HC Deb 21 September 1841 vol 59 cc693-702

On the third reading of the Navy Pay Bill,

Captain Berkeley

said, that by the rate of exchange in the Mediterranean, seamen serving there and paid abroad had been deprived of 4d. on the dollar. He could instance his own ship, the seamen of which when paid at Gibraltar, were charged for every dollar 4d. more than it passed for, He had called the attention of the former Secretary of the Admiralty, to the subject, and he hoped it would not be lost sight of by the present.

Bill read a third time.

LUNATICS.] On the motion of Lord Ashley, the House went into Committee on the Lunatics Bill.

On the first clause being read,

Mr. Wakley said, that the subject of the treatment of lunatics had been much discussed of late, and it seemed to be a general impression that some alteration should be made in the existing law, and that without delay. In the late Session several notices had been given on the subject; amongst these that of the hon. Member for Lambeth, was foremost, but having many other matters to attend to, the hon. Gentleman had abandoned it. Subsequently the hon. Member for Dumfries, gave a notice on the subject, but he did not persevere in calling for an investigation. That which was proposed by the present bill was to continue the existing state of the law for four years. Consider- ing that this question was now much publicly discussed, and that it must be considered at no distant day, the term proposed he thought too long, and that it should be shortened to two years. Though he admitted the existing commission had done essential service to the public and to the cause of humanity, it had fallen short in its effects of what the public had a right to expect. He had yet to learn whether they had furnished all the information that was looked for in the shape of reports, and whether the public had received any great information from their labours. In fact, he only knew of their presenting one report the year after their appointment. He did not think the noble Lord who introduced this bill (Lord Ashley), could say, that full and adequate justice was yet done to patients by the care taken by the commissioners, and the control exercised by them in Lunatic Asylums. No doubt the noble Lord could state truly that the restraint imposed on insane persons was much diminished. At the same time, an outrageous system of restraint was still imposed on lunatics. The powers of the commission only extended to a few miles beyond the metropolis, and had little or no effect in the country at large. He should like to know why one system should be adopted in the metropolis, and another in the country districts. Why should a licence to keep in custody insane persons be granted by commissioners in one place, and by justices of the peace in another? There was one regulation under the existing law so obnoxious to common sense, and so objectionable in point of principle, that it ought not to be sanctioned for a single moment. Suppose one was desirous to keep a lunatic asylum for two persons, he must apply to the commissioners before he could do so; but if he were anxious to take only one under his charge, neither the noble Lord nor his colleagues had any power of visitation as to that patient. So that, in point of fact, in one town fifty persons might be unjustly confined separately, through the atrocious conduct of their relatives, and the commissioners could not visit one of those fifty. He had heard of a case of a lady of family and distinction, which he would mention to the House. A friend of that lady tried to obtain an interview with her, but could not succeed; he tried to communicate by means of writing, but could not succeed; nay, he even endea- voured to find out where, she was confined, but could not obtain a knowledge of the place of her concealment. Was such a system to be sanctioned in an intelligent and Christian land? It was fraught with injustice and inhumanity. He was convinced there were hundreds confined ' in the lunatic asylums of this country, who were as sane as any who sat in that House—indeed more so, in some instances. In the metropolitan districts, the commissioners might liberate persons when unjustly confined, but not until three visits had been paid, and six weeks might elapse before these visits were made. This I was a monstrous state of things, and all the circumstances demanded investigation, He did not mean to say that that investigation, could take place now, but another Session ought not to be allowed to pass without inquiry, seeing the disclosures that had recently taken place regarding, the unwarrantable treatment of patients. The system throughout the country ought to be uniform, and no favour should be shown to the metropolitan districts. He thought the noble Lord could not at least object to that principle. It had been shown within a brief period, that an enormous number of patients in one asylum might exist almost without restraint—that the chains and manacles which used to be hung upon the limbs of these unfortunate persons, might be entirely laid aside, merely by the appointment of an additional number of keepers and intelligent and humane superintendants. He alluded to the treatment of lunatics in the asylum of that county (Middlesex), where the magistrates had so conducted themselves as to deserve the admiration of every one. In that asylum there were nearly a thousand patients, yet not one was fastened to his bed or bad a chain upon his limbs. He entreated the House to observe the operation of the law as regarded lunatics. Suppose he had a relation who was possessed of a large fortune—he perceived certain eccentricities in the conduct of that individual. From the great affection he had for that relative, and the still greater affection he had for his property, he causes a commission of lunacy to be issued out, and discovering him to be insane, places him in confinement. Then what motive of action was given, under the present system, to the person under whose charge the lunatic was placed? Why, it called into operation that principle of selfishness common to human nature. The proprietor of the asylum would argue that he got 400l. a year for the charge of the gentleman so long as he remained under that roof; and if he recovered, then he (the proprietor) would lose that annual amount. Suppose a gentleman was to go to a doctor, and say, "My liver is diseased, and so long as it remains so I will give you 100l. a year." What motive of action in such a case would be given to the doctor? The House ought to set about to discover means of remedy for these things, and a system of investigation and control should be instituted which would prevent the possibility of such atrocious practices being continued. The law which the noble Lord sought to prolong had certainly in some respects its merits, but they fell short of what the public had a right to expect, and common sense—the common principles of justice—dictated the necessity for some effectual remedy for the existing evils. He asked the House to prolong the law only for one year, because in that case he was sure that the hon. Member for Lambeth, or the hon. Member for Dumfries, would next Session move for a Committee of inquiry; whereas if the law were to be prolonged for so long a period as that proposed, it would be a clog upon investigation. The hon. Member concluded by moving, that the words "one year," be substituted for "three years."

