HL Deb 14 September 1972 vol 335 cc476-82

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to explain the arrangements under which Myra Hindley, a convicted prisoner, is allowed to walk in public places apparently for the purposes of exercise and recreation.


My Lords, women prisoners serving long sentences may occasionally, at the discretion of the governor, spend an hour or two away from the prison escorted by a member of the staff. The purpose is to enable them to experience some first-hand contact with ordinary life and be aware of changing conditions in the community during a long period of imprisonment. Myra Hindley has on one occasion been allowed to leave the prison under this arrangement, but as my right honourable friend has made clear the decision in her case was in his view an error of judgment and is not to be repeated. The general arrangements for selecting prisoners for such outside visits are under review.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the following Supplementaries? First, does he consider it proper in any situation that a young category "B" prisoner, one for which (and I quote): "escape must be made very difficult" should be allowed to go to a public park in the sole company of a woman who has reached the age of retirement? Secondly, while I do not wish in any way to hinder the progress of penal reform, will my noble friend confirm that protestations of remorse and an apparent change of heart on the part of one so wicked and depraved as this young woman will be treated by the Home Office with great reserve? Thirdly, will my noble friend confirm that no plans have been made for her release on parole under the terms of Section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967?


My Lords, there is no such thing as category "B" for women prisoners. Myra Hindley,was downgraded from category "A", but special precautions are still taken to protect her and to protect the community from her. In fact, she did not go out just with the governor; there was a man as well who, I think, took part although he did not know who the prisoner was. I think that the governor was absolutely right in her judgment that this particular woman would not try to escape. It was her judgment on whether or not to let her out at all in these circumstances, in view of her notoriety, which was the error. As to the prisoner's own protestations, these would not, I think, enter into the picture at all. They would be part of the material which, on some future occasion, could be relevant to the question of her release under licence. That is not at the moment in contemplation. She has not reached the stage in her sentence where it could have been considered. I should tell the House that there are very many rigorous and careful matters of scrutiny which go into any of these cases. I should not like at any stage, let alone now, to say what the outcome might be in due course, but it is not in contemplation at the moment.


My Lords, as one who has visited and spoken to Myra Hindley and other category "A" prisoners in Holloway, may I ask whether the noble Viscount is aware that following the recommendations of the Mountbatten Report the facilities for exercise for category "A" prisoners in Holloway were very much reduced? Can he say whether there have been any changes since then in the facilities for exercise, and can he give an assurance, which I think is most important about Myra Hindley, that in no circumstances will she be allowed to meet Ian Brady?


My Lords, the last question about a meeting with Ian Brady, is a very delicate one. Myra Hindley is no longer a category "A" prisoner, but Ian Brady is, and he is in another prison altogether, very obviously. I would rather not go into details in public on this matter, but of course the dangers to which the noble Baroness has drawn attention are only too well known to us. As for the exercise facilities at Holloway, since the time the noble Baroness may have been familiar with Holloway it has, I regret to say, changed out of all recognition, because major building work is going on and exercise facilities at the moment are exceedingly limited, regretfully so. It was for exactly this reason that in suitable cases—and I emphasise that—I think it right that some prisoners should be taken out for this sort of exercise. But I do emphasise "in suitable cases", and this was not one.


My Lords, if it be true that your Lordships' House should invite the Minister and his colleagues to view with reserve evidence of conversion, is it not equally true that they should also regard with reserve absence of any change in the attitude of prisoners subjected to the kind of reformatory as well as penitential treatment accorded to this person who was guilty of such an execrable crime? As one time chaplain appointed to Holloway, may I ask whether it is not true that only when enlightened attitudes such as has been practised by the prison governor are applied that the real purposes of prison treatment can in fact be expected to follow?


My Lords, I think there are two elements in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, has rightly drawn attention to the ameliorating effects of this sort of practice when used in the right case. I believe that this is an essential part of the reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners, not only women but men also. It goes on perfectly satisfactorily in a large number of cases without causing incidents of this sort at all, and I think rightly so. So far as protestations, conversion and other attitudes may be concerned, these are one of the things—but only one, I would emphasise—that come before my right honourable friend, the Parole Board and others concerned with any decision at any stage to release a life sentenced prisoner on parole. Of course they are important, but they are by no means the only things that matter.


