§ Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [14th July], That the Bill be now read a Second time.
§ Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not sure that I heard you correctly. Did you call the Suicide Bill? I thought we had just dealt with that.
§ Question again proposed.1408
§ 11.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
As one who may have committed suicide by going through the Lobby in the Division just now, perhaps it is appropriate that I should have the opportunity of continuing the debate which was interrupted last Friday.
On that occasion I was suggesting that it might well be that the praise which was being accorded to the Bill is by no means in all respects justified. I was suggesting that perhaps we might be expected to wonder at the compassion of a Bill that ensures that no longer will the survivor of a suicide pact have to face a manslaughter charge but at the same time a new offence be created, one which causes the survivor to be 1409 liable only to suffer the living death of 14 years' imprisonment.
What I am complaining about is that the Bill does not in any way aim to reduce the 5,000 suicides and the 25,000–30,000 attempted suicides which unfortunately take place annually. On the contrary, in my view it is likely that as a concequence of this Bill we may find that the numbers may increase. I realise that we have just passed the peak season for killing oneself. Murderers, I have observed, are less discriminate and do not appear to have any seasonal choice. Judging by statistics they prefer to kill only on Saturdays. When it comes to the suicide of Britain, as in other lands, they tend to wait until late spring. This is understandable. It is then that life affirms itself in all its glory and the lonely ones can no longer tolerate their personal loneliness and they choose to die.
Although the height of the suicide season is over for this year, the toll of the figures over the year and over the decade will mount. Between 1950 and 1959 deaths by suicide actually exceeded the deaths by road accidents. There were 48,053 killed on the roads and 49,178 killed themselves during that period. As many people attempted to commit suicide in this period as there are population in the city in which I live, Cardiff, the capital of Wales. This grim measure of the social health of a community is in this new Bill, in my view, characteristically ignored by the Government.
I find this Bill in tune with recent Home Office Measures like the Matrimonial Act, which went some way to perfect the machinery for the severance of marriages but did nothing to mend them; or the latest Indecency Against Children Act, which pruriently created unusual and Lolita-like offences but made no effort to emancipate those characters who compulsively practised the bizarre aberration which the Measure adumbrates. In short, this Bill follows the Pontius Pilate view unashamedly proclaimed in the White Paper, "Penal Practice in a Changing Society," which says that this Governmentdoes not seek to deal with those deep seated causes of crime1410 which, says, the White Paper, are "largely beyond reach." So we find on this occasion the Government are conquering crime by causing self-murder to be no longer included in criminal statistics.
Many of the depressives who savagely destroy themselves could, in my view, be saved. Some could be rescued by such a simple measure, for example, as limiting the reports of inquests. Many solicitors share the view that coroners' courts are an expensive anachronism. Recently we had the inquest on the child Linda Smith which came dangerously near to being trial by coroner. The main use of inquests in these days seems to be as a fishing expedition for insurance company and other solicitors who are seeking evidence to enable them to resist claims for damages. But the proceedings of these inquests are highly publicised and there is demonstrably grave danger in this.
Every investigator into suicide has commented upon the imitative factor. It is said that when Lord Castlereagh threw himself into Vesuvius several of his companions immediately followed his example. I do not know whether that is true. But the Sunday Times, I notice, in a report on university suicides, quoted a psychiatrist commenting on the startling suicide rate in Oxford, where it has recently been five times the national average, as saying that in a social environment like the major universities one suicide tended to spark off another.
I noticed in the Daily Telegraph recently a report of a Cornish coroner who said that the fact that two children had recently died by putting plastic bags over their heads had indicated a means of suicide for the woman who had been found dead with a plastic bag over her head and into whose death he was conducting an inquiry. I observed that only last month there was another suicide involving an unhappy agricultural student where the same practice—a plastic bag—was used.
