Skip to main content

Mr Barry Prosser

Volume 26: debated on Tuesday 1 June 1982

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. David Hunt.]

10 pm

I am pleased to have been granted the opportunity, under Standing Order No.1, to exercise the fundamental right of any Member of this honourable House to raise a matter in respect of one of his constituents. This opportunity, granted to me during this debate on the Adjournment of the House, also grants to me, for the second time, the opportunity to fulfil on behalf of my constituents the sacred pledge that I gave 22 months ago that I would raise this issue on the floor of the House of Commons. Tonight, I keep that promise by raising this matter on the Adjournment debate.

My constituent, Mr. Barry Prosser, was remanded in August 1980 to Her Majesty's prison, Birmingham for medical reports, having been charged with a very minor offence—that is, damage to a lock valued at £1.62. When on remand in prison he sustained injuries of such a serious nature that he died within hours. A major police investigation took place. With the permission of the House, I pay a warm and generous tribute in that connection to the chief constable of the West Midlands police, Sir Philip Knights, who led the inquiry into this tragic set of events. Charges were made against three prison officers, and the verdict of Her Majesty's coroner was that my constituent, Mr. Barry Prosser, had been unlawfully killed. During the many months that followed the case was sub judice, with three sets of criminal proceedings going through the courts.

Those proceedings have now been discharged. I must, as a matter of honour, place on record the excellence of the co-operation extended by the Home Secretary, which is personified in a letter to me dated 7 June 1982 in which he wrote that
"we would welcome a debate in the House about the wider issues raised by the tragic death of Barry Prosser."
He also conveyed, as he has done consistently, his sincere sympathy and condolences to the widow and family, who are my constituents.

This is the first opportunity that the Home Office has had to speak publicly on this issue. I welcome the appearance on the Treasury Bench this evening of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State. My considered judgment in this case, for which I have fought in a vigorous, but, I trust, reasoned manner during the last 22 months, is as follows. We have a duty to ensure that never again in the history of the prison service do we have an incident of this nature. We must review the prison regulations relating to hospital wings to ensure the protection of prisoners and the protection of the fine men and women in our prison service. I stress that that is vital.

We must, as a society, ask ourselves the simple but paramount question that has dominated my work on this case for 22 months: should my constituent have been remanded to prison at all? Surely the secure facilities of the Department of Health and Social Security have a hospital with professional staff, fully qualified in nursing and psychiatric care, who could have undertaken the task of compiling the reports required by the magistrates. It is not good enough for society to ask the hard working members of the prison staff to undertake this additional task on behalf of society; nor do we have a mandate to demand it of them.

With humility, I pay tribute to the men and women of the prison service, particularly those at Her Majesty's prison, Birmingham. It is an overcrowded Victorian prison, with few facilities. The staff work many hours of overtime to do a task which we, corporately, ask them to do on our behalf.

I hope that this evening we shall receive an assurance that there will be closer liaison between the hospital and prison service on this issue, coupled with training for prison staff, which, in my judgment, is important and should be initiated. I refer specifically to paragraph 11.05 of the report of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons on the conditions at the Birmingham prison.

I also trust that the recommendation that any use of force by prison officers should be recorded will be acted upon. I stress that for two important reasons. I accept that there are occasions when emotional and, perhaps mentally disturbed, prisoners have to be forcibly restrained. That is part and parcel of prison life. Equally, we must consider the prison officers whose careers could be put in jeopardy if the occasions when force is used are not formally recorded. That will safeguard them in the conduct of their duties. I commend that suggestion to the House and to the prison officers.

We must accept and realise that there is wide public concern on this and allied cases. We have a solemn duty to restore the confidence of the public in our prison service. We must also restore the morale of the staff who work in the service.

On Monday 26 April 1982 I had the opportunity of presenting to the House a petition containing 4,624 signatures. The petition called for a public inquiry, and it was accepted by the House. As a Member of Parliament acting on behalf of the constituents whom I have the honour to serve, I invite my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to convene such an inquiry. It is imperative that the inquiry has a completely independent element and I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend that the position should be taken by a High Court judge.

I invite my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to have constructive discussions about the plight of the widow, Mrs. Dorothy Prosser. Her quiet courage, resolve, dedication and serenity throughout this tragic episode is an example to us all. Her conduct has been above reproach. Week after week a lonely, sacred vigil is held each Saturday outside Winson Green prison by Mrs. Prosser and members of her family. I have met the family and I respect their sincerity and loyalty to a cause with which I have associated myself both as their friend and as their Member of Parliament. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the entire House when I place on record our united sympathy for Mrs. Prosser.

Equally, I trust that as a lasting and fitting tribute to Mr. Barry Prosser we shall have an assurance from my hon. and learned Friend this evening that the findings of the special internal report of the chief inspector of prisons, which contains firm, constructive and positive proposals and recommendations, will not only be accepted but, much more importantly, will be implemented. In the days ahead it will be a great source of comfort and inspiration to the widow and her family to know that out of this tragic episode the name of Barry Prosser will be held in the highest regard because of what we shall have achieved as a result of his death. I can pay no higher tribute to the memory of my constituent.

