Obituary: Tom Iremonger

ON 27 APRIL 1966, the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, announced to the House of Commons that the Amory Committee, set up to study and make recommendations about the penal system, could not continue its work. Seething with anger, Tom Iremonger asked the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, to name the six members of the Royal Commission on the Penal System who initially resigned, the two who resigned subsequently and the eight who wished to continue. He was incandescent with fury.

Jenkins told Iremonger that Lady Adrian, Dr T.C.N. Gibbens, the Bishop of Exeter, the criminologist Professor Sir Leon Radzinowicz, Mrs Beatrice Serota (later Lady Serota, Health Minister) and Lady Wootton of Abinger had tendered their resignations. Subsequently the Honourable Sylvia Fletcher- Moulton and Mrs Elliott Warburton also resigned. The eight who remained were Lord Amory himself, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the trade union leader David Basnett, Mr Justice Edmund Davies, R.E. Millard, the surgeon Professor J.M. Morris, Sam Silkin QC (later Attorney General), Lord Wheatley of the Scottish Appeal Court and Tom Iremonger himself.

Partly because his ally Lord Wheatley was my father-in-law, Iremonger poured out his heart to me, saying that he believed that the ending of this Royal Commission was an insult to the British electorate who were deeply concerned about mounting crime.

Iremonger told me that Lloyd George had once explained to his Chief of the Imperial General Staff that he had no pretensions to being a military expert; he was, he said, an expert in understanding what the ordinary man in the street felt about the war. He spoke as a politician, and the function of a politician was not to be an expert; it was to see and understand the work of the experts with the eyes and mind of the ordinary people he represented.

Iremonger said that Sir Alec Douglas-Home and his Cabinet had been quite right to accede to the entreaties of people like himself to set up the Amory Commission in April 1964. People in his constituency in Essex and elsewhere were beginning to fear for their own safety. They felt their protectors had turned their hearts from them and their minds from the job of protecting them. It was Iremonger's view that most of his electors suspected that those responsible for the penal system were more concerned for the criminal than for his victim.

His particular fury was directed against the distinguished Cambridge criminologist Professor Sir Leon Radzinowicz whom he believed to be the ringleader of the dissenters. Didn't people realise that in the years from 1958 to 1964, the number of boys found guilty of indictable offences had risen from just under 32,000 to just over 52,000 - a rise of nearly 60 per cent? Iremonger saw this as a huge swelling of the potential evil in our society.

His interest started when he was elected a member of parliament. Over the next 20 years, as a result of constituency complaints, he gained increasing expertise in one of the least popular political subjects, endlessly visiting prisons and gaining the respect of the House of Commons.

He was the first and to my recollection the only MP in my first decade really to take the subject of Borstal seriously. In his book Disturbers of the Peace (1962), Iremonger wrote:

The village of Borstal lies just south of Rochester. Here, early in this present century Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise and his prison commissioners established, in the old Rochester jail, overlooking the Valley of the Medway and the Weald of Kent beyond, the "first" Borstal.

Borstal training became, and is now firmly established as, the principle weapon for protecting the public against the depredations of the young delinquent - or "lad". What struck me most forcibly was on my first contact with the Borstal training system was the discovery that the "young thugs" whose vicious behav-

iour and defiant attitudes are reported in the newspapers and understandably fill my constituents with anger, indignation and the desire to see fit punishment meted out had suddenly become "lads". Here, I think, in this metamorphosis we come straight away, as we step to the postern in the precincts of the closed Borstal, to the heart of the matter.

The tight-jeaned, hulking bully with sideburns, inflicting pain on the elderly lady in the sweet shop, evading richly deserved lynching at the hands of righteously venging citizenry, appearing in court under the aegis of a sentimental probation officer, to whom he cynically tells a tale of emotional disturbance in childhood, being sentenced, on the advice of a psychiatrist with perverted standards of right and wrong, by a soft- centred Bench to a Borstal of which he is rightly contemptuous - just a lad."

That was the picture for Iremonger. And yet he really gave his mind - and many thoughtful speeches to the House of Commons - to the vexed problem of the psychopath, and the treatments of this type of disturber of society offered under the 1959 Mental Health Act.

Tom Iremonger was born into a Royal Marine artillery family. His father, Colonel Iremonger DSO, had served at Jutland in the First World War in the battle ship Valiant; hence Tom's middle name.

In 1938, after school at King's College, Canterbury and Oriel College, Oxford, Iremonger joined the Colonial Administrative Service, volunteering to go to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands partly because of his love of sailing. He took with him his young bride Lucille who later in a charming book, It's A Bigger Life (1948), described the Western Pacific idyll before the Japanese invasion of the Second World War and greedy post-war mining. "In it she strikes the laughter- and-tears note which was to characterise later autobiographical writings," Iremonger wrote in his affectionate obituary of his wife for the Independent in 1989.

Iremonger would later state that nothing worried him because he was living on borrowed time. What he meant was that thanks to accompanying his wife to Fiji to convalesce after an illness, he had escaped the fate of many of his friends in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, who had their heads cut off by the Japanese.

After the war he returned to Britain and joined the RNVR for several years. Following the appointment of G.C. Hutchinson as Chairman of the National Assistance Board he got the chance to fight a by-election in the Ilford North constituency in February 1954. Soon after being elected he became Parliamentary Private Secretary to a kindred adventurous spirit Sir Fitzroy Maclean, who was at that time Under-Secretary of State for War.

Having held Ilford North in 1974 at the first election in February by 285 votes, at the second he lost to Mrs Millie Miller by 778 votes. He made the great mistake of standing as an Independent Conservative in March 1978 when Vivian Bendall, the official Conservative candidate, won with 22,548 votes, Iremonger coming fifth after the National Front with a miserable 671 votes.

Thomas Lascelles Isa Shandon Valiant Iremonger, colonial officer and politician: born London 14 March 1916; MP (Conservative) for Ilford North 1954-74; married 1939 Lucille D'Oyen Parks (died 1989; one daughter); died Malmesbury, Wiltshire 13 May 1998.

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