HC Deb 14 July 1961 vol 644 cc833-45

Order for Second Reading read.

3.27 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is with particular pleasure that I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill. For ten years I have sought in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills to find a place to do this from a different seat, but the wheel of fortune did not turn my way then. However, by a twist of a different wheel of fortune, to my surprise I find myself in a different place, but moving very much the Bill which I myself intended to introduce. Of course, in this circumstance I must stick more closely to my notes than I would otherwise have done.

The Bill represents a further stage in our endeavour to bring the provisions of the criminal law into conformity with the needs and outlook of the present day. Its purpose is simple. It is to provide that it shall no longer be a criminal act and subject to the machinery and sanctions of the criminal law to commit suicide, or to attempt to commit suicide.

Clause 1 provides simply that it is no longer a crime for a person to commit suicide. No reference in the Clause to attempted suicide is necessary, for if suicide ceases to be a crime it will follow that attempted suicide is no longer an offence. The law in England and Wales is almost alone in making suicide or attempted suicide a criminal offence. As many hon. Members may know, these courses of conduct are not criminal under the law of Scotland.

The successful suicide, of course, puts himself beyond the reach of the law. However, it is urged that those who attempt suicide may, by the operation of the criminal machinery at present, be given help which they otherwise would not get. However sympathetic may be the approach of the police and the magistrates and the officers of the court—and I should like to pay tribute to the excellent work which they are doing in this respect—it cannot be right to make use of criminal proceedings merely for the purpose of providing medical and social assistance to people in distress if some other and more appropriate method of giving that assistance can be found.

Arrangements are being made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health to ensure that persons who are brought to hospital having attempted suicide are examined so that need for treatment or supervision can be assessed. Under the provisions of Part IV of the Mental Health Act, 1959, it is possible, subject to appropriate safeguards, to detain for 28 days' observation a person who appears to be suffering from mental disorder and who ought to be detained for his own health or safety or for the protection of others.

In the majority of cases, therefore, a person who attempts to commit suicide will receive treatment either voluntarily, or because the attempt has resulted in physical injury making it necessary for him to be admitted to hospital, or because his mental condition is such that the compulsory powers I have mentioned can be used.

The effect of abolishing the offences of suicide and attempted suicide without further amendment to the law would be to make it no longer an offence to aid or abet another person in an attempt to kill himself. But such conduct must, I think, in the view of us all, remain subject to the sanctions of the criminal law, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary therefore invited the Criminal Law Revision Committee to consider how this could best be done, and the result appears in Clause 2 of this short Bill. It deals with criminal liability for complicity in the suicide of another person, and it is based on the recommendations contained in the Report of the Committee and published in a White Paper in October last.

I should like to express our appreciation of the valuable work done by Lord Justice Sellers and his colleagues in considering this and other matters which my right hon. Friend referred to them.

The Committee recommended the creation of a completely new offence, aiding, abetting counselling or procuring the suicide of another or an attempt by another to commit suicide, and it recommended that this offence should carry a penalty of a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. This may seem very high, but the offences are not likely to be frequent, and, with very few exceptions, may be expected to attract only a small penalty. But the complicity in the death of another can never be regarded lightly, and it is not difficult to think of circumstances in which the offence would be extremely grave, calling for severe punishment. Indeed, the gravity of these offences will also be marked by the requirement that they should be tried only at Assizes, and only by, or with the consent of, the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Perhaps I might briefly mention just one other provision in the Bill, that concerning suicide pacts. Section 4 (1) of the Homicide Act provides that where as a result of a suicide pact between himself and another person that other person dies, the survivor shall be guilty of manslaughter. Here there are two possible situations. The suicide may have put an end to his own life. The situation is then indistinguishable from that contemplated by the creation of the new offence I have mentioned, and it would be inconsistent to retain the offence of manslaughter. The Bill therefore provides in the Second Schedule for the repeal of certain words in the Homicide Act.

On the other hand, death in a suicide pact may result from the act of the survivor. This is a quite different and more serious situation from that contemplated by the new offence, and it is right that it should continue to be treated as manslaughter though not, of course, of murder. Accordingly that part of the Homicide Act is not being repealed.

I have been extremely brief because I hope that as far as possible we may reflect what I believe to be the wish of the House, that this Bill, which I am sure commands almost universal approval, should get to the Statute Book as quickly as possible in this crowded time of the year.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

Is it not disgraceful that a Bill which concerns itself with the problem that in the last ten years more people have killed themselves than have been killed on the roads should be hurried through within half an hour?

