I welcome this opportunity to inform the House of a situation in one of Her Majesty's prisons which, if allowed to develop and spread through all of them, will have at least four extremely serious effects. First, recruitment and staffing of the prison service will suffer. Secondly, administration of our prisons will suffer. Thirdly, the courts, which, as this House knows, are already under very great stress, will be forced to carry even greater case loads. Fourthly, the public purse will not be able to avoid—even at this time of rightly enforced cuts and savings in public expenditure—paying out more and more money for purposes which no reasonable person could support.
The facts which led me to bring up this matter are as follows. On 24 August last a fight broke out between two prisoners in the exercise yard at Winson Green prison in Birmingham. Hon. Members will readily appreciate that when fights break out between prisoners it is abso- lutely essential for the security of the prison that the fight is ended quickly before it spreads. Two prisoners fighting can very easily become four and then eight. Bearing in mind the staffing position, the House will realise how important it is that such disputes among prisoners should be broken up and ended at once. The prison officers moved in and separated the prisoners, and put them into separate cells.
My constituent, Mr. William Stubbs, was one of the officers who separated the prisoners. He was only doing his duty and he carried out this duty with no undue violence whatever. The elder of the two prisoners involved in the fracas knew perfectly well that that should be the end of the matter, but the younger, Moseley, subsequently complained to the governor about the prison officers who had broken up the fight. As is usual in such circumstances, the governor directed that the matter should be investigated. The allegations were investigated by a member of the governor grade, who found them to be false and malicious.
The board of visitors at the prison was subsequently informed and the matter came before it, as indeed it must. That, one would have thought, would be the end of the whole incident. However, on 9 October William Stubbs and three of his colleagues received summonses to attend Birmingham magistrates' court to answer charges of assault against Moseley. There were some delays and adjournments but the case was heard in mid-January by the stipendiary magistrate at the Birmingham law courts. All four prison officers were acquitted with no case to answer. I draw the attention of the House to the words written to me by Mr. A. Hooper who wrote as the Birmingham branch secretary of the Prison Officers' Association. He said:
It is a very strange situation where honourable men can have allegations made against them by those whom society has placed behind prison bars, and made to defend themselves, not once nor twice, but three times.
He goes on:
It is all too easy to say, ' They had no need to worry.'
Indeed, that is perfectly true. All the men involved knew quite well that no charges of that kind could stand up against them
for five minutes. But as Mr. Hooper says:
These four men, their wives and families, have had to live with the stress and strain that such a charge—with all the permutations of what could have happened if they had not been exonerated a third time—might mean not once nor twice, but three times.
It is very much on behalf of the prison officers that I am bringing this case to the attention of the House tonight.
No one was in the least surprised by the result of the court case, but some forebodings were expressed as to what the implications for the future might be now that a long established prison rule has been flouted. There should be no doubt on this point whatever. Prison standing order 17B1 says:
An inmate will not be allowed to initiate a private criminal prosecution of any kind, either against a member of staff or another inmate or a person outside the establishment and governors should take steps to ensure so far as possible that neither an inmate nor a legal adviser takes advantage of any facility granted for another purpose to initiate such proceedings.
The rules are absolutely clear. Summonses must not and shall not be brought by prisoners against people who are in charge of them. It is easy to see why that rule exists.
I make it clear that I would in no way support the suggestion that no redress should be available to prisoners who feel themselves to be badly served or even assaulted. The point about the prison rules, and the reason I suggest that they should be followed in all cases, is that a prisoner has at least four very firm and clear ways by which he can pursue a complaint.
First, he can make a complaint to the governor, as Moseley did. When that happens the complaint is always properly investigated. Secondly, he can make an application to see either a member of the board of visitors or indeed the whole board. The board of visitors could be aptly described as a panel of inspectors which is there to see that all is going well in the prison. The prisoner can appeal to it at any time.
Thirdly, a prisoner has the somewhat powerful and rather unusual ability to petition the Home Secretary. Finally, he can write to his Member of Parliament. Indeed, Members of this House will have received many letters—as I have—from prisoners asking them to take up one case or another and investigate them. I know of no hon. Member who would fail to do his duty in that regard by taking up a prisoner's complaint. Therefore, it is untrue to say that the prisoner needs to be able to bring a summons in a law court to see that his rights are protected. The rule exists in the prison regulations.
