied for appointment as a dog-handler and was transferred at public expense from Maidstone to Risley. A considerable amount of money is spent on the training of specialist officers and reversion to normal duties is not normally allowed without good reason. Officers also know that they will be expected to await the appointment of a replacement before reversion takes place. In view of the short time he had served at Risley and in fairness to a number of officers who were on the waiting list for transfer to that area many of whom had been waiting a long time, Mr. Green was told that if he wished to revert he would be required to transfer back to Maidstone at his own expense or, because of the shortage of officers in the London prisons, to the London area at public expense. He chose to resign. I have looked into his case again because of your interest but I am afraid that I can find no grounds for changing the decision. That letter referred to the fact that, following Mr. Green's application for reinstatement three months after he had resigned, he was told that his application was unsuccessful. It is a Civil Service rule that is consistently applied in the prison service that a civil servant who resigns his appointment has no automatic right to be reemployed. Much turns on whether there are suitable vacancies and on how his previous service was viewed. However, the overriding requirement is that the applicant must always match up with current standards of recruitment. In Mr. Green's case the views of local management were sought. The governor and chief officer submitted reports, but as they were unfavourable, it was decided not to reinstate Mr. Green.

My hon. Friend has been most diligent, as I would expect, on his constituent's behalf, and has written numerous letters to my noble Friend. Following representations made by my hon. Friend on behalf of Mr. Green, and a meeting which took place with my noble Friend on 16 March, it was decided that Mr. Green should be given the opportunity to state his case before one of the prison officers' selection boards, which are the permanent prison officer recruiting panels. In his speech my hon. Friend did not refer to that board or to his constituent's appearance before it.

Mr. Robert Atkins

I may not have made it clear, but I referred to that. Both I and my constituent understood that he would be given the chance to explain some of the problems to which I referred in my speech. He said to me afterwards that it was a formal board and that he did not have a chance to go into the problems in detail.

Mr. Mayhew

If I missed the reference, I am sorry. I correct at once what I have just said. The meeting took place. However, one of the board's tasks is to ensure that officers or the candidates fit to be prison officers fit the current recruiting standards. The board consists of a governor, a chief prison officer and a higher executive officer. The board was constituted in that way on that occasion. I understand that none of its members was personally acquainted with Mr. Green.

Mr. Green was duly interviewed by such a board last April. I understand that he was given a full opportunity to present his case. I have seen the report submitted by the chairman of that board. My noble Friend referred to it in a letter that he wrote. Notwithstanding Mr. Green's previous training and service, the board concluded that Mr. Green was not up to the standard, judged against present criteria. It is a consistently applied rule not to give reasons why a candidate for appointment to a Civil Service post is not selected.

Although I cannot take up in any detail the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport about whether there should not be a tribunal before which a complaint of non-success in an application for a job can be aired and presumably adjudicated upon, there must be formidable objections to any such suggestion.

Mr. Viggers

Will my hon. and learned Friend expand briefly on the reasons why the applicant is not told the reasons for his non-selection for appointment?

Mr. Mayhew

I can think of one immediate rule that would be as applicable to an application for a job outside the Civil Service as to a job inside the Civil Service. That is that many—I should have thought all—applicants are invited to submit references. The confidentiality of references is absolutely crucial to their value.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North that I have seen that report and considered it carefully. It appears from that that Mr. Green had a full and fair hearing and that his interview was different from a mere formal appearance.

