HL Deb 16 April 1985 vol 462 cc618-23

3.59 p.m.

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat the Answer to a Private Notice Question which is being given in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

"Derek Harris aged 16, an inmate at Glenochil Young Offenders' Institution was found hanging from the window bars of his room at 10.25 p.m. on Saturday 13th April 1985. Despite strenuous efforts by staff, Harris was pronounced dead by the medical officer at 11.5 p.m. Mr. Harris had been sentenced at Aberdeen Sheriff Court on 11th 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 28th February. After a period under close observation, he was placed on ordinary observation on 26th March. He was to have been released from custody on Friday 19th April, but he was also due to appear at Aberdeen Sheriff Court on 9th May to face further charges. He was informed of these further charges on 11th 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 very 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."

My Lords, that concludes the Answer of my right honourable friend.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, may I first of all thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate for reading the reply already given in another place? I am sure that the whole House will share the Minister's shock at yet another death at the Glenochil complex.

Perhaps I may declare an interest in that I am the chairman of SACRO, the Scottish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, and yet another interest in that I am the vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs in the Palace of Westminster. I and a number of Members from both Houses visited Glenochil some months ago. Although the material facilities at Glenochil could hardly be faulted, the record of Glenochil would suggest that we were obviously looking at the wrong things. This is also the case, I am sure, with Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons himself, who gave the institution a clean bill of health and an excellent report only last month.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate must be aware that a study of the problems of young offenders, much deeper than just improving the conditions of detention and trying to anticipate those in a serious self-destructive state of mind is needed. Will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate convey to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the need to widen the terms of reference of the working party set up by the Secretary of State following the suicides of William McDonald and Angus Boyd in the past 14 months?

The question of sending young offenders back to the courts for re-sentencing really must be looked at if it is proved that custodial sentences are not suitable. This means that there will need to be more provision for non-custodial sentences, perhaps along the lines of the English day centres being extended to Scotland, and the whole range of alternative sentencing that is available in England being looked at by the working party.

Finally, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate not agree that now is the time to look also at the express wishes of the Scottish Prison Officers' Association for special selection and special in-depth training for all those officers who are likely to be working, or who volunteer to work, with young offenders?

Lord Grimond

My Lords, we on these Benches should also like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate for repeating this Answer to the Private Notice Question. We, too, express very deep regret at this tragic death and send our sympathy to all those concerned, and to the relatives of the boy. I think it should be said that sympathy is also due to those who run these centres, who really act under great stress and difficulty and must be very concerned about the chain of events of which this is the latest.

As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate has said, there does not seem to be much that one can usefully say until the inquiries have taken place, but I wonder whether he could say a little about the working party, as opposed to the fatal accident inquiry. It was, I think, due to report in mid-summer. Can he be a little more definite about that? Will it be enabled to take into account not only the conditions at these centres and prisons but also the general policy of sentencing and the background to this chain of events, which must indeed be rather worrying for us all?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Carmichael and Lord Grimond, for the reception they have given to the Answer of my right honourable friend to the Private Notice Question. Obviously I would join them in expressing our great sympathy to the next of kin for this tragic death.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, asked me three questions. The first related to the present inquiry. As noble Lords are aware, any death in legal custody is the subject of a public fatal accident inquiry. As the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, has very properly said—and I would certainly echo his words—it would be wrong in any sense at this stage to encroach upon matters which may be focused upon at that inquiry.

The working party on suicide precautions at Glenochil, to which both noble Lords referred, was of course set up by my right honourable friend in response to a recommendation by the Sheriff Principal at a fatal accident inquiry last year. It is reasonable that it should be permitted to complete its work. I am not in a position to say at present when that will be, although obviously one would hope that it would be as soon as may be after proper inquiries have been made. I would suggest to your Lordships that we should consider first any recommendations it makes in relation to Glenochil before considering whether there is any warrant for looking further into the matter.

The second point which the noble Lord. Lord Carmichael. raised was the question of remitting back to the courts in particular cases. I would simply respond in this way. As the noble Lord is well aware, the courts are required by law not to impose detention on a person under 21 unless, in the particular case, the court is of the opinion that no other method of dealing with him is appropriate. In forming this opinion the court must take into account information about the circumstances of the offender. In practice, this is provided in the form of a social inquiry report, which contains the full information that can be made available about the offender's background.

The third and last point which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, was in regard to prison officers and in-depth training. I would echo what the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, said in this matter with regard to the sympathy which all noble Lords will have for those who run these centres. They are. I am certain, well trained, and have done their very best for the inmates. I do not think that at present there is any evidence to suggest that their training is in any sense inadequate. These are matters which have been ventilated, as the noble Lord opposite knows, at previous fatal accident inquiries. The only matter which the Sheriff Principal at the fatal accident inquiry last year thought might suitably be the subject of further investigation was that which was contained in the remit to the working party.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, as this is the third fatal accident inquiry to be set up in 14 months, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate will appreciate the concern among prison officers. From what we have heard about what has been done and the way they have looked after this, I do not think that in this particular case one could fault the regime.

What worries me considerably is the concern felt by parents who have boys at this institution. There is to be a fatal accident inquiry. We have just had a report on this institution from the chief of the prison service in Scotland, and now this happens—in this case just days before the boy was going to be released. In many ways it is baffling. As my noble friend Lord Carmichael said, it may be that we have been turning our attention to the wrong matters in Glenochil.

How long will it be before the fatal accident inquiry takes place? Some statement must be made and something must be done right away. It is very difficult to allay the feelings of parents simply by saying, "There has to be a fatal accident inquiry and there will be a fatal accident inquiry", when we have had such inquiries before—two within one year. Now we are promised another.

