HC Deb 30 January 1961 vol 633 cc737-48

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

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)

The topic that I raise this evening on the debate for the Adjournment is a local Worcestershire matter, but one of some importance in principle, having regard to the provisions of the Mental Health Act, 1959. It will be recalled that the Bewdley Parliamentary Division of Worcestershire was represented in this House for a period of nearly 30 years by the late Mr. Stanley Baldwin, later the first Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, and in his constituency of Bewdley, now part of the Kidderminster Parliamentary Division, is a relatively small but important community which dwells on the banks of the River Severn at a place called Stourport-on-Severn.

In 1929, during the second period in which Mr. Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister, his wife, then Mrs. Stanley Baldwin, whose maiden name was Miss Lucy Ridsdale and who was affectionately known on Severn-side as Lucy Baldwin, gave to the community of Stourport-on-Severn a maternity hospital which has been known since as the Lucy Baldwin Maternity Hospital.

With the onset of the National Health Act, 1948, the whole of the hereditament, or establishment, became vested in the State; that is, not only the maternity hospital but also three acres of open land adjoining it. Recently, on 9th December, 1960, the Worcestershire County Council made it known, in the form of a public advertisement in local and county newspapers, that it proposed to acquire from the regional hospital board this area of three acres adjoining the Lucy Baldwin Maternity Hospital for the purpose of establishing a residential hostel for mentally disordered children. That has caused a good deal of local controversy.

I raise the matter this evening on a relatively narrow issue, namely, the medical, the physiological and the psychological suitability of siting one of these homes or residential hostels for mentally disordered children directly next door or contiguous to a maternity hospital. No doubt it was an administrative convenience for the Worcestershire County Council to consider taking over, for the purposes that I have explained, land which was already vested in the Crown. That was merely an administrative arrangement between two public bodies, a transfer from the Crown, in effect, in the form of the Midland Regional Hospital Board to the county council. I am reliably informed from local sources that not very much effort has been made by the county authority to find in the area of Kidderminster and Stourport-on-Severn any alternative site.

My own position in. this mattes' and my personal attitude, having regard to the local controversy which has now raged for several weeks, should be made abundantly clear. I strongly supported, throughout all the stages of the Measure, the Mental Health Act, 1959. I regarded many Sections of it as enlightened and progressive in character and denoting to a mere layman, such as myself, a realistic approach to the very real and difficult social problem of how to endeavour to rear in a happy atmosphere and improve the mental condition of those unfortunate children who are mentally retarded or disordered. I accepted at that time, and I wish to emphasise now that my views have not in any way changed, the desirability of endeavouring to bring up these children in the midst of the community. I emphasise that and, if necessary I shall repeat it later in my speech, because any hon. Member of this House making a speech on an issue of this kind is open to very real misrepresentation were he not careful to define his attitude on that point.

I am not entirely unversed in matters of the interests of children. I am myself the father of four children under the age of 15 years, two boys and two girls. I am keenly interested in this exceedingly difficult problem of children who are not entirely normal and who are retarded or disordered. I support Government policy in this regard, but as more than 50 per cent. of the cost of these residential hostels and schools for mentally retarded or disordered children is to be found from the block grant from Central Government funds, I consider it my duty as a Member of Parliament not only to see that the policy is correctly implemented in all parts of the country, particularly in my own constituency, but also that sites selected by the health authority—in this instance the Worcestershire County Council—are the best possible sites for giving effect to the Government policy which I have explained and which I support.

To make my position in this matter abundantly clear, I circulated a statement in a number of Worcestershire local newspapers. It is short and, I think, might be included in my speech. I printed these words a matter of three weeks ago. You published last Friday a number of letters from local residents adversely commenting upon views I have expressed concerning the siting of a proposed residential hostel and training centre for mentally disordered children on land adjoining the Lucy Baldwin Maternity Hospital at Stourport-on-Severn. These correspondents are evidently under some misapprehensions and have not taken the preliminary precaution of reading my views in detail. Of course, I want a larger and modern home and training centre for these unfortunate and sadly handicapped children. It is a matter of fact that during 1959 I was a close and full supporter of the Mental Health Act, which passed through Parliament last Session, and under which the proposed new home at Stourport-on-Severn is to be built. But, to put it next door to a maternity hospital is psychologically stupid and atrocious planning. I am told that every expectant mother during the waiting months, particularly in the final stages, prays above all else that her child will be perfectly normal and healthy. I can conceive nothing worse than having mentally retarded children outside her window. The interests of sound sociology and good planning would adequately be served by siting the residential hostel some distance away from the maternity hospital, on the outskirts of the town on a suitable site. That I will warmly support, but next door to a maternity hospital —never. In addition, the Lucy Baldwin Maternity Hospital is a pre-natal centre. I have been at very great pains to inquire about the purpose and the function of this pre-natal centre, and the women attending it who are National Health Service patients, in a small provincial town such as Stourport-on-Severn. I am informed that during the period of pregnancy, generally between the second month and the ninth month, it is customary for expectant mothers to visit the pre-natal centre once a month, in the first instance, until, perhaps, the seventh month of pregnancy, and then perhaps once a fortnight or, in the event of any suspicion of disorder of any kind, possibly once a week, at the direction of the doctor.

The three acres of land which the City Council proposes to use for this mentally disordered children's residential hospital is not only contiguous to the maternity hospital and the pre-natal centre, but sited in such a position that every expectant mother attending the pre-natal centre would have to walk by the grounds where these unfortunate children will be playing. I believe it is psychologically stupid to inflict that emotional strain and disturbance upon an expectant mother when it is quite unnecessary to do so. I believe that one could find an alternative site removed from the maternity hospital, in which case this particular controversy would not then arise.

I am not alone in my view in this matter. The objections are so strong locally to this site being used that a campaigning committee has been formed, including persons who serve on the local authority, and with a number of local residents supporting the committee. Councillor Hodgson, who sits for the particular ward concerned on Stourporton-Severn Urban District Council in which the maternity hospital and, therefore, the proposed site for the children's residential hospital is sited, had this to say as recorded in the minutes of the meeting held as recently as 16th January, and in anticipation of this evening's debate, as I was anxious that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, to whom I am grateful for coming here to reply, should be fully apprised of what was then said, I have sent a copy of the minutes to her: the people in his ward wanted a place for mentally disordered children to be in the right situation. He doubted whether sufficient efforts had been made to find the right spot. What about Shenstone Training College, which was shortly to be vacated? That is roughly a mile away from the site-— What about the allotment site in Kidderminster Road, Stourport? That is between Kidderminster and Stourport— What about the Birmingham Road, Kidderminster site? What about the field in Lower Lickhill Road, Stourport? What about the land at Burlish and Upper Mytton? The minutes continued: He thought that the present site had been chosen because it was easy for it to be transferred from a Government Department to a local authority. He did not think it was big enough. It was ridiculous to say that the patients:n the materniy home would not be affected. The Regional Hospital Board's colony for mentally disordered children at Bromsgreve was very noisy: I made further inquiries and particularly tested individual opinion, which led to the following letter from a local lady who has had useful experience in this context of endeavouring to assist in the training of mentally disordered children. She is the mother of a number of children and a social worker. She is thoroughly experienced in this difficult sphere of social activity. She writes as follows: The ante-natal ward at the Lucy Baldwin is situated only 10 yards from the boundary of the proposed new centre. It is not unusual for women in such conditions as toxaemia of pregnancy and threatened premature confinements to spend the last two months of their pregnancy in the ante-natal ward. Can you imagine the agony of suspense such a patient would have to endure, knowing that all is not well with her, and wondering whether as a result her baby,may not be abnormal too? The noises she will hear all day long will be an unfailing, nagging reminder of this possibility. And these children can be very noisy —but not, alas, in the way of normal children. Parke's Passage… That is the present site of the school— is certainly a most unsuitable place for this school and alternative accommodation is urgently required, but please… She underlines the word "please"— let it be somewhere that is not overlooked as closely as this site on the Ridgeway. No potential mother— these are very telling words— anywhere should be subjected to such an emotional strain. I accept that statement.

