HC Deb 16 April 1985 vol 77 cc137-44 3.30 pm
Mr. Martin J. O'Neill

(Clackmannan) (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement about the death of Derek John Richard Harris on Saturday 13 April in the Glenochil young offenders institution, in the Clackmannan constituency.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. George Younger)

I very much regret that Derek Harris, aged 16, an inmate at Glenochil young offenders institution, was found hanging from the window bars of his room at 10.25 pm on Saturday 13 April 1985. Despite strenuous efforts by staff, Harris was pronounced dead by the medical officer at 11.5 pm.

Mr. Harris had been sentenced at Aberdeen sheriff court on 11 February 1985 to three months' detention at Friarton detention centre for offences of vandalism, breach of the peace, theft by opening lockfast premises and Road Traffic Act contravention. On medical advice, he was transferred to Glenochil young offenders institution on 28 February. After a period under close observation, he was placed on ordinary observation on 26 March. He was to have been released from custody on Friday 19 April, but he was also due to appear at Aberdeen sheriff court on 9 May to face further charges. He was informed of these further charges on 11 April.

Next of kin were informed of the death and police have investigated. As for all unnatural deaths occurring in prisons, a public fatal accident inquiry will now be carried out before the sheriff.

This is a tragic incident which I regard with very great concern. It would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the detailed circumstances of this individual case until the fatal accident inquiry has taken place.

Mr. O'Neill

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for making his statement. I should like to express my condolences to the deceased's sister and my gratitude for the co-operation that I have already received from governor McVeigh and his staff.

What further steps does the Secretary of State propose to take to allay public anxiety about the imprisonment of young offenders in Scotland? For the past five years, and after seven fatalities at the two institutions in the Glenochil complex, the Secretary of State has responded by widening the scope of fatal accident inquiries, by having internal inquiries, by having inquiries carried out by the chief inspector of prisons and he has established a committee on suicide in Glenochil, but still the suicides continue.

Does the Secretary of State think that Glenochil is different from other institutions or that the problems which are highlighted by the fatalities are common to the entire Scottish prison system in respect of the treatment of young offenders? Does he propose to widen the scope of options open to the judiciary in Scotland so that it has more than detention centres or young offenders institutions at its disposal?

My impression is that the range of options is far too narrow and that more radical steps must be taken as alternatives to the work being attempted in places such as Glenochil. I am informed by constituents who work there that they are at their wits' end to know what more can be done. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Scottish penal system is being asked to do too much for disadvantaged and inadequate young people who, because of the narrow range of options open to the judiciary, must be foisted on the prison system? Cannot the Secretary of State take urgent action? He should not hide behind the prospect of a fatal accident inquiry which will not necessarily be prejudiced by the action that I am asking the right hon. Gentleman to consider.

Mr. Younger

I very much share the concern of the hon. Gentleman in whose constituency these institutions are situated. I should like also to be associated with his expression of condolences.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there have been seven tragic fatalities in the complex, but I should make it clear that only two of them have occurred in the detention centre part of the institution. The remaining five have taken place in the young offenders institution where no sort of regime under the title of "short sharp shock" is in evidence.

The question about the whole system is best answered by considering the changes that have been made in recent years in the options available for sentencing young people. The options have been greatly widened. Community service orders can now be carried into effect in areas covering three quarters of the population of Scotland, which is a huge advance. The number of young offenders in institutions in Scotland has declined by more than 20 per cent. in the past one and a half years.

There are more options available today, but I should make it clear that in a serious matter like this I would not close any options that are thrown up by the inquiries that are pending.

Mr. Gerald Malone (Aberdeen, South)

May I add my condolences to the family of this young man who was in care in my constituency before going to Glenochil?

I am reassured to hear that the Secretary of State is not closing any options in view of the fact that he has instigated a working group to examine the problem. It is perhaps highly irresponsible, when two fatal accident inquiries are pending and the outcome of his working group is to be considered, for some people in Scotland to make across-the-board assumptions that the regime in Glenochil is not working satisfactorily. I refer particularly to the statement made by the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that irresponsible statements like that do nothing to help?

Mr. Younger

I agree with my hon. Friend on the last point. These are serious matters that are not susceptible to easy, slick comments made without proper thought.

As the House knows, the working group was set up by me last year to consider the precautions for dealing with possible suicide cases. That inquiry has started work and I am urgently considering whether there are ways in which I can accelerate the conclusion of its work. As the House knows, I propose that its conclusions should be fully published.

I must again make the point that in the cases that have happened so far — I exclude the two for which fatal accident inquiries have not yet been held—there has been no evidence that any of the tragic deaths was due to the nature of the regime. None of them had any connection whatever with the so-called "short sharp shock" regime, which is a separate matter.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does not the Secretary of State recognise that the dependence of the Scottish penal system upon this blighted establishment at Glenochil, where there have been seven tragic fatalities, makes plain the need for a new, wider range of penal options for dealing with young offenders? Does he not recognise that his studied inactivity smacks of the view that young offenders should suffer pain and die quietly?

