Greville Janner – 1986 Speech on Kevin Capenhurst

Below is the text of the speech made by Greville Janner, the then Labour MP for Leicester West, in the House of Commons on 27 February 1986.

I am happy to have the opportunity to raise on the adjournment the tragic case of my constituent, Kevin Capenhurst, aged 17. Kevin Capenhurst was suffering from terminal cancer while imprisoned in the Glen Parva young offenders’ centre. He was released only after I had made a series of representations to the Government. Were it not for the intervention in particular of the Leicester Mercury, which informed me of Kevin’s case, Kevin would no doubt have died in prison, as the system does not ensure that the Ministers responsible for prisons and young offenders are informed in good time when inmates are suffering from terminal illness. The result is that Ministers do not take steps to obtain the release of such people.

The system’s lack of compassion and its inhumanity applies whether the House and the Government are dealing with a 17-year-old youngster or a much older person. I submit that, where it is known that someone in detention will shortly die, to keep that person away from the dignity and decency of a death in freedom lacks kindness, compassion and common sense.

Kevin Capenhurst was the victim of the kind of life with which society has not learnt to cope. He came from a frequently broken home which lacked the stability enjoyed by most people. Kevin spent much of his childhood and youth in a series of institutions where good people tried to care for him, without great success. He emerged into adolescence as a young criminal who was sentenced for a series of crimes, some of which involved violence. Kevin ended up at Glen Parva convicted of mugging. He was a tough, difficult young offender.

After Kevin had been in Glen Parva for some months he complained that he was ill. His mother told me that she received letters from Kevin in which he complained that his symptoms were treated as if he was skiving and that he did not receive prompt attention. In due course, his illness was diagnosed as a rare form of terminal cancer. Instead of being referred at once to the Minister in charge of prisons, his case was not dealt with adequately or at all and only reached the attention of the Minister through me.

I pay tribute, as I have done before, to the speed with which Lord Glenarthur, the Minister then concerned, stepped in. Lord Glenarthur telephoned and gave instructions while on holiday, saw me at short notice and assessed whether it would be safe for this young man to be out of prison. When he was satisfied that it would be safe and that Kevin had somewhere to go, he ensured his release.

Once the Minister took note, he also took steps. My complaint is that there is apparently no efficient system to deal with such cases; there was no system; and nothing so far as I know has been done since Kevin’s death to ensure that a system will be created. What are Her Majesty’s Government proposing to do to prevent others from dying in prison when they should be released, whatever their age may be? What lessons, if any, have been learnt from the death of this young man?

As a result of Kevin’s release, he was able to spend several months in freedom. He was treated in the Leicester royal infirmary with great kindness and care. He went to ​ Lourdes by ambulance and told me how thrilled he had been to be wheeled around in his bed to the grotto. He said, “I have at least achieved something in my life.”

Before he died, Kevin was admitted by the Leicester Organisation for the Relief of Suffering, known locally as LOROS, into the new hospice, which had not existed when Kevin was first diagnosed as terminally ill. I pay my public tribute to the people whose devotion has created this hospice, and to those who work in it. It has made a vast difference to the dignity of the life of Leicester people. I also pay tribute to the nuns who run St. Joseph’s hospice in London, who were prepared to take, look after and love Kevin in his last days. There are not enough of such institutions.

Unfortunately, the matter does not end there. I wish to use this opportunity to bring to the Government’s attention what happens and what happened in the medical section of Glen Parva. I went to see Kevin on Thursday 8 August last year. I was accompanied by two of my assistants, Martin Hutchings and David Metzgero. I say that because of their corroboration of what occurred. We were to see the forensic psychiatrist who was in attendance and who said that chemotherapy was essential but Kevin was refusing to continue with it and that he had a major obstruction—a primary tumour—which needed removal, but he would not agree to the operation. I asked why, and the doctor said that he thought that it was because, perhaps, he thought that if his condition deteriorated his prospects of release would be greater. I asked whether, in those circumstances the doctor would wish me to speak to the boy about it, and he said, “Yes, that would be a good idea.”

I went upstairs, where I was shown into a lounge. Kevin was brought in looking very thin, but bright and uncomplaining. A prison officer in the corridor stared at us through the glass throughout the entire interview. That was not for our protection, because the boy could not have knocked down a nine pin, never mind us, but an act of discourtesy that we very much resented.

I told Kevin about the operation and he asked about it. I convinced him that he should accept the advice that he had been given. He told me of the awful side effects of chemotherapy but denied having refused it. He told me that he had never refused an operation, but, in the circumstances that I have described, he would welcome it if it would extend his life. I then had a similar conversation with his mother outside, explaining the need for the operation.

The House will be shocked as I was to learn, as I did from the doctor to whom I spoke at the Leicester royal infirmary, that at the date when I was requested to speak to the boy and ask him to undergo, by agreement, an operation, he was inoperable, and the prison authorities had been informed that he was inoperable. This is one of the most callous and unkind events that I have come across in my public life. It also did much to remove some of the confidence that this lad ought to have had in his Member of Parliament. I was asked to persuade him to have an operation when he was inoperable, although in any event he said he had been and was prepared to have it.

Eventually, the head of the prison medical service attended a meeting with the Minister and Mr. Hutchings in the Minister’s office and various excuses were made, none of which I accept. There is no excuse. There ought ​ to have been an apology and the Minister should provide one, along with an explanation and the assurance that such things will not be permitted to recur.

I wish that this House did not have to deal with cases like Kevin’s, but this place in its glory looks after individuals and their families and hon. Members who care are enabled through Adjournment debates to raise cases that concern individuals. Kevin’s case goes much further than his individual problem, because it reflects on the failure of society to cope, and because it throws into sharp relief a system that is wicked and ought to be changed. It is a system in which dying people, however much harm they have caused, are not permitted out of prison when it is safe for them to be out. Kevin was released only after the intervention of his Member of Parliament. I thank again the Leicester Mercury and Mr. Laurie Simpkin for his help in the campaign to have Kevin released.

After three months, Kevin died. I visited him often in the LOROS hospice and it was amazing to see that he almost a skeleton, was capable of living. This boy whose life had been a misery and who had caused unhappiness to many other people never complained during his last three months. He never argued but accepted what he knew was to come and nothing became him more in life than his way of passing from it. I salute the courage with which he faced the end of his life and with which he bore his pain and his tragedy. I hope that his life and his death will be used as an example, and that the Minister and his colleagues will be encouraged, for the sake of all of us who cared about him, to take to heart at least some of the lessons to be learnt from that life and death.