HL Deb 15 December 1959 vol 220 cc416-24

4.50 p.m.

LORD STONHAM rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that the proposal to build a new"Dartmoor" adjacent to the present prison at Princetown is strongly opposed by the Prison Officers' Association, and whether, before proceeding further with the proposed plans, they will appoint an independent committee of investigation with power to make recommendations. The noble Lord said: My Lords, you will have noticed that in my Question I refer to opposition by the Prison Officers' Association to the building of a new prison adjacent to the existing one at Dartmoor. But since my Question was tabled, I have learnt that there is strong opposition to this proposal by a number of amenity associations and organisations. For example, from Lady Sayer, the Chairman of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, I learned that that body is strongly opposed to the proposal and that, in fact, a memorandum, of which Lady Sayer was good enough to send me a copy, has been sent to the Home Secretary.

From the same source I learned that the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society has officially resolved to object to the proposal, and that officers of a number of other societies who have not yet had the opportunity of meeting have already, unofficially, forecast that their organisations will object to it—namely, The Council for the Preservation of Rural England. The Youth Hostels' Association, The Ramblers' Association and the Dartmoor Rangers. Therefore, those who have an immediate practical interest in that proposal and those whose interests lie in their strong desire to preserve for the enjoyment of our people the amenities of Dartmoor are equally associated in these protests.

The only Government statement that I have been able to trace about the future of Dartmoor Prison is in paragraph 91 of the White Paper, Penal Practice in a Changing Society (Cmnd. 648), where, under the heading of"Special Projects" it promises—I am quoting— a complete reconstruction of Dartmoor, which is approaching the end of its serviceable life. This was not taken as meaning the building of a completely new prison. Indeed, as recently as December 3, the Home Secretary, in replying to a Question in another place, again used the word"reconstruction". But I understand that the Director of Works of the Prison Commission has confirmed that it is the intention to build a completely new prison. This would be very welcome; but what is objected to most strongly is that that prison should be put immediately, or approximately, adjacent to the existing one.

I understand that as recently as last Thursday, December 10, there was a private meeting in Dartmoor attended by representatives of seven local authorities and associations and including also the prison governor and a member of the Prison Officers' Association, which was presided over by Mr. R. D. Fairn, a Prison Commissioner, who said: The Prison Commissioners made it quite clear that they would pull down the old prison once the new prison was built, and they were anxious, in their rebuilding, Ito act as good neighbours. What I am particularly concerned about in this regard is as to whether the Prison Commissioners are also anxious to act as good employers, because the prison officers have received with dismay and consternation the news that the new prison is to be built at Princetown, cheek by jowl with the old one.

As most of us are aware, Princetown Prison was built in 1806 to house French prisoners. For reasons which seemed good at the time, it was sited in the most desolate spot on Dartmoor—inaccessible, bleak and wild, 1,500 feet above sea level. In 1850 it was adapted for use as a convict station. For more than a century, it has loomed, grim and terrible, in people's minds, not so much because it has housed some of our worst types of criminal—because there are, in fact, far larger numbers of equally bad criminals quite safely and without pro test housed in prisons, such as Wandsworth, in the middle of large towns—but because of the association of the grim prison, with its bleak surroundings and the worse climate in England. It is to this wet, cold"hell" that the Government intends to condemn for perhaps another 150 years, not only prisoners, but generations of prison officers, their wives and children.

No one who is aware of the conditions could possibly countenance building another prison in this spot. Last year, 96.7 inches of rain fell at Princetown; and in one day last month, on November 25, 3.9 inches fell. Only the fish in Brighton Aquarium are wetter than that! It is not merely the wettest place in Britain, but one of the wettest in the world. In winter, fog or cloud is Perpetual and with snow and rain and continued condensation the life of officers, their families and prisoners is a misery. Since the war the Prison Commissioners have built 120 Cornish unit houses for the staff; but, however well they are built, nothing will stand up to the climatic conditions there. Owing to condensation, the walls in the houses have to be wiped down every day. If they are left two or three days fungus starts to grow.

Then there are the difficulties arising from isolation—the isolated nature of the spot. Princetown is 7½ miles from Tavistock, a little country town of about 6,000 people, and 15 miles from Plymouth, which is the nearest neighbouring town of any size. Since 1956 there has been no railway service to Princetown because it did not pay and, for economic reasons, had to be discontinued; so the village relies on a bus. This runs three times a day, except on Sundays—there is no bus on Sundays—and the last bus arrives back at Princetown at 7.32 o'clock in the evening. So a visit to the cinema or to a theatre is out of the question for members of the staff, except during the day time on their leave days.

