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Paul Lehair (Death In Custody)

Volume 990: debated on Thursday 7 August 1980

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.—[ Mr. Waddington.]

12.13 am

I wish to raise the question of the death of Paul Lehair, the son of a constituent of mine. On 19 June 1979, Paul Lehair, a young man aged about 20, was convicted of taking away a motor vehicle, theft and breach of a suspended sentence connected with theft. He was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and taken to Wormwood Scrubs. Five days later he was dead.

Paul Lehair was placed in a cell with Vincent Smith. Smith had been sentenced to life imprisonment at the Northampton Crown court for the murder of Nicolais Feodorus, who had been attacked by Smith on a park bench in Oxford and stabbed and beaten to death. Although Smith pleaded not guilty, the court found otherwise, and by the time Paul Lehair joined him in his cell he had served 18 months of his sentence.

At Smith's trial for the murder of Paul Lehair, the prison doctor, Dr. Elmo Jacobs, said that Smith had a history of psychiatric problems since he was eight. He was an adopted child of a couple who claimed that he had been in trouble since he was a child. He was in and out of institutions most of his teenage life because he was unmanageable in ordinary schools. Dr. Jacobs, according to the press at the time, said:
"Smith has a severe and persistent disturbance of personality with abnormally violent conduct which diminishes responsibility. This is called a psychopathic disorder."
Almost immediately upon his first committal to prison, Paul Lehair was placed in the cell of a young man aged 20 who had a long and known history of psychopathic disorder and was in prison for a brutal murder.

The character of the man was known to the prison authorities apart from his original offence. At the trial it was stated that a senior prison officer had expressed the fear that Smith would
"perpetuate acts of violence which could result in the death of either a prison officer or an inmate."
Smith apparently complained of homicidal tendencies in 1978 and again in 1979. Defence counsel at Smith's second trial, apparently without challenge, stated that
"there was a series of acts of violence on the part of Smith, both concerning prison officers and other prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs. In one he started smashing things up and attacked a prison officer with a fork."
Three days after Lehair joined him, Smith told the prison authorities that he disliked Lehair
"because he did not wash"
and asked for him to be moved. Although it was said at Smith's trial that plans were made to move Lehair, in fact nothing was done in time and on the night of 23 June 1979 Smith strangled Paul Lehair with the sleeve of his pyjamas.

Paul Lehair's mother—Mrs. Irene Travis—is a constituent of mine. She came to see me after Smith's trial.

Before continuing with the story, I want to make a general point. Nobody connected with this debate wants to harass the prison staff. I understand the difficulties that they have in making a judgment, particularly in overcrowded conditions. We have therefore throughout this matter tried to conduct our inquiries quietly. We made no attempt to raise the matter while it was sub judice.

Smith was convicted on 28 January and his solicitor, Mr. Geoffrey Miller, got in touch with me on 31 January. Since that time we have both been pressing the Home Office on a number of occasions for answers to our questions. We have accepted the need not to be unfair to those making the inquiries and we have kept our representations private, but we have got very inadequate results. Neither the solicitor nor I got any answers, and Paul's mother has heard nothing since immediately following his death.

On 5 June I was getting nowhere. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister what this means. Following the murder last year there were extensive enquiries. At Smith's trial the inquiries were still not complete after six months. The recorder at Smith's trial then asked the Home Office
"to look very carefully into this matter."
The Home Office said that it would take note of the recorder's remarks.

I had been promised a reply, which had still not materialised 12 months after the murder and five months after the trial. After the Under-Secretary's latest stonewalling letter, which I received on 9 June, I rang his office and made clear that if I did not receive a reply the following week I would raise the matter in the House. The reply came the following week, on 17 June. I may be forgiven for believing that that was a strange coincidence.

The delay that accompanied this inquiry inevitably raises suspicions that there was something to hide. When it arrived, the answer said that the investigation was complete and—I quote from the letter:
"We have come to the conclusion that it could not reasonably have been foreseen that Vincent Smith would behave as he did and we are satisfied that the prison authorities acted reasonably in deciding they should share a cell."
My question to the Home Secretary in the House on 24 July received the same reply.