Can nothing be done at the present time from the purely personal point of view in respect of this rather sad case? I have read quite a few things in the press about this case. The boy's adoptive mother died and then his adoptive father died. Clearly he was an unfortunate lad. It may well be that fears are being created which are quite unnecessary. I think that this is a very individual case, but can we not speed up the fatal accident inquiry if there cannot be anything quicker than that?

4.12 p.m.

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the views he expressed about the staff at Glenochil. One must be careful to distinguish between the circumstances of an individual death and the running of the institution itself. The noble Lord made reference to the recently published report by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. That report emphasised that the regimes at Glenochil were positive and purposeful. Indeed, the report found no evidence of an oppressive regime in either part of the institution. The inspector emphasised in the report that he found morale among inmates to be high.

As to the issue of the public inquiry into this particular death, it may turn to examine the kind of matters to which the noble Lord has just adverted. Obviously I can say no more on that matter other than that in so far as it lies within my power I have taken note of what the noble Lord said about the obvious concern of the public to know what has happened and about the need for a proper inquiry to be brought forward as soon as can reasonably he done. I assure the noble Lord that so far as that lies within my power I shall see that it is done.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, I hesitate to intervene because, unfortunately, I was unable to be present to hear the Answer itself. However, as I understood the question of the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, he was asking whether the fatal accident inquiry could not be expedited. Is there any good reason at all, in law or otherwise, why that inquiry should not be expedited? With great respect to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate, he did not answer that question put by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock.

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I endeavoured to do so. Obviously any fatal accident inquiry must be properly prepared beforehand, and no one will know that better than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson, expecially with his experience in these matters. I am simply saying that I shall take steps to ensure that an inquiry is held with the appropriate information as soon as may reasonably he done.

I cannot say any more because these are early days. It may be that further investigations will turn up information which will require further examination. I assure your Lordships that I have listened to what has been said and have taken serious note of it. I am fully aware of the fact that there is public concern and that the best way to allay it is to have full information available at a public inquiry.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many of us are deeply concerned about this particular episode? Is he aware also that there are few penal establishments in the United Kingdom which have had such a series of grave events as has this particular establishment? That being so. can the noble and learned Lord give any indication of when the working party report is to he made available? Secondly, will it be published? On that point, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many of us would not be content were the report not to he publicly available?

Finally, with reference to the point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Wilson, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate accept that many of us hope that every possible step will be taken to bring forward the date of the fatal accident inquiry, given the very special circumstances of this particular establishment?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, again, I am very grateful for the points raised by the noble Lord, and perhaps I may deal with them in reverse order to that in which he put them to me. Obviously I can do no more than repeat my assurance to the House about the holding of an inquiry. So far as publication of any working party report is concerned, that must be a matter for my right honourable friend, and I can go no further than that before your Lordships.

So far as the noble Lord's first question is concerned, I would hesitate to make comparisons with any institutions elsewhere. I can say only that in so far as this incident involved a death in a detention centre, there have been only two unnatural deaths in detention centres in Scotland since the first was opened in 1960. Regrettable though those deaths certainly are—and I have already expressed my views about that matter—it should be remembered that in the past 25 years something of the order of 20,000 young men have experienced and benefited from the detention centre regime in Scotland. Perhaps that tends in part, if only in part, to put the matter in perspective.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord can explain just one further point. He said that the boy was due to be released just six days after the date of this tragic event, but that he was going to face further charges in Aberdeen. Can the noble and learned Lord say how long the boy had been waiting for his case to be heard in respect of those charges?

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, I cannot today give that information to the noble Lord. However, I shall find out and let him know the answer. As my right honourable friend stated in his Answer, the boy was due to appear at Aberdeen Sheriff Court on 9th May to face further charges. He was informed of these further charges on 11th April.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly clear up one point. I suggested that there was a need for special selection and special in-depth training in respect of prison officers. I should make it clear that this is the wish of the Scottish Prison Officers' Association and does not necessarily reflect on the staff of any particular institution.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, as a member of a board of visitors of a youth custody centre and as a full-blooded Scot, I should like to share with others in the concern felt over this very serious matter. Is the Minister aware that many young people throughout the British Isles who are in institutions for young offenders are very immature, disturbed and unstable? Will he try to encourage more emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment and on identifying the root causes of these problems? In the past year in young offenders' institutions, certainly in England, the emphasis has not been on rehabilitation.

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, obviously I am grateful for what the noble Baroness has said. I think I can say simply that, as I indicated earlier, in the matter of sentencing to detention a person under 21 the law provides that the court will not impose such a sentence unless it is of the opinion that no other method of dealing with the offender is appropriate. In the forming of that opinion, as I have also indicated, a social inquiry report is obtained in order to place before the court the full information about the offender. I think that that would seem to be the appropriate manner in which that information should be brought to the attention of the court.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, further to that answer, may I ask the noble and learned Lord whether anything can be done to help the prison officers in institutions such as Glenochil to cope with a situation where the stress of the period just before a boy's release—which is very great, particularly when the family background is of the kind which clearly pertained to this young man—is added to by the fact that he is going to face further charges? A social inquiry report in relation to the second series of charges comes too late. It seems that there is a very special problem here, where a person who is going to be released is under stress in any case, because release involves stress, and, in addition, is going to have to go through the whole thing again.

Lord Cameron of Lochbroom

My Lords, obviously I have taken note of what my noble friend has said on the matter. I have no reason to think other than that staff will always be aware of changing circumstances in relation to a particular inmate and that they will make their dispositions accordingly. However, I think that all I should say is that these might be matters which will be the subject of investigation at the public inquiry which will be held in due course. It would be wrong of me to say anything further on the matter with which this Answer is concerned.