HC Deb 27 June 1947 vol 439 cc850-7

"Nothing in section five of the principal Act shall operate to prevent the Parliament of Northern Ireland from enacting legislation corresponding to section one hundred and ninety-three of the Public Health Act, 1936 — [Mr. Gage.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Gage

I teg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The object of this Clause is to enable the Parliament of Northern Ireland to pass legislation permitting Christian Science nursing homes to be set up in Ulster. As hon. Members will know, the position of nursing homes in this country and in Wales is controlled, and properly controlled, by the Public Health Act, 1936, and in Scotland by the Nursing Homes Registration (Scotland) Act, 1938. In Northern Ireland there is the Midwives and Nursing Homes Act (Northern Ireland) which, in a similar way, controls nursing homes generally. These Acts are all very similar in their provisions, because they make it an offence for anyone to run a nursing home unless it is on the register, and in order for it to be placed on the register certain conditions have to be complied with. One of those conditions is—it is the same in all three Acts for all three parts of the British Isles— that the nursing home shall be under the charge of a qualified medical officer or a qualified nursing matron.

The effect of this condition is that a Christian Science nursing home cannot be set up, and cannot be put on the register, because, of course, it is contrary to the tenets of Christian Science that there should be an ordinary qualified medical officer in charge. That was recognised, and under Section 193 of the Public Health Act, 1936, this Parliament specifically exempted Christian Science nursing homes from the provisions which related to ordinary nursing homes. This was also recognised in Scotland, because under Sec- tion 7 of the Scottish Act, Christian Science nursing homes were excepted. The effect of that is that in Scotland, Wales and England a Christian Science nursing home can be set up, provided the Minister of Health approves. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland no such Section exempting Christian Science nursing homes from the provision of the Act was included. The reason such a Section was not included was because it was thought—I think rightly thought—that under Section 5 of the 1920 Act it would be showing a discrimination in favour of a religious party. Hon. Members will remember that under Section 5 of the 1920 Act, the Government of Northern Ireland cannot show any discrimination, favourable or otherwise, in respect of any religious party. This result was, I think, due to a legislative accident because, of course, Section 5 was intended for quite other purposes. This legislative accident had the effect of excluding Christian Science nursing homes and preventing them from being set up.

The object of the new Clause is to give Northern Ireland the power, if they so desire, to pass a provision similar to Section 193 of our Public Health Act, 1936. I am not myself a Christian Scientist, nor, I am sorry to say, have I any profound knowledge of their teaching or religious beliefs, but I know, and I think that most hon. Members will agree, that they hold their views very sincerely. It seems to me, therefore, to be wrong that where a large section of people hold certain views commonly, they should be debarred from having what they desire to have—nursing homes set up for the healing of their sick by their own particular methods. In this country, no one ever thought it wrong that they should have Christian Science nursing homes here. They have them in Scotland, and no one has ever thought it wrong that they should have them in Scotland, but in Northern Ireland, alone of the United Kingdom, they are unable to have them, purely because of the operation of Section 5, which was quite fortuitous; and, I am certain that when it was enacted hon. Members had no idea that it might have this effect. I ask the Home Secretary to accept this very innocuous and harmless new Clause, because it will give great pleasure to a number of Christian Scientists in Northern Ireland who, after all, simply because they live in Northern Ireland should be in no worse a position than their co-religionists on this side of the Channel.

Mr. Ede

I think that is rather a misuse of words to call Section 5 of the principal Act "fortuitous." After all, that is the Section around which most of the disputes we have had on this Bill have ranged.

Mr. Gage

I did not intend to call Section 5 fortuitous. I said that the effect of Section 5 in this respect was fortuitous.