I now commit myself, as an act of dedication, to do all in my power to support the issues in a manner befitting a Member of the House. Therefore, I invite my hon. and learned Friend to respond to the matters which it was my solemn duty to outline.

10.13 pm

I begin by paying a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Mr. Blackburn), which is the last thing that he seeks. Since the lamentable death of his former constituent, Mr. Barry Prosser, on 19 August 1980 in Birmingham prison, my hon. Friend has been tireless in the interests of his constituent's family and in the interests of justice. The protracted judicial proceedings, first before Her Majesty's coroner, then before two stipendary magistraties, and lastly in the Crown court, resulting from Mr. Prosser's death, made it impossible for many months for my hon. Friend to comment publicly upon the matter.

My hon. Friend has, by every proper means throughout that period, ensured that the Home Secretary was made aware of his anxieties and concern. Tonight he referred to the petition that he presented, which was signed by many thousands of his constituents. It was a petition which merited and received deep concern. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary greatly appreciated the scrupulous and diligent manner in which my hon. Friend dealt with what must be one of the most distressing and difficult constituency cases that can ever have befallen a Member of Parliament.

It was good of my hon. Friend to mention tonight the profound sympathy which the Home Secretary expressed to Mr. Prosser's widow, and with which I should like to be associated. I am glad that my hon. Friend has managed to secure a public discussion of the case tonight. He referred to the letter that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wrote, saying that he was anxious to have a debate and would welcome it, not least because it allows me, on behalf of the Home Secretary, the opportunity to say something about this event, which has understandably given rise to much public anxiety.

Mr. Prosser was found dead in his cell in the hospital wing of Birmingham prison in the early morning of 19 August 1980. He had been on remand in the prison for just over two weeks, and for the past week he had been in the hospital wing, because his behaviour had become disturbed. At the time he died, arrangements were being made for his admission to a psychiatric hospital.

The post mortem which was held that afternoon revealed the full and horrifying extent of Mr. Prosser's injuries. The pathologist's report was that Mr. Prosser had extensive bruising all over his body. His stomach, his oesophagus and one of his lungs had been ruptured, and the pathologist thought that the cause of death was a blow, probably by a heavy weight. The police conducted a full investigation, and in December 1980, on the instructions of the Director of Public Prosecutions, a senior hospital officer, Mr. Jackson, was charged with Mr. Prosser's murder.

Tonight my hon. Friend has paid a generous tribute to the work of the police under their chief constable. Sir Philip Knights, in the West Midland constabulary, in assembling the evidence that formed the foundation for that prosecution. I am grateful for his tribute, and I know that it will be gratefully received.

The first stage after such charges are brought is always for a magistrates' court to decide whether the accused should be committed for trial. There was a hearing, at the conclusion of which the stipendiary magistrate decided that there was insufficient evidence and declined to commit the case to the Crown court.

The inquest into Mr. Prosser's death was held in April 1981. It lasted for seven days and heard the evidence of nearly 50 witnesses. Counsel representing Mrs. Prosser was able to question the witnesses. At the end of the proceedings, the jury returned a verdict that Mr. Prosser had been unlawfully killed.

New evidence had come forward at the inquest from a prisoner who had been working in the hospital as a cleaner on the evening of 18 August. A report of the inquest was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who decided to charge Mr. Jackson and two other hospital officers, Mr. Smith and Mr. Price, with Mr. Prosser's murder. Again, there were committal proceedings, and these were held in September 1981. At the conclusion of the evidence called by the prosecution, which was given in public and on oath, a different magistrate held that it was insufficient, and declined to commit the case for trial.

The Director of Public Prosecutions then sought and was granted a voluntary bill of indictment against the three officers. This is a little used legal procedure which effectively bypasses the necessity for committal proceedings by sending the case direct to the Crown court for trial. A full trial of the three officers took place in March this year. It lasted about three weeks. A pathologist who gave evidence for the defence said that some of Mr. Prosser's injuries could have been acquired accidentally and that the others could have been self-inflicted. Two other pathologists did not support that opinion. In the event, the jury returned verdicts that all three of the officers charged were not guilty.

At this stage it will be seen that the investigative and judicial processes were exhausted. It is of course lamentable that, a jury having decided that a prisoner was unlawfully killed, guilt has not been established against anyone. However, our criminal justice system is founded on the principle that he who accuses must prove, and we must all accept the outcome of the trial.

My hon. Friend has called for a public inquiry into the case—I well understand why—but my right hon. Friend does not believe that he would be justified in taking that course in the light of the extended history that I have already recounted. Unless new evidence were forthcoming the only possible procedure would be an ad hoc inquiry. This would have fewer powers than those available to the courts that have already scrutinised the evidence so often. It is, unfortunately, now improbable that we can ever know how Mr. Prosser sustained his injuries.

As my hon. Friend has said, we have a duty to try to prevent any future deaths in such circumstances. I should like to take this opportunity to reassure the House that we know of absolutely no evidence that this was other than an isolated incident. The Government are satisfied that it was not part of a pattern of maltreatment of prisoners.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his fair words of tribute to those who serve Britain in the prison service, and, as he expressly made clear, those at Her Majesty's prison at Birmingham. They and all their colleagues in the service have a difficult and often dangerous job to discharge on behalf of all of us. In the context in which it was delivered, that tribute will be most gratefully appreciated.

