HC Deb 28 April 1954 vol 526 cc1745-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Studholme.]

9.57 p.m.

Mr. Desmond Donnelly (Pembroke)

I wish to raise the question of the appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate the law relating to and the medical treatment of homosexuality. It is only my good fortune in the Ballot that enables me to do this, and much of the credit for focusing public attention and the attention of this House on this matter belongs to the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby), whose courage and political integrity make this House a better place for his presence here.

I have only a short time in which to speak, so I should like to make two things clear at the outset. As I am speaking on the Adjournment it would be improper of me to advocate new legislation, so if I appear to be criticising existing legislation it is simply because I am telescoping my argument. I am seeking to ask for a Royal Commission and to establish a prima facie case for that Royal Commission.

Secondly, any criticism I may make of the existing operation of these laws is in so far only as they apply to people who are above the age of consent. It applies only to people who perform these acts by mutual consent and who do them in the privacy of their homes. I accept at once, and, indeed, would stress, the need for the normal laws of protecting society, the normal laws of public decency, and the normal laws of protecting young people of either sex.

For the convenience of the House I would explain what is exactly the present law, because many people are in doubt about it. The two governing statutes in this matter are the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861, and the Criminal Law (Amendment), Act, 1885. The Offences Against the Person Act, 1861, applies only to certain cases, and the majority of cases are brought under the 1885 Act, and particularly under Section 11, which reached the Statute Book in a rather curious set of circumstances.

There is a very interesting preface by Sir Travers Humphreys to "The Trials of Oscar Wilde," edited by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) that I should like to quote, because it tells how that law reached the Statute Book: Until that Act came into force, on 1st January, 18S6, the criminal law was not concerned with alleged indecencies between grownup men committed in private. Everyone knew that such things took place, but the law only punished acts against public decency and conduct tending to the corruption of youth. The Bill in question, entitled 'A Bill to make further provision for the protection of women and girls, the suppression of brothels and other purposes,' was introduced and passed by the House of Lords without any reference to indecency between males. In the Commons, after a second reading without a comment, it was referred to a committee of the whole House. In committee Mr. Labouchere moved to insert in the Bill the clause which ultimately became Section 11 of the Act, creating the new offence on indecency between male persons in public or private. Such conduct in public was, and always has been, punishable at common law. There was no discussion except that one member asked the Speaker whether it was in order to intro duce at that stage a clause dealing with a totally different class of offence"—

It being Ten o'Clock the Motion lor the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. R. Thompson.]

Mr. Donnelly

As I was saying, the quotation reads: There was no discussion except that one member asked the Speaker whether it was in order to introduce at that stage a clause dealing with a totally different class of offence to that against which the Bill was directed. The Speaker having ruled that anything could be introduced by leave of the House, the clause was agreed to without further discussion, the only amendment moved being one by Sir Henry James with the object of increasing the maximum punishment from 12 to 24 months, which was also agreed to without discussion. The book goes on to say: A learned Recorder dubbed it 'The Blackmailers' Charter'. The book from which I am quoting, by Mr. Gordon Westwood, ends that section by saying: So that the Bill that has provided thousands of pounds for hundreds of blackmailers in the last fifty years and inflicted the acutest agony of mind on millions of people was passed without forethought and without discussion, and it is still the law of the land today. There are several anomalies under the present situation. The first is that the laws applying to men do not apply to women. Although I know that the practice is not as prevalent among women as among men, nevertheless that anomaly exists and it ought to be looked at; and if a Royal Commission goes into the matter it should look at that point.

Secondly, I think it is most important that if a Royal Commission is appointed it should look into this matter with a view to seeing what medical treatment can be provided. I am advised that this is not mainly a glandular problem; it is a psychiatric problem and the answer can very often be found in psychiatric treatment in cases where this is possible, or, more particularly, in studying the problem of the treatment of young people in their nursery years, because this is the crux of the whole matter. A Royal Commission should go into this aspect and see that there is a widespread public knowledge of how this sort of thing can be avoided.

The next point is the obviously serious matter that if we are to treat people for this sort of offence, prison is the very worst way in which to treat them. I believe it only makes the situation much worse. Sensitive people are taken there and placed with criminals guilty of a completely different orime against society —if one is to call this a crime against society; and this action by itself creates an additional social problem, because people who would not otherwise come into contact with homosexuality are thus indoctrinated.