Mr. Ede

One is dealing with very particular circumstances in Northern Ireland which made Section 5 necessary. As I said in answer to a previous Amendment, there are some things in this country on which the law is silent. We make certain assumptions about the way in which the Government of the country will be conducted, and if that manner of life is not observed, hon. Members would question the Minister who was responsible for departing from the ordinary accepted way of carrying on. If it were thought, for instance, that I had attempted to apply a religious condition on some person for promotion inside my office, I have no doubt that the House would quite rightly be very incensed, and that there would be very considerable trouble for me, out of which I intend to keep. That is not the position in Northern Ireland. The whole of the Debates on this Bill have been based on the belief in certain quarters that discrimination on political and religious grounds exist. The Government of Northern Ireland are not anxious that there should be a breach made in Section 5 of the Act. They want to have Section 5 as a quite clear guide to them on the way they should act. On that basis they will endeavour to live up to the requirements of that Section.

12.30 p.m.

In 1929—and this shows that it is not quite as fortuitous as the hon. Gentleman may have imagined—the Northern Ireland Midwives and Nursing Homes Act was passing through the Northern Ireland Parliament, and the question of inserting a similar provision was raised. It was decided by the Northern Ireland Government, after careful consideration, that they should not take any action which would be construed as giving a privilege to a particular religious denomination, and they declined to ask the House to give them the powers necessary to have Section 5 of the principal Act altered so that that could take place. In am informed by them that their view is the same today, and they have indicated that even if the power were conferred they would not use it when they come to frame their Measure, because they are anxious to preserve Section 5 of the principal Act.

I may get into trouble again for expressing a hope with regard to Ireland; I expressed a hope, in conjunction with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Antrim (Sir H. O'Neill), about a suggestion he very wisely made during the Second Reading Debate, but I am bound to say that the reception which the hope I then expressed has received does not make me anxious to repeat the expression of hopes on this Bill. Nevertheless, I hope there will come a time, not too distant, when as reasonable a step as the one proposed in this new Clause can be taken without misgiving. The hon. Member will himself observe, however, that nearly all the discussions of any interest on this Bill have centered round the effective working of Section 5 of the principal Act, and while those misgivings exist I think it would be unwise—and if I may say so without offence, especially from that side of the Committee—to attempt to amend Section 5 of the principal Act.

Mr. W. J. Brown

One always listens to the Home Secretary on any matters of this kind with a very great deal of respect and admiration. I regard him as one of the most sensible men on that Front Bench; he expresses himself with a magnificent reasonableness, and one would like to concur immediately with the point of view which he has just put. But, in fact, this Clause is not a mandatory Clause at all. It is a permissive Clause; it does not pledge the Government of Northern Ireland to do anything. It merely makes it possible for them to do something if they should want to do it. And unless we do this, unless we put this Clause in, a subsequent Government of Northern Ireland would not be able to do this even if it wanted to. They would have to come back for an Amendment of the Act in order to make it possible for them to do what this new Clause would permit them to do.

The question therefore arises: Is the thing which the new Clause desires to give the Northern Ireland Government freedom to do a thing which it is desirable that they should have freedom to do? In my view, the answer to that question is "Yes". There is no sphere of life in which dogmatism would be more out of place than in medicine. The only safe thing to say about medicine is that it has probably killed more people than war, famine, pestilence and epidemics put together. Nobody knows very much about it, and those who dogmatise the most know the least. You will get from the same individual at different periods of his life precisely opposite medical views. In my life I have heard nearly all theories, I think, from demoniac possession to the modern Christian Science theory, and everything in between. We have gone from the germ theory, by which at one time everything was ascribed to germs; at a later stage people began to say that it was not the germs which mattered, what mattered was whether there was a soil which was receptive to them in the human system. At a later stage still, I have heard of well-known Harley Street doctors who have moved from the Marxist material conception of history to the belief that all disease was mental in its origin.

The Chairman

The hon. Member cannot discuss the merits or demerits of any particular form of belief.

Mr. Brown

Heaven forbid that I, who am a novice in this as in all other matters, should presume to decide between these rival theories. I would only say that there is at least a respectable body of medical opinion which holds the view that there is room for the mental treatment of disease, both physical and mental, and the sole motive of this new Clause is to make it possible for the Government of Northern Ireland to permit establishments run on given lines to be set up in the Six Counties. As things are they cannot be, and unless we adopt this new Clause they never will be.

