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Prison, Grendon Underwood

Volume 531: debated on Wednesday 28 July 1954

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11.18 p.m.

I am very grateful for this opportunity of raising a matter which is not only of very great importance to many of my constituents and the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Sir F. Markham), but is also of considerable urgency. I do not think it will be necessary for me to detain the House very long, and that, in the light of some noises off which I detected a few moments ago, may provide some comfort to hon. Gentlemen.

There is one matter which I must mention before I come to the main argument that I want to advance by way of protest against the decision of the Home Secretary to proceed, despite objections lodged at a public inquiry, with the erection of a large walled prison in a rural part of Buckinghamshire for non-certifiable psychiatric prisoners.

Owing to the change in the time-table, it has not been found possible for the Minister to be available; nor, indeed, would there have been very much time for him to go into it in any detail. I hope that when he has had an opportunity of studying what I have to say he will put in writing the views of the Department on the matter. I assure him that the same local publicity which may be given to anything that I may say will be given to anything that he may convey to me in writing.

It is no part of my purpose to reiterate at any length the arguments which were advanced at the public inquiry as to why it was objectionable for the Prison Commissioners to choose the particular site known as Grendon Underwood to erect this walled prison. I shall content myself with saying that the objections were unanimous, and came from the county council, the rural district council and every other local organisation, and many individuals. Stress was laid upon the destruction of the rural character of the area; on the effect upon the recruiting of farm labour and the deterioration in the value of the land, and attention was drawn to the fact that many comparable establishments already existed there, and the general effect upon the neighbourhood was also mentioned.

I want to stress the historical fact that a year ago, on virtually the same site, the Prison Commissioners sought to erect an open prison. Local opinion was then divided. The plan was supported by the county council, and the Prison Commissioners finally went on without a public inquiry. At the time considerable local feeling was aroused. In the interval, the people living in the area have become reassured that their fears were misplaced; they have learnt to live alongside the open prison with great good will. It is, therefore, with special regret that they view the proposed advent of a walled prison which will destroy the good will so recently built up.

In a letter dated 1st July, which I have here, the Minister gave the reasons why, despite the objections lodged, he felt it necessary—together with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government—to authorise the Prison Commissioners to go on with the plan. In effect, the Minister gave three reasons for that decision. First, he said there would be local opposition wherever the prison was sited, and that his experience showed that it was generally grossly exaggerated. It seems rather futile to go through the motions of holding a public inquiry—when opportunities for local objections are given—if the response to those objections is, "We knew that was coming. Wherever we made this proposal the same objections would be raised."

Secondly, it was contended that the local population ought not to mind, because the lie of the land was such that the new buildings would be able to be seen only from one direction, so that very few people would notice that the prison was there. To rely upon what one can see as the test of the extent to which a proposal is objectionable is completely to miss the point of the feeling in the district that this area will be completely changed by the advent of a large, walled prison of this character, with a staff of about 300, the local conditions of security being what they are.

Thirdly—and this is the reason I want to stress—it was contended that the site was so eminently suitable that the objections would be overruled. Local opinion has been tested at the public inquiry, and in my intervention tonight I want to ask the Minister to subject the Prison Commissioners' proposals to the same kind of scrutiny as he gave to the objections of local people at the public inquiry.

I consider that they are not justified in their attitude. First, it is contended that they have searched elsewhere and that no alternative site has been found. I am informed that those searches have been to specifications which include a large mansion only a site with a suitable mansion on it could be eligible, I understand. I contend that that is a set of provisions far too restricted. Secondly, it was said that the site must be within 60 miles of London, and the reason why it must be within 60 miles of London was that it might be sufficiently near to London that consultants could go there when required.

I should prefer that the needs of the public in the district should be considered ahead of the needs of the prisoners or of the consultants who may have to go there. If their visits are so regular let the persons dealing with that work be resident in the place. If they visit the place seldom what difference does it make if they motor there from London in two hours or three? It seems to me that it is for Departmental convenience only that the place must be within 60 miles of London. I suggest that far more attention should be paid to the impact of such a proposed plan upon the public and far less to Departmental convenience, and still less to the welfare of the prisoners themselves.

It is from that point of view I want the Secretary of State to look into this matter. At the moment, far too much attention is paid to what the Prison Commissioners regard as the only way they can develop an additional prison. This seems to me to be another case, such as we have heard of in other contexts, of disregard of the rights of the local people. Insufficient attention is paid to them in the carrying out of this business. So I ask the Home Secretary to look at this again, to apply a fresh test apart from that he applied when he rejected the objections at the local inquiry and to challenge the premise on which the decision is based. If he will do that, then there is some chance that common sense and sound views may yet prevail, rather than bad planning and Departmental convenience.

11.28 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers) has made out a powerful case why the Secretary of State should reconsider the siting of this prison. I represent a constituency that is geographically some distance from this village, but which shares in an even more acute form than my hon. Friend's constituency the peril of being overflowed into from the Metropolitan area. I am very glad to see present on the Government Front Bench six Ministers. That shows with what importance this matter is regarded. I am very happy to see the Treasury so powerfully represented. And there are four Members present on the Opposition benches.

If it is quality that counts I am sorry to see that the Opposition Front Bench is empty. It shows how little regard the leaders of the Labour Party have for rural amenities. However, this is a matter that looms large in the minds of the people directly concerned. It is not a small thing when in a little village, an overpowering development of this kind is undertaken. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, there has been no lack of broad vision on the part of the local people in balancing national and local considerations. Not only has the prison without walls, which is already there, been accepted without demur, but it has been given a positive welcome. Now, it is suggested that this further substantial development of the same category should be imposed upon this neighbourhood. It can only mean that a small rural community will be almost overwhelmed by the exaggeration of development which is involved in this proposal.

I am told also that 75 acres of good agricultural land will be sacrificed if this development takes place. It is known, of course, that the Vale of Aylesbury contains some of the finest agricultural land in the country. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, whom I see present, will intervene later upon this aspect. I hope that the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury will ensure that no public funds are available for a project so damaging in its implications.

I only hope that the questions which my hon. Friend has put forward will reach the eyes of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, in whose direct control this matter lies, and that he will reconsider the very weighty objections put forward, not only by the village community in their natural anxieties, but also by the Buckinghamshire County Council, which certainly has not taken a parochial view of this matter since it welcomed the open prison and has objected only upon closely argued considerations to the building of the walled prison which is now to follow unless some Ministerial intervention prevents it.

There is much in what the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Summers) and Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) have said to which I could object, but the occupants of the benches opposite look so tired and weary that it would be in the best interests of the House if they were now allowed to go home.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee tomorrow.