HC Deb 14 March 1958 vol 584 cc875-86

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

4.6 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Williams (Barons Court)

The case of Peter Whitehead caused a very considerable stir when this young man, who was then, I think, 28 years of age, was released from detention at the Rampton Mental Defective Hospital. That, of course, was some little time ago, and my object in raising the matter now is a fourfold one, only one aspect, perhaps, being of direct and immediate benefit to Peter Whitehead himself. I believe that the whole problem raised by his certification, detention and release is so significant, and of such continuing importance, that I think it proper that the Ministry should answer certain points that, I submit, have not yet been satisfactorily dealt with.

The first of the matters I want to raise—and I will deal with them all as shortly as I can—relates to his original certification. For convenience, and to save time, I shall, if I may, quote from a book written about this case by David Roxan, entitled "Sentenced Without Cause" That book succinctly sets out some of the matters with which I shall be concerned. I do not wish to use it in any formal sense, because there are some matters that are within my own personal knowledge, but it does put some of my points more concisely, perhaps, than I could.

It will be clear from the course of events through which Peter Whitehead unfortunately went that, from the beginning, this boy was treated in a way which is little short of scandalous, and which raises questions that should be very seriously considered by all those who are concerned about the welfare of the unfortunate, and the liberty of the subject.

There can now be no doubt that this boy should never have been sent to a mental deficiency institution. Everybody who has dealt with the case—save the Ministry—is agreed upon this point. From Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice, through the National Council for Civil Liberties, the inquiries that I myself have made and, finally, even the Board of Control, all are agreed that this boy was improperly certified and detained in the first place.

The manner of his certification causes some alarm. He was examined originally by a Dr. Mark Bates, when he was a pupil at a school for E.S.N. children at Besford Court, Dr. Bates being a general practitioner in Worcester who was so little acquainted with the proper procedure that he certified this boy for further examination and submitted his case on the wrong form. The machinery having been put into gear, in the wrong way, the boy was thereafter examined by another general practitioner, Dr. Hutchinson Kennedy. Neither of these gentlemen was experienced in, or had any real knowledge of, mental deficiency or the care of mentally deficient and mentally ill people.

Thirdly, he was examined by a Dr. J. J. Murray, certifying officer of the Worcester County Council. Mr. Roxan asserts—and from the evidence that I have been able to gather since I believe his assertion to be correct—that, in fact, none of these gentlemen examined Peter Whitehead at that time for signs of mental deficiency, but were content, in the main, with asking him a number of short questions and examining him for physical defects.

He was then committed to Rampton on the wrong certification of these gentlemen, and it was asserted, when inquiry was later made why he had been so certified and committed to what is one of the most terrifying of all hospitals—I say that in no critical sense, but the hospital contains criminally dangerous people—that he was a person of paranoic tendencies and prone to violence, although the statement made by a Mr. Masterman, the officer who drew up the statement of particulars for the Worcester County Council, gave not one iota of evidence that this boy had ever been guilty of any violence of any kind.

The references to such violence as were put in Mr. Masterman's report on the matter referred to incidents that happened when he was a child of under eight years of age, but when he was 16, because of a destructiveness natural enough in children, especially deprived children, this boy was committed to penitential detention in an institution where he shared the lot and, indeed, for a good deal of the time the bedroom, of criminals and a murderer.

I understand that the Minister says that careful inquiry will continue to be made to see that there are no other cases like that of Peter Whitehead. I should be happier if, when the Minister answered the question asked him by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Dodds) on 3rd March this year, he had revealed a greater sense of responsibility and moderation when referring to Peter Whitehead's case.

In view of the complacency of that reply, and its misleading nature, in some respects, I should be glad if the Minister would take the opportunity that I shall give him in a few moments of answering the following questions: what is the inquiry that is now being made to see that there are no more Peter Whitehead cases? What results have these inquiries revealed up to date? What continued safeguards do the Ministry propose to institute against a recurrence of incidents of this kind?

