HC Deb 08 February 1957 vol 564 cc875-84

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)

It was on 21st December that I raised in this House, on the Adjournment, the case of a Mrs. Thornton in an effort to show how easy it is for a person to be certified as insane under our slapdash lunacy laws. Today, in the limited time available to me, I hope to give some indication of the unsatisfactory state of affairs which exists under another set of laws, the laws relating to mental deficiency in young people, by quoting the case of a Miss Mary Betteridge.

Because so few people appreciate the difference between the lunacy laws and the mental deficiency laws, I think it is appropriate that I should quote a few words from a pamphlet on the subject issued by the National Association for Mental Health: It should be realised that mental defectives are not insane; they have never been normal and they can never be 'cured', although much can be done to help them by appropriate methods of training. My submission is that Miss Mary Betteridge has never been, and even now is not, a mental defective, and that this stigma of certification and incarceration in a mental institution for nearly six years is a shocking injustice and is doing more harm than good to this individual.

I at once agree that Miss Mary Betteridge was, and probably still is, a problem child. It is a fact that after she left school she kicked over the traces. But my submission is that, as a result of her being sent to the St. Margaret's Mental Hospital as a mental defective, she has not received the treatment she needed and, in consequence, she still presents a difficult problem. The years have been lost. She should have had more appropriate treatment and, if she had had it, the present problems would possibly not now exist. Certainly, the atmosphere of a mental institution was most unsuitable for Miss Mary Betteridge.

Before coming to my other submissions, I will give a short history of the case; but, lest it should be thought that those in charge at mental institutions are concerned only with keeping people in and are not concerned with trying to make them better, despite the inadequacy of the system, I will first draw attention to a pamphlet written by the physician-superintendent of the Fountain Hospital, London. In discussing the matter of mental defectives, his conclusions are these: Mental deficiency practice has consolidated within the framework and experience of an Act designed 40 years ago in very different social circumstances. This has resulted in a wastage of human capabilities which, I believe, can, in more favourable circumstances, be developed and utilised to better advantage both to the individual and to the community.… Too often, as I have tried to show, it is the diagnosis which has created the disease. I submit that those last few words apply very much to the case of Mary Betteridge.

Mary Betteridge is an unfortunate victim of an out-of-date approach to this important facet of our national life. What is more, I believe that she, like thousands of other young people, has fallen foul of this antiquated system. Mary was adopted at the age of nine months and nothing but good can be said about her foster-parents. She had a normal education, which is not usually the case with mental defectives, and when she left the Paget Road Secondary Modern School, this was the testimony that she took with her: Mary is clean and is a member of the Health Brigade. During the past term she has been a school prefect. She has attended school regularly and been very punctual. She is well-mannered and courteous. It is not usually the custom to make school prefects of mental defectives in a secondary modern school.

After leaving school, Miss Betteridge had employment in the offices of two different firms. It was during this period that she began to kick over the traces. She got into bad company. She met a young lady whom she persuaded to go to her home on a number of occasions. As a consequence, her foster-parents were disturbed and wondered what to do. They then sought the advice of a probation officer—and only too often do I hear of this type of case. The probation officer said that the young lady needed treatment and, for that purpose, suggested that she should be brought before the juvenile court. In many cases, statements are made about money or other things being missing from the house. In this case, it was a matter of being in need of care and attention.

I have a letter from the parents. Had they known what an approved school was like and that it would lead to a mental home, they certainly would never have gone to a probation officer. Had they not done so, I doubt very much whether the young lady would ever have been in a mental institution. It is, of course, possible that other things might have happened to her. As to that, of course, I cannot say.

The parents say that in going to the probation officer they were advised that the girl would get the right treatment. She was put on probation. She continued the same way of life and, in consequence, was sent to an approved school. She certainly resented it and absconded from the school. She was brought back and, I understand, settled down.

At just about the time when she should have been released, a question arose about her having epileptic fits. I wish I had time to give the evidence to destroy that one. If she had any fits there, there is no evidence that she has had them since. The parents were asked whether they would agree to her being certified and they refused. The next thing they found was that under a Home Office order the girl was certified and taken to St. Margaret's Mental Hospital in Birmingham.

It is my submission that she should never have been certified under the Act as we know it. She was not a mental defective. That she needed some form of treatment is agreed, but I submit that it is impossible to get the treatment that is necessary in a mental hospital such as St. Margaret's.

The family doctor, when he heard that Mary had been certified, was very surprised indeed. He gave this testimony, that Mary was with her foster parents from the age of nine months, and he added: She had a good home, was a well-mannered, well-conducted girl during her school days. The testimony of her two employers, although she was with them only a few months, was not to the effect that she was a mental defective. It does not suggest there was anything wrong with her in that sense.