At this stage I should refer to the remainder of the correspondence because my noble Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North again on 21 January 1981. He said: The points made by Mr. Green have been noted, but I must say that his version of events differs from the information on our files. In particular, he states that he was unaware of the rules governing reversions to discipline duties, but these were only promulgated in April 1978, just prior to his attendance at the dog-handlers' training course and it is usual for such notices to be drawn to the attention of staff. I enclose a copy…I should also add that when Mr. Green applied to rejoin the prison service in February of last year, the usual inquiries were made of his former governor as to his suitability for re-employment. As a result it became apparent that although his reports had been generally satisfactory, his performance during the latter period had deteriorated to such an extent that there was considerable cause for concern. Indeed the deterioration had been such that his local management had been compelled to take Mr. Green's dog away from him because of his neglect of the animal. It is for this reason that Mr. Green has not been accepted back into the service and I am satisfied that no other decision was possible. My noble Friend concluded: I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful. Following that there was further correspondence. On 31 March my noble Friend wrote to my hon. Friend and said that he promised that he would write about Mr. Green's unsuccessful application to join the prison service. He said: There is presently a moratorium on the recruitment of prison officers. However, I have given Mr. Green's case careful thought and I think it would be right to arrange for him to be interviewed by one of the prison officer selection boards, which will independently measure his suitability for re-employment against the high standards which are now required for entry into the service. This means that he will have the opportunity of a personal hearing. We will set in hand the necessary arrangements for this. If Mr. Green is declared successful, then as soon as recruitment starts again, a post will be found for him on the understanding that its location would be subject to the overall needs of the service, but this means that his posting would not necessarily be in the Preston area; his views in this respect would, however, be taken into account. I must make it clear that if Mr. Green is unsuccessful, then I will not interfere with the decision. I believe that that is a fair offer—although an exceptional one—of a submission of that case to the board. My noble Friend wrote again on 13 August and said: I have read the report submitted by the chairman of the selection board following Mr. Green's interview on 22 April and I am satisfied that he was given every opportunity to express his point of view. It is clear from the report that the circumstances surrounding his reversion to discipline duties and his subsequent resignation were among the subjects discussed. Perhaps it would be helpful if I explain that the Civil Service Commission has overall authority for the recruitment of civil servants and Departments recruit staff on delegated authority. In cases of reemployment of former civil servants, the commission insists that the candidate must be acceptable by current standards of recruitment. The commission insists on that. Contrary to any view which Mr. Green has formed either from talks with the chief officer or impressions gained from the selection board, the Department's view, with which I am bound to say that I agree, is that he simply does not measure up to the high standards which are currently required for entry into the service. I thought it right, as my hon. Friend had referred to the correspondence, that the full correspondence from my noble Friend the Under-Secretary who has the responsibility for administering the prison service should be placed before the House for the sake of completeness.

The prison service has reached its manpower ceiling for 1981–82. Recruitment, therefore, has been mainly confined to cover wastage. It follows that competition for prison officer posts is fierce. Only the best candidates are being allowed into the service. That should benefit the service in the longer term. In short, while Mr. Green was acceptable when he was first recruited in 1975, standards are higher in 1981 and it was found that he did not measure up to present standards.

It is an unhappy feature of that episode that some conflict about the facts is apparent. My hon. Friend has fairly and with the utmost diligence put Mr. Green's version of the facts before the House. I have put before the House the facts as they were reported to my noble Friend. I have also referred to the report of the independent board. I have also seen a document that refers to the fact that Mr. Green was told on or before 4 December the reason why his dog had been taken from him. The view was that the dog had been neglected.

I am able to say no more than that, but although there was this unhappy conflict about some of the facts, that conflict did not play an overriding part in these affairs. That may be seen from the fact that Mr. Green's application for reinstatement was submitted to a recruitment board established in the normal way, comprising a governor, a chief prison officer and a higher executive officer who were not acquainted with Mr. Green. The crucial question was whether he measured up to the high standards that are required today.

Mr. Dickens

There is a great inconsistency in my hon. and learned Friend's reply, particularly in the evidence of the unsuitability of Mr. Arthur Green. We have been told that he was suitable to go on a waiting list for another prison, and offered a transfer to Maidstone or London. The governor of the prison where he originally served was obviously of the opinion that he measured up to the requirements of the service, and I presume that the board that sat in judgment received reports from that governor.

Mr. Mayhew

It is perhaps unfortunate that for family reasons Mr. Green did not feel able to accept the offer of a post at Maidstone or London. I can only point to the fact that after three months, when he applied for reinstatement, arrangements were subsequently made in April this year for him to appear before the board. I have notified the House on the outcome of that application.

While I greatly admire the persistence with which my hon. Friend has put his constituent's case and argued it with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, I am afraid that I can see no grounds upon which the Home Secretary could be advised to reverse the decision that has been taken.