Once Whitehead was in Rampton the story took on almost a Kafka-like gruesomeness. For nine and a half years this boy was wrongly incarcerated and his assertions that his detention was illegal were ignored. On 3rd October, 1955, Whitehead wrote me a letter in which he asked me to do what I could to get him released from a place in which he said he was living in fear. He said: The Board of Control"— this is a letter allegedly written by a man of defective mentality— the body which describes itself as concerned with the liberty of the subject, such as myself, not only fails to take steps to deal with this situation, it refuses facilities to enable me to exercise my legal rights and fails to intervene even when its attention is drawn to a palpably illegal detention. I have written several letters to the Board, also to the Medical Superintendent, asking for my release. All have been ignored until now I am lost, not knowing what to do. I now crave for more congenial surroundings and if you can be of any help I thank you … I should also like to draw your attention to the fact that I have been punished for writing to the Press, to the National Council for Civil Liberties explaining my case to them. The officials here did not like the idea of my doing so. I wrote to the Minister and asked whether or not these things were true. I received a reply from the Minister on 20th October, 1955. The letter which I received from the Minister, and which was marked "Confidential," stated that Peter Whitehead … remains convinced that he is wrongly detained, that he has never been given a chance and that nobody at Rampton is interested in trying to help him. It has so far proved impossible to reduce his hostility and he firmly believes that the only possible way for him to get away from Rampton is by appealing to higher authority. That, indeed, was the case, In view of his very hostile paranoid disturbed mental state he has recently been moved into another ward as a precaution. The Minister concluded by stating that it was not true to say that he was being punished for writing to people to ask for help.

The letter which I received from Peter Whitehead was written from D.1 Ward, which is the punishment ward in which people were kept at that time from early morning until late afternoon scrubbing a corridor of stone on their knees until it shone like glass. The Minister said that Whitehead was removed to that ward for his own protection.

The third thing I have to say about Whitehead's treatment in Rampton is that the periodic examinations were of the most cursory kind. Here was a boy incarcerated, as events proved wrongly, and yet he says that on two afternoons the examining committee which should have inquired into his rights examined 70 patients. I gather from his account of his stay at Rampton that in the ten years he was there the visitors reviewed over 2,000 cases of which only two were discharged.

I wish to mention the 1930 Act which provides, among other things, that the patient may obtain independent medical opinion. Yet the mental deficiency regulations make no provision whatever for patients or relatives to be informed when certification is refused so that they can arrange for an independent opinion. In my submission, it is deplorable that this situation should continue to obtain, and I ask the Minister whether it is not time that the Board of Control, which is intended to protect the interests of patients, should be made independent.

The provision now is that the members of the Board of Control, now five in number and formerly 16, are now members of the Ministry of Health and have the same address as the Ministry of Health. They are judge, counsel and jury in their own case. So far from acting independently, they presume—for it is a presumption and I make no comment about the impertinence of it—even to advise Members of Parliament, who write for advice, not about the truth of the situation, but about what kind of attitude they should adopt. The Board of Control wrote me a letter, when I wrote to it expressing some concern about the way Peter Whitehead was being treated, saying that the patient's letters were being returned to me and directing my inquiries to the Deputy Medical Superintendent and adding: It is suggested that you might wish to inform"— the patient— that you have made inquiry into his case and you are advised that it is still considered best for him to remain at Rampton. The question of granting him field privilege is entirely a matter for decision by the Medical Superintendent, and you regret that you cannot intervene in this matter. Even better, rather than that the Board of Control should be made independent, why is it that such an institution as Rampton cannot be managed by an ordinary management committee with local representation? Perhaps the Minister would tell us whether it is intended to follow the recommendations of the Commission on Mental Health and set up proper review tribunals with proper machinery to enable patients and their representatives to have easy access so that this kind of repression does not continue.

Finally, I call the attention of the Minister to the matters surrounding the release of Peter Whitehead from Rampton. I find the reply made on 3rd March alarming, because of the complacency it revealed in the face of what I can only describe as the gross injustice done to this boy. The Bishop of Southwell said in another place—I am not quoting him exactly, but paraphrasing—that it was clear that the authorities made a mistake and that this boy was not properly put into an institution. Clearly, what he needed was not institutional treatment but care and love.