Mr. Hawes

seconded the amendment. He agreed with his hon. Friend, that there were great abuses and vices in the present system, that the lunatic asylums of the country were very imperfect, and that the public had a very insufficient knowledge of the manner in which they were conducted. There was no proper check upon them. The details that were brought to light some time ago, relative to the management of the Hereford Lunatic asylum, were perfectly disgusting. He wished to direct the attention of the House to that part of the act which enabled the keeper of an asylum to receive lunatics as patients. Under special circumstances, a single apothecary might consign a man to confinement for ever. [No, no] It was so; and if that man were a pauper, not even the intervention of an apothecary was necessary, but a justice of the peace could, by his certificate, consign him to a lunatic asylum, under certain circumstances. The noble Lord said not for ever, and he admitted that the noble Lord. was right as regarded the metropolitan districts, but that did not apply to the provinces. Let a man be once sent to a lunatic asylum, and suppose him to be of a nervous temperament, and unable to stand those formidable examinations he had to undergo before medical men, who were generally, and not unnaturally, prepossessed with the conviction that a patient confined in the asylum must necessarily be insane, and his chances for emancipation were rather remote. He did not wish to refer unnecessarily to the case of the Hereford Asylum, but he was bound to say, that the scenes disclosed there, were such as to shock every humane mind, and they called loudly for an amendment in the system. All that the hon. Member for Finsbury sought was a diminution of the term for which the law was to be renewed. He did not think that a Committee of that House was the best instrument to effect the object desired; but he conceived it was a case peculiarly belonging to the executive Government. If the noble Lord would turn his mind seriously to the whole subject before next Session, he would have the opportunity of working out an inestimable benefit. He trusted, however, that the Government would take up the subject, for it was too complicated for any single Member of that House.

