HC Deb 13 December 1966 vol 738 cc250-5
Mr. Heseltine (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement about the escape of Frank Mitchell from H.M. Prison, Dartmoor.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

Frank Samuel Mitchell was sentenced at the Berkshire Assizes in October. 1958, on charges of robbery with violence and robbery, to life imprisonment and 10 years' imprisonment concurrent.

Mitchell had been at Dartmoor since September, 1962, except for a trial period at Maidstone in July, 1965. At Dartmoor, he responded well to treatment and had been involved in no violence, or prison offence of any kind, since April, 1962. Sanction was, therefore, given in May, 1965, after 6½ years' imprisonment, for him to be employed on an outside working party.

For many years this has been the usual practice for long-term prisoners at Dartmoor who have reached a late stage in their sentence in the case of fixed sentences, or whose release is under consideration in the case of life sentences. The object of outside working parties is to test the trustworthiness and develop the responsibility of a prisoner in conditions of less than maximum supervision when his eventual return to the community is contemplated.

The former Governor of Dartmoor had recommended on several occasions that a date should be given for Mitchell's release. The general view of the authorities at the prison was that Mitchell had matured considerably: and his conduct on the working party since 1965 had given reason to expect that he would not abuse the degree of trust which employment in an outside working party entails.

I very much regret that this trust proved to be unfounded. The most strenuous efforts are being pursued for his recapture, which, in the case of previous escapes from Dartmoor, have mostly proved to be quickly successful.

Mr. Heseltine

Will the Secretary of State say what steps he intends to take to ensure that other prisoners with a record of escapes with violence such as Mitchell's are not permitted to take part in working parties? Is it not a fact that the prison authorities have twice been warned within the last three months by local residents of the anxieties that this prisoner was causing in the locality?

Mr. Jenkins

I will certainly review most carefully the provisions for the use of prisoners on outside working parties, but what must be faced—and what is a difficult issue—is that where prisoners are at a stage—and it was made clear by the trial judge in this case that he imposed a life sentence so that it might be reviewed from time to time and not in order that it might be what it said in these circumstances—where recommendations are being made that release should be contemplated it is, in my view, necessary that we should try prisoners out in these conditions rather than let them out upon the public without any basis of release on licence, and without any trial as to how they behave.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Can the right hon. Gentleman either deny or confirm a report which I saw earlier today that it was 40 minutes before this escape was brought to the notice of anybody in authority?

Mr. Jenkins

I have no knowledge of the exact time, but I must make it clear to the House that outside working parties do involve a calculated risk. It is not difficult to escape from outside working parties. These are a preparation for the release of a prisoner at some future time. In Mitchell's case the time had not been arranged when he might be fully released. Unless the House is to take the view that prisoners should never be released I do not know how one can prepare them for release without placing them in this sort of transitional position.

Dr. David Owen

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is causing great concern in Devon? Nine prisoners have escaped this year from outside working parties. We realise that it is extremely difficult to assess what prisoners are likely to escape, but will not my right hon. Friend give some attention to the conditions on Dartmoor? He must agree that when the mists come down it is easy to escape and that this places a very heavy burden on the Devon police.

Mr. Jenkins

I am aware of the difficulties to which my hon. Friend has referred. My view, and that of the Home Office, is that Dartmoor is no longer a suitable prison to use. It is a very expensive prison. But when I visited Dartmoor in the spring of this year, accompanied by the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Heseltine), I was under very heavy local pressure—in which, I believe, the hon. Member joined, quite legitimately—not to close Dartmoor because of its local importance.

Mr. Hogg

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question? Is it true or untrue that the prison authorities had been warned twice during the last three months by local residents that this prisoner was giving ground for anxiety? Can he say whether there was any indication on what grounds these warnings were made, and what account was taken of them?