Of the manner in which he was treated in Rampton I have already spoken, but surrounding his release there are matters which, in spite of the rather misleading nature of the Minister's reply and his complacency, still demand investigation. Whitehead was writing to me, and the Minister was saying to me as late as the end of 1955, that this boy was still in need of psychiatric treatment, that he was a paranoic and the like; whereas, in fact, on 1st November, 1954, twelve months before, Whitehead escaped from Rampton and was examined by a psychiatric specialist who made a report in which she expressed the view that Peter Whitehead was not in any way mentally deficient. The specialist wrote: I examined this man (Peter Whitehead) on the 1st of November, 1954, and found him able to conduct a normal conversation and give a good account of himself. He appeared to have derived considerable knowledge of the world from reading and seemed to be capable of looking after himself. On the L Revision of the Revised Stanford Binet he has an I.Q. of over 90. There was a considerable scatter (variability of results), and I would regard this as a low estimate of his intelligence. This score was confirmed by the Mill Hill Vocabulary Tests, which showed him to fall between 25 and 50 percentile. In view of this and the history he gave me I cannot see how he can be deemed certifiably mentally defective. On 2nd March, 1955, the Board of Control was informed that there was this independent medical report about Peter Whitehead in existence, but it was not interested. On 6th July, 1956, I wrote to the Minister expressing my concern at what I had heard and the very strangely different matters that the Minister was mentioning to me. I asked him to look into the case personally. I asked him to see whether there was any truth in the suggestions which had been made to me about this boy and the medical examination that had been given to him outside.

The Minister merely sent a letter in which he said that Peter Whitehead was quite unsuitable for retention in an ordinary certified institution and that there was no alternative but to admit him to Rampton. The Minister described him as … a weak, impulsive psychopath of inferior intelligence … unfit to survive in society, and though not a true anti-social type was capable of violence, and a potential danger to himself and others, without adding a single item of Whitehead's record of violence of any kind at any time.

Oddly enough, the Minister wrote that letter to me on 25th July. One must assume that the letter came from the medical officer at Rampton and probably from Dr. Connell, the deputy superintendent responsible for medical care. Yet the same doctor in charge of the same medical staff at Rampton, on 20th November, in an affidavit following the application for the writ of habeas corpus that was made in the High Court, made the comment that Peter Whitehead, who, so short a time as a few months before, had been described as being a psychopath, a potential danger and unfit to survive no longer possesses dangerous or violent tendencies. He does not require to be cared for in a State institution. I recommend his transfer to another institution. In fact, in a few days Rampton entirely abandoned any claim to this boy and allowed him to go.

In the light of all these things, it is extraordinary that the Ministry should be so complacent as it is showing itself about Peter Whitehead. I should add that nothing was said to Whitehead about his impending discharge because of the Alice-in-Wonderland doctrine that no communication can be sent to a certified patient until his certification is ended. After his certification was ended and the order was given for his release, he was kept in Rampton for a further eight days.

This is a terrible story of neglect and negligence. The price that has had to be paid is the ruined life of this young man who, at 28, without a trade, has been released from Rampton after twelve years of illegal detention, having committed no crime. Upon release he was given a present of £6 from the Board of Control, whose conduct has played so large a part in the tragedy of his life. I have one question to put: what is the Minister proposing to do for Peter Whitehead? Does he refuse to do anything to compensate him for the misery and tragedy of all these wasted years?

4.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Richard Thompson)

The hon. Member for Barons Court (Mr. W. T. Williams), whether by accident or design I do not know, has left me only five minutes in which to reply to the very massive indictment he has made out. Therefore, if my reply is somewhat perfunctory and does not cover the many points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I am sure he will realise that that is not my fault.

He rightly said that this case had aroused wide public interest and had been the subject of a sensational book, about which I shall have a word to say later.

Let me deal first with the point that the original certification of Peter Whitehead has been held by the court to be illegal. On 6th December, 1944, an order was made by a judicial authority on a petition by the authorised officer of Worcester County Council, supported by two medical certificates of mental defect and a statutory declaration alleging that Whitehead was a subject to be dealt with under the Mental Deficiency Acts by reason of a report made by the responsible educational authority, in this case Southampton, to the mental deficiency authority, in this case, Worcester, that he was about to leave a special school, and that, in their opinion, it would be to his benefit to be sent to an institution.

A copy of this order reached the Board of Control in the normal way on 11th December, 1944. On the face of it, it was a valid order. In any case, the Board has no power to set such an order aside. Its powers are limited to terminating detention under it by an order for discharge of the patient if it thinks fit.