It is true that officers get an inconvenience allowance of 18s. a week. This costs us taxpayers something like £10,000 a year, which it would not cost us if the prison was not in such an inaccessible spot. This 18s. a week is just about enough to take an officer and his wife into Plymouth and back on his leave day, and perhaps to afford something of a simple meal. Virtually nothing can be bought in the village except food and drink. There are four various kinds of provision shops in the village of Prince-town. It is true that something can be ordered in specially from other shops, but it is always more expensive, and for anything of any other character they must go either to Plymouth or to Tavistock.

There are other consequences which are far more serious. There is virtually no local employment. One prison officer's daughter works in Plymouth. She leaves Princetown at 7.30 in the morning and gets home at 7.32 in the evening, and out of her wage of £3 15s. a week she pays 26s. in fares. As we are well aware, not infrequently during the winter time the village is cut off for two or three days at a time because buses cannot get through. No dentist visits the village. A doctor comes for a surgery—in fact, two doctors come to the village and there are four surgeries a week, but certainly not on Wednesdays, and not on Saturdays or Sundays. If anybody wants a prescription dispensed it has to be done at Tavistock and sent on the next day by post. Of course, that cannot be done if the prescription is required urgently. Quite recently a doctor made out a prescription for some tablets for an officer. This prescription was urgent. His daughter walked all seven miles to Yelverton and most of the way back. At times these people could scarcely be more cut off if they lived in a lighthouse. Their children's education suffers, and standards are lower in the village school than in more populous places. I am aware that that is the case, unfortunately, with other village schools—not all, but some. The teachers are on the lowest pay scale and it is difficult to get anyone to stay long under such conditions. In fact, there have been three headmasters in the last five years.

In short, the Princetown prison officers and their famalies are deprived of most of the civilised amenities which people are entitled to expect—and that in a climate which only seals could endure with equanimity. It is small wonder that service at this prison is regarded by the staff almost as a punishment. Indeed, the Prison Commissioners have recognised that by limiting the"sentence" to five years. Even so, from time to time officers who are transferred to Dartmoor on promotion resign from the Service rather than tolerate a continuance of these conditions.

Surely it is also contrary to the whole spirit of the penal policy of Her Majesty's Government, as expressed in the White Paper, to subject prisoners to so much punishment in addition to what the Judge, no doubt very properly, awards. Brutal and dangerous men some of them most certainly are, but they are not more dangerous than thousands of others imprisoned safely in the heart of large towns like London; and I would submit that the conditions on Dartmoor can only increase their feelings of hopelessness and desperation, particularly as for practical purposes it is almost impossible for them to exercise their rights to receive visitors. They are, of course, entitled to receive visitors, but any visitors have to stay overnight in Princetown. For practical purposes, other prisoners have to accumulate their visits, and after a time they can be transferred to prisons in London—which means that a prison officer must come with them, at considerable expense—to receive their accumulated visit entitlements.

Apparently, Her Majesty's Government are willing—and I welcome this—to spend perhaps more than £1 million on a new prison, and I submit that if that is so it would be pure sadism to build it in the same spot. I would just quote two paragraphs from a memorandum prepared by the Dartmoor Preservation Association. Paragraph 5 says: The argument that the remoteness of the prison makes for public safety, and renders convicts' escapes more difficult, no longer holds good. Prisoners who escape almost invariably get clear away from Dartmoor, often in stolen cars, before being recaptured. A gaol at Princetown means no greater protection for the public than a gaol anywhere else, and less protection than an island gaol.

Paragraph 7 of the memorandum says: Finally, and in our submission undeniably, the building of a new permanent prison in the heart of a national park would be a disastrously unsuitable and incongruous development, and certain to lead to further developments of a cumulatively damaging kind. The damage wrought to amenity by the presence of the old prison is great, and increases yearly. The Prison Commissioners' interests are entirely at variance with the national interest in a national park. Ugly ancillary developments proliferate on the prison land, and appear to be outside all planning control. And, of course, the presence of the prison means, each summer, a concourse of sensation-seeking motorists who park their cars at vantage points from which, through binoculars, they can watch the convicts at work—as the convicts are well aware; a practice which certainly adds to the difficulties of the prison staff and the local police. A new prison would increase and emphasise these evils, and generate further disfigurement and degradation of the national park.

