HC Deb 31 March 1913 vol 51 cc172-8

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


I desire to ask the Home Secretary for some information concerning a number of prisoners who have been convicted for offences connected with the movement for the enfranchisement of women. The facts are, very briefly, these: On 18th February a number of women and at least two men were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment of from one to two months, without the option of a fine. I would like the House to understand that these persons have not taken part in any of the more serious outrages connected with the women' agitation. A few panes of glass have been broken, which have cost the authorities about £6 to put right. For these trifling offences sentences, as I have said, were imposed of from one to two months' imprisonment. Several of these prisoners adopted the "hunger strike." I do not propose to-night to repeat the nauseating details I gave on a previous occasion. Amongst the prisoners who are still undergoing sentence is Miss Emmerson and Mr. Frankland, who, I understand, is related to a Member of the Cabinet. I do not mention that to in any way claim special favour for him, but to show, presumably at least, that he does not belong to the criminal classes. There is also a Mrs. Bransom. I under- stand that these three at least have been resisting taking food and have been forcibly fed.

I would ask the Home Secretary whether they are still being forcibly fed, or whether any others are in hospital as a result of the treatment received whilst undergoing forcible feeding? I ask him, further, whether he does not think the time has come that these prisoners have suffered sufficiently for any offence of which they have been guilty, and therefore that they might be immediately released? Since 18th February the struggle between them and the authorities has been going on. Apart from his official position and his duties and responsibilities, I am sure the Home Secretary would be the first to admit that the punishment that has been given to them is far greater than anything they possibly could have suffered by peacefully serving out the full period of their sentences. I am certain of this, that if the public outside could be made to know the horrors inevitably associated with forcible feeding there would be a wave of resentment against such things being done. Just two more brief points. One of the prisoners is Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, who fought the authorities over the feeding question with very great energy, completely exhausted herself in resisting, and was liberated one day last week. She was in a most exhausted condition and suffered considerably in various ways. She has since been ill in a nursing home. The point to which I want to call the attention of the Home Secretary and the House is this: Although it was known that this girl was to be discharged in this condition, no notice of any kind was sent to her friends or relatives. There was no chance given her to make preparations for her reception. She was sent out of prison accompanied by a wardress, put inside a cab and taken home. As it happens, she lives by herself in a studio, being an artist, and surely the least that could be asked of the authorities is that, when these prisoners have to be discharged in a condition to which they have been reduced by forcible feeding, their friends should be notified, so that they might be ready to receive them.

The second point, is this. One of the prisoners is a young man named Lansbury, the son of a former Member of this House. He was sentenced to two months' imprisonment. After serving a month he was entitled to receive a visit. His father and mother and young wife and only child were given per- mission to visit him. They saw the young man and found him, according to his father's statement., which everyone who knows him will accept, while apparently well enough, very nervous. He is confined in solitary confinement according to my information for twenty-two hours every day, only being allowed two hours exercise. Surely, offences of this kind do not justify a penalty so severe as twenty-two hours solitary confinement every day. The result is the young man's nervous system is shattered. His father describes twitching about his eyes and head and so on, showing his nerves have broken down. I ask whether, in the case of this young man, who has not resisted and has obeyed prison rules and regulations, the time has not come when he now also might be liberated as having paid the full penalty for any offence of which he has been guilty? One further point. I do not know whether the House is aware of the extent of which prison discipline is carried. When his friends were parting from him he desired to kiss his child—not his wife, or father, or mother—and was stopped. Can anyone imagine anything more inhuman in the circumstances than preventing a father from kissing his child at parting? I ask the Home Secretary whether the three prisoners I have named are still being forcibly fed, whether they are in hospital, whether the time has not now come when they ought to be released, and further, whether the prison regulations or the conduct of the authorities in the prison could not be so modified and humanised as at least to give notice to the friends of prisoners being released, and also if the circumstances and occasion arise that a father might be allowed to kiss his child.


I wish to give notice of a proposition which I shall bring before the House on some other occasion. It is not about a hunger strike, but quite the reverse. As hon. Members and the officials of the House know, I have failed utterly during the Navy Debates to get an opportunity of describing the conditions of certain men and women who are hungry, not because they refuse to eat, but because the Admiralty will not see that they are paid decent wages. I thought that would have been a very interesting subject for me to have brought forward, but for the fact that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil had got a lien on the time of the House. I wish the Patronage Secretary to understand that to-morrow night, if the Rules of the House permit it, I shall certainly prevent what appears to me to be an attempt to burke a discussion of the working conditions of the navvies, and then we shall have half an hour devoted to that subject.


I shall be very happy to give the hon. Member for Merthyr such information as I have in replying to the questions which he has put to me. I regret, however, that although he gave me notice he did not give notice of the precise questions which he proposed to put, and consequently my information on the subject is not as full as it would otherwise have been. With regard to the three prisoners, Miss Emerson and Mrs. Branson, are being forcibly fed. The latest report I have received with regard to their health is that they are not suffering. When I say that I do not mean to suggest for a moment that forcible feeding when a person resists is not a disagreeable and painful operation, but it is the resistance that causes the trouble, and I regret to say that from time to time both these prisoners have resisted and probably will resist again. With regard to the third prisoner, Franklin, about whom the hon. Member asked a question, the hon. Member is in error in supposing that he was convicted in respect of window breaking offences at Bow. His offence is entirely different. He is also being forcibly fed and resisting violently, but the prison authorities have advised me that there is no present or immediate likelihood of danger to his health. The hon. Member in presenting his case to the House seems to have overlooked two important facts. The first is that these prisoners have all been found by the ordinary process of law to be guilty of crime. The second fact that he has overlooked is that forcible feeding is not imposed upon them by the prison authorities as torture, in addition to their sentence, but is made necessary by the action of the prisoners themselves in refusing ford. They can all serve their sentences without any suggestion of forcible feeding being applied if, like other prisoners, they will take their food in the ordinary way. The hon. Member really wishes to put the prison authorities into this position, that they must forthwith release any prisoner who ascribes his crime to a political motive if the prisoner refuses to take food. So long as I am responsible for the prison authorities of this country, I do not think I should ever be justified in accepting that point of view. I do not think any Home Secretary would be doing his duty who allowed any prisoner by his mere personal will and action to put an end to his sentence, and the announcement that he did not intend to eat any more food in prison. I have a Bill which would enable me in large measure to get rid of this very process of forcible feeding to which the hon. Gentleman takes such objection, a Bill which I should use largely as an alternative to forcible feeding, and the hon. Gentleman is the first Member of the House to put down a Motion in opposition to it.


That does not describe the Bill at all.


I think it does. It is intended to be an alternative to forcible feeding except in certain cases, which I shall explain to the House. The next point put to me was with regard to Miss Sylvia Pankhurst and her being released from prison without any notice having been given to her friends. Whatever the reduced state of her health may have been, Miss Pankhurst was able to describe it at great length in the Press immediately after her release, and we may have the satisfaction of knowing that she was at least strong enough to write that account. Those who have ever had to write long and realistic accounts of any event in their lives must know that it requires a certain amount of continuous physical effort which is hardly consistent with the description given of her to-night by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil. I am asked why she was released. She was released because her continued detention in prison was likely to become permanently dangerous to her health, and she was released at a time when no Permanent injury had been done. I agree with the hon. Member in one point. There is no doubt that she had by her continued resistance to forcible feeding greatly aggravated her punishment, but that suffering was brought on entirely by her own action. I conceived that the time had come when, in view of the possible permanent injury to her health, the better course was to release her. With regard to the notice to her friends, I can only say that I will inquire into the point raised by the hon. Member. It was the first I had heard of it, but it is quite conceivable Miss Pankhurst never asked that notice should be given to her friends. If she had asked, I am fairly sure from my knowledge of the great humanity of the prison officials that they would have given her friends notice, but if she failed to ask that notice should be given, if she did not think it of sufficient consequence, I do not know that they can be blamed if they omitted to remember it. The last case was that of young Mr. Lansbury, for whom I am, personally, extremely sorry. It was his first offence, and he was misled, but the magistrate, in view of the fact that an impression was being created that unless more serious punishment was given these offences would spread, thought it proper in the execution of his duty to sentence him to two months' imprisonment. I am glad to say his conduct in prison has been good. He will consequently earn marks which will reduce the amount of his punishment by one-sixth, with the result that in a very few days now he will be released in the ordinary course. As regards his state of health, I inquired personally into the matter daily, and I have every reason to believe, from the reports made to me, that his health is very good. I have informed his father, whom we all remember in the House, that the reports I receive are of a satisfactory kind. With regard to the charge that he is in solitary confinement, he is undergoing his imprisonment on precisely the same terms and conditions as any other misdemeanant. He gets two hours' exercise a day, with two intervals of an hour each, just as any other prisoner gets exercise. It is absurd to speak of it as solitary confinement. He is visited daily by the prison officials. He sees people and talks to people. [An HON. MEMBER: "In the cell."] He sees the chaplain, the doctor, and the governor. Some people visit him every day, and, in addition, for two intervals of an hour he is out on exercise. For the rest he is treated exactly the same as an ordinary prisoner. Solitary confinement, as ordinarily understood, means that from the beginning of the day to the end of the day the prisoner sees nobody and speaks to nobody. That does not exist to-day.


We know all about it.


I can only speak for the prison system as it exists at the present moment. I do not think any general charge of inhumanity in our prisons at the present time is in the smallest degree justified. From the prisoner himself we have had no complaint. I regret I had no notice that the hon. Member proposed to bring this case up, because I have not had an opportunity of examining it more minutely. But I can assure the House that there is no exception whatever made in young Mr. Lansbury's case differentiating it from that of any other prisoner. All I can say is that the charge that there is anything in the nature of solitary confinement as it used to be understood is entirely false. I have answered the hon. Member's question, and I hope from the tenour of his observations that I shall have him supporting the Bill which I propose to introduce next Wednesday.


I think this forcible feeding is pretty beastly work. It is bad for us here, it is bad for the Home Secretary, it is bad for the prisoners and for the officials. In a couple of days the right hon. Gentleman is to bring in a Bill which is to put an end to this forcible feeding. Would it not be possible to call a truce now, and let these people out? After all, they are passive resisters. [HON. MEMBERS: "Active resisters."] They refuse to allow themselves to be fed, and I think that is passive resistance. I think it would be a very suitable occasion on which the Home Secretary might exercise that clemency he has been exercising in the past on so many occasions, and let these people out, particularly as one of them is an American citizen, and comes from a country where they do not understand why people are being forcibly fed, and do not understand why we in this country consider it still to be necessary to carry on that form of feeding in prison. I do hope, although we have got from him to-night an answer which gives us very little hope of an improvement in these conditions, that with a view to a truce, and with a view to facilitating the passage of the Bill on Wednesday next, we shall have an end of this horrible state of affairs.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.