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Sean O'conaill

Volume 387: debated on Thursday 24 November 1977

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3.17 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how long before his death on 1st October it was known that Sean O'Conaill, then in Gartree prison, had terminal cancer;

how long elapsed before ( a) his family was informed and ( b) he was admitted to hospital in Parkhurst; whether his solicitor was then informed he was not seriously ill; and why his dying requests to see a visitor were refused.

My Lords, Mr. O'Conaill was transferred from Gartree prison to Albany prison on 28th July. After complaining of pains in his abdomen and chest he was seen by a consultant surgeon on 31st August and admitted to Parkhurst prison hospital that day. Following further examinations by consultants, and the removal of a small tumour on 12th September, the doctors were satisfied that Mr. O'Conaill was suffering from cancer. This was not confirmed, however, until 21st September. Mr. O'Conaill's mother was informed of her son's illness on 16th September, but Mr. O'Conaill would not allow his wife to be informed until 20th September. I regret that when his solicitor made a telephone call to Parkhurst prison one evening the officer who received the call told the solicitor, incorrectly but in good faith, that Mr. O'Conaill was not seriously ill. The Deputy Governor telephoned the solicitor the following morning to correct this error.

After Mr. O'Conaill had been informed of the nature of his illness, he asked to see his solicitor, his wife and certain other prisoners then in Parkhurst Prison. All these requests were granted and he was also visited by his mother. No request that he then made to see a visitor was refused.

My Lords, though I thank my noble friend for that reply, can I ask these questions: first is it not a fact that, as long ago as March last year, this prisoner began feeling ill with stomach pains; that in June of this year his lungs were X-rayed, but that if any cancer was diagnosed he was not notified; that he received no treatment and that his family was not informed? Is it not extraordinary that somebody who dies of cancer of the lung and of the liver is not known to be suffering from this until the month before he dies, and that his family is not notified until a little over two weeks? Finally, is it not the case that he made a particular request to see a certain visitor, Miss Jacqueline Kaye of the Prisoners' Aid Committee; that this was his dying request, and that it was turned down?

My Lords, I have gone into this matter very carefully. I have seen the reports which are relevant to this particular case. Mr. O'Conaill had a history of complaint about nausea and abdominal discomfort for some considerable time. There is no reason whatsoever for thinking that the doctors suspected cancer earlier than they did. It is the practice in our prisons to call in outside consultants as and when necessary, and that in fact was done on a number of occasions as far as Mr. O'Conaill was concerned. I wish to repeat that it was not until 12th September that the doctors were satisfied that he was suffering from cancer. They then asked for a biopsy which was undertaken. The cancerous condition was confirmed on 21st September.

It is the practice in our prisons that a person who is suffering from a terminal illness should not die in prison. Immediate steps were taken to try to find hospital facilities for Mr. O'Conaill so that he could be transferred elsewhere. That was done on 30th September and, as I have said, he died the following day.

As regards the request, no request was made by him to see the person named by my noble friend Lord Kilbracken. She did ask to see him, but the practice in our prisons when a person is in a high security prison and is designated category A, is that people who wish to see him must be approved and the prisoner must request to see them. At no time, according to my information, did he request to see the person named.

My Lords, I should like to press the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, on that last matter. I have met Miss Jacqueline Kaye on more than one occasion. Is it correct that she wanted to see the prisoner but that he was not informed that she wanted to see him, and therefore he was not in a position to say whether he wished to see her or not? Is that the position?

My Lords, the position is that she sought permission to see Mr. O'Conaill, but Mr. O'Conaill had not asked to see her. He had asked, knowing his condition, to see a number of people, and all those persons whom he asked to see did, in fact, see him.

My Lords, I think that we have gone far enough on this rather sad issue.