However, Mary went to the mental hospital and was there nearly six years. It was understood by those who were concerned with her future that little progress could be made unless some substantial medical testimony was obtained. With that in mind, one of the greatest authorities on mental illness was secured for the purpose of visiting the hospital to see Mary Betteridge. The authority I speak of is the Physician in Charge of the Psychiatric Department of Bromley Hospital. He went to Birmingham, and I shall quote one or two extracts of his testimony: I saw this girl on 7th July at St. Margaret's Hospital, Birmingham. She certainly presents a difficult problem. Nevertheless, there do not appear to be grounds upon which she can be certified under the Mental Deficiency Act as a mentally defective person. He goes on to say: So far, therefore, as my observations are concerned, and the reports at my disposal indicate, there is an incorrect diagnosis, a psychological illness having been interpreted as mental defect. This is obviously a most unsatisfactory situation. The facilities at St. Margaret's hospital are for the care and treatment of defective people. It is not possible for my colleagues working in the hospital the size of St. Margaret's, devised for its specific purpose, to offer the special treatment required by a girl of this type. That is as great an indictment as could be made by any medical man of the medical system. He goes on to say that the intelligence tests given her show that her intelligence is well above that of a mental defective and he says: The examination of her intelligence, therefore, clearly confirms that she cannot be properly detained under the Mental Deficiency Act. To cut a long story short, this girl was let out quite recently. Since then she has been working in a canteen, and her job entailed the taking of money. The testimony from there is that this young girl is not a mental defective.

However, the stigma of having been in a mental home is very hard to bear in the world. It is tragic that recently I and other friends who have spoken to her have seen her terribly afraid. She wakes up in the night. She believes that the terms of the licence are such that it will not be long before she is taken back again to the mental hospital. That is a real fear, and anyone can understand it in anyone who has been for six years in a mental home. That is the result of the wrong sort of treatment.

I have heard in the last few days that Mary has absconded. There can be no doubt that if she is found she will be taken back again to a mental home and probably allowed to rot there unless she comes under the care of such a person as the physician superintendent of the Foundation Hospital in London.

I hope, and many more people who have made a study of the system hope, that before long the deliberations of the Royal Commission on Mental illness will sweep away the antiquated laws and change this Cinderella of the Health Service, so that young people can be given a fair chance of living with normal people in normal life.

I end by quoting a wonderful editorial in the Manchester Guardian, which says: It is shocking that some people should be detained unlawfully. That reminds me of the Peter Whitehead case. After twelve and a half years he got out on the morning of the very day his case was to be heard in the High Court. I believe there are many young people in these mental homes who would get out if the money could be found to take their cases to the High Court. The quotation continues: But it is wrong too, if one comes to think of it, that people should lose their liberty because the rest of us have not gone to enough trouble to make it possible for them to live at liberty. It is time that the limelight was thrown on this question before the Royal Commission comes to its conclusions so that at long last we shall so shape our legislation on lunacy and mental deficiency that these young people shall have a fair chance.

4.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan)

This is one of a number of questions which the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) has put, and the second Adjournment debate that he has initiated on these very intricate subjects. The whole House, and I think the public, are only too anxious to know that all is well with these unhappy members of our society who are confined in mental or mental deficiency hospitals or institutions. I feel that we would all agree that, while it is entirely right that we should be alive to the dangers that might arise from wrongful restrictions on the liberty of the subject, and while those who are concerned, in my view, have no reason to be afraid of light being shed upon these matters, I think that the whole responsible public would deprecate that the names of those concerned, who in some cases are now at liberty, should be bandied about. I shall have more to say on that point later.

My duty is to answer on behalf of the Board of Control in Parliament, but remind the House that my right hon. Friend has no power to review the decisions taken by that Board. The Board of Control is the statutory body which Parliament has entrusted under the Mental Deficiency Acts to supervise the admission of patients to hospitals and the periodical review of their cases, together with the power of discharge. The Board has full power to obtain information from the hospital authorities and to visit and to inspect.

I have studied all the papers in this case of Miss Mary Betteridge and have devoted many hours to doing so. I am reluctant to disclose all the back history, or even indeed to quote from the medical reports in the case. Miss Betteridge is at this moment at large, and I cannot feel that much good is being done by raking up some of the past. I am, frankly, naturally reluctant even to quote to the House, and therefore to the whole of the outside public, some of the details in this case. The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford has assisted me by quoting some of them already, but I feel that I have a duty to see that justice is done not only to the patient but also to the action of the medical authorities concerned and no less to the Board of Control. That is in the interest of other people who continue to need their care and supervision and whose confidence in them should not be wantonly undermined.

