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Norman Fairfowl (Reformatory School Detention)

Volume 155: debated on Monday 12 June 1922

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Colonel Leslie Wilson.]

I am sorry to detain the House for a few minutes, but one of the glories of the House of Commons is that it looks after the interests of the humblest member of the community. The matter I wish to bring before the House is one on which I asked a question to-day. It relates to a boy of 15 who has been sent to a reformatory for four years for giving way to the temptation in a chop to take a pocket-book, which turned out to contain money. The case has, I understand, been brought before the Secretary for Scotland by the hon. Member for Inverness (Sir M. Macdonald), in whose constituency the boy lives. Thu people in the locality held a public meeting, but they have exhausted their resources, as the Secretary for Scotland can see no reason to interfere with the judgment of the Sheriff's substitute. Therefore, the chairman of the meeting asked me to bring the matter before the House of Commons. Perhaps I had better read a few paragraphs from the letter of the chairman, who is a London physician, but who happens to be living in that locality at present, and in whose word I place the greatest reliance:

"This boy, who is only 15 years of age and attending school, went recently into the shop of Ewen Macfarlane, Edenbane, to buy some cigarettes. On seeing a pocketbook and purse lying on the counter, he, no one being in attendance, picked up the pocket-book and handled it, and hearing someone corning, hurriedly slipped it into his pocket, being totally ignorant of its contents, and with a sixpence he had from the schoolmistress bought his cigarettes and went away. Unfortunately, the pocketbook contained some £14 odd in notes, etc., and had been inadvertently left on the counter, I am told, after some money transactions with a commercial traveller had been completed. On being missed, he, as the only one, or the last who had been in the shop that evening, was suspected, and, on being faced the following morning by the policeman, who lives in Macfarlane's house, admitted his fault and delivered up the book with contents intact."
I know that the Secretary for Scotland says that the pocket-book was not intact; but my case does not depend upon that at all. When the theft was discovered, a neighbour asked the boy why he did not return the pocket-book, and he said that he got frightened, and it was fright that prevented him from returning it. Later, the boy was charged with the offence, and, thinking that the matter would be treated leniently, his friends advised him to plead guilty, because they naturally assumed that he would be treated under the First Offenders Act. They were, however, amazed to hear that a sentence of four years' detention in a reformatory was inflicted. I know that reformatories are not so bad as they used to be in the past, but the same class of criminals is still sent there. A Judge told me the other day that he never knew of a boy being sent to a reformatory for a first offence, and I have never heard of such a case before. This boy bore an excellent character. The schoolmistress says that be was one of the best boys in the school, and the neighbours have passed a resolution protesting against the severity of the sentence.

I am sure this boy would have been taught a quite sufficient lesson by being admonished by the Court, but instead of this he has been sent for four years to a reformatory and his life will be ruined in consequence, to say nothing of the perpetual disgrace. His father is a joiner, and his parents are highly respectable and honourable people, and they will, naturally, feel the continued disgrace of their boy being four years in a reformatory and having to pay 4s. a week during his detention in that institution. I do not want to use strong language, because I believe that most sheriffs and judges try to do their duty, but this sheriff has recently come to the place where a theft of this sort is of very rare occurrence, and, therefore, there was no reason why he should give a lesson to the rest of the community by inflicting a savage sentence of this sort. I am not going to discuss whether the boy stole these articles or not. My point is that when the boy went into this shop he had no intention of stealing. He did not know that the pocket book was on the counter, and it was a sudden temptation. The boy succumbed to temptation, but surely this was not the way to punish him. I read in an English paper this morning an account of a case in which very different treatment was meted out to the offender. In that case a man was convicted of obtaining a motor cycle and £5 with intent to defraud. He pleaded guilty, and the magistrate said that he would take the risk of criticism which suggested that he was showing favour to the well-to-do, for he considered that the man had yielded to sudden temptation. He would remand him in custody for a month, so that if by that time permanent work had been found for him he would be released. In that case the man was 27 years of age. His offence was committed two years ago, and he cheated his own aunt by using her cheque book. The man was well connected, but as the magistrate said he had evidently given way to sudden temptation, and he was thus leniently dealt with. Yet this poor boy in Skye, the son of respectable parents, has been sent for four years to the most degrading form of punishment I know of. I do think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland ought to have listened with more sympathy to the appeal made to him by the hon. Member for Inverness. He should use whatever authority he possesses to let this boy go free and to give him a chance of making up for this sudden lapse from the integrity he had hitherto shown. I hope my right hon. Friend has not said his last word on this subject. In not letting this boy down he will not be letting himself down. By tempering justice with mercy he will be promoting the cause of justice, and he will not perpetuate this savage punishment.

I rise to support the expression of opinion which the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Dr. Murray) has given with regard to this case. He has said, and I think rightly so, that an unduly harsh sentence has been passed on this boy. I have received quite a number of letters on the subject from my constituents, and in passing them on to the Secretary for Scotland I asked the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider, if possible, the decision come to in this case. Before he expresses his opinion I should like to say that shortly I am going to the Island of Skye, and I hope, if possible, to examine the evidence afresh, as I understand there is some discrepancy between the evidence in the possession of my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles and myself, and that which I understand the Secretary for Scotland placed before the House this afternoon. If it should so happen that on examining again the evidence on the spot, I should be able to make a new and a better case, I hope the Secretary for Scotland will not say anything in the House to-night which would preclude a re-examination of the case, should I be able again to present it to him.