Homosexuals who go there are brought into contact with normal criminals against society and are indoctrinated with their kind of criminal life. An additional problem is created in that way. We are not facing the problem created by the fact that we are pushing people into gaols, and up to now crowded gaols, and in circumstances which go a long way towards making the whole thing worse.

Thirdly, I want to warn the Joint Under-Secretary of State of the great public disquiet which exists in the country at some of the police methods which have come to light in recent litigation, and I say this in passing simply to warn him and, through him, the various police forces in Britain that some Members of the House are watching this matter very carefully and will not hesitate to expose any case in which they think that the methods of the police have been improper.

Fourthly, I think it is quite unsual for the law to interfere in what is essentially a moral issue. The Church of England Moral Welfare Society makes this clear in a wise, sane and sober pamphlet published the other day. The pamphlet states: In no other department of life does the State hold itself competent to interfere with the private actions of consenting adults. It goes on to say: A man and woman may commit the grave sin of fornication with legal impunity, but a corresponding act between man and man is liable to life imprisonment, and not infrequently is punished by very long sentences, five, 10 or even more years. Those are the sort of anomalies which exist and which should be considered, and the Home Secretary and the Joint Undersecretary ought to be aware of the disquiet which exists. It is not enough to say that this is an issue which can be investigated simply by a Departmental inquiry. It is a great public issue affecting a major law of human society.

I consider that the best way of dealing with it is by a strong Royal Commission which I argue for and support most strongly. In this I think that I am supported by most of the responsible journals of today. If the Under-Secretary agrees to this plea, he will be supported by most of the present-day enlightened public opinion. To stand by at this moment and do nothing about this matter is a grave indictment of our existing society, and I hope that some action will arise out of the short debate that we are having tonight.

10.6 p.m.

Sir Robert Boothby (Aberdeenshire, East)

I promised the Under-Secretary of State that I would give him a quarter of an hour in which to answer this debate, and I undertake now to do so. This is a very short time in which to make any serious attempt to put a case. I shall therefore put it telegraphically, in nine minutes.

I think that homosexuality in this country is more prevalent than we are apt to admit and that it is tending to increase at the present time. In most of our great cities, there is a homosexual underground which is a constant menace to youth; and we ought to bear that always in mind. The sporadic campaigns of the police against homosexuality were referred to by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) in opening this debate. They are often accompanied, as he said, by methods of great dubiety; and do nothing, in my opinion, towards its eradication. On the contrary, they intensify the squalor by which it is surrounded, and widen the areas in which the underground flourishes.

For these methods I do not blame the police, but the existing law. In cases involving alleged acts of indecency committed in private, where there is no injured party, witnesses are almost invariably tainted; which means that they are accomplices actuated by motives of avarice, jealousy or fear. That is what makes the field of homosexuality a happy hunting ground for the blackmailer.

The basic laws dealing with this problem are enshrined in the ecclesiastical doctrines of the Middle Ages, and are really derived directly from Jewish law with the inevitable emphasis on reproduction of a race struggling for survival many centuries ago. Solomon could have a thousand wives, but homosexuality was punishable by death. It is significant that no laws, however savage, have in fact succeeded in stamping out homosexuality; and that in France, where they have the Napoleonic Code, which is far less severe than the laws of this country, there can be no doubt at all that the problem of homosexuality is far less intense than it is in this country. Indeed, it is arguable that heavy penalties have increased the morbidity, sensationalism and exhibitionism by which it is so often characterised.

The hon. Member for Pembroke mentioned the famous, or, shall I say, notorious "Labouchere" Amendment— the new Clause 11—to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1886. This was moved in the middle of the night, and passed without discussion at all in this House. There is another sentence of Sir Travers Humphreys in his introduction to the book to which the hon. Member referred, which I think he did not quote, and which is very significant. Sir Travers wrote: It is doubtful whether the House fully appreciated that the words in public or private' in the new Clause had completely altered the law.… This was in fact a Bill for the protection of women and girls, and was an excellent Bill for that purpose. It had nothing to do with this subject whatever; and this new Clause was moved by permission of Mr. Speaker, without any warning, in an empty House at 2.30 in the morning. I looked up hansard the other day and all that was said by Sir Travers Humphreys is borne out by the report of the debate, which lasted about a quarter of an hour.

All the laws relating to this subject were enacted before any of the discoveries of modern psychology. I do not rate modern psychology too high, but I think it has significance. I am not at all sure that, with all his bias and with all his defects, Professor Freud will not go down in history as a very considerable figure: and be regarded as one of the great men of our time in centuries to come. I believe, in any event, that the existing laws are outmoded and that they do not achieve the objective of all of us, which is to limit the incidence of homosexuality and to mitigate its evil effects.

The duty of the State, as I see it, is to protect youth from corruption and the public from indecency and nuisance. What consenting adults do in privacy may be a moral issue between them and their Maker, but in my submission it is not a legal issue between them and the State. The law must make adequate provision for the appropriate punishment of seduction or attempted seduction of youth— perhaps more appropriate punishment than exists today—of violence in any shape or form, of importuning and of acts of indecency committed in public. But there, in my opinion, the law should stop; and I believe that if it did, we would at once get a vast improvement in the existing situation, which to anybody who knows anything about it must give cause for the gravest anxiety and apprehension.

I turn, in conclusion, to the question of treatment, having dealt briefly with the law. We are all agreed that what are called infanto-homosexuals should be segregated unless and until they are cured; as, indeed, must all those who commit offences against children and young people of either sex. But to send confirmed adult homosexuals to prison for long sentences is, in my opinion, not only dangerous, but madness. As Dr. Stanley Jones wrote, several years ago, in the British Medical Journal, It is as futile from the point of view of treatment as to hope to rehabilitate a chronic alcoholic by giving him occupational therapy in a brewery. My hon. Friend the Joint Undersecretary of State may take exception to what I am going to say, but I shall still say it. Our prisons today, in their present overcrowded condition, are factories for the manufacture of homosexuality. Anybody who knows anything about them will confirm this. It is absolute madness to send these people to our ordinary overcrowded prisons, and put them quite frequently in a cell with others, and sometimes even in a dormitory together. Everybody who knows what happens in our prisons will realise the effect on ordinary criminals, and that the thing spreads. I cannot believe this is the right way to handle the problem.

Recent cases which have caused distress to the country as a whole, recent discussion in responsible newspapers, and the facts as we have tried to put them —it is not an easy case to put to the House—establish the need for an authoritative inquiry to furnish Parliament with the necessary expert knowledge and guidance for appropriate legislative and administrative action. That is all we are asking for tonight; and I submit that on the face of it, on the facts as we know them, the case for such an inquiry is overwhelming.

10.14 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

The House will have heard with much interest the speeches of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) and of my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby). They have raised one or two points on which I cannot feel complete agreement with what they have said, but with which I do not propose to deal this evening because time is limited.

Apart from what has been said here this evening, a number of hon. Members have previously expressed views on this subject by means of Questions in the House, and responsible opinions have been expressed outside the House. In particular, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has had representations from the Howard League and from the Church of England Moral Welfare Council. From this consideration of the subject three main questions have emerged. First, what is the prevalence of homosexual activities in the country; secondly, what is the impact of the law upon such activities and is any amendment of that law desirable; and, thirdly, what can be done by way of curative treatment, apart from punishment, for those who offend in this respect? I shall try to say a word or two about each of these questions.

The first question is far from easy to answer. There are no reliable means available for assessing the prevalence of homosexual practices in our society as a whole. The only statistical information available is that relating to the number of offences which come to the notice of the police and the number of persons convicted for such offences. Those statistics must be misleading to some considerable extent. In the nature of things the proportion of these particular offences which do not come to light is very high. On the other hand, the statistics are more reliable as a guide to what is happening than mere emotion or subjective impressions.

I think it is right to say, as has been suggested by hon. Members, that there has been a serious increase in this activity in the country. I would remind the House of the increase of cases known to the police in England and Wales between 1938 and 1952. Unnatural offences of the gravest kind—sodomy and 'bestiality— have increased from 134 in 1938 to 670 in 1952. The number of attempts to commit unnatural offences, including indecent assaults, has increased from 822 to 3,087. The offences of gross indecency have increased from 320 to 1,686. I have no corresponding figures for importuning by male persons, but in 1952 proceedings were taken in 373 cases in the Metropolitan police district, a very large number.

Sir R. Boothby


Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Yes, alone. Over this period indictable offences of this kind have increased between fourfold and fivefold and there is some correspondence, therefore, between the rate of increase in this particular kind of offence and offences generally. As I have said, owing to the nature of the offences it is true that a smaller proportion comes to light, but the increase in known oases is greater than that for offences generally. From the figures which I have mentioned, I think it is clear that there has been a considerable increase in the number of offences actually committed.

I cannot give the House any opinion as to the reasons for that increase, and I think I can say with complete truth that the reasons are simply not known. Quite clearly, this is a problem which calls for very careful consideration on the part of those responsible for the welfare of the nation.

Lieut-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

And inquiry.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

The second question, that of the adequacy of the existing law, is one of very great complexity. The view has been expressed—indeed, my hon. Friend expressed it this evening— that the existing law is antiquated and out of harmony with modern knowledge and ideas. I believe that that was the gist of my hon. Friend's remarks, and that was, indeed, the effect of what the hon. Member for Pembroke said.

I think there will be general agreement among hon. Members in all parts of the House that the criminal law in this respect ought to provide effectively, at all events, for the protection of the young and for the preservation of public order and decency. I am sure there will be unanimous agreement on that score. The question is whether the law should confine itself to securing these two objects, or whether it should be amended so as to permit unnatural relations between consenting adults in private. That is the problem which (has been posed this evening, and, I think, fairly posed. It must be remembered that such activities are no crime in many countries in the world today.

The House may be interested to have some figures in this connection. The Cambridge Department of Criminal Science has been carrying out an exhaustive inquiry into sexual offences, and my right hon. and learned Friend has recently received a preliminary report of the result of that inquiry. The survey covered all sexual offences reported to the police in 1947 in 14 police areas. It shows that 986 persons were convicted of homosexual and unnatural offences. Of those, 257 were indictable offences involving 402 male victims or accomplices, as the case may be. The great majority of those victims or accomplices were under the age of 16. Only 11 per cent, of the whole were over 21, and there was only one conviction involving the case of an adult with an adult in private. Virtually the whole of the non-indictable offences occurred in public places, and, again, only one offender in the non-indictable class was convicted for acts committed in private.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)rose

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I have no time to give way.

These figures show that the result of the law, whatever its intention may be, is not so very different from what my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire has eloquently pleaded, but I must leave to hon. Members the arguments which could be based upon that result.

The third question is that of the treatment of homosexual offenders and, particularly, prisoners. I must repeat what I have already said in this House; what medical science can do for those prisoners who are willing and able to be helped by psychological treatment is done today. I will recapitulate very briefly the main headings of what we are trying to do. Visiting psychotherapists have been appointed at certain prisons. Prison medical officers elsewhere submit to the Prison Commissioners the names of any prisoners serving substantial sentences whom they think are likely to benefit by treatment from such psychotherapists with a view to transferring the prisoner to a prison where the treatment will be available.

There is a scheme for prisoners who are serving sentences which are too short for transfer to be effective, to be seen by visiting psychiatrists from regional hospital boards, and treatment is often started with a view to continuation after release from prison. Finally, the Prison Commissioners propose to build a special establishment for mentally abnormal prisoners, and sexual cases and homosexual cases would certainly be included among those.

We do what we can for those who can benefit, but those who can benefit are a minority. Psychotherapy cannot be imposed upon an unwilling person. It is essential, if it is to be effective, that the person should have a good intelligence and a genuine desire for a cure. Where these conditions exist great benefits can result from treatment and if complete normalcy cannot be restored at any event a considerable measure of adjustment can be achieved. But there are many offenders who are unwilling or not sincere in their desire to be cured, and for them psychological treatment is useless. My right hon. and learned Friend has taken great interest in this problem and he and all those concerned will take every advantage of progress in medical knowledge to improve the means of treatment.

My right hon. and learned Friend has been giving careful and anxious consideration to the various representations on homosexual offences which have been made to him and he has also been giving close attention to the parallel problem of the law relating to prostitution and solicitation generally. He has authorised me to inform the House that he and the Secretary of State for Scotland have decided to appoint a committee to examine both these questions. He feels that a committee would be more appropriate in this connection than a Royal Commission. But he is anxious to secure the services of able and experienced men and women to serve upon this committee and, therefore, it may be some little time before he is in a position to announce its membership and terms of reference. He believes that a thorough investigation by a well-qualified body will throw useful light on the scope and nature of these difficult and controversial problems and that an investigation by such a committee may make a valuable contribution to the problem of how the criminal law should deal with them.


Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

As one of those hon. Members who have been urging the Home Secretary for some time to take some action in this matter, I should like to say that I am sure that most of us will welcome the statement which has just been made. Some inquiry into this serious problem has been long overdue. We express the hope that at the earliest possible moment suitable people will be found to serve on the proposed committee so that a full and well-informed report may be available on which the Government will be able to take appropriate action.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)

Is my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State aware that the hon. Member for Winchester has been devoting much thought to this matter and is very pleased that this long-overdue inquiry will take place?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'clock.