How did Moseley get round the rule? He did so by getting a relative to take out a summons in his place. Another case has now arisen. An older prisoner at Winson Green—and on the information I have I believe that it was this older prisoner who was behind the earlier summons by Moseley—is named Costello. He has employed the same technique to summon three prison officers, one of whom is my luckless constituent, poor Mr. Stubbs. That prisoner has declared that in the pipeline are summonses against the governor of Winson Green, the governor of Featherstone prison, the governor of Stafford prison, and two Home Office officials.
This situation is outrageous. I believe that it is a measure of the flimsiness of Costello's complaints that the summons which apparently is about to be issued against the governor of Winson Green relates to a charge of theft. No doubt hon. Members will be surprised to hear that the governor of one of Her Majesty's prisons is said to be involved in theft. However, it turns out that the case rests on the fact that prisoner Costello wrote a letter, not on prison notepaper but on ordinary notepaper, for transmission outside the prison.
The House knows that censorship of a prisoner's mail takes place. The mail was inspected, and it was decided by the governor that the letter could not be allowed to go outside the prison. Instead, the letter was clipped to the prisoner's file. In those circumstances it is outrageous to accuse a prison governor of stealing a letter.
I wish to draw to the attention of the House the effect of this malicious nonsense against prison officers. I wish to read a short excerpt from a letter written by my constituent Mr. William Stubbs. Mr. Stubbs says in that letter:
It is with deep concern that I once again find myself the subject of a private criminal prosecution initiated as it was by a convicted prisoner despite the protection from malicious
prosecution that section 17B1 of standing orders was designed to give me as a prison officer. I personally do not fear the legal out-come of this prosecution as I do, and always will have, the utmost faith in our British system of justice. Unfortunately, however, this faith cannot prevent the trauma that is being shared by my family. My wife's initial reaction was one of disgust and fear that this should have been allowed to happen again and the fear that comes from realising what the public reaction will be on this, our second time around. My wife and children are intelligent people and we all therefore share the same knowledge that, human nature being what it is, a lot of the mud will stick.
One takes the point made by poor Mr. Stubbs, because when these cases are reported in the press and it comes out that a certain prison officer has been twice accused of assault, the matter is very serious. I believe that these men need protection and that they should not be exposed to such treatment. Prison officers undertake a very difficult—
Order. The hon. Lady said that charges were proceeding in this matter. In that case the matter is sub judice and we are not allowed to discuss the matter in the House. It was not until the hon. Lady was well into her remarks that I appreciated that charges had been preferred.
I am grateful for the Chair's ruling. I shall not refer to the proceedings. I wish to make the point, however, that prison officers carry out a difficult and often dangerous job. They are far from well paid. In fact, the relevant Minister wrote to me earlier in the month telling me that Mr. Justice May is currently inquiring into the state of prison services in the United Kingdom. No doubt the problem I have been outlining will come to his notice. I fear that if this situation continues, a serious situation will arise because many prison officers will undoubtedly resign from the service.
In addition, it should not be forgotten that prisoners suffer greatly when staffing levels go down. When there are insufficient prison officers, prisoners spend a far greater period of time in their cells. There have been times when education programmes have been cut back because of staffing levels. That hardship underlines the point that I made earlier about administration. If, for example, three senior prison officers are called into court—as well they might be in circumstances of this sort—at one and the same time, the administration of the prison could be placed under serious stress. The courts will have to carry an even greater load if the summonses continue. It is true that the large majority of prison inmates want to live out their time in prison with as little trouble as possible. However, there is undoubtedly a minority who rejoice in twisting the tail of prison officers and those in authority over them. I fear for the implications in the matter.
The cost to the public is liable to be great. Court cases do not come cheap. Prisoners are always taken under escort to and from court and a warder must remain with them throughout the court proceedings. The malicious prisoners with nothing else to do—after all, they are "doing time" and they are not particularly bothered to save it—have every reason to pursue such a vendetta.
Prison officers must be afforded legal aid—as must prisoners. The expense of that is not inconsiderable. Witnesses have to be reimbursed and the implications of cost involved and plain to see. However, I shall not pursue that point now. I know that the Minister is well aware of these matters.
We cannot allow convicted felons serving time in our gaols to yank—whenever the fit might take them—the prison officers in charge of them into court to face trumped up and malicious charges. The rule to which I have referred is introduced to protect prison staff from such mischief and that rule must be reinforced and properly applied. It is not enough to assure prison officers that in any such future cases they will receive legal representation and that their costs will be paid. If widespread resignation of prison staff is to be avoided, if the staff are to be alleviated from this stress and if we are to return to the rule which was framed for their protection a way should be found to restore that rule.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the implications for the prison service of the fact that there have been several recent instances of private prosecutions being initiated by prisoners —or by others acting on their behalf—against prison officers. There have also been one or two instances of prisoners initiating private prosecutions against other prisoners but it is, of course, the private prosecution of prison officers that my hon. Friend is—understandably—most concerned about and it is on that matter that I propose to concentrate.