Mr. Younger

I think that the hon. Gentleman has fallen below his usual high standard with that sort of comment. These are serious matters. Nobody can take easily the death of anybody in detention at any time. I should like to treat the matter seriously.

It is important to make it clear that in the inquiries that have so far taken place on every one of the deaths, bar the last two, no common factor has been found. The sheriffs who have conducted the inquiries have explained to the best of their ability the reasons in each case. To put them all together and to describe the institutions as a whole as the hon. Gentleman has is highly irresponsible and unjustified.

I have already explained that much wider options are now available and are being made use of, and that the population in these institutions has been reduced by more than 20 per cent. I thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

Mrs. Anna McCurley (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that psychological screening of young offenders is adequate, because there has been some suggestion that in this case there was emotional disturbance? As the only similarity that we can find is the fact that people hang themselves, has any surmise been made on this fact, and has any conclusion been reached?

Mr. Younger

The procedures for sentencing young people to sentences that may result in detention in any of these centres are carefully controlled. A statutory requirement is that each inmate should be examined within 24 hours of arrival to see whether he is physically and mentally fit to undergo a period of detention. If he is not, he is changed to some other institution on the advice of the medical officer conducting the examination. This happened in the case of Derek Harris. I hope that that will give some reassurance to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Will the Secretary of State accept that, although there may be no common factor in the various inquiries, this in itself is a matter of concern? Seven incidents ending in death is an overwhelming statistical fact. It is not sufficient to leave this matter to the present inquiry. We require, as the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties said, an investigation into sentencing policy, transfer policy, as happened here, and the nature of the regime. I wish that the Secretary of State would not write off the Scottish CCL's request as being slick. I am associated with it, and he knows my record. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, along with the statistical aspect of this, the infinite sadness of this case requires a new and urgent public review?

Mr. Younger

I agree that this is a matter of the greatest concern. I also agree that the fact that there is no common factor is something to which we should address ourselves.

As to sentencing policy, I should have thought that in this tragic case it was clear that the procedures had been operating sensitively. Derek Harris was found not to be fit for the original regime to which he was sentenced and was therefore transferred. Tragically, this did not make any difference to the train of events.

As to the nature of the regime, I should not like to prejudice any conclusions that may come out of the fatal accident inquiries or the study that is in progress about the precautions against suicide. My mind is open to suggestions or recommendations. None of the inquiries has suggested that the nature of the regime had anything to do with any of these tragic deaths.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the young man who unfortunately died—I too express my deep sympathy to his relations — was under the care of the Grampian regional social work department before being transferred to Glenochil. It was found that he was emotionally disturbed because of the death of his father in 1981.

Will my right hon. Friend take cognisance of the information that can be conveyed to him by Miss Mary Hartnell, the social work director at Grampian, and try to ensure that when young men are transferred to penal establishments their background history is given so that we can prevent incidents such as the sad one of which we have heard today?

Mr. Younger

I agree that the full background information on anybody liable to be sentenced to detention in such centres should be well known.

I shall explain the two stages that all such people have to undergo before they are sent to one of these institutions. First, statutorily the court must have before it a full social inquiry report before it can pass sentence on a young person, and that is the avenue by which the view of the social work director could be, and no doubt in this case was, brought to the attention of the court before it passed sentence.

I have already mentioned the second stage. Within 24 hours of arrival at an institution, a young person must have a full medical examination. If he is found to be unsuitable for the regime to which he has been sentenced, a change is made, as happened in this case.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I associate myself and my colleagues with the expressions of sadness and regret at the death of Derek Harris, who, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) pointed out, was in he care of Grampian regional council and was, for 18 months, at Cordyce special school, in my constituency.

It seems from this case and from the one already under investigation that something is amiss with the screening policy. Will the Secretary of State agree that we need a full inquiry, not just into the operation of Glenochil—there has been an inspector's report into that—but into the sentencing and screening policy for such institutions? Given the widespread concern, will the Secretary of State undertake to make another statement to the House when the two investigations in progress have been completed and tell us whether he agrees that a full inquiry is necessary?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will not expect me to come to firm conclusions until I have all the evidence before me. I still await a sight of the full report of the governor. I also wish to receive the fatal accident inquiry reports on the February case and this case and the full report of the internal inquiry into suicide precautions for which I have called. As I said, I shall try to bring that forward.