I propose, therefore, to give some of the details of this case and to amplify the details which the hon. Member had already sketched. This girl was born in 1933 and went to foster parents at the age of three months. Her childhood appears to have been normal. The hon. Member quoted from a school-leaving certificate. Such a certificate is hardly likely to be a full record of a child's ability and career at school. I have here a copy of the city of Birmingham school record, which says that her educational attainment was very poor indeed; that it was almost impossible to teach her the simplest arithmetic in four rules; that her handwork was very backward; that she was very highly strung and hesitant in speech, because of nerves. As the hon. Member said, it is true that she was made a deputy-prefect—not a prefect—but that was obviously in an endeavour to give this girl a sense of responsibility. Her ability was regarded as very poor; she was Grade C physically, and it is said that her home background gave the impression of her being more intellectual than she was.

The real difficulties appeared when she left school and began to face wider responsibilities.

Mr. Dodds

Will the Minister say whether what he has now said in any way amounts to saying that the girl was mentally defective?

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

If the hon. Member will be patient I will tell him. I have a long story to unfold. I did not interrupt him. I am coming to that point.

Her foster parents were concerned about her conduct and, in November, 1947, when she was 14, they brought her before the juvenile court. The following year she was again brought before the juvenile court for a breach of supervision, having proved troublesome to her foster mother.

The hon. Member asks whether that proves that she was mentally defective. Of course not, but, as I have tried to show, the defects in her mentality obviously became apparent only at a stage when she faced these wider responsibilities. Surely the whole of her career outside institutions has gone to prove that she was not quite of the character which the school-leaving certificate gave her. At the approved school she was found to be mentally defective within the meaning of the relevant Acts, and on the basis of two medical certificates. At that time she was under the control of the Home Office.

At the age of 18, on 6th July, 1951, she was transferred to a hospital for mental defectives. Five months later, in December, 1951, she was given leave to go home to her foster parents. Within a few days she ran away from that home and was found three weeks later in Wakefield and returned to the hospital. She was seen by four visitors in 1952, and again in 1953. When she reached the age of 21, in 1954, her case was once again reviewed and the visitors considered that continued detention was necessary. On 5th June, 1954, she was granted leave to go to her foster parents. Two days later she absconded again from the same home. In 1955 and 1956 she absconded twice from the hospital.

I now turn to the question of the examination by an independent psychiatrist. I do not propose to quote from the reports, which I could easily do. I should like to repeat what the hon. Member has been told before, namely, that there is here a clear case of conflict of medical opinion. It is not Dr. Morgan against the opinion of one medical superintendent. There have been two successive medical superintendents, both consultants, in charge of the hospital, and she was also interviewed by a senior medical commissioner of the Board of Control. The weight of all opinions, with one exception, is that this girl is a mental defective as defined by Section 1 (1, c) of the Mental Deficiency Act. 1927.

Let me remind the House, as the hon. Member has done, that the Royal Commission will be reporting before long, and perhaps these definitions will be changed, but we have to deal with the law as it is, and consider, rather more carefully than I think the hon. Member does, the interests of the people concerned.

Mr. Dodds

New legislation is badly needed.

Mr. Speaker

We cannot go into questions of future legislation on the Adjournment. We have to deal with the law as it stands.

Mr. Vaughan-Morgan

Let me continue the chronicle of events. This case has been kept carefully under consideration. It was reviewed again in 1956, and the conclusion was confirmed. The girl was interviewed again in November, 1956, by a senior medical commissioner. Mary was granted leave on licence to go to her foster-parents' home on 19th January, 1957, and it would seem that a new and hopeful chapter in her career had opened. However, as the hon. Member said, she has once again in that short time absconded from the home of her foster-parents.

I have been very reluctant to give all these details. There is much more that I could say. The case has received much notice in the newspapers, as is understandable with these questions of the liberty of the subject. If I might add to what I said at the beginning, it is possible for hon. Members to raise these matters without giving the name of the person concerned. We have all done it in correspondence and in Parliamentary Questions. Who benefits from the blaze of publicity which has shone on the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford and on Mary Betteridge? Not Mary Betteridge.

Mr. Dodds

Will the Minister tell us something about the main case, which is that this young lady has never had any treatment which will help her with the troubles from which she has suffered? The main case is that she and many others are not receiving treatment. When the Minister talks about publicity, is he not aware that the case was being blazoned in the Press long before I was asked to take it up?

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.