I have no difficulty at all in giving the undertaking which my hon. Friend asks me to give, namely, that if he is able to present any new facts with regard to this case, it shall be fully and seriously reconsidered in the light of those new facts. So far, however, as the present facts of the case are concerned, I have no doubt at all as to what my duty is. I have given the most careful and repeated consideration to this casein the first place, after the representations which were made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness (Sir M. Macdonald) and in the second place after the representations which have been made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Dr. Murray). The sentence may at first sight appear to be a harsh one, but one has always to remember there are two ingredients in every sentence which is pronounced in a criminal Court. The first is that due punishment of the offender shall be meted out. The second is that the sentence shall be a deterrent to other persons in the same position as the offender. [HON. MEMBERS: Children!"] We are not dealing with children here; we are dealing with a youth of 15, whose father was present in Court and assented to the plea of guilty which he then presented. These are the two ingredients in every sentence pronounced in a criminal Court. What are the facts in this particular case so far as they are known to me? There is no evidence, so far as the Sheriff Substitute is concerned, that the act was committed on a sudden impulse. You are dealing with a boy of 15 who stole £15. That is not a light offence. He pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing £15, and his father was present in court and assented to the plea of guilty.

Did the boy know he was stealing £15, or think that he was merely taking a certain packet which he saw on the table?

I should have thought that a boy who took £15 from a drawer, even though he lived in the Western Isles, would fully appreciate what he was doing.

The money was in a drawer at the time, and seeing that he was a boy of 15, and knowing the intelligence of those who live in the Western Isles as well as my hon. Friend, I think he must have fully appreciated the nature of his act. He pleaded guilty to the charge, and his father was present when the charge was brought. My hon. Friend has suggested that he might have been placed under the First Offenders' Act. That, however, was a matter for the Sheriff Substitute to deal with. I have no doubt that the Sheriff Substitute—an experienced judge—must have had these possibilities before him. He reports to me that this was a boy who lived at home, but whose father, a joiner, following a quite honourable occupation, was almost never at home. His mother was in poor health, and accordingly the Sheriff Substitute thought it best, in the interests of the boy himself, that he should be placed in a reformatory rather than in a prison. So far as the punishment is concerned, looking to the nature of the offence, to which an unqualified plea of guilty was tendered, it was not excessive. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] That is a matter of opinion, and at any rate, that is my opinion. Apart from that there is the question of the deterrent influence of a sentence of this nature passed in a locality with regard to which the Sheriff Substitute reports—differing from my hon. Friend—that there has been a prevalence of such crimes by young people recently. That consideration undoubtedly, and I think properly, influenced the Sheriff and it influences me. I am asked to quash this sentence. That is the only thing I can do. I cannot place this boy under the First Offender's Act. I cannot diminish the punishment which has been appointed to him in the reformatory.

You are asking me to do a thing which is quite impossible under the powers I possess. I cannot reduce the sentence to a reformatory. I cannot sentence him to be imprisoned, and I cannot order that he should be re-tried. Accordingly, the only alternative open to me is that I should entirely quash the sentence and acquit the prisoner of the crime to which he has pleaded guilty. I do not consider that that is in accordance with the duty that lies upon me as Secretary for Scotland. I want to put before the House the grounds upon which the Sheriff, who is an experienced Judge, and has presented me with a most careful report on the whole matter, reached the conclusion which he has reached. He says:

"In the present case, I respectfully submit, first, that the boy is likely to have a better chance in life by being sent to a reformatory."
[Interruption.] The Sheriff has a better opportunity to judge of the home and the reformatory than any Member of this House. [An HON. MEMBER: "When it is a poor boy it is always that cry!"] That is a wholly irrelevant and improper observation; neither riches nor poverty have the slightest bearing. The second ground on which the Sheriff proceeded is that the theft of a substantial sum of money cannot be regarded as trifling, and the threat of relegation to a reformatory is the most suitable punishment and a substantial deterrent for any young persons who are too old to be whipped and too young to be imprisoned. I submit that the Sheriff Substitute in this case exercised, on the facts submitted to him, a wise discretion. If my hon. Friend, after his visit to Skye, has any new facts to place before me, I am most willing to reconsider the case in the light of those facts.

It is a confidential report which has been made to me, and it would be contrary to all tradition to publish it.

I think my right hon. Friend must have been conscious, while he was speaking, that the sense of the majority of Members of the House was rather against the position he has taken up. It was not only on this side, but it was general. I, therefore, hope that he will—I think he has power to do it—suspend the despatch of this boy to a Borstal home or a reformatory very many miles away from the Island of Skye until the hon. Member for Inverness (Sir M: Macdonald), who represents the Island of Skye, has further investigated the matter and submitted to my right hon. Friend fresh facts. That, I am certain, can be done, and I hope it will be done. I am certain, from my own knowledge, which is very wide and extensive, of the sentencing of young persons, that that kind of sentence stands almost alone in the practice of the last few years.

I am sorry that I do not agree with my right hon. Friend in regard to his last observation, and I can claim to have as much, if not more, experience in these matters. As regards his proposal, it is impossible to accede to it, because the boy has already been sent to a reformatory. I cannot possibly suspend the sentence, and I can only repeat to my right hon. Friend the undertaking which I have given to my hon. Friend, that I am quite willing to reconsider the case in the light of fresh facts.

It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'Clock.