My Lords, while we all recognise the enormity of the offence of Myra Hindley and accept the fact that no doubt the governor's attitude was ill-judged, why was it necessary, having regard to the Minister's statement to-day, so publicly and precipitately to denounce this governor, who has given years of invaluable service to this country?


My Lords, the discretion of governors and the position in which they are put when using it is a matter of the greatest delicacy. We know that they have to exercise some exceedingly difficult judgments and I suppose that in 999 cases out of a thousand they do so with consummate skill. Nevertheless, when a mistake is made I believe it right that the governor concerned should be told so at once, not only for the benefit of herself but also for the reassurance of those who are exceedingly worried by what she has done.


Surely, my Lords, it is quite unique for a Home Secretary publicly to rebuke a civil servant of such standing who has no right to reply.


My Lords, I have no idea whether it is unique, but in those circumstances my right honourable friend judged that it was correct.


My Lords, may I ask whether the noble Viscount thinks it is conducive to discipline in Holloway for the governor to be denounced in such a way by the Home Secretary?


Yes, my Lords.


My Lords, had this question not come up in the Press, would the governor still have got a public "rocket"?


My Lords, that is a hypothetical question and I cannot answer it.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether it is not a fact that this has been a practice at Holloway Gaol for ten years and during that period there has been only one attempted escape? As, perhaps, the only Member of this House who has served a long term of imprisonment, may I ask whether the noble Viscount is aware that it is not merely a necessity to appreciate new conditions of life outside, but that the sight of a flower, the sight of a leaf on a tree, which one is completely denied under present conditions, has an effect on a prisoner which is a real contribution to rehabilitation?


My Lords, this has not been going on for ten years; it has been going on since 1949, and the figure the noble Lord gave is, I think, a tribute to the discretion which has so far been accorded in it. I take the noble Lord's point about the flower and the tree. At the moment Holloway is under a massive rebuilding programme which is going to improve its facilities and change its character out of all recognition. In most prisons there are gardens, there are flowers, there are trees and there is grass; but in Holloway at the moment there is not. That is one reason why I do not wish it to be thought that we are going to clamp down on this procedure at Holloway. I am grateful to the noble Lord for putting that side of the balance because I believe it to be important.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that though a mistake was made in this case, prison governors have an exceptionally difficult task to do and in general they deserve the full support and gratitude of your Lordships' House?


My Lords, it is precisely because not only have they these difficult jobs to do but also because our experience is that they do fulfil a trust placed upon them with such extraordinary competence, diligence and zeal that there is no official direction of any sort on this kind of matter. It is left to their discretion. Nevertheless, I think it right that when the discretion is misused there should be Questions about it in this House and that we should be expected to answer.


My Lords, would not the Minister agree from what he has just said that as matters of this kind are quite properly left to the discretion of the prison governor, who after all is in the best possible position to know what is in the best interests of the prisoner, it is highly undesirable that a Minister of the Crown should attempt to replace the judgment of the prison governor upon what, after all, must be a matter of discretion, by his own judgment, and on top of that issue a public reprimand to a very honourable and long-serving public servant?


My Lords, I cannot possibly agree with the first part of what the noble Lord has said. I believe that in some cases of this sort the discretion of the governor has to be shared ministerially and with other advisers in my Department in order to get a correct decision in individual cases. I do not think it right that it should always be left in all circumstances to the sole discretion of the governor. As to the rebuke that has been given, I have already endorsed what my right honourable friend did on this occasion and given my opinion that it was justified.


Finally, my Lords, would the noble Viscount suggest to the Home Secretary that he should adopt the old Army principle of not rebuking an N.C.O. in the presence of private soldiers, which is exactly what happened here?


My Lords, I will remind my right honourable friend of the adage, which I am sure he knows.


My Lords, does not the noble Viscount think that had not a public rebuke been given there was a severe danger that these privileges might be reduced?


My Lords, one of the things that I have done in answering this Question this afternoon was to attempt to put the matter in perspective. I have striven carefully to explain to the House that, whereas a mistake was made in this case and there are cases where these sort of relaxations should certainly not be allowed to occur, we do not wish to hinder or encumber the general operation of this sort of scheme which, in the correct case, is highly beneficial to prisoners, and I believe to the prisons in which they serve.