HC Deb 19 October 1949 vol 468 cc600-3

A person under sixteen years of age shall not be received as a boarder in a mental hospital under section fifteen of the Lunacy (Scotland) Act, 1866, as amended by section fifty-nine of the Mental Deficiency and Lunacy (Scotland) Act, 1913, on his own application, but may be so received on an application by his parent or guardian, and the said section as so amended shall, in its application to any such person, have effect subject to the following modifications—

  1. (a) for any reference to a person desirous of submitting himself to treatment there shall be substituted a reference to a person whose parent or guardian desires to submit him to treatment;
  2. (b) for any reference to notice by a boarder of intention or desire to leave the mental hospital there shall be substituted a reference to notice by the parent or guardian of the boarder of intention or desire to remove him from the mental hospital; and
  3. (c) notwithstanding anything in the aforesaid section fifty-nine, no person under the age of sixteen years shall be received into a mental hospital in pursuance of this section except with the previous assent in writing of one of the Commissioners of the General Board of Control for Scotland.

—[The Lord Advocate.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Lord Advocate

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

The purpose of this new Clause is to enable children under the age of 16 to be treated as voluntary patients in mental hospitals on the initiative of their parents or guardians. According to the law at present, the admission of a voluntary patient to a Scottish mental hospital depends on the initiative of the patient himself. By this children under the age of 16 will not be admitted as voluntary patients except on the initiative of the patient. Manifestly, that is wrong in relation to children of tender years; a datum line has to be fixed, and we feel that the age of 16 is the appropriate datum line.

By this Amendment, therefore, a child under 16 will now be admitted as a voluntary patient on the application of the parent or guardian. There is a great deal of good remedial work which could be done to such children if they are admitted as voluntary patients, without the need for certification, in cases where they might otherwise be certified, or in other cases where there is no mental condition that would justify certification. The developments in this line of medicine are such that it is desirable that young children should be able to get full advantage as voluntary patients.

Reference has had to be made to the previous Acts of 1866 and 1913. According to the original Act of 1866, a voluntary patient could not be received in hospital except with the prior assent in writing of a Commissioner of the Board of Control. The 1913 Act amended that to enable the assent in writing by the Commissioner to be given any time within three days after admission. We feel that, in amending the law, it is desirable that no child under 16 should be admitted as a voluntary patient on the application of the parent or guardian unless, prior to admission, there had been this consent in writing by a Commissioner of the Board of Control. Therefore, that prior assent is now necessary before the child can be admitted. That has been the position in England since 1930, and the child could be admitted as a voluntary patient on the application of the parent or guardian. It has worked very well, and we think that this is one occasion when we might profitably follow the course which has been taken in England.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot

We offer no objection to the new Clause being added to the Bill. As a rule, as the Lord Advocate will agree, our provisions regarding the voluntary admission to mental hospitals in Scotland have been of a more informal nature than those in England. On the whole, we have taken up a more advanced attitude in that section of therapy, and it is interesting on this occasion to find that England has gone ahead of us. I think it is a sound power to ask for, but, like all powers involving the liberty of the subject, it will need careful supervision. I trust that the consent of the Commissioner of the Board of Control will be sufficient, though some kind of added care will be necessary in such cases as will inevitably arise, though we cannot yet conceive them. At the same time, I think this is a power which may properly be entrusted to the authorities in Scotland, whose enlightened attitude to the treatment of mental cases is recognised throughout the world as being of a more advanced, more humane and more sympathetic character.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

I should like to endorse what has been said by my right hon. and gallant Friend. I think the safeguards, and particularly that mentioned by the Lord Advocate in the later part of his speech, will be adequate to meet any kind of possible abuses, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and all those concerned in administering this new Clause at the Scottish Office will bear carefully in mind the fact that we are here giving them considerable powers and that we may be opening the door to abuses. I am sure that every hon. Member would wish to guard against these possible abuses. After all, we are giving great powers, which must be very carefully watched in order that there may not be any possible loophole for unscrupulous persons.

The kind of case which I envisage is that in which a young child may be left with one parent or may be completely orphaned and placed under the care of guardians who do not care very much about carrying out their onerous responsibilities. I am not for one moment disparaging the good work that has been done in the past and will be done in the future under this new Clause in the treatment of these cases, but the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are cases where the guardians of a child may be only too ready to avail themselves of the provisions of this Clause in order to rid themselves of their responsibility, about which they do not care very much.

There are also cases in which the parents of children have always wished to spare those children the necessity of being placed in an institution at all, no matter how good the treatment meted out to them in such institutions may be. I am not saying that that is a wise attitude for parents to take up, but we have to accommodate ourselves to these sentimental reasons, and, where we have cases of feeble-minded children, we find that the parents are very touchy indeed. We do not wish to give parents the impression that, if they die and leave behind them weak-minded children, there will be any possibility in the future of their having to face the very thing against which the parents have tried to guard them during their lifetime and of the children being placed in institutions simply because the guardians who were appointed to look after them wished to rid themselves of that responsibility.

I think the safeguard concerning the Commissioner's assent will go a long way to meet the point put by my right hon. and gallant Friend, and I hope that those responsible for administering this provision, both under this Government and its successors, will bear in mind the points which we have placed before them.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.