I am not a woman, I do not give birth to children and I do not understand the emotional and psychological processes through which a woman passes in such a period, but I have taken the trodble to test the opinions of quite a number of women by questions as to what—this is not a laughing matter. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Howell) evidently wants to cackle at me. I am using these words and phrases deliberately and in the greatest seriousness. I have asked a number of women, who are between them the parents of a considerable number of young children, and not one of them has opposed the views expressed that I have quoted this evening or my own personal views in the matter.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is clearly in some difficulty in this matter. Let me explain to her and to the House. Stourport-on-Severn is not comparable to St. Pancras or Holborn or Perry Barr, Birmingham, a heavily built-up area. Stourport-onSevern is a little Worcestershire town bounded on three sides by beautiful Englisih countryside. On the fourth side it is nearly joined to the town of Kidderminster. This proposed home for mentally disordered children is required somewhere in the Kidderminster or Stourport-on-Severn area. It matters not very much within the area precisely where it is sited, though for the benefit of parents visiting the children in the school it is desirable that it should be within relatively easy access of public services by bus or train, for obvious reasons.

Kidderminster and Stourport between them, however, have quite a large rural periphery. I do not want this school put right out in the country where it would be inaccessible. On the other hand, I do not want it put right in the town. I would place a school of this kind—and I am guided here only by my instincts as a parent—on the outskirts of such a town as Stourport-onSevern, where the seventy or eighty children concerned would have all the advantages of rural pursuits, of walks in the country, tuition on matters affecting and concerning nature, as well as the amenities available of contact with the town, visits to the shops and, in appropriate circumstances, being taken to the cinema and the rest. I seek the highest common factor of amenity for these children, and that should be, surely, on the outskirts of the town.

Let me be quite downright about this, however. Where the residential hostel for these children is sited should be decided by my hon. Friend and her advisers in Ministry of Health in concert with the county council. I should have thought we could exclude three possible sites. First, it must not be placed next door to a crematorium. Secondly, it must not be placed next door to a cemetery. Thirdly, it must not be placed next door to a maternity hospital.

I believe that my hon. Friend, by administrative action, should consult the County Council, find an alternative site and, thereby, prevent the expensive recourse of a public inquiry in this matter and all the inevitable passions and controversy that would be aroused on a topic which, by discreet and appropriate action between my hon. Friend and the county council, could amicably be resolved in the best interests of the children, and the community, the county council and Parliamentary legislation.

10.39 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Edith Pitt)

My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) made quite clear that he supported Government policy in the provision of hostels and training centres for these mentally subnormal children. I am glad that he has given me the opportunity of speaking about them tonight, although it is a rather limited opportunity if I am to try to get in all I would wish in reply to him.

Since the Report of the Royal Commission on the Law relating to Mental Illness and Mental Deficiency was published, we have all heard a great deal about the reorientation of the mental health services towards care in the community rather than care in large institutions. My hon. Friend has reminded us—many hon. Members will share his recollection—of the debates during the passing of the Mental Health Act, 1959. The World Mental Health Year gave further publicity to this important human problem. Hon. Members will be aware of the efforts being made by local authorities to develop their community services and to give substance to this generally accepted idea of care in the community. But recommendations, legislation, publicity and efforts by a few are not enough to ensure that the intended beneficiaries of such activity will, in fact, reap the reward. If community care is to be a success, if these children, who could be anybody's children, are to be given their chance, the community must play a part, and this means their acceptance of mentally disordered persons in their midst in the same way as other disabled or handicapped people are accepted.

This is the point I wish to make. I hope I shall be successful in making it, not only to people in my hon. Friend's constituency but also to any others who may be feeling concern at similar developments in their areas. This concern expresses itself in a variety of ways. Tonight my hon. Friend has suggested that the proximity and sight of a few mentally sub-normal children, to use the Royal Commission's term, will have a bad psychological effect on the expectant mothers. On other occasions it takes the form of a fear that these children will in some mysterious way be harmful to normal children. The form does not matter a great deal. In any particular case the concern usually springs from misunderstanding, from lack of knowledge, sometimes from prejudice against these children, and although a particular site in Worcestershire is the occasion of our debate, it is this general misunderstanding that I am more anxious to clear up.

The facts of the case in Worcestershire are few and simple. There is a need for a training centre, with associated hostel, for mentally subnormal children to serve the Kidderminster—Stourport area—

Mr. Nabarro

Hear, hear.

Miss Pitt —as my hon. Friend agrees. The County Council, as local health authority, has been searching for many months for a suitable site. it looked first in Kidderminster and then in Stourport. Ultimately it decided that a piece of land of about 3 acres adjoining the Lucy Baldwin Maternity Hospital, which was surplus to the requirements of the Birmingham Regional Hospital Board, would serve its purpose. The land is held by the hospital board, which has been fully informed of the nature of the council's proposal and is prepared to recommend that it should be transferred to the council on certain conditions designed to protect the interests of the maternity hospital.

In brief, the conditions are that access to the centre and hostel should be completely separate from that to the hospital —that is. that access should be by different roads—and that everything practicable should be done to avoid disturbing the hospital patients by sight or sound of the centre and hostel. In practice this means siting the buildings as far away from the hospital as possible and ensuring that there is an adequate screen between the two. At present the screen consists of a privet hedge which is not wholly effective.

The council's proposal involves a departure from the approved town map. For this reason, and because it has aroused opposition locally, as my hon. Friend has made clear, the council has referred it to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government for his permission for the development. I am authorised by him to say that he has decided to have the matter ventilated at a public inquiry before he comes to any conclusion.

I would like to emphasise that objections to this scheme have been made not only on what may be termed the health ground we are discussing this evening, but on certain other grounds, including planning. All these objections will be reviewed in the course of the public inquiry which is being arranged. and therefore what I have to say this evening on the health objection is not to be regarded in any way as prejudging the outcome of the inquiry.

I have looked into the background of this proposal by Worcestershire County Council and it is clear that the proposal to build the training centre and hostel next door to the maternity home was not formulated until the authority had explored the possibilities of obtaining a suitable site elsewhere either in Kidderminster or Stourport. No doubt the inquiry will establish whether there are any other sites which are suitable.

I am, however, not prejudging the result if I make some observations on the purely health aspect of the question of siting such a centre. It is clear from the inquiries that I have made that before embarking on the present proposal to build a training centre and hostel next door to a maternity home, the council and the regional hospital board carefully considered the advisability of this from the point of view of the possible psychological effect on expectant mothers. Their conclusion was that—subject to suitable planning of the premises to be built and the provision of some more substantial screening than the privet hedge—there could no pressing objection to the scheme.

I would be most loath to see any risks taken in respect of the health and wellbeing of expectant mothers, but from the expert advice available to me there can be little objection of substance from this point of view to pregnant women in the maternity home being exposed to the sight of mentally subnormal children in the training centre next door.

As I have said, I think that this objection is based on misunderstanding. The council proposes, in consultation with the regional hospital board, to take the necessary steps in planning to ensure that patients in the maternity hospital would not be made unduly conscious of the presence of the mentally subnormal children next door. And there is no reason to assume that because mentally subnormal children are too backward to be suitable far education at school they are necessarily more obstreperous or even necessarily noisier than other children, despite the things in the letter which my hon. Friend read out. In fact, these children are often quieter than normal children, as I know from personal observation.

I should make clear that there are over 13,000 mentally subnormal children in the country judged suitable for training in the community. Against this there are 11.000 being trained, which means that a further 2,000 places are needed. The comparable figures for Worcestershire are 160 children suitable for training and 120 places filled, though some of these places are in inadequate premises. This means that there are no places at all for 40 children, and in addition 40 more, at present accommodated in unsatisfactory premises in Stour-port, would be moved to the new premises.

The hesitations which may be felt about the presence of such children would be dispelled, I think, by a visit to one of the many training centres which are now being built in various parts of the country. From my own experience I warmly recommend hon. Members to visit such a centre. I am sure that the authorities concerned and the staff, in spite of having their hands full with the children, would welcome such interest.

Last October I opened a training centre for mentally subnormal children in the City of Worcester and I was glad to know that it was the product of cooperation between two health authorities, the county council and the city council. There was a remarkably good attendance at that opening on a Saturday afternoon and I was very impressed by the general interest shown by representatives of all kinds of organisations and the appreciation of the parents of some of the children who were present and spoke to me. I hope that the community around that centre are now cooperating to make it a success, because this co-operation is vital.

These children ought to have the opportunity to develop as far as possible their latent abilities. This is not simply in their own interest. In the interest of all, we should ensure that they will grow up to play a part, even if only a limited part, in the life of the community instead of being an unhappy burden on it. We cannot do this unless there is proper cooperation between the health authority and the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster will appreciate that because of the public inquiry I cannot comment further on this site but I hope that the debate will dispel some misconceptions and add something to the understanding of and responsibility for these children by the community of which they are a part.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.