Mr. Jenkins

I am not aware of this, but I will look into it closely. My information is that since the decision—which, I admit, must always be a difficult one—to put this prisoner on an outside working party was taken, as long ago as May, 1965, his conduct until yesterday on this working party had been exemplary. Clearly, the impression which he created was a mistaken impression, but there was nothing, as far as I am at present aware, in his previous conduct within the past 19 months which gave rise to cause for belief that this would happen.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will the right hon. Gentleman be in mind that some of us who have wives and children living in close proximity to the Moor—as I do—had a very unpleasant night last night as a result of this escape? Will he realise that we have genuine fears for the safety of the people of this area and take steps to see that this sort of thing does not happen again?

Mr. Jenkins

I will bear this in mind. I in no way underestimate the fears of the hon. Member and his family, and of the many other people concerned. But the only ways to avoid this—as far as his locality is concerned—are to close down Dartmoor, to which course there is considerable local opposition, or secondly, to decide that we should never try this experimental half-way house.

I must tell the House quite frankly that if we are not to do this—unless we take the view, which certainly nobody advocated in the free-ranging debate that we had yesterday, that we should never let people out if they have a record of violence—we shall put these people in greater danger, unless we try these transitional methods and not merely let prisoners out straight on to the public without any prospect of recall at all.

Mr. Bessell

Will not the right hon. Gentleman consider the question of security again? About one prisoner every six weeks is escaping from Dartmoor at the moment, and this is causing real anxiety throughout Devon and Cornwall.

Mr. Jenkins

I would point out to the hon. Member that the situation with respect to escapes from close conditions in Dartmoor recently has been better than in the previous two years, but there have been escapes from outside working parties, where, as I have said quite frankly and firmly, a degree of calculated risk is necessary and inevitable.

Mr. Whitaker

Since Dartmoor is disliked by every prison officer who has worked there, as well as being obsolete and a contradiction to every idea of modern penal policy, will my right hon. Friend now give a firm date for its early closing?

Mr. Jenkins

I would certainly have given a firm date before now had it not been for the very large rise in the prison population which has taken place over the last year or two. However, as I told the House yesterday—and there was certainly a general welcome for these proposals; they were not contradicted—one of the important provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill is designed somewhat to reduce the prison population and, therefore, to make it rather easier for us to dispose of obsolete establishments like Dartmoor at an early date.

Mr. Sharples

Is the Home Secretary aware that at the time of his trial this prisoner was described by the doctor as an aggressive psychopath, although not legally insane? How many prisoners were in the working party? How many prison officers were there with those prisoners?

Mr. Jenkins

The number of prisoners was five. There was one prison officer with them. I must make it clear to the House that it is, and has long been, the practice that outside working parties are based on a degree of trust. If hon. Members wish to say that we should abolish outside working parties, I think that they should have said so yesterday in general, and not today in particular.

Mr. Hogg

Is not this question of the obsolescence of Dartmoor closely tied up with the reconstruction of the security wing at Albany? Cannot the Home Secretary give us some reassuring news as to when this will be complete?

Mr. Jenkins

Nobody doubts the obsolescence of Dartmoor. The difficulty is to get rid of any prison accommodation at the present time in view of the pressure upon our resources. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, there are two separate Albany projects. There is a general prison at Albany, which is proceeding very fast and which will be ready quite soon. There is also the special branch, which is not directly equivalent to Dartmoor, and on that we are finalising the plans. I think that it would be a mistake, at a time when the Mountbatten inquiry is on the point of reporting its general views on close security in prisons, completely to finalise these plans before we have the views of the inquiry.

Mr. Lipton

Realising, as he must, what a very heavy additional burden is imposed upon the local police by escapes from Dartmoor, and this one in particular, will my right hon. Friend say what steps he is taking to supplement or reinforce the efforts of the Devon police by bringing in Service personnel?

Mr. Jenkins

As my hon. Friend and the House may be aware, the Royal Marines are co-operating in the search. One hundred Royal Marines are engaged in this, divided into three search parties. In addition two helicopters provided by the R.A.F. are being used.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Jasper More.

Mr. Heseltine

On a point of order. In view of the profoundly unsatisfactory nature of the Secretary of State's answer, particularly to the second part of my supplementary question, I give notice that I shall raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Speaker

It is always better to give notice in the conventional way.