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I should be only too happy to make a very long speech on the subject, but these things are part of the facts of life. As for the Bill's being hurried through the House in half an hour, we shall have to see how we get on. I have no doubt that many other hon. Members wish to make their contributions to this very serious subject, and I would not wish to deprecate or derogate from that. But I have been short, and I feel—so far as it is suitable for me to say so—that other hon. Members may be equally short, because this is a matter which we all want Po see on the Statute Book, and if we all want to achieve that aim, cannot we co-operate to that end?

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I begin by offering my congratulations to the hon. Member on his first appearance at the Ministerial Front Bench, and by thanking him for the admirable way in which he has moved the Second Reading of this Bill. It is a 'particularly happy coincidence that this is a subject in which he has for long taken an interest, and I am sure that both what he said and the commendable brevity with which he said it will be an example that many of his colleagues will wish to follow.

I also propose to be very brief. I hope that the House will forgave me if I do not refer to Clause 2 but confine myself to a few observations on the Bill's general principle. The Government are to be congratulated on having brought forward this Measure. I sympathise with the point of view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse); it is a little unfortunate that a Bill of this importance—although it is non-controversial, in a party sense—should be brought on at this hour. If it turns out that, however brief we make our speeches, it is impossible to obtain the Second Reading this afternoon, I hope that the Government will find an early opportunity next week of enabling the Second Reading debate to be concluded.

This is a morbid subject, but it is one of great social consequence. It requires a little discussion, 'because we are being invited to make a change in what has been the law of England—although not of Scotland—for nearly 1,000 years; indeed, since the time of King Edgar. In this country, no doubt for reasons based on Christian theology, suicide has been regarded as the most heinous of felonies—the felony of self-murder. It has been said that no man has a right to destroy his own life, because life is a gift from God, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility.

Suicide, like murder, is a violation of the Sixth Commandment, and in some ways it is more grievous than murder because it precludes the opportunity for repentance. Those are the reasons which have justified the law of the land for so many centuries past.

As the Minister pointed out, a successful suicide puts himself beyond the criminal law, although until recently he was denied the ordinary rights of Christian burial. As the gravedigger put it, in Hamlet: Is she to be buried in Christian burial, that wilfully seeks her own salvation? In recent times the Church has taken a more charitable and reasonable view of these matters. Because suicide was a crime, it follows that an attempt to commit suicide was a crime, punishable by the criminal law. It has always been assumed—and the assumption was implicit in the Homicide Act, which the House passed as recently as 1957—that the community has a responsibility to try to preserve the life of a person who wants to end it. I hope that by passing this Measure we are not departing from that assumption.

The real basis of the Measure is that in the humane outlook of today it is recognised that those who attempt suicide unsuccessfully are in need of compassion and assistance, and not punishment. More often than not they require the services of a doctor, a psychiatrist, a spiritual adviser, a welfare worker, and in some cases, perhaps, a lawyer, and not the services of a policeman or gaoler.

As the House knows, people who attempt to commit suicide are not normally people with criminal tendencies in the ordinary sense but are actuated by a variety of motives—mental illness, despair, depression, feelings of acute rejection or dejection and sometimes merely intense loneliness. In those circumstances, the intervention of the criminal law is obviously not the appropriate remedy for those who are suffering from these maladies or mal-adjustments. Indeed, as the Minister said, for some years past the paraphernalia of the criminal law has not been invoked for the purposes of obtaining a prison sentence but in order to secure that people who attempt to commit suicide may obtain the adequate medical, social or therapeutic treatment that the circumstances require.

I entirely agree that the time has come when the law should be changed, and I am very glad to find that the same view is taken in the booklet, which no doubt hon. Members have read, recently issued by the Church Assembly Board for Social Responsibility. While, therefore, I fully support the principles of the Bill, and on Second Reading deliberately omit any reference to the technical provisions in Clause 2 which will no doubt call for same debate in Committee, I wish to add what seem to me to be two important qualifications to my support of the Bill.

The first is this. Suicide today is unlawful, forbidden and regarded as wrong. When this Bill becomes an Act suicide will cease to be unlawful. In some quarters there is felt to be a danger that some people will take the view that what is law is permissible and free from abjection. It would be most unfortunate if that idea obtained currency as a result of what we are proposing in this Measure. It cannot be too clearly emphasised that nothing in the Bill is intended to undermine the sanctity of human life or the general view of society that suicide, even though when this Bill is passed it will be legally permissible, is regarded by the majority of people as a dreadful offence against nature.

It is sometimes said, of course, that punishment for attempted suicide is no deterrent, but there are cases on record which show that those who have determined to take their own life and who have made an unsuccessful attempt have, in fact, been deterred from renewing their attempts, not by the possibility of punishment but by a realisation of the gravity of the act which they have contemplated and the fact that suicide or attempted suicide is generally condemned by public opinion.

The second qualification I wish to make—in some ways it is the more important—is this. As I have said, the machinery of the criminal law, certainly in the Metropolis though perhaps not to the same extent outside, has in recent years been used not to secure a prison sentence but to ensure that the unfortunate sufferer obtains the treatment required. There is a fear in some quarters that if we remove the existing responsibilities and duties of the police in this regard some of those who in the past have attempted suicide and who because of police intervention have had the appropriate treatment, will not get it.

One knows that very often the practice in the Metropolitan area is for the police not to take proceedings, but to ensure that the sufferer goes to hospital, or is put in the care of a psychiatrist, a social worker or a parish priest, and that he or she receives pastoral, spiritual or medical assistance. The Minister referred to the Mental Health Act and indicated the provisions which there exist for persons to be detained for a period of twenty-eight days. I appreciate that that will cover those cases of attempted suicide where people find themselves in hospital. But what about those who do not? What about those who at present go to a doctor after they have taken an overdose of barbiturates, or whatever it may be, which is not sufficient to kill them, and they are cured? What is the machinery to ensure that those people get appropriate treatment in the future?

It will no longer be an obligation on the police as it now is that, because a crime has been committed, they should do something about it. The police have other functions than the detection of crime. They have social functions, and I hope that if we pass this Bill it will be regarded as one of the social functions of the police to render such assistance as they can in cases of attempted suicide.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

Does not my hon. Friend realise that, in the circumstances which he has described, it is the duty of a doctor to see that the patient gets the treament which he or she needs, including psychiatric treatment?

Mr. Fletcher

My hon. Friend is a great authority on the subject, and I am glad to hear that observation from him.

I make the point because I wish to ensure that it is universally regarded as a professional obligation by a doctor who is treating a person who has made an attempt at suicide and failed, to recommend the appropriate treatment. There may well be a number of cases in which a doctor would not be justified in recommending detention in a mental hospital. That is not always appropriate.

Perhaps some hon. Members may know that in recent years a society has been formed, supported entirely by voluntary funds, which is known as the Samaritans and which operates from St. Stephens Walbrook in the City. It is under the leadership of the Rev. Chad Varah. It has established for itself a reputation for doing, on a voluntary basis, specialist work for those who have attempted suicide, or may be contemplating it, or, in the opinion of their friends, may be in danger of attempting suicide.

This voluntary body has about 5,000 cases on its books, comprising individuals in the Greater London area whom the society assists in this way. It is the opinion of the society that unless public opinion insists, and adequate machinery is introduced as an alternative to this Bill, there is a risk that a certain number of cases, perhaps 200 or 300 of those people who make unsuccessful attempts at suicide and are rescued, will not have the help which they need.

Obviously, we want to do all we can to protect and help such people. We want machinery or a service such as the Samaritan service to be as well known to the medical profession as to the police, because at present the police in the Greater London area make a practice, in the case of an attempted suicide, of contacting the Samaritans, whose services are available day and night, and getting their assistance. The Mental Health Act would not be appropriate in every case. I mention these points, because I am sure that they will receive the sympathetic attention of the Government.

It is with these two qualifications that I commend the Bill to the House.

3.51 p.m.

Mr. John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

I hope to be very brief in view of the short time which remains for this debate. First, I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on the happy occasion which finds him on the Front Bench introducing this Bill with such skill and brevity.

I support him in particular in the justification of this Bill. It really is an absurdity that, because there is no other way of dealing with them, the criminal law should have to be invoked for the purpose of looking after a small percentage of those persons who have attempted to commit suicide. It is quite wrong that people should suffer the stigma of a serious conviction and all the consequences of a public appearance in court just because they happen to be those few who cannot be looked after, when 90 per cent. of those who have attempted to commit suicide can be looked after in a different way and are not charged.

Anyone who has ever seen the way in which some people are charged and others are not must have felt that the law was brought into disrepute by the fact that these distinctions had to be made for reasons quite irrelevant to the criminal law. For that reason, I add my support to the Bill while agreeing with the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) that it should be generally and publicly realised that suicide nevertheless remains a mortal sin.

There is one short point I wish to put. My hon. and learned Friend will remember that those who are successful in suicide can bring about serious consequences for their heirs, because they have been guilty of the offence. They can forfeit rights under a trust and there are side-issues under the civil law as a consequence of suicide with which the criminal law is not concerned. In Clause 2 the new offence is not specified as a felony or a misdemeanour.

It may be that I have overlooked something in the provisions, but I think that one with a reversionary interest under a life settlement might persuade the life tenant to commit suicide and, under this Bill as it stands, he would not suffer the penalty of not being able to enjoy the benefits in his own life. We should perhaps consider whether the offence in Clause 2 (1) ought not to be made expressly a felony in order that those who aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of someone else should not benefit as a consequence of the successful procurement of that offence.

I am also a little mystified with one of the side-effects of the Second Schedule. Within the Forfeiture Act the words "or felo de se" are to be repealed. Section 1 of that Act says: No confession, verdict, inquest, conviction, or judgment of or for any treason or felony, or felo de se shall cause an attainder or corruption of blood, or any forfeiture or escheat. The removal of the words "or felo de se," would mean that an inquest verdict of felo de se might bring about a corruption of blood or forfeiture. That does not seem to be the intended consequence.

These are small points which could be dealt with in Committee. I will not detain the House further because I know that many of my colleagues wish to speak. I merely wish to say four words—I support the Bill.

3.54 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

It is a pleasure for once to say that I welcome a Bill introduced by this Government. I welcome it wholeheartedly and I also welcome the way in which the Second Reading was moved by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

It is two-and-a-half years since I first pressed this reform on the Home Secretary. On that occasion he was extremely resistant to my persuasion. He thought that reform of this kind was not generally required and that it would lead to controversy. I set about persuading him that there was a general desire for such a reform. I was powerfully assisted by a number of committees of the Church, the medical profession and magistrates, and I am delighted that at the end of three years' Parliamentary nagging the right hon. Gentleman has seen fit to bring in the Bill.

There are a number of comments which I should like to make about the Bill but none which will not be suitable for debate on Clause 1 in Committee on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." We hope that the Bill will take its place on the Statute Book before the end of the Session. We regret that it has been delayed for so long. I am sure that nearly every hon. Member wishes it well.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)

In welcoming the Bill and congratulating my hon. and learned Friend on introducing it, I wish to make two very quick points about Clause 2 which I think are fundamental rather than Committee points. First of all, not only are we creating a new offence but we are also creating an offence without precedent—aiding and abetting the committal of something which is not a crime. It seems to me that before we do that we should consider carefully whether it is right to do it. I should like an assurance that the Clause is necessary and that these grave offences to which my hon. and learned Friend referred cannot be dealt with under the Homicide Act, as I think they could be dealt with. Most of the cases with which Clause 2 will be concerned will be mercy killings, which in any case we shall not wish to punish by imprisonment. I therefore hope that it is possible to deal with the matter in another way.

If not, I come to my second point, which I think fundamental, which refers to the survivor of a suicide pact. My hon. and learned Friend drew a rather curious distinction between the active and the passive participants in such a pact. I feel that both should share equally the blame. It seems rather odd that one should be liable to fourteen years' imprisonment and the other liable to life imprisonment when in many cases the survivor of the suicide pact is less guilty than the aider and abettor of suicide. This, too, is a fundamental point which needs a little more examination.

Other than that, I welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. and learned Friend and the Government and, if I may do so, congratulate the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson), who has fought so long for the Bill.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

I wish to call attention quickly to a gap mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher). It refers to people who, through serious worry, have attempted to commit suicide. They may not be medical cases such as those to which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) referred, and they may not require the services of a doctor. They may not be mental cases, to which the Minister referred, which can be dealt with under the Mental Health Act. They are other cases of worry—people who require the services, for example, of a social worker of some kind. What will be done about them? Could they not be put on probation for a month, for example, in order that they may be given the assistance which they need? At the moment there is no such provision in the Bill, and that is a serious gap which must be filled.

3.59 p.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

I do not agree that this Bill should be hurried through the House in this form. I have already indicated that I think that we are dealing with a very serious social problem of very large dimensions, and I deplore the fact that when time has been given to comparatively irrelevant Bills, such as the Betting and Gaming Bill, then in a matter which affects so many thousands of people an attempt should be made to hurry the Bill through at the tag end of a Friday afternoon.

I believe that a myth has been built up that we have reforming Home Secretaries, and sometimes a myth is built up that the Home Secretary is afflicted with dangerous extravagances. Already, in the manner in which the Bill has been introduced and in the praise which it has so far received, once again we are being offered an attitude of mind or presented with a view that there is some zeal and desire on the part of the Home Secretary to bring about a radical reform. I believe that the Bill is stamped with a lot of mock courage—mock courage which I consider to be the hallmark of a considerable amount of Home Office legislation.

We are expected to applaud, apparently, the boldness of a Bill which is bringing English law as up to date as the French law of 1789, and we are expected to applaud because we are courageously declaring in 1961 that a dead man is not a criminal. This is doubtless regarded as a humane and courageous step forward in English history, following that of 1823 when the custom of dragging the suicide's body, pierced crossways with a stick, through the streets and burying it in the highways with ceremony was ultimately abolished. Doubtless we are expected to wonder at the breathtaking reform which will ensure that no longer—

It being Four o'clock the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.