If we read the literature on suicides, going back as far as Durkheim's classic book in the 1880's, we find that he had a great understanding that within society there is a grave initiative factor. He gave many instances, for example, of a hospital corridor which had a fatal attraction for many men and an infamous 1411 sentry box in Boulogne which seemed to act as a spur to one suicide after another. A bridge in Chicago was another example. This initiative factor has not changed. In one region in this country a few years ago, where there had not been such a form of suicide for 50 years, there was a minor wave of suicides by tin plate workers jumping into vats of sulphuric acid, precipitated by zealous inquest reporting of the first case.
We are well aware of the great concern expressed recently that Press reports of murders were exciting others of the same vicious kind. The Guardian published in March an interesting survey by Mr. Bryan Wilson and Mr. Malcolm Bradbury which concluded that some responsibility for crime waves could be laid at the door of Fleet Street. I understand that there is a Home Office research unit engaged at the moment on an analyses of the effect of Press publicity in stimulating psychopaths to murder. As for suicides, this point has been made a thousand times since the time of the proverbial and fateful tree of Timon of Athens.
There is considerable evidence that inquest reports are killers. The frail, overwhelmed by real or imaginary injuries of life, which they find hostile, or the suggestible, who have previously kept at bay, as they may be able to do, their lurking death wish, find, when they see the example of others luridly and excitingly portrayed, that they are sometimes incited to follow that unhappy example. I realise the dangers of tinkering with the freedom of the Press, but I doubt whether either the freedom or the circulation figures of the newspapers would suffer if the necromancing readers were deprived of reports of the latest annihilation.
There are precedents, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, for dealing with this sort of problem. Restrictions were placed on the reporting of divorce proceedings. I believe that a curb on inquest reports would not only be a minor preventive measure against suicide but would save relatives from often ugly and embarrassing publicity. It would also save many innocent parties from dreadful, well-publicised paranoic accusations so often written in suicide notes which are made even as the gas hisses.
1412 I recall a few years ago that a defeated commercial traveller quite unjustifiably accused a pools firm of swindling him of a prize. While parleys began between him and the firm, the traveller went to his hotel room and wrote and posted letters to most of the national daily newspapers proclaiming that the pools were to be responsible for his death and inviting the Press to a Press conference the next morning. The reporters duly arrived to find that the man had certainly filled in his last coupon he had poisoned himself in the night.
I urge the Government during the course of the Bill to consider introducing a Clause curbing inquest reports. But if inquest reports are only a precipitatory factor in suicides, other factors are probably catastrophic, like orphanhood. Research work discussed at last year's World Federation for Mental Health Congress at Edinburgh showed that the loss of a father, particularly between the age of ten and the age of fourteen, could treble the possibility of the child becoming an adult depressive.
There is nothing new in this concept. Homer told of the depressive effect of orphanhood in Andromachne's lament in the Iliad. On the Gold Coast, which many regard as being a comparatively primitive society, though it obviously has healthier values in that adult depressives are very rare, there is the primitive convention of the immediate adoption of orphans by the next of kin. Here, to a great extent, we are dependent on the quality and the number of child care officers.
A Government genuinely concerned with this great social problem would supply the 1,400 child care officers who are now needed so desperately. When, at the present rate of expansion and training, do the Government hope to obtain the 200 trained child care officers who are needed each year if we are to meet the present needs? Do the Government intend to be completely dependent on charitable organisations or the Nuffield Trust, or do they intend to make a serious drive to get these officers, who are so important?
Again, if the Government were taking a less perfunctory attitude to suicides than is revealed in this Bill, would they not be giving thought to the need for 1413 increasing the number of mental welfare officers and psychiatric social workers, particularly since the passing of the Mental Health Act? Would they not give this priority? We all know that one of the aims of that Measure is to stop patients being institutionalised, and to turn larger numbers out of the mental hospitals into the community.
