HC Deb 24 July 1959 vol 609 cc1699-701

Lords Amendment: In page 23, line 35, at beginning insert: Subject to the provisions of this section".

11.45 a.m.

Mr. Walker-Smith

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This and certain related Amendments deal with the Clauses which caused us a certain amount of worry in Standing Committee and on Report and which have been the subject of attention in another place, that is to say, Clause 36, dealing with the correspondence of detained patients and Clause 133. This Amendment goes with other Amendments in page 23, lines 37 and 41, and in page 24, lines 8 and 13. The first three are paving Amendments for the fourth and the fifth is a purely drafting Amendment.

The fourth Amendment, page 24, line 8, makes two alterations of substance to the conditions under which Clause 36 allows detained patients' outgoing correspondence to be opened or withheld from the post. The same alterations which automatically apply to the power to control the correspondence of non-detained patients, that is to say, informal patients, come under Clause 133.

The first alteration of substance is to give the Minister power to make regulations adding to the list of people from whom patients' letters may not be withheld in any circumstances. It was suggested in another place that a patient's solicitor should be an appropriate person to be added to the list and there were other suggestions such as people acting as agents of the patient, and ministers of religion.

What I propose to do is to provide in the regulations for the Clauses not to be applied to letters addressed to any person whom the patient has informed the hospital authorities to be acting as his solicitor, or whom he would wish to act as his solicitor. Of course, the House will appreciate that if letters are to be forwarded unopened, it will be necessary for the hospital authorities to be notified, because the solicitor may not be identifiable from the address on the envelope. For that reason, it would not be practical simply to add the words, "The patient's solicitor" to the exceptions contained in the Clause. One noble Lord wanted the word "agents" to be added. That is rather at large if one simply added it as a phrase.

"Ministers of religion "is another phrase which came under consideration. I do not think that we can write into the Bill an automatic provision to extend the exemption to Ministers of religion. Some hon. Members may recall that one of the examples which I gave in Committee of the sort of letters which should not be allowed to go referred to offensive letters to clergymen. Of course, I shall see what I can do in the regulations to help administratively to get over any practical problems which arise in that connection.

The second alteration of substance is to introduce a new subsection (3) which will limit the powers to open and examine outgoing letters to cases where the responsible medical officer has reason to think that the patient is likely to send the type of letter which subsection (2) allows to be withheld.

As hon. Members will recall, we had a good deal of discussion on this in Committee. By doing this I am making clear in the Statute what has always been my intention, that hospitals should not read patients' letters simply as a matter of routine. They should only do it where they know, or think, or have reason to think, that the patient is likely to send this type of letter.

Mr. K. Robinson

It would be churlish of me not to welcome the intention behind the Amendment, because it goes some way in the direction which I have been urging on the House and the Committee ever since the Second Reading of the Bill. Indeed, I believe that if there were six or seven more stages to the Bill we might achieve the object that I want, which is total elimination of interference with patients' correspondence.

Having said that, I must go on to say that I welcome the Amendment for a reason which will not be very acceptable to the Minister. Many times during our discussions on censorship I have made the point—and this is one of the few points which has never been squarely answered by the Minister—that these censorship provisions are administratively impossible and unworkable. I have made it clear that the object behind the Clause, and the subsequent Clause in the Bill dealing with informal patients, that of saving people distress through the receipt of letters from mental patients, cannot be achieved unless there is routine censorship of all patients' letters.

The Minister has not dealt with the administrative difficulties and the possibility of evading censorship which all patients have open to them. He has merely said that it is not the intention that there should be a routine examination of out-going mail. The Minister now makes it impossible. He now says that, statutorily, there shall not be any routine inspection.

This makes the whole thing administratively ridiculous and I suggest to medical superintendents and responsible medical officers that they remember that that these powers are merely permissive. They should say to themselves that as the Clause is in such a state as to make any form of censorship administratively impossible they will abolish any kind of censorship in their hospitals. I am sure that all progressive medical superintendents and psychiatrists will do this if they have not already done so. The Minister's regulation-making power which he has taken under the Amendment is another step in the right direction and I am only sorry that he is being hoist with his own clergymen.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendments agreed to.