Lord Ashley

had not thought, that a discussion would have arisen upon the subject, or he would have come down to the House better prepared to bear his part in it. The commissioners had done all that could be reasonably expected of them, and he begged to observe, that the act under which they derived their powers was not an act directing the methods to be employed in the cure of patients; but it was an act for the purpose of controlling those enormous abuses which, from time to time, had been laid before Committees of that House—abuses under which persons were very easily confined in lunatic asylums, but which rendered it almost impossible for them to obtain their liberty. Such was the state of the law when the present act was introduced. He wished to inform the House that the commissioners had made periodical reports to the Lord Chancellor, and it was not long ago that it was determined by the commission that he (Lord Ashley) should be called upon to lay those reports from the year 1835 upon the table of that House, that the country might see the progress that had been made, and pass an opinion upon the merits of the commission. The powers of the commission were very limited, they were powers of control, and no more; and a great deal that had been done, had been effected by advice and suggestion, and not by authority. The commissioners, indeed, possessed two powers, one of which was the right of refusing licences, but those powers were only to be resorted to in extreme cases, and there had been only one, or at the most, two instances, in which those powers had been exercised. If he thought, that the renewal of the act for the time that he sought precluded all consideration for the amendment of the law, then he should be ready to adopt the suggestion of the hon. Member for Finsbury, but he assured the House that the commissioners had great difficulty in keeping the lunatic asylums within due bounds and in proper order; and if the existence of the commission was to be terminated within twelve months, and the proprietors of those houses were aware of that fact, the difficulties already experienced would be greatly aggravated. The commissioners had agreed that it would be desirable to meet before the next Session of Parliament, to consult as to what amendments in the system might be proposed. Within the metropolis and seven miles around, the commissioners had, he would venture to say, brought the asylums into a most complete state of order. It was a rule with the commissioners, when they visited these asylums, to omit none where a single human being was confined. The provincial asylums had no visitation whatever that was worthy the name, and the best proof of that was, that, whereas the commissioners ought to be supplied with a correct return of all those asylums—the fact was, there were many in the country of which they had no knowledge at all. It was almost impossible, under the present system, to carry out the intentions of the act with respect to those provincial asylums. There was a defect in the present system of the treatment of lunatics to which he wished to allude, while, at the same time, he confessed he did not know how to remedy it by any legislative enactment. But it showed the necessity for some amendment in the system. No sooner was a person confined in a lunatic asylum—he spoke, of course, not without exceptions, but yet as a pretty general rule—than from that hour it appeared as though all the relatives, even the nearest, of that unfortunate individual, thought themselves discharged from the solemn duty of watching over him. It appeared, indeed, as if insanity was a visitation of Providence, so awful and overwhelming, that it produced a withering and deadly effect upon the minds, not only of the unhappy patient, but of ail who were connected with him, so as to incline them not only to get rid of his society, but to wipe out, if possible, ail memory of him. That was an additional reason why not only in the metropolitan districts, but in the provinces, there should be instituted a strict, vigorous, and most searching investigation, that should compel relatives to come forward and take upon themselves that solemn duty, of the extended neglect of which he could convey to the House no accurate notion. He believed all parties concurred in the opinion that no blame was chargeable upon the commissioners. The only question, however, before the House was, as regarded the term for which the Act was to be renewed; and, he assure the House, so far as he was concerned, that if they thought proper to sanction the renewal of the commission for three years, which he considered absolutely necessary, all the energies and abilities he could command, should be freely and readily devoted to the subject. He thought the commissioners would be enabled to propound to the House a scheme whereby the management of lunatics throughout the country should be put upon one general and uniform fooling; and, above all, by which a complete and effective system of visitation should be established over all private asylums.

Sir R. H. Inglis

said, he had listened to the speech just delivered with the deepest attention, marked as it was at once with that simple clearness, and that sincerity of feeling, which characterized his noble Friend's addresses on such subjects. The only observation he had to make was, that he trusted the country visitations were not altogether and universally mockeries. He fell great pleasure in declaring, that his noble Friend had earned one title more honourable than all others—that of the friend to the friendless—the sympathizer with every sufferer.

Lord Ashley

briefly explained, that there were exceptions in the country visitations.

Mr. Wakley

said, he for one bore warm and willing testimony to the zeal and energy which the noble Lord had manifested in this cause. It was one thing, however, to admire the noble Lord's character, and another to approve of his propositions. The noble Lord's speech had throughout indicated a deficiency of authority and power in the commissioners. The noble Lord no doubt would be disposed to fulfil his promise to give the whole subject careful consideration, and to propose a general plan. But the fact of the act being renewed only for one year would have this effect—it would stimulate he would not say the noble Lord, for he required no stimulus, but those with whom he was associated, of whom he confessed he had some distrust, though of the noble Lord he had none. The very fact of the act having again speedily to come before Parliament would serve to keep up their attention and their energies on the subject, and prevent their sympathies from sleeping supposing they were disposed to allow them. Let the House well recollect what the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government said when the noble Lord the Member for the city had proposed the renewal of the Poor-law commission for ten years. The right hon. Baronet said, "No; when we have such a commission as this, the oftener it is brought under the revision of Parliament the better; it will be wiser to renew it for a shorter period." So said he as to this lunacy commission. He had made no attack upon that commission; he might have said things which he chose to withhold for the present, but, at all events, it was an amazingly well paid commission. The professional men received one guinea per hour for the time they devoted themselves to their duty, exclusive of all travelling expenses, and he thought that was remarkably good pay. But it was questionable whether a body of not more than twenty, nor less than fifteen, was one properly constituted to conduct such proceedings as those which were imposed upon the lunatic commission. He thought something much better than such a board might be constituted. He believed if there was but one person appointed who should be obliged to devote the whole of his time to these particular duties, receiving a sufficient salary, and alone responsible to that House and to the public, that much more efficient services would be rendered, and that the unfortunate lunatics would receive milder, kinder, and more generous treatment in the asylums. He contended that the noble Lord had, by his speech, completely made out a case for the shorter period of renewal, and had proved beyond a doubt, that the case could not too soon come before Parliament. The right hon. Secretary for the Home Department would at once see the necessity for doing something, and lie (Mr. Wakley) trusted the whole case would soon be brought under the searching investigation of that right lion. Gentleman. Upon a matter of this kind there could be no party feeling, and the amendment he had proposed had been submitted to the House without any local or private spirit or interest, and he trusted the House would decide in favour of the shorter term of renewal.

Lord Ashley

wished it to be understood that he received no remuneration for his services.

Mr. Wakley

explained that he had spoken of the professional persons only— the physicians and barristers. Those persons, he repeated, received one guinea per hour, besides travelling expenses, for the time they devoted to an inquiry, and he believed the act put no limitation on the time they might occupy.

Sir James Graham

having been appealed to, would offer a very few words to the notice of the committee. The subject was of the gravest character, and the discussion must touch deeply the feelings and sympathies of every humane man. He agreed most cordially with the hon. Baronet, the Member for Oxford, that amidst the many claims which his noble Friend had established upon the gratitude of the nation, there was none that had better earned for him the title of the friend of the afflicted and the unprotected, than the active part he had taken in the distressing duty with which he had associated himself. The point immediately before the committee was in itself, however, very narrow. It was simply, whether the term of the renewal of the act should be for a greater or a less period. He perfectly agreed with the hon. Gentleman, the Member for Finsbury, that a very salutary effect was produced in bringing the conduct of commissioners, and indeed, all other public servants, frequently under the revision of that House. But in the present instance, the only question was, what limitation of lime should be taken as rendering the revision sufficiently frequent. He certainly thought, that an annual revision would be more frequent than was necessary. If it should be deemed requisite to come to Parliament for an extension of power, he, after carefully considering the subject, and availing himself of the advice of his noble Friend (Lord Ashley), and the experience of the commission under which his noble Friend acted, should be prepared to accede to any proposition that the humanity of the subject might seem to demand. After the assurance that had been given by his noble Friend, he thought there could be no impropriety in now renewing the operation of the act for three years.

Amendment negatived.

Bill went through the committee.

House resumed.—Report to be received.