I wonder whether the Government realise that before the Act was passed more than two-thirds of those who, on release, subsequently committed suicide did so within a year of being released—most of them within six months? With the new policy of the Mental Health Act, aimed at speedier releases and larger turnover, the need for psychiatric social workers to give support to ex-patients becomes more and more clamorous. Otherwise, some of these released patients will lamentably be hostages to fortune.
The grim picture in South Wales and Monmouthshire is that there is only one qualified full-time psychiatric social worker employed within the Health Services in the whole of this densely populated area. Again, I ask a Government giving more than lip-service to their regret at the suicide rate, when they will take more seriously the implementation of the Younghusband Report, calling for a training programme to give us psychiatric social workers, and an additional 1,000 mental welfare officers.
The whole question of preventing suicides depends on the character and quality of aid that can be given to those who are suffering from signs of mental ill health. When a survey was made of 800 suicides in twelve counties of Wales by Dr. Alan Capstick of Whitchurch Hospital, Cardiff, it was found that four out of five had seen doctors for symptoms that were danger signals, but that only one in five had been referred to psychiatrists for aid. This must clearly lead to criticism.
Unfortunately, in Wales, as in a few other regions, psychiatry is the Cinderella of the medical services, and the Medical College is clearly at fault in not pressing the University Grants Committee sufficiently vigorously for a chair and department of psychiatry which could give Welsh graduates the psychiatric training to which they have 1414 a right; and which might play a part, among its other contributions, in preventing the 200 suicides and 1,200 to 1,500 attempted suicides that take place in Wales every year.
The number of people who are likely to die annually by their own hand is bound to increase as the age structure of the population changes. In Wales about 60 per cent. of suicides occur among those over the age of 50 where there is only 30 per cent. of that age group in the population. This reflects the national trend. It is a sad comment on our society that the only occasion in recent years when this trend was arrested was during the war years, when elderly men were able to obtain and to be paid for useful employment. Without increases in old-aged pensions and more community concern for the 2 million isolated old people in Britain who are said to be completely housebound, an even greater number of aged people will kill themselves than is at present the case.
The primitive character of our geriatric services plays a considerable part in the annual total. I hope that the Minister who will reply will not say that many of these points are outside his departmental responsibilities. I should have thought that the work done, but largely ignored, on the psychology of murderers would have brought home to him the relationship between depression and crime which psychiatrists, with little avail, have been emphasising. I would point out that 40 per cent. of murderers in Britain kill themselves before arrest. Many of the others attempt suicide before their trial. Yet others, who are known to have shown all the clinical signs of depression shortly before they hammer their wives to death or cut their heads off, spontaneously "cure" themselves after the act of violence, as if the very explosive nature of the act had acted as a cartharsis.
The Home Secretary could spare himself some of the agony he doubtless passes through as he considers reprieves for murderers if he would lift the Home Office ban on exploring the roots of crime. It is no use merely collecting statistics. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to repudiate the White Paper declaration that the Home Office does not seek to explore the deep seated roots of crime.
1415 I make no apologies for delaying the House even at this late hour, because I believe this to be a great problem and one which requires considerable attention. It is a problem that in no circumstances should be hurried or treated with scant respect. I have said that this Bill in one way could increase and not diminish the incidence of suicides. Concern has already been expressed in another place that although the workings of the Mental Health Act will ensure that an attempted suicide who is certifiable will enter a mental hospital, although one in respect of whom a relative may take action will enter for treatment, there exists a gap—in my view a wide gap—left by the abolition of the criminal offence.
This will be the suicidal minority who are not certifiable but who are unwilling to accept treatment; a not unusual state among potential suicides. The point has not been met despite what has been said elsewhere. I would urge that powers be given to the courts to make temporary guardianship orders so that rehabilitation treatment could be given. This was suggested by Mr. St. John Stevas of the Economist in his thoughtful, erudite, recent work "Life, Death and the Law." It is suggested on the analogy of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933, in order that adults in need of care and attention could be brought before the court. I believe that this was suggested by the B.M.A. Committee in 1947, but if this suggestion does not commend itself to the Under-Secretary, there are other ways in which it has been done in respect of other people, as for example under the National Assistance Act, 1948, whereby, under Section 47, anyone who is suffering from a grave chronic disease or who, being elderly, is living in insanitary conditions and unable to receive proper attention, and can be brought before the court and a suitable order can be made.