Once all those reports are in my possession, I shall consider them carefully. If any suggestions, proposals or recommendations are made, they will be considered carefully. In the short term, I shall be looking in the next few days for any immediate remedial measures that can be taken in the light of the governor's report. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be receptive to any suggestions made in that report.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when considering matters as serious as this, it is wise never to forget that the people who work in these establishments are servants of the Government and the Crown and that they carry out an extremely difficult and onerous task on behalf of the rest of the community? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unwise to make statements about matters that are under investigation—and are often so complex that it is difficult fully to appreciate them—and thereby cast a stigma on people who carry out a difficult task, usually without complaint?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend, and I should like to express my appreciation to the prison service in Scotland for doing a difficult job so well. In the service's defence, I should add that all the reports and inquiries on these tragic deaths have been clear on one point: none of the deaths has been due to ill treatment or to the nature of the regime. Those who work in prisons should be encouraged to feel that that has been the clear findings of inquiries into the other cases.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will call the three hon. Members who have been trying to catch my eye and then the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, but I ask for short questions.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Notwithstanding what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the difficulties and complexities of pronouncing on this incident and others, will he consider—particularly because of representations made by parents, including some in my constituency, whose sons are being sent to these institutions—consulting the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor-General for Scotland about halting the increase in the number of inmates in these institutions?

Will he call a halt, pending the result of the inquiries that are being undertaken? That would allay fears among parents and others associated with the inmates.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate that point. Events of this sort cause great concern to everybody, but particularly to those who have relatives in the institutions. However, Glenochil is a good institution, which has a good record in many respects. These tragic events are most regrettable and everyone concerned in the institutions will co-operate in doing everything possible to avoid such things happening.

There has been no increase in the number of people being sent to these institutions. The number has substantially declined over the past 18 months because we have provided alternatives. I welcome that, and should like to proceed further.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that we cannot regard this tragic death as an isolated incident? Is he not aware that the deaths have cast a serious blight on the Scottish conscience? Is it not clear that there is a radical need for changes in sentencing and treatment policies for young offenders?

Mr. Younger

With respect to the hon. Gentleman —I know that he is sincere—there is no evidence at this stage to support his remarks. If any link had been found between the previous tragic events—there has not—that might have led to his conclusion. However, I do not want to close the door to any recommendations or suggestions that may come from the inquiries that are pending. I shall have an open mind to any suggestions.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

I accept the Secretary of State's remark that there may be no discernible common motivation between the events, but there has been a series of events. We can find a common thread in the age of the offenders and their geographical location. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that copycat suicides are not uncommon? For that reason, the media do not reveal the method by which suicides are committed. Therefore, would it not be irresponsible to ignore the fact that once an institution established a tradition of suicide, as has this institution, there might be a recurrence?

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the need not to encourage that feeling. In fairness to everyone concerned at Glenochil, I should say that there is no evidence to suggest any such record or reputation. It is of course tragic that seven deaths have occurred. The regime has been substantially the same since 1966, and more than 20,000 people have passed through these institutions. Therefore, the figure represents a small proportion. The population of Glenochil is not a typical cross-section of the prison population, and that must be borne in mind.

I should be most remiss and irresponsible if I did not repeat that I await the results of all further inquiries with an open mind.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, when there is one institution in a network of similar institutions with a record of seven deaths in five years, there must be something seriously wrong? In saying that, I do not cast any aspersions on the staff—I give them my full support. There are similar institutions at Polmont, Friarton, Dumfries and Noranside and a whole host of other institutions where such incidents do not occur, yet at Glenochil there have been seven deaths in five years. Therefore, there must be something seriously wrong.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that against that background, and as the last fatality occurred only three months ago in February, it is not satisfactory that the fatal accident inquiry into that fatality has not yet been held? However, I do not hold the right hon. Gentleman responsible for that. We are now awaiting another fatal accident inquiry into the weekend tragedy concerning the young man Harris.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to do everything in his power to hasten the holding of the fatal accident inquiries, to look with urgency at the work of the working group and to set himself a time limit to make a statement to the House, if possible before the end of June. We simply cannot allow this to continue. There is somthing seriously wrong, and we all have a responsibility to do something about it.

Mr. Younger

I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's good faith in this matter. I accept entirely what he said about the working group. I shall do all that I can to bring forward the conclusion of that study; today I made approaches to those concerned.

As has been said, the fatal accident inquiry is a matter for my noble friend the Lord Advocate. I shall, of course, draw to his attention what has been said today. It is worth pointing out that there is a statutory month before a fatal accident inquiry can take place, and there are sometimes difficulties in setting up the inquiries.

There is a difference between saying that there must be something wrong—which I do not think is yet fair to those involved in these institutions—and saying that we must take this matter seriously and take every step to find out the facts and the background to every aspect of these deaths so that we can find out whether there is something wrong. In fairness to those who operate there now, we must make it clear that there is no evidence of any kind yet that the nature of the way in which people are looked after there, or the regime and so on, had any bearing on the fatal accidents.