I can well understand the concern and anxiety of prison staff and their families who faced with the prospect of a prisoner being able to bring an officer before a criminal court as a defendant, when the officer has done no more than carry out in a conscientious and responsible way the difficult work of a prison officer. On the other hand, there have to be safeguards against misconduct by prison staff, and none of us, least of all my hon. Friend, would wish to suggest that prison officers should in any way be above the law.
The first question to be asked, therefore, is whether there exists adequate machinery for prisoners to complain of alleged misconduct by prison officers and for such complaints to be dealt with in a proper manner. Only in the light of the answer to that question can one consider whether the right to bring private prosecutions against prison officers would be a necessary further protection for prisoners or would merely provide an opportunity for unjustified, unnecessary and often malicious harassment of prison officers.
The existing avenues of complaint available to prisoners within the prison system are the right to make an application to the governor, to the board of visitors or to the visiting officer of the Secretary of State and the right of petition to the Secretary of State. Where a complaint amounts to an allegation of serious misconduct against a member of staff the prisoner must naturally provide sufficient details for the complaint to be investigated and is required to do this in writing to the governor.
Normally, such a complaint is investigated internally in the first place by a member of the governor grades of the prison service, but in appropriate cases the investigation may be carried out by a member of the prison service from outside the establishment or referred at the outset to the police. If an internal in- vestigation shows there to be substance in an allegation of criminal conduct, the police are then called in and the ordinary processes of law ensue. I believe that those arrangements are sufficient to ensure that cases of serious misconduct by prison staff are properly dealt with.
Moreover, after a prisoner has made his complaint through the internal channels and the matter has been investigated, it is still open to him to write to his Member of Parliament or to a legal adviser with a view to instituting civil proceedings, and the matter may be aired in that way, even if the prison authorities and the police have decided that there is no case against the staff concerned.
I am aware of the argument that a prisoner's use of the internal procedure for complaints could be inhibited by the existence of the disciplinary offence of making a false and malicious allegation. I emphasise that such charges are rarely brought and in order to be proved require evidence both that the allegation is false and that the prisoner made it knowing it to be false, or recklessly, that is, not caring whether it was true or false.
The prisoner who has good grounds for complaint is not at risk, and where a prisoner genuinely but mistakenly believes that staff have been guilty of misconduct, he is not liable to be charged with making a false and malicious allegation, even if his opinion is not supported on investigation. Those arrangements are designed to ensure that serious allegations are properly investigated, while providing a protection for staff against damaging and unfounded allegations.
In view of the availability of the channels of complaint referred to by my hon. Friend and which I have outlined, it is difficult to see any legitimate justification for the launching by prisoners of private prosecutions against prison officers.
Attempts by prisoners to launch private prosecutions are not entirely new, though until the recent cases to which my hon. Friend has referred, we are aware of none that has resulted in court proceedings. Although prisoners, as a class, are not debarred by law from bringing private prosecutions, rule 33(2) of the 1964 prison rules precludes communication by a prisoner with any outside person without the leave of the Secretary of State, and that is the basis for the long-standing prison standing order I7B1, which provides that prisoners will not be allowed to initiate such proceedings.
Perhaps it is right that I should clarify the position and explain that whereas the prison rules have statutory force, the standing orders do not have statutory force although they are obviously within the limits provided by the prison rules. In any event, the standing order to which my hon. Friend referred provides that prisoners will not be allowed to initiate such proceedings. To this end, governors are instructed to take all necessary steps to ensure that prisoners are not given facilities to achieve that, and do not make use of facilities provided for other purposes.
My hon. Friend will, however, recognise that there can never be any absolute guarantee—as indeed the recent cases to which she referred have demonstrated—that staff will be able invariably to prevent a prisoner instructing a solicitor or a relative to initiate a private prosecution. Despite the precautions that are taken, messages are from time to time smuggled out and except where there is reason to devote special attention, with all the problems for resources that that involves, to the monitoring of a prisoner's visits, much that is said by the prisoner and his visitor will not be heard by prison staff.
