The Affect of Absconding as Discussed in Parliament
NATIONAL NAUTICAL SCHOOL, PORTISHEAD
HC Deb 08 November 1955
Mr. E. H. Leather (Somerset, North)
I rise to air a subject which is of considerable interest both to my constituents and, I believe, to constituents similarly placed in a good many other districts in the country. In my constituency is one of the well-known national approved schools, the National Nautical School. The very location of these kinds of schools anywhere in the country by their very nature creates a problem for the people who happen to live around them.
I want to make it perfectly clear, as the Joint Under-Secretary knows very well, that in the very brief remarks I wish to make I am implying no criticism whatsoever either of the captain of this particular school or of the governors. All of them, without exception, are my personal friends and neighbours; I have lived among them for many years; they are public-spirited citizens who give up a great deal of private time for no gain to themselves to do a service to the community, and as such they are worthy of nothing but the approbation and thanks of this House.
But the fact remains that, no matter how hard they try, or how worthy they are, public opinion in the district is alarmed and worried, and it would be quite wrong for anyone concerned with this problem of the correction, training and discipline of young boys who go astray to overdo our enthusiasm, or our well-merited praise for those who are doing a good job of work, if in doing so we ignored the very real problems created and concern that undoubtedly exists among the residents of this district. The concern exists in spite of the excellent job of work done by those concerned. In my case—and I believe in that of hon. Members in other parts of the House similarly situated—I have received many letters, which, as my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary knows from my personal conversations with him, I regret to say, have undoubtedly increased in the last few years, culminating in an official letter from the urban district council concerned expressing their apprehension at the existing state of affairs.
While paying all tribute—as I do, and as I am sure the Joint Under-Secretary does—to those who are running these schools, we must bear quite clearly in mind that, whether we regard it as fair or unfair, right or wrong, the residents of the district have rights which we must take fully into consideration, and those residents are worried and upset—indeed, alarmed is not, I think too strong a word. I will not burden the House for more than a few minutes with the problem, because those of us here who are concerned know very well, as does my hon. Friend, that the problem arises from the fact that under our modern methods of treating these boys they are granted a great deal more freedom and latitude than was the case twenty or thirty years ago. That being so, there are always some who abuse that freedom.
At the school in my constituency there are, I regret to say, constant cases of boys breaking out, breaking into people's houses, damaging property and generally doing a good deal of destructive damage and causing trouble. In this district, as in many others, the local populace are, by and large, people with very small incomes. Most of them in this part of Portishead are retired people. The loss or damage to even a few windows, which may cost £5 or £10—a small thing to us in this House —is to them a very serious proposition indeed.
I should like to make three specific suggestions whereby the situation might be improved and the residents in districts around this type of school might be given some reassurance. The first is—and I speak with some background knowledge going back over a number of years—that the rules laid down by the Home Office by which not only the boys but the governors and the officers and teachers are bound, are really a bit too rigid. They were laid down a good many years ago to try to prevent undue harshness on the part of masters, and so on.
One result is that if there is an especially awkward boy, or a particularly difficult situation, the masters and the governors concerned have very little latitude when dealing with the matter. They can do only what the rule says or write to the Home Office. If in the inevitable process of events it takes some weeks to get a decision from the Home Office, in the meantime the boy concerned may have done a great deal of damage and caused a great deal of unhappiness and misery to perfectly innocent citizens.
There are many instances where this had happened. I should like to ask the Joint Under-Secretary to give an assurance that these rules will be looked at again very sympathetically not only with the interests of the boys in mind but also bearing in mind the interests of the local residents who have to suffer if boys misbehave.
Secondly, I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether it is possible for him to give any directive or, indeed, guidance to magistrates. Quite clearly, there has been a good deal of change of attitude on these matters. I say with great respect that a number of magistrates these days are much too kind-hearted. We have boys sent to approved schools when, regrettably, their records show that they should have been sent to prison or Borstal. There have been no fewer than seven instances at this school since August, which in proportion is indeed a large number, of boys who had to be transferred to more rugged types of institutions. Five of them had to be transferred to Horfield Prison.
I would say that when these boys came to our school there was no doubt whatever that they were prison cases The magistrates sent them there in their desire to be kindly and lenient to the boys, when, frankly, I think a little toughness and discipline would have been more appropriate. They sent boys to nautical schools who should not have been sent there and who were beyond the stage when they could be dealt with at that type of school.
The results are bad from two points of view. First, boys of this kind immediately break out and commit damage and destruction, causing very real distress to decent citizens upon whom we have no right to impose this misfortune. Secondly, they set a very bad example indeed. They do harm by setting a bad example and showing bad moral leadership to other younger boys of impressionable age who may be at the school. By sending to the nautical schools youths who should be sent to Borstal or to prison we are not doing them a favour, and we do a great deal of harm to the others by giving them the worst possible example.
Finally, there is the compensation to be paid to these people when damage is done. My hon. Friend wrote to me on 10th October saying that where damage could be proved ex gratia payments were sanctioned. In the newspapers last July a statement appeared that my hon. Friend had told the Rural District Council of Deben, Suffolk, that in future any damage caused by youths escaping from their local approved school would be compensated. It may be that the report was not quite accurate, but that is what it said, and it appeared in a number of newspapers.
I know that there are legal difficulties, but I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say tonight that this will be considered not merely as ex gratia payment. Ex gratia means, "If some of the boys for whom we are responsible get out and burn your house down, we will think about it, and perhaps give you something by way of compensation." Perhaps the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to tell us that the Home Office accepts responsibility—provided, of course, that legal liability can be established. No one expects payment in borderline cases. I hope that consideration will be given to those three points. It will be very reassuring to those people and, I think, no more than fair.
The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Leather) for the way in which he has raised this matter. I know what strong feelings these difficulties engender locally, and, if I may say so, I think he has put his case fully, fairly and without exaggeration.
Approved schools have, of course, much more intensive supervision than have boarding schools, but they are, nevertheless, open institutions; that is to say, in general they have no more physical restraints to prevent boys from leaving than have other schools. One of the principal aims of approved schools is to train the boys to conduct themselves under normal conditions. The essential requirement of these boys is the need to 1813 develop self-discipline. Putting physical restrictions upon them, or having continuous supervision over them, would deprive them of one of the best opportunities that they have to learn how to become respectable citizens.
There is, of course, restriction and supervision within reasonable limits, but those limits do mean that some absconding is bound to take place. While no general departure from the traditional method is contemplated, the House may like to know that it has recently been decided to conduct two small experiments in training persistent absconders. The experiments will be conducted with the agreement of the associations of masters and of the heads of these schools respectively. One experiment, which has not yet been started, involves having a small, closed block as part of an open school. In the other, which is in operation, we are trying out various special arrangements for training absconders. We are making use of special staffing arrangements and special house organisation, as it is called, to facilitate these schemes.
Approved school managers may, if the Home Secretary consents, bring absconders before the court and the court can then either recommit to another school or extend the term during which the boy is to remain at the school; or, if the boy is old enough, commit him to a Borstal. If a boy commits offences while he is at large as an absconder, the question whether or not he is to be charged with those offences is a matter not for the school authorities but for the police.
Apart from those powers, in the ordinary way absconders are dealt with by the school authorities, who have ample power to punish them. They do not have to refer the matter to the Home Office. The ordinary kind of punishment would be in the nature of forfeiture of privileges and, in appropriate cases, the managers have power to inflict corporal punishment. Boys who do not settle in any particular school are often transferred to other schools where it is thought that they may do better.
I agree with my hon. Friend that abscondings from the National Nautical School at Portishead have been giving cause for concern from time to time. Both the Home Secretary and the managers of the school deplore the inconvenience and the loss which these abscondings have caused to those who live round about and everyone concerned is anxious to take all the appropriate measures possible to minimise the nuisance, if that is the right word, which is caused by these abscondings. There have been local complaints and the question has been asked, why have the school in this area? The school is an ancient one. It was first on board a ship and it has been in its present premises for about half-a-century, so that it would be true to say that Redcliffe has come to the school rather than the school to Redcliffe. That is a fair way to put it.
I have looked into the possible causes of these abscondings. First, I am satisfied that there is no serious defect in the running of the school. Some improvements are no doubt needed from time to time, but that would be so with any establishment. There were, for instance, certainly defects in the catering at the school in 1952, and I think at that time, too, there were defects in the system of discipline at the school. That certainly led to an outcrop of abscondings, but those defects have been remedied and the position has since improved.
Secondly, there is the question of the type of boy at the school, and I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no special selection of bad boys to attend this school. I have no doubt that there are some specially bad boys at the school, but that would be in the ordinary nature of things.
My hon. Friend asked why these were not always sent to Borstal. Of course, most of the boys concerned would be too young and could not be sent to a Borstal institution. Those who are old enough could be brought before a court, as I have said, but it would be a matter for the court to say whether they should be sent to Borstal or to an approved school. I can only tell my hon. Friend that the Home Secretary cannot interfere with the discretion of the court, as my hon. Friend suggested. That is not possible.
My hon. Friend asked whether the rules might not be too rigid. The provision of restrictions against the possibility of escape would not be affected by the regulations. They are not responsible for any lack of restriction. That would be a matter for the policy of the managers and, as I have said, the reason greater restrictions are not imposed is that it is necessary, if the school is to do its job properly, to give some reasonable measure of freedom to those who are in it.
Another possible cause of abscondings may be some special temporary circumstances. For instance, in 1952, there was a very severe staff shortage due to illness, and I think that was at the bottom of the particular difficulties which were felt at that time. In 1954–55 it so happened that a very large proportion of the boys at the school were new boys. In an establishment of this sort that tends to make discipline very much more difficult. In fact, at that time there was rather a large number of especially difficult boys. Most of those boys have been brought before the court and have either been sent to Borstal or have been recommitted to other schools.
Perhaps I may say a few words about recent events. I know that there have been two occurrences which can best be described as "walk-outs." On Sunday, 2nd October, 29 boys went out of the school and on the following Monday, 3rd October, no fewer than 39 boys left the school, contrary to what was permitted. But in both cases all the boys returned on the same day that they went out, and as far as I know there were offences committed by them while they were at large. I can tell my hon. Friend that all the boys concerned were punished and the five ring-leaders have been transferred to other schools.
With a view to preventing any recurrence of these incidents, there will be a thorough examination by Home Office inspectors of the supervisory arrangements at the school, and also—and I think that this is an important matter—of the leisure activities of the boys. It is of the highest importance that the boys at these schools should have plenty to do and plenty to keep their imaginations active. These matters will certainly be studied.
May I ask, then—and this is not frivolous—whether my hon. Friend is satisfied that the walk-out before church parade on Sunday night was not related to the fact that on the previous Sunday the sermon was preached by the local Member of Parliament?
Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
I had appreciated that that coincidence had occurred.
It was very embarrassing.
Sir H. Lucas-Tooth
I do not know whether it was that the boys felt that they had heard the last word, or could not bear to hear another word.
Every reasonable effort will be made to avoid abscondings and every effort has already been made. Steps of a practical kind have been taken. Additional night supervision of the dormitories has been recently instituted and the appointment of a night watchman was approved by the Home Office last month.
As I have said, steps are being taken to make the leisure activities of the boys more varied and interesting. There is an important aspect of this matter in which the captain-superintendent of the school has been active and that is securing the co-operation of the Redcliffe Bay Bungalow Association. I understand that relations have been good and arrangements made to inform local inhabitants of the times when the boys are outside the premises on leave and also promptly to inform them in the case of any absconding coming to the knowledge of the authorities of the school.
My hon. Friend asked about compensation. I cannot tell him much more than I have already told him in the letter which I wrote to him. We take the view that there is no legal liability on the managers of this or any approved school for loss or damage caused by boys when they abscond from the school. That is a legal question and I can only express the view which we take. If the managers recommend that payment should be made for such loss or damage, that would necessarily be ex gratia payment, if there is no legal liability. If such recommendations are forthcoming, we are always ready to consider them sympathetically in appropriate cases. This practice is the same as that which applies in other schools and also in the case of Borstals. In that case, of course, it is the Prison Commissioners who apply the principle which I have described.
I have seen in one newspaper a report of a communication which I sent to another Member of Parliament in this connection and I am sorry to say that that report was inaccurate. It was a report founded on a letter which I wrote to the local Member of Parliament and it was very much in the same terms as the letter which I wrote to my hon. Friend. I think that the best thing I can do is to send my hon. Friend a copy of the letter, so that he can see that the position is as I have stated.
I hope that I have answered the various points raised and I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that within the bounds of what is proper in the case of establishments of this kind the Home Office will certainly co-operate to the best of its ability with the managers in seeing that the abscondings are not a nuisance to those who live in the neighbourhood of this school.