Nevertheless, the case has some general implications, and these have twice been carefully and independently reviewed. It became apparent from evidence given during the inquest that there were a number of shortcomings in administrative procedures in that prison hospital wing. Accordingly, the coroner made recommendations to my right hon. Friend, although he made it clear that he did not think that the matters were directly relevant to the death.

Secondly, in the light of this case my right hon. Friend asked Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons to pay particular attention to the hospital and medical services during the full routine inspection of Birmingham prison last autumn. The inspectorate's report and my right hon. Friend's response were published last week, and copies of both are available in the Library.

On all the recommendations of the coroner and of the inspectorate, my right hon. Friend has taken action. I need not detail them all. My hon. Friend has drawn attention specially to the fact that both the coroner and the inspectorate said that hospital officers should be given more training and those recommendations are relevant to the whole prison service. I am glad to report that we are in the course of setting up a prison service standing training review body which will look at the training needs of various grades of staff, including hospital officers. The views expressed by the coroner and the inspectorate will be considered during the review body's study.

We have to bear in mind the fact that most prison hospital wings are just sick bays for the prison and that if an inmate becomes seriously ill he is transferred to a NHS hospital. That is the practical role for those prison departments. Prison hospital officers are therefore only generally called upon to provide basic nursing care. We accept that hospital officers need more training in the care of mentally disordered patients, and we are exploring the possibility of establishing jointly with the Department of Health and Social Security a course on psychiatric nursing in secure environments.

We would also like hospital officers to broaden their experience by spending short-term attachments in psychiatric hospitals after their initial training, which already includes four weeks in NHS hospitals. Arrangements for such attachments have to be made locally between the establishment and the hospital concerned, but they are certainly encouraged by the headquarters of the prison service, although the difficulty of sparing staff from their normal duties in the establishment is inevitably a constraint.

The coroner also suggested that there should be more interchange of doctors between the prison medical service and the NHS. We agree that there is scope for development here; in particular, we intend to reintroduce a scheme which will give prison medical officers the opportunity to serve short attachments in the special hospitals such as Broadmoor and Rampton. There is already considerable interchange of medical staff between the NHS and the prison medical service. The prison medical service makes extensive use of the NHS's facilities and in all establishments at least some of the medical services are provided by doctors who are also employed by the NHS.

The coroner's final recommendation was that hospital officers should submit a report if they had to use force on a prisoner. My hon. Friend has raised an important point about this and has properly placed emphasis on it. We recognise that when, in the proper execution of his duties, an officer has to use physical force, there is always the possibility that there will later be a complaint by a prisoner or an inquiry into the incident. Thus, we issued instructions last year reminding staff that, as a safeguard, each prison officer, including any hospital officer or nurse involved in such an incident, should write a brief factual report to the governor in addition to making any other record.

Some concern was expressed by the Prison Officers Association about this instruction and it advised its branches not to comply with it. I very much regret that it should have reached that decision, particularly as the reports provide—as my hon. Friend said—important protection of its members' interests. It was subsequently agreed that the prison department should prepare a common reporting form, and a draft was sent to the Prison Officers Association earlier this year for its comments. We recognise the importance that the Prison Officers Association attaches to this matter, and I am sure that we all hope that it can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion very soon, because it is most important.

My hon. Friend raised a most important point when he asked why Mr. Prosser was in prison at all. After all, he had not been convicted. He was on remand and in the eyes of the law he was innocent. Under the present law, if the court decides that a defendant cannot be remanded on bail the only other option is to remand him in custody to a prison. The Government entirely agree that in some cases where the defendant is seriously mentally disordered it is quite inappropriate that he should be in a prison if a psychiatric hospital can offer the necessary facilities. Therefore, I am glad that accordingly the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill now passing through Parliament contains provisions, which we thought it right to include, that will empower the courts to remand a defendant who is thought to be mentally disordered to a hospital. The intention is that this power will come into force two or three years after the Bill is enacted to give the NHS time to provide the necessary facilities.

My hon. Friend has spoken movingly of Mr. Prosser's widow and her plight. I should like to say that the Home Office, acting through the Treasury Solicitor, indicated on 14 April its willingness to entertain a claim for payment of compensation to Mrs. Prosser. Mrs. Prosser's solicitors are in the process of formulating a claim which is awaited by the Treasury Solicitor.

My hon. Friend spoke of the need to restore confidence. I have mentioned the inspection of Birmingham prison carried out by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. While not uncritical of the hospital at the prison, he stated that his criticisms should not be allowed to obscure the high standards of care shown to the patients. He was satisfied that, apart from the areas attracting criticism, the hospital gave a proper service to the prison. That is a most welcome conclusion. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary very much hopes that the tragedy of this death will not be allowed to overshadow the work done by hospital staff in the prison service as a whole, often in very difficult conditions, in providing first-rate care for the prisoners in their charge.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.