It might be asked:"What is the alternative?" Although it is not my business, perhaps, to suggest this, I would put forward two suggestions. The first is: let us end this evil Dartmoor tradition of a kind of land-locked"Devil's Island". Of course, the"bad hats" in Dartmoor are the same as the"bad hats" in other places. If Her Majesty's Government are determined to build a new prison, and I hope they are, let us build it on any suitable site in or adjacent to a town. That is what should be done if the Government are really in earnest about penal reform.

My second suggestion, as an alternative—and I admit that it is a second best although it may have more appeal to local authorities in Devon, the Devon County Council and the Tavistock Urban District Council, who, I believe, are very understandably concerned at the possible loss of rate revenue if the prison is shifted elsewhere—is that the new prison should be built at Hurdwick, outside the national park area and half a mile north of Tavistock. Your Lordships may recall that during the war there was a temporary army camp at Plasterdown, a hutted camp within the national park; and later there was a proposal by the Army authorities that that camp should be made permanent, but there were protests by the amenity associations and the project was dropped. At that time the Devon County Council suggested that the permanent camp should be built at Hurdwick, and that proposal was welcomed by Tavistock Urban District Council. The site is still there. There is room for farmland and even a disused quarry of the attractive Hurdwick stone, which had to be closed down for lack of labour—a disadvantage which, of course, would disappear if the prison were shifted to that area.

If, as may well be the case, the great argument by the Prison Commissioners is, "We have built 120 houses here"—in any case, they are unliveable-in, in that spot—"and we have spent £750,000 on them and cannot leave those houses", I would say that that is nonsense. If we are to spend more than £1 million on a new prison, and as the Prison Commissioners are to demolish and replace the old Devonshire house flats and build new houses, I say do not put them where no one can live in them in comfort and happiness, but move them to another place where prison officers and their families would have all the amenities of a small town. I submit that it is unthinkable that because there is now staff accommodation at Princetown the new prison must be built there.

I would ask Her Majesty's Government, in common justice and for the sake of the future of the Prison Service, to say to-night that the new Dartmoor will not be built at Princetown; or, if the noble Earl is not in a position to say that, that at least they will give an undertaking, as my Question asks, that they will appoint an independent committee to make a full public inquiry into the matter and to make recommendations in accordance with the evidence.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will know that the noble Lord opposite is a very great expert on all matters concerning prisoners, and also on the Prison Service; and I am quite sure that those noble Lords who also have those interests—though alas! they are not in their seats this afternoon—will read his words with considerable interest. All that the noble Lord has said is well known to my right honourable friend and to all who have this problem of Prince-town in mind. It is a problem which the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack, and others who have served in the post of Secretary of State for the Home Department in the last 25 years, have had upon their minds.

The White Paper to which the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, referred gave details of the Prison Commissioner's building programme, which included this possibility of rebuilding Dartmoor prison. The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, then referred to the meeting which took place on December 10 last. It was no doubt as a result of that meeting, at which all the interested bodies were represented, including a representative from the Prison Officers' Association, that these objections to which the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, referred have come forward. It was made quite clear at that meeting that after this particular scheme, the rebuilding scheme, had been considered representations could be made to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary by these bodies. And in fact many of the bodies have done so; and no doubt some of those representations are the reports the noble Lord opposite mentioned.

It was also made quite clear that the planning authorities would be consulted, following the usual procedure which is carried out for development of Crown property. That was made quite clear at those meetings. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear on December 3 that he would consider whether it would be desirable for a public inquiry to be held to go into the Dartmoor Prison rebuilding proposals, and that consideration is still going on at this present moment. As the noble Lord opposite is probably aware, there is a Question down in another place on this subject. So I am afraid, my Lords, that I cannot tell him to-day whether the public inquiry can take place, because that matter is still under consideration. But I assure the noble Lord that if such a public inquiry should take place there will be some means whereby the prison officers down at Princetown Prison will be able to make their opinions heard at such a public inquiry—as I say, if it should take place.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl before he sits down, whether he is aware that at the meeting on December 10 no discussion on the site, the place of the site, was possible? It was only a question of discussing architectural problems. What the amenity associations and the Prison Officers' Association are concerned about is where the prison is going to be.


My Lords, I think that is the difference between the policy decision and building decisions and proposals. They were actually building proposals that were discussed at the meeting on the 10th; and the various representatives went there, looked at the site and at all the proposals and plans to deal with it. It was definitely not a policy meeting. However, representations can come up from those bodies and will be considered by my right honourable friend, and I have no doubt that my right honourable friend will seriously consider what the noble Lord opposite has said, though practically all his information is already at his disposal.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes past five o'clock.