In the Birmingham cases to which my hon. Friend referred there was an added but significant complication. The prosecutions were initiated by persons on the outside, but the informations were laid before a magistrate in each case in the name of the prisoner. Thus we were faced with a situation in which, by no direct action of his own, the prisoner had become a private prosecutor—and as such he was legally entitled to all the relevant facilities specified in the prison rules for a party to legal proceedings. I recognise to the full that to a prison officer facing charges arising out of events that occurred in the prison it matters little whether the information was laid in the name of the prisoner or in the name of a person outside acting on his behalf. But my hon. Friend will appreciate that any measures which one might contemplate taking as part of prison administration to prevent prosecutions by prisoners would not necessarily be effective against a person operating from outside.
Where an officer becomes the subject of a private prosecution in the course of his official duties, the Home Office gives speedy and careful consideration to the question of his legal representation or assistance with his legal costs. In each of the three cases that have occurred in the past nine months, the Home Office has offered to arrange legal representation at public expense, or, if the officers had already instructed solicitors, to bear the costs on a criminal legal aid basis.
The criminal law already contains a number of safeguards against malicious or frivolous prosecutions. First and foremost, there is the magistrate's discretion to refuse to issue process when an information is laid before him, He does not have to issue a summons automatically. If a summons is issued the defendant may contest the charge in summary trial or, in the case of an offence that may be tried at the Crown court, contest the committal proceedings and submit that there is no case to answer.
There is also the power of the Director of Public Prosecutions to take over a prosecution and, if he considers it inappropriate to proceed, to offer no evidence. The Attorney-General may also intervene and enter a nolle prosequi, though this power is used only rarely.
Further deterrents to malicious or frivolous prosecutions lie in the unsuccessful prosecutor's liability for costs or for civil damages for malicious prosecution. In certain circumstances there may be the possibility of prosecuting for perjury the prisoner and any witnesses called on his behalf. It would also be possible for a prisoner who had brought an unsuccessful prosecution against a prison officer, or who had appeared as a witness in a prosecution brought by someone outside the prison, to be charged with the disciplinary offence of making a false and malicious allegation if the circumstances warranted that.
I welcome the opportunity to make it quite clear that if a prosecution is brought, in spite of the instructions laid down in the orders relating to the conduct of prisoners, there are sanctions which can be readily used.
Although we believe that these safeguards in general operate satisfactorily, either as deterrents to exclude unfounded prosecutions or to cut them short when instituted, and prevent the abuse in the calling of witnesses to which my hon. Friend referred, we have considered in what other ways private prosecutions against prison staff might be restricted.
One possibility would be to require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions to such prosecutions. Attractive though this may appear, it carries certain disadvantages, and by that I mean disadvantages for prison officers as much as for anyone else. The essence of the existing safeguards to which I have referred is that unfounded charges, if they even reach a court, are likely to be sifted out fairly quickly.
However, I doubt whether prison staff would welcome a position where they knew that allegations had been made to the Director of Public Prosecutions, which he in turn would be bound to pass to the police for investigation if they had not already been the subject of police inquiries, with the inevitable consequence of the allegations hanging over the heads of the officers for even longer than applies at present.
It would also be unusual to have legislation imposing the obligation that the Director of Public Prosecutions should give his consent for such prosecutions because, although there are a number of statutes requiring such consent, invariably these operate in relation to specified offences rather than in favour of a particular class of defendants. A change in this direction could well lead other groups of persons such as police officers and doctors who find themselves in a similarly vulnerable position to seek similar treatment.
Even if a half-way course were adopted and prosecutions of prison officers by prisoners did not actually require the consent of the DPP but were merely referred to him with a view to his intervention and direction that no evidence be offered, he would still feel obliged, I am advised, to refer the matter to the police for investigation and report. Not only would this lead to a considerable increase in police investigations within prisons; it would also tend to lengthen the time scale during which the prison officers would be subjected to suspicion. I imagine that neither of these developments would be welcomed by the staff.
Whilst I fully recognise the very real fears and anxieties of prison officers to which my hon. Friend has given expression this evening, I believe it is important that we should keep this matter in perspective. We know at present of only a very small number or cases—three in fact—in which private prosecutions have been successfully launched even against prison officers, and in none of these cases to date has the prosecution resulted in a full trial, let along the conviction of a prison officer. In the light of this experience, I do not believe it can be said that the existing well tried procedures and safeguards aimed at preventing prisoners from instituting private prosecutions while providing adequate internal remedies for complaints against prison staff are seriously defective. We shall of course continue to watch the situation very carefully and be ready to respond if it appears that in spite of the regulations and in spite of the protections prisoners are succeeding in circumventing the present restrictions.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter, and I hope that she and the Prison Officers' Association will accept my assurance that we shall continue to give all possible support to staff who may be placed in the position of having to defend actions justifiably taken in the course of their duties.