I am here tonight to say that that reply was quite unsatisfactory. According to my hon. Friend's reply of 21 July, the governor, in deciding who should share a cell, takes account of all relevant information, including the inmates' history and character. I understand that a newcomer would normally be placed in a position—possibly in the prison hospital—for his character to be assessed. It would be most unusual to allocate a young man on first sentence for a minor offence to the cell of a man with a record since the age of eight, and even more unusual to put him in a cell with a man with pronounced and well-known violent tendencies. Even if it were not expected that he would murder again, it is inevitable that we should question whether it was a normal and reasonable coupling. In this case, apparently almost immediately, the decision was taken to mix Smith with Lehair—in other words, to mix murder with a minor offence.

I realise that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary may be receiving advice to protect his legal position, as Mr. Travis's solicitors have claimed general damages and some minor damages in connection with the funeral. It is inevitable, however, that the stone-faced attitude of the Home Office in this matter should make Mrs. Travis think in terms of compensation, especially in view of the distress that she suffered immediately after the death. At that time, although it was subsequently explained, she was distressed by the non-attendance at the funeral of a prison representative and by the way in which Paul's belongings were treated. But compensation is not the main issue. The central issue is that Mrs. Travis has had no reasonable explanation. Indeed, apart from the original letter from the deputy governor, she has had no word at all.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will use this opportunity to answer some questions. How can he claim that it is reasonable to place a new and minor offender in the same cell as a person with a record such as that of Smith? Does he still maintain that view? If so, is he saying that it would be allowed to happen again? Will he publish the report, or at least describe its findings tonight, instead of hiding behind the straight bat that we have had from the Home Secretary so far? What was the nature of the inquiry, and what changes have happened since, both to the procedures and to the prison staff? Will my hon. Friend reconsider his attitude towards the claims for compensation to Mrs. Travis?

The case of Paul Lehair is a deep personal tragedy. It is also a matter of public concern.

No one wants to engage in a witch hunt, but if we as a party and personally are to give strong support to the police and the prison service, the other side of the coin is also important. We must make certain that remedial action is taken when things go wrong. I hope to hear from the Minister tonight that that has happened.

12.24 am

I share the deep concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) about what occurred in this case. It is always extremely difficult to understand and to accept the view which may be expressed that when a tradgedy of this kind occurs it does not necessarily follow that individuals or even necessarily the system are at fault. Therefore, I do not criticise my hon. Friend for the strong terms in which he has spoken.

However, I am afraid that I am not able to accept that the attitude of my noble Friend and others who have been dealing with this matter can fairly be described as stone-faced. That is not so at all. There has been a thorough investigation into what has occurred, and I welcome the opportunity of setting it out as I see it, although I accept that it represents a viewpoint to which my hon. Friend, at least at first blush, will not readily adhere.

The basic facts of the case are that on 19 June 1979 Paul Lehair was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for taking and driving away, theft, breach of a suspended sentence and having articles in connection with theft. He was taken to Wormwood Scrubs young prisoner wing and placed in a cell with Vincent Richard Smith, another 20-year-old young prisoner who was serving a life sentence for murder. On the morning of 24 June, Vincent Smith rang his bell to use the toilet. He was let out of his cell, went to the toilet and then told an officer that there was a body in his cell. Paul Lehair was found to be dead, with bruising around his neck and blood on his face, ear and pillow. Vincent Smith was subsequently charged with murder. On Monday 28 January 1980 he was found guilty of manslaughter, on the ground of diminished responsibility, by strangling Paul Lehair and was committed to Broadmoor.

Vincent Smith's previous history and behaviour are clearly quite central to this case. He received his sentence of life imprisonment for robbery and murder in 1977. He was sent to Wormwood Scrubs young prisoner wing for medical treatment and allocation as a life sentence prisoner. While there, in April 1978, he attempted suicide; he had also attempted suicide while on remand in custody in 1973. He did not settle easily at Wormwood Scrubs, and he was placed on report for disciplinary offences, including attempted assault on an officer and attempting to disrupt an exercise period.

In November 1978 he was sent to Aylesbury young prisoner centre, but was returned to Wormwood Scrubs on 5 December to undergo an operation for a self-inflicted injury to his hand and remained there because of continued concern that he would attempt suicide and a consequent need for location in an establishment such as Wormwood Scrubs that had full-time medical cover. Shortly after his return he was segregated from other prisoners in the interests of good order and discipline, on suspicion of bullying another inmate. With the transfer of that inmate, he was returned to normal location and settled reasonably well. Instructions were given that he should share a cell only with an inmate unlikely to be bullied by him or to join him in bullying others. He had a succession of cell partners, none of whom complained of bullying. Paul Lehair was the last of these.

I turn now to the various questions to which this case has, absolutely understandably, given rise: first of all, relating to the general principles of mixing prisoners together; and, secondly, concerning the particular circumstances of this case.

First, should Vincent Smith as a life sentence prisoner have been located with a 20-year-old serving a short sentence for non-violent offences? I must point out that Vincent Smith was also aged 20, and it is the practice so far as possible to keep separate from adults all prisoners who are under 21 when sentenced. There are in fact about 100 young prisoners serving life sentences.

Then there is the question whether life sentence prisoners should be kept separate from non-lifers, short-termers, non- violent offenders or conceivably any other category of prisoner. In fact, it is normal practice to mix them only with other long or medium-termers, but where there are particular reasons—such as the need for full-time medical cover in Vincent Smith's case—they may have to be held in accommodation which caters primarily for short and medium-termers. The Government's view in any case is that it would be a mistake to impose any general prohibition on cell sharing.

The prison system has at any one time to cope with quite a high concentration of people with serious criminal records serving a variety of sentences, and, whilst it is clearly necessary that the weak should be protected, we think that this should continue to be done on an individual basis: through segregation from others in the interests of good order and discipline or for their own protection; by transferring in order to separate inmates who have come into conflict; or by using discretion when placing inmates in cells together.

A general prohibition based on a simple criterion such as the receipt of a life sentence would not be the most appropriate way of dealing with the problem. There are, after all, life sentence prisoners who do not pose a threat in prison conditions whilst there are other inmates who do, and to establish a rule based on length of sentence or any other indiscriminate criterion would not necessarily prevent another tragedy and, indeed, might obscure the importance of other factors. Therefore, one must consider the propriety or otherwise of the judgment in a particular case rather than work on the basis of a general rule.

Turning now to the particular circumstances of this case, we have considered with great care, in the light of the governor's report and what was said at the trial, whether the danger presented by Vincent Smith should have been recognised, and appropriate action taken, by prison staff before Paul Lehair died. In so doing, it is obviously right to look solely at what was known about Vincent Smith before the date of the death of Paul Lehair.

First of all, Vincent Smith was a convicted murderer, having robbed and killed a drunken man in a park in 1977. That he was capable of killing is not, therefore, in doubt. But there are over 1,500 life sentence prisoners in the prison system, and not all can or should be treated throughout their sentences as likely to repeat within prison offences which may have been committed in a wide range of circumstances and for a wide range of reasons. They are not treated entirely like other prisoners. Each is kept separate from others during the early stages of his sentence while he undergoes assessment. But the decision on the subsequent location and treatment of each of them is based on his general character rather than his offence alone. I believe that that is the right approach to adopt in such a difficult matter.

I turn, therefore, to what was known about Vincent Smith's mental state and dangerousness. When he was tried in 1977, a consultant psychiatrist reported to the court that he was suffering from a psychopathic disorder within the meaning of the Mental Health Act 1959—that is to say, he was suffering from a persistent disorder or disability of mind which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct. However, the consultant also stated that Vincent Smith was unlikely to benefit from placement in a special hospital. In fact, the question of making an order under section 60 of the Mental Health Act 1959, committing Vincent Smith to hospital, was not raised at the trial. When he was in custody, the medical staff at Wormwood Scrubs considered that he was a psychopath. However, they did not consider that his mental disorder was of such a nature or degree to warrant his detention in hospital.

Furthermore, the fact that Vincent Smith was a psychopath does not necessarily imply that his condition required his separation from all or some other prisoners. A psychopath is essentially a person who persistently displays antisocial behaviour but which is not necessarily manifested in physical aggression to others. The management of a psychopath varies according to the characteristics of the individual. Although Vincent Smith had certainly shown aggressive tendencies in the early part of his sentence and had committed various disciplinary offences, his last such offence, prior to the killing of Paul Lehair, was in mid-1978. He had been segregated in January 1979 after being suspected of bullying but had given no trouble since then. In the light of all the reports made on Vincent Smith in the court and since his conviction, as well as of his behaviour in prison, it was the clinical judgment of medical staff at Wormwood Scrubs, based on their knowledge and experience of this type of inmate, that he was not homicidal in a prison setting.

In prison, therefore, Vincent Smith was undoubtedly aggressive and troublesome, a nuisance and with a tendency to lead astray or to bully other inmates. But I am afraid that such behaviour is not uncommon amongst his age group in custody, and his conduct was not such as to suggest to the prison authorities that he would go beyond this fairly well-established pattern seriously to injure or kill somebody. That that judgment proved wrong with hindsight does not mean that it was not well founded, made in good faith and reasonable to make at the time.

I turn now to what consideration was given to Paul Lehair's safety, in the light of what was known about Vincent Smith, before they were placed in a cell together and to what was known of relations between them after this was done. As I have said, Vincent Smith shared his cell with a succession of prisoners, and none complained. Paul Lehair was chosen to share his cell because of his size—he was 6 ft 3 in tall—because he was mature and because he was not institutionalised. It is not the case that no thought was given to his safety.

In the few days that these two prisoners shared a cell, there were two incidents which assumed some significance subsequently. The first was that on the day before Paul Lehair's death. Vincent Smith requested a change of cell mate, making offensive remarks about Paul, although not threatening violence. The officer to whom this request was made said that this would be arranged on the Monday morning, and Vincent Smith seemed at the time quite content with this. I think that in the circumstances the officer's response was sensible and reasonable. The second incident, on the same day, was that Vincent Smith made remarks to other prisoners indicating that he did not like Paul Lehair and had hostile intentions. Those remarks assumed significance to those other inmates, and were reported to staff only after Paul Lehair's death. Therefore, obviously, it could not be taken into account in forming any decision whether they should immediately cease sharing a cell.

There were, therefore, a whole series of points in this case at which a different decision might have been taken. In view of the tragedy that occurred, it hardly needs underlining that we all wish a different decision had been taken. But the decisions taken by the staff were reached in good faith and after proper consideration of Vincent Smith's history and character as well as the characteristics of Paul Lehair. There was not oversight or failure to think about the consequences, still less any hard-heartedness or lack of concern.

By the time of Paul Lehair's death, the prison system had had over 18 months' experience of Vincent Smith in custody. There is no doubt that during that time he was a troublesome prisoner, but I am afraid that the trouble he caused was not unusual in a prison setting and, even in retrospect, if one analyses his behaviour over that period of time, troublesome though it was, one sees that it did not betray evidence of homicidal intentions.

In saying this, the last thing in the world that I want to do is to give the slightest impression of callousness or lack of concern about Paul Lehair's death. That would be a totally false impression and does not represent the attitude or position of anybody concerned with this case in the Home Office or elsewhere.

The whole matter has caused us great concern, but at the same time, great as that concern is, we have a duty to look clearly and dispassionately at what went wrong, however terrible the consequences were. We cannot assume blame where blame does not properly arise merely because of the tragic consequences or decisions which, with hindsight, and only with hindsight, ought to have been taken on a different basis.

I should therefore like to repeat the regrets that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already expressed about Paul's tragic death. If I may say so, I welcome the opportunity of adding my own condolences to his family. However, I must repeat that, in the light of an assessment of the situation that I have tried to give to the House with candour, I cannot accept that the Home Office is at fault or legally liable for his death.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to One o'clock.