Just one word more; all progress in life depends upon heretics. Every new discovery, whether in medicine or anything else, originates in the rebellion of some odd, queer fellow who thinks he sees a new vision of the truth. If there is one thing that we who were brought up in the Socialist movement—although that movement has subsequently left us—will have learned from Shaw, it is the necessity of tolerating heretics at all costs, instead of trying to suppress them. This is a plea for heretics in a given field—or, rather, it is a plea that in a given field the Government of Northern Ireland should not be obliged to suppress the heretics. I hope we shall give the Northern Ireland Government the power to tolerate this kind of institution.

Mr. Geoffrey Cooper (Middlesbrough, West)

I, too, would make an appeal to the Home Secretary in connection with this new Clause. I have little to add to the factual survey given by the hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage) who moved the Clause, but my appeal is on somewhat different grounds. I think the Home Secretary based his argument on the need to recognise discrimination on religious grounds in the case of Northern Ireland, and I believe that sort of argument is unsound, for this reason. Are we, as Members of this House, to lend our hand to tolerating religious intolerance, because that is really what it amounts to? The terms of this Clause are intended not to seek special favours for those who are Christian Scientists in Northern Ireland, but to prevent unfair discrimination against them. I wonder if I might have the Home Secretary's attention for a moment on one particular question I should like to ask? Could the Home Secretary tell me what would be the position of a body of Christian Scientists in Northern Ireland if they wished to open a Christian Science nursing house of the type that has been opened in various parts of this country. Could he answer that question? Would those Christian Scientists be free to open such a nursing house?

The Home Secretary referred to the Act which was passed in 1929 in which, he pointed out, there was no Clause of the type included in the Scottish and English editions of the same Measure. The fact that no similar provision was in that Act was due to one thing, namely, that in 1929 there were not such a large number of Christian Scientists in Northern Ireland who would have made their representations to the Northern Ireland Government and to have that provision inserted. The position today is different. There is a greater number of Christian Scientists in Northern Ireland, I am informed, who are at this moment thinking of seeking permission to open a Christian Science house in Northern Ireland, and I would ask the Home Secretary if he would be kind enough to give the answer to my question as to what this body of people will do if they wish to pursue this idea to which they are giving their attention at the present time. Would he consider further representations with a view to this new-Clause being inserted before the Bill goes on its way to another place, so that in due time the Bill may emerge in a way which will give, as I believe, a right and proper protection, and cover the interests of these people whose religious persuasion has been fully recognised in both England and Scotland, and who now ask that they should be covered by a provision in the Northern Ireland Bill also?

Mr. Ede

I would like very much to be able to respond to the speeches made by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. Cooper). I would like to be able to feel that I could repeal Section 5 of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, because it was no longer necessary owing to the growth of toleration of both sides in that country. The hon. Member for Rugby said he was on the side of the heretics. The trouble is, it all depends, when you allow people to deal with heretics, on exactly how much power you leave to them. The House decided that, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, there was to be no witch hunting and no heresy hunting, that people were to enjoy their own opinions, that no discrimination was to be shown; and that is the position today. Any one who has listened to the Debates on this Bill must be aware that some people still fear that they might be treated as witches and as heretics if that Section were repealed. That is the difficulty. The Government of Northern Ireland do not wish to make a breach in that Section, and I think they are wise at present in standing by that.

I hope that if, when they come to discuss their National Health Bill, they desire to give the same position to Christian Scientists as they enjoy in this country, they will come to the House and ask for permission to do it, but they will have to make that request in the light of the fact that it would be a breach of Section 5, which would have to be amended. Much as I would like to accede to the liberal views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Middles- brough and by the hon. Member for Rugby, in view of the discussions on this Bill I cannot recommend that any breach should be made in the requirements of Section 5.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.