In its consideration of the validity of this order, the court took the view—not a judicial decision—that the judicial authority had no jurisdiction to make the order because the boy was over 16. Had the order been made just over four months earlier, on 30th July, 1944, the question could not have arisen. In acting as he did, the judicial authority relied on a construction of Section 2 (2, b) of the Act of 1913, which had been unquestioned since 1913 and was never doubted until the present case. The Lord Chief Justice himself referred to "the very difficult words" of Section 2 (2, b) and expressly stated that the court was not attaching moral blame to any person. I have refreshed my recollection on the proceedings only today.

The position was that the order of the judicial authority in 1944 which came to the Board of Control was on the face of it good and in accordance with all previous constructions which had been placed on the provisions of this Section of the 1913 Act. The court did not have in front of it the question that Whitehead was not mentally defective. The implication that, but for the defect found in this order, he would have been free to lead a normal life for all those years, is wholly untenable. There is no doubt at all that Whitehead was mentally defective judged by orthodox medical standards. No fewer than twelve doctors have examined him on separate occasions and have certified him as defective within the meaning of the Mental Deficiency Acts.

As to the coincidence of Whitehead's discharge just before the habeas corpus case was heard, I must emphasise that he was on the point of discharge in any event. In October, 1956, the authorities had taken the view that he was again sufficiently stabilised for transfer to a medical institution for defectives, or for licence to suitable care. In fact, London County Council, on behalf of the Board, had visited his uncle's home and asked his uncle to undertake supervision of the patient with licence to him. The L.C.C. recorded that the uncle was apparently unable to undertake this, or to arrange for it. Accordingly, it had been decided to transfer the patient to a hospital nearer London with a view to his eventual licence and discharge from there.

All this had been decided before the application for a writ of habeas corpus was made to the High Court on 27th November, 1956, without any notice to the Board. In the circumstances, the Board of Control decided that, since Whitehead was now considered fit to leave hospital, he should be discharged. The legal advice was that it would be unwise to do so before he had been brought before the court in the current proceedings with an intimation that the Board was prepared to discharge him in any event in view of the medical officer's report. The court and the applicant's solicitor were so informed on 8th December. As I have said emphatically, the court did not question the correctness of the judicial authority's finding that Whitehead was mentally defective.

In the few minutes I have at my disposal, perhaps I may deal with one or two points raised by the hon. Member. In the first place, the Board of Control, although it resides at the same address as the Ministry of Health, is statutorily independent. The chairman of the Board is not a servant of the Minister of Health.

Secondly, the hon. Member asked what action was being taken to ensure that a repetition of this kind of thing, when an order was held to be invalid, should not take place. My answer to that is that the views of the Lord Chief Justice in this case are regarded as a direction to judicial authorities in their certification of mental defectives in future. In other words, the interpretation of the complicated Section to which I have referred will be applied.

The hon. Member also wanted to know our intentions concerning the implementation of the proposals of the Royal Commission on Mental Health. I can best reply by referring him to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary at a recent gathering in London of experts on mental health, at which he made those intentions perfectly clear. There was a reference also to the Bishop of Southwark. All I would say is that I have looked carefully at what he said in another place. My conclusion was that he took a very different view of the care and attention given at Rampton to the view evidently taken by the hon. Member.

Finally, I should like to say a word about the recent book which has purported to give the history of the case. The allegations made were based very largely on the unsupported word of the subject of the examinations himself. The character of the written reports certainly does not suggest that the allegations are true. I regard it as a most irresponsible document. By innuendo and by presenting at their face value statements alleged to have been made by anonymous ex-patients and ex-nurses of Rampton Hospital, the author has made an unjust attack upon the medical and nursing staff at Rampton, who, often under trying conditions, carry out their duties with sympathy and devotion and precious little thanks from the public.

The book deliberately suppressed many facts which would help to present a balanced picture of the case. I do not propose to go into this now, because while we have nothing to hide, the public exhibition of intimate and personal details of patients' case histories is thoroughly undesirable and certainly not calculated to be of any help to the ex-patient concerned when he is trying to make his way into the world and to fit into society, which is precisely what all sensible and humane people would wish.

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock.