Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Orders of the Day — Kevin Capenhurst

– in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 27th February 1986.

Alert me about debates like this

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

10 pm

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

I am happy to have the opportunity to raise on the adjournment the tragic case of my constituent, Kevin Capenhurst, aged 17. Kevin Capenhurst was suffering from terminal cancer while imprisoned in the Glen Parva young offenders' centre. He was released only after I had made a series of representations to the Government. Were it not for the intervention in particular of the Leicester Mercury, which informed me of Kevin's case, Kevin would no doubt have died in prison, as the system does not ensure that the Ministers responsible for prisons and young offenders are informed in good time when inmates are suffering from terminal illness. The result is that Ministers do not take steps to obtain the release of such people.

The system's lack of compassion and its inhumanity applies whether the House and the Government are dealing with a 17-year-old youngster or a much older person. I submit that, where it is known that someone in detention will shortly die, to keep that person away from the dignity and decency of a death in freedom lacks kindness, compassion and common sense.

Kevin Capenhurst was the victim of the kind of life with which society has not learnt to cope. He came from a frequently broken home which lacked the stability enjoyed by most people. Kevin spent much of his childhood and youth in a series of institutions where good people tried to care for him, without great success. He emerged into adolescence as a young criminal who was sentenced for a series of crimes, some of which involved violence. Kevin ended up at Glen Parva convicted of mugging. He was a tough, difficult young offender.

After Kevin had been in Glen Parva for some months he complained that he was ill. His mother told me that she received letters from Kevin in which he complained that his symptons were treated as if he was skiving and that he did not receive prompt attention. In due course, his illness was diagnosed as a rare form of terminal cancer. Instead of being referred at once to the Minister in charge of prisons, his case was not dealt with adequately or at all and only reached the attention of the Minister through me.

I pay tribute, as I have done before, to the speed with which Lord Glenarthur, the Minister then concerned, stepped in. Lord Glenarthur telephoned and gave instructions while on holiday, saw me at short notice and assessed whether it would be safe for this young man to be out of prison. When he was satisfied that it would be safe and that Kevin had somewhere to go, he ensured his release.

Once the Minister took note, he also took steps. My complaint is that there is apparently no efficient system to deal with such cases; there was no system; and nothing so far as I know has been done since Kevin's death to ensure that a system will be created. What are Her Majesty's Government proposing to do to prevent others from dying in prison when they should be released, whatever their age may be? What lessons, if any, have been learnt from the death of this young man?

As a result of Kevin's release, he was able to spend several months in freedom. He was treated in the Leicester royal infirmary with great kindness and care. He went to Lourdes by ambulance and told me how thrilled he had been to be wheeled around in his bed to the grotto. He said, "I have at least achieved something in my life."

Before he died, Kevin was admitted by the Leicester Organisation for the Relief of Suffering, known locally as LOROS, into the new hospice, which had not existed when Kevin was first diagnosed as terminally ill. I pay my public tribute to the people whose devotion has created this hospice, and to those who work in it. It has made a vast difference to the dignity of the life of Leicester people. I also pay tribute to the nuns who run St. Joseph's hospice in London, who were prepared to take, look after and love Kevin in his last days. There are not enough of such institutions.

Unfortunately, the matter does not end there. I wish to use this opportunity to bring to the Government's attention what happens and what happened in the medical section of Glen Parva. I went to see Kevin on Thursday 8 August last year. I was accompanied by two of my assistants, Martin Hutchings and David Metzgero. I say that because of their corroboration of what occurred. We were to see the forensic psychiatrist who was in attendance and who said that chemotherapy was essential but Kevin was refusing to continue with it and that he had a major obstruction—a primary tumour—which needed removal, but he would not agree to the operation. I asked why, and the doctor said that he thought that it was because, perhaps, he thought that if his condition deteriorated his prospects of release would be greater. I asked whether, in those circumstances the doctor would wish me to speak to the boy about it, and he said, "Yes, that would be a good idea."

I went upstairs, where I was shown into a lounge. Kevin was brought in looking very thin, but bright and uncomplaining. A prison officer in the corridor stared at us through the glass throughout the entire interview. That was not for our protection, because the boy could not have knocked down a nine pin, never mind us, but an act of discourtesy that we very much resented.

I told Kevin about the operation and he asked about it. I convinced him that he should accept the advice that he had been given. He told me of the awful side effects of chemotherapy but denied having refused it. He told me that he had never refused an operation, but, in the circumstances that I have described, he would welcome it if it would extend his life. I then had a similar conversation with his mother outside, explaining the need for the operation.

The House will be shocked as I was to learn, as I did from the doctor to whom I spoke at the Leicester royal infirmary, that at the date when I was requested to speak to the boy and ask him to undergo, by agreement, an operation, he was inoperable, and the prison authorities had been informed that he was inoperable. This is one of the most callous and unkind events that I have come across in my public life. It also did much to remove some of the confidence that this lad ought to have had in his Member of Parliament. I was asked to persuade him to have an operation when he was inoperable, although in any event he said he had been and was prepared to have it.

Eventually, the head of the prison medical service attended a meeting with the Minister and Mr. Hutchings in the Minister's office and various excuses were made, none of which I accept. There is no excuse. There ought to have been an apology and the Minister should provide one, along with an explanation and the assurance that such things will not be permitted to recur.

I wish that this House did not have to deal with cases like Kevin's, but this place in its glory looks after individuals and their families and hon. Members who care are enabled through Adjournment debates to raise cases that concern individuals. Kevin's case goes much further than his individual problem, because it reflects on the failure of society to cope, and because it throws into sharp relief a system that is wicked and ought to be changed. It is a system in which dying people, however much harm they have caused, are not permitted out of prison when it is safe for them to be out. Kevin was released only after the intervention of his Member of Parliament. I thank again the Leicester Mercury and Mr. Laurie Simpkin for his help in the campaign to have Kevin released.

After three months, Kevin died. I visited him often in the LOROS hospice and it was amazing to see that he almost a skeleton, was capable of living. This boy whose life had been a misery and who had caused unhappiness to many other people never complained during his last three months. He never argued but accepted what he knew was to come and nothing became him more in life than his way of passing from it. I salute the courage with which he faced the end of his life and with which he bore his pain and his tragedy. I hope that his life and his death will be used as an example, and that the Minister and his colleagues will be encouraged, for the sake of all of us who cared about him, to take to heart at least some of the lessons to be learnt from that life and death.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Ribble Valley 10:13 pm, 27th February 1986

It is sad that tonight we should be debating the case of a young man who was only 17 when he died last October. Unfortunately, people sometimes die of illness when in prison, and, although there are arrangements for the early release of prisoners or detainees who are terminally ill, there are bound to be cases where people die suddenly before such arrangements are put into effect.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) asks what is being done to prevent others from dying in prison. The answer has to be that no steps can be taken to prevent entirely the possibility of people dying in prison. Before a convicted person can be released early on grounds of illness, the Home Secretary has to recommend to Her Majesty that action be taken through exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy to relieve him of the effects, or part of the effects, of his conviction: and it was under the power that on 21 August 1985 Kevin Capenhurst was released early from his sentence of three and half years' detention, which had been imposed on him as recently as 25 January last year.

The prison standing orders set out the circumstances under which the medical officer of a prison should present the case for consideration for early release; and when he is of the opinion that the illness of a prisoner is likely to result in his death within a brief period, or that he is likely to be bedridden or incapacitated until his earliest date of release, he is required to submit a report to the directorate of prison medical services and to officials in the criminal department of the Home Office. The medical officer should also be of the opinion that the prisoner's illness or physical condition means that risk of further offending is past, and he must be sure that he is in a fit state to be moved.

In deciding whether to make a recommendation to Her Majesty, the Home Secretary must also take account of such matters as the nature of the offence or offences, the criminal record of the prisoner, the length of the sentence and the time left to serve.

When a prisoner benefits from this exercise of the royal prerogative, he is free from all the consequences of his offence, and free from the control of the prison authorities. But there is no question of terminally ill prisoners being released to fend for themselves. In all cases, every effort is made to ensure that there are proper arrangements for a person's care. We make sure that he has relatives or friends who will be able and willing to take care of him on release, or we ensure that he is discharged to the care of a hospital or other suitable place such as a hostel or hospice.

It is true that Capenhurst was not released until after the hon. and learned Gentleman had taken an interest in the case, but I must make it absolutely plain that the question whether Capenhurst should be granted early release was already under consideration in the last week of July, before the hon. and learned Gentleman came on the scene. Inquiries were in hand to establish what arrangements could be made for Capenhurst's care in the event of his release. They included inquiries as to his home circumstances, but it was always envisaged that he might have to return to Leicester royal infirmary, which is what happened, before he went to the hospice.

Of course, a decision on whether a person should be released may be difficult to make. Even if someone is fatally ill, it may be very difficult for doctors to make a firm prognosis until death is fairly close. The hon. and learned Gentleman made a sweeping statement, which ignored entirely the obvious difficulty, when he said that it lacked common sense to keep someone in prison who was likely to die.

However, that does not mean that, as a matter of policy, people are not released early until they have but a few days or weeks to live. Cases are considered and prisoners released early even where the life expectancy may be many months. Each case is considered on its merits. All the criteria I have listed must be considered together. In different cases, different factors may be of significance. Thus it may be necessary to pay special attention to the nature of the offences and the risk of further offending.

Although cases where a dying prisoner is released early are not frequent, they are not especially rare or unusual. There are about five or six a year. So our practices are well tested and seem to have worked well in the past, with deserving cases not being ignored or passed over. They also seem to have worked properly and been applied sympathetically in the case of Kevin Capenhurst, in that when a firm prognosis as to his life expectancy was given, his release was immediately authorised. Of course, the future looked bleak from the time of the young man's operation, but it was a rare form of cancer—especially rare for such a young man. His life expectancy was clearly extremely difficult to judge. All that Dr. Phipps at the infirmary could say at the end of July was that Capenhurst was unlikely to live for more than two years. Even so, by that time, the case was under consideration with a view to his early release. I ought to say something about the hon. and learned Member's dealings with the senior medical officer at Glen Parva. There was a misunderstanding between the hospital and the medical officer, who understood a letter from the consultant radiotherapist to mean that further operation was not possible because of difficulty in persuading Kevin Capenhurst to accept treatment. I am sorry that that resulted in the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting to Capenhurst that he should undergo an operation which was not medically possible at that time. I do not believe, however, that that misunderstanding, although unfortunate and distressing, shows a general problem with communication between medical professions in the prison service and the National Health Service. Nor do I think that it shows that, in this case, there was a complete failure of communication. There was a misunderstanding about what was meant in the letter from the hospital.

As to our procedures and practices, they were last reviewed as recently as 1979. Even so, we have taken the opportunity to re-examine them. Although I do not believe that this case has shown up any serious deficiencies, we will make some small modifications to improve and speed up consultation and consideration. For example, we will ensure that Home Office cases which are clearly urgent are marked as such. We will emphasise the need to exercise judgments as quickly and humanely as possible. We are also considering whether advice to the prison authorities may be clarified and improved and whether there might be a need to remind medical officers from time to time of the existence of guidance.

Bearing in mind the number of these cases, prison authorities and their medical officers do not always have frequent experience of them. Their first concern as medical practitioners is the care and treatment of a patient. We will also conduct a review of potential cases by examining a sample, which will include all prisoners who are identified as seriously rather than terminally ill, to confirm that merit-worthy cases for early release are not inadvertently overlooked.

I am confident that our practices are not deficient, but I am glad to have had the opportunity to listen to the hon. and learned Member's views in the light of his experience with this case.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West

I thank the Minister for giving way and for what I regard as potentially substantial modifications in procedure. Do the changes include notification of the Minister about those who are diagnosed as suffering from a terminal illness?

The Minister has said throughout that consideration was given and will be given, but he has not said by whom. When a person is dying while effectively in the protection of the Home Office, the Minister should be informed. The matter should not be left to a prison medical officer or even to the prison medical service. It should go to those who are elected and who are answerable to the House.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Ribble Valley

As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, I do not have the day-to-day handling of these cases. This much at least is clear in my mind. There must be rules and instructions as to when the medical officer in a prison recommends that a person be released.

I have summarised the sort of criteria that have to be applied by the prison medical officer. That is the first stage. There have to be rules telling the medical officer when he should refer. When he refers, he is referring the case out of the prison to the Home Office. As to whether a case when referred to the Home Office comes straight on to the Minister's desk, I am not qualified to say. The hon. and learned Gentleman will realise my difficulty. I will check with my noble Friend and ask him to reply by letter to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not want to find that I have been in error, although I think I know what happens in these cases. I have had the opportunity of looking at the instructions and practices which are carried out. I do not think there is any evidence that they are deficient.

This has been an interesting debate. It has given me the opportunity of pointing out that certain changes have taken place, although they are not of a major sort. It gives me the opportunity to thank the hon. and learned Gentleman not only for having raised the case but also for having taken a close interest in the welfare of this young man and for having gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure that he could go into a hospice when he was moved from a hospital in Leicester.

It is appropriate that I should end my remarks by voicing my thanks to the learned and hon. Gentleman, but I think that I have also, in a friendly and co-operative spirit, rebutted some of the rather exaggerated criticisms that he made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o' clock.