Again there is a Section in the Public Health Act which enables the removal to hospital of people who are suffering from tuberculosis or, in certain circumstances, suffering from some other notifiable disease. There is an opportunity to deal with this residue who otherwise would not be dealt with at all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) said that he hoped that the police would act in 1416 the same gentle and understanding way in which they often act at the moment, but we in this House are often vigilant about the powers which the police are given, and if this matter were left in the air the police themselves would have to act with extraordinary caution, particularly when dealing with people who are depressive or paranoic. They could lay themselves open to all sorts of charges if there were no genuine power given to them to deal with such people.
I want more than a lawyers' Bill. That is why I have spoken at some length. I want this to be a genuine piece of social legislation which will make some contribution, albeit a small one, towards trying to deal with this grave and grim problem which belongs to the whole nation.
§ 12.17 a.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) pointed out that this was a very important Measure. I am sorry to delay the House at this late hour, but I think this is a Measure which we should discuss at some length. I wish to add my support and to say that I consider that the Bill is one which ought to have been brought forward a considerable time ago.
Clearly suicide or attempted suicide is not the sort of act which ought to be considered a criminal offence, and the alteration in the law in abolishing such consideration is belated and necessary. It is right that that change should be made. After all, the only reason why, from a practical point of view, the offence, if it is an offence, was regarded as a criminal one was to drive the person concerned through the processes of the law in order to provide remedial treatment of some sort. Nowadays, fortunately, that is not necessary.
Obviously, the person who commits or attempts suicide is a person who will not benefit from prison treatment. He does not deserve a prison sentence but obviously requires treatment of some kind. It is important to consider the reasons why a person is driven to attempt to commit suicide. What are the reasons? It may be because of unbearable pain. It may be a case of mental stress, worry and illness of some kind. Obviously, in attempting to remedy that 1417 kind of situation, one ought to try to apply methods of research. One ought to see what is the best way of preventing people from getting into such a state that they make such attempts. If people do attempt to commit suicide, we ought to be ready to treat them, and do it in such a way that they are not likely to do it again.
I was struck by something said in another place about the loneliness of the individual. It is pathetic that in this age there must be thousands of people suffering terribly from loneliness, people who, perhaps, have cares or worries which they are not able to discuss with anyone. One noble Lord referred to the fact that, when he gave legal advice, people came to him and discussed their worries. I imagine that it is the experience of many hon. Members that, when they have their "surgeries", as we call them, many people come along with their troubles and anxieties, and I am sure that the mere fact that they are able to discuss matters with someone is of tremendous help. To a great extent, it alleviates their condition and helps to remedy their situation. I have often wondered whether we could devise a scheme whereby advice might be given so that people who had troubles preying on their minds could discuss their affairs and derive relief in that way.
It is undoubtedly true that there are oases of suicide or attempted suicide which are imitative in character. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool was quite right to raise this matter. People read stories, sometimes lurid stories, in the newspapers, and they are tempted to copy the methods about which they read. I feel that reports of inquests in the papers, with the details given—often horrible details—merely pander to the bad taste of individuals.
As my hon. Friend rightly said, we have a precedent in such matters. We all remember how it was recognised that the reports which used to be given at one time of divorce cases gave individuals a bad approach; it was really bad publicity in that way. Could something similar be done in regard to the reporting of suicide cases? Would it be possible for there to be a restriction on the publication of reports of suicide inquests, as there has been on publicity in divorce cases, possibly to an even 1418 greater extent so that even the decision of the coroner might not be published unless the coroner thought that some important public purpose would be served by giving wider publicity to the matter?
The hour is late and I shall not detain the House. There are several matters which we ought to consider. Last Friday, the hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) raised a point on Clause 2. They are Committee matters. We shall discuss them later. This is an excellent, though belated, Bill. I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) on his first appearance on the Front Bench as Under-Secretary of State, and I am glad that he has a Bill of this nature to commend to the House.
§ 12.25 a.m.
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) said that he wished to apologise for detaining the House. I rather think that it is the Government who should be apologising for detaining the House. It is not our fault if a Bill which bears a date in March has not been introduced until this late hour of the Session. I hope that no one will complain if a few comments are made about it during Second Reading.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) for asserting his right to speak on the Bill at a time when a few people wanted to bustle it through as though it was a purely formal Bill tidying up some slight discrepancy or some little matter of obsolete law. If that is the Government's attitude, one could make a strong speech in opposition to the Bill. I hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State will take this kindly, but I was a little sorry that he spoke so enthusiastically about it, as if it had been his sole ambition for ten years to introduce something of this kind. If he does not know it already, he will not have to be long in the Home Office before he finds that there is a bit more to it than that.
We have had more than enough of these nominal tidying-up Bills which, by pretending that a problem does not exist, the Government can get off the list. I have great hopes of the new Joint 1419 Under-Secretary. I hope that those of us who sometimes pester the Home Office from this side of the House on matters connected with the Welfare State will find that we have an ally in the hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope that his influence will be exercised in the direction of widening the positive welfare activities of the Home Office along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool, who pressed upon the Minister various points which, he said, were not directly under his Department.
The Home Secretary, however, is still the senior Minister responsible for the welfare of Her Majesty's subjects, not just for locking them up and punishing them. I hope to see the Home Office developing more in that direction. I hope to see it using the police more as agents of the Welfare State. They should be primus inter pares among the agents of the Welfare State and should have access to the agents of other Departments.
All this is closely connected with this brief Bill. Clause 2 states that anyone who abets suicide shall get 14 years' imprisonment. I am not sure that anyone who passes Clause 1 will not be guilty of an offence under Clause 2, unless compensating improvements are made in our welfare services to counteract the impression that the Bill could give. It is just not good enough to say that something which has been a principle of our community life for many centuries was all a mistake.
It reminds me too much of a story which I told in this House in another connection about the time when I protested to a police inspector about the way a street-corner orator was attacking an old lady because of her supposed racial origins. The inspector said to me, "If you do not like it, you can go away." That was true, but the old lady could not go away, because she lived there. If the State is now saying, "If you do not like it, you can go away, and go away quietly and do not make a fuss", it seems to me that there is here a breach of an implied contract.
The basis of the old law was not entirely theological. It is true that it was necessary to put some brake on the enthusiasm of religious people who at one stage in the development of 1420 Christianity could not wait to enter upon the greater blessedness of the hereafter and had to be told that they must not be in a hurry, that they must stick it out and that this was a vale of tears in their preparation for something better but, none the less, they had to do their duty and live it through.
It is this question of sticking it out which we must get conveyed to the people who do not fit. It will not do if, in this modern age, we do anything to increase a danger which is great enough by saying to the person who does not fit, "That is not our fault, it is yours. We want to be rid of you." The contract between the community and the State surely is that each is responsible for each, each has a duty to the other. The State cannot say, "If you feel that you do not belong, that is all right with us." I hope the Under-Secretary of State will appreciate that in addition to the informed and interesting suggestions which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool has made, in addition to the important classifications arising from modern medical and psychiatric knowledge, we must accept the fact that weakness of character, lack of—to use the old military term which has fallen into desuetude—moral fibre, can pass un-noticed in people in many places in the country, and certainly causes them to break down in circumstances of particular temptation.
I am speaking as a Member for a borough which, I am told, has or has had the highest suicide rate. I know that that is not very convincing, if it is true, because one would expect a certain number of suicides to disappear in the anonymity of a crowded city before they finally do commit suicide, but none the less the sort of suicides I have in mind are those precipitated by social conditions which make life intolerable for those persons in particular.
That is the situation which enrages me, when I see a picture of people with tidy little Bills which they think will clear up a lot of social problems in a liberal-minded way. I hope that that is not at all to be the attitude of the Under-Secretary of State. I am talking more about the young Minister than I am about the Bill, but it is, I think, a perfectly fair point that a Bill of this kind is either bad or hypocritical, or it is tolerable, if it is introduced in conjunction with and 1421 as part of a constructive policy coming from the Home Office over a broad range of social problems, and only if it is.
I would have thought it unnecessary to state formally that it is not an offence, because I still think it is an offence to break the contract. I think it is an offence for the State to break its contract with the individual, and I think the State is gravely guilty in the cases which come to my notice. I think it is still possible to regard it as a dereliction of social duty to contract out, not to stick it out; but the nature of the penalty, the nature of the condemnation, is a very different matter.
After all, the offence we are discussing takes place only after a special consideration and in special circumstances, and certainly the penal results of such offence could be altered along the lines my hon. Friend has suggested. The suggestion of guardianship seems to me very interesting as in fact reviving the theory that the State has the duty to prolong and the individual has the duty to belong to something, and that is precisely the sort of work which I had been hoping the Home Office would push. There are so many voluntary organisations in so many fields working in a climate of public opinion which is entirely favourable to great steps forward, but I do not think we are getting the help from the Home Office that we should.
I was interested when another of my hon. Friends mentioned one voluntary organisation of a very special kind, and yet the police are not encouraged to use proper agencies of other Departments of State, other welfare Departments of State in dealing with problems which can lead to self destruction in the case of complete break down and despair; they are not encouraged to the extent they should be.
I shall not detain the Under-Secretary of State or the House longer, but I am tempted to ask the Under-Secretary of State if he will let me take him on a tour of Paddington, a tour which would open his eyes to some of the circumstances which put intolerable strains upon people who would evade the consequences of their own characters if they were not afflicted by the extra problems of housing and loneliness and so on which occur in these great cities. I hope that in his 1422 closing remarks he will give us much more constructive assurances on this point and on the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool. In that case, we shall be happy to accept the Bill.
§ 12.35 a.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke)
If I may, with the leave of the House, reply to this debate, which no one regrets more than I was interrupted in the way it was, I will deal, first, with the very interesting and and comprehensive speech of the Hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), who covered a great deal of ground, who reminded us that there is a season for suicide and took us from the coroner's court through the Oxford suicides to the Gold Coast.
The hon. Gentleman's suggestion of a curb on the reports of inquests on suicides and, generally, a curb on the reporting of such matters was, I think, echoed by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman). I know that there is the precedent in divorce cases, but it is not a complete precedent, because the non-publication of evidence there is to prevent obscenity being scanned whereas the hon. Member's motive is somewhat different. It is to prevent imitation.
It is true, of course, that a great deal of crime, not only the crime of suicide, is imitative, but, if we take the view that people shall not read about crime or near-crime in case they should imitate it, we should be going very far indeed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in saying it is imitative, and that has to be taken into account.
On the hon. Gentleman's general point, which was again echoed by other speakers tonight, that it is not enough simply to say that suicide and attempted suicide shall no longer be a crime, we agree that not only must we have, as it were, the negative provisions which the Bill provides, but that there is a responsibility upon society and upon the State to see that the provision is made to help those people, to prevent them committing suicide if we can and to prevent them repeating attempts at suicide, and, at any rate, to see that they get such treatment as they should have.
1423 My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, upon whom the prime responsibility rests in spite of what was said about the Home Office, has listened to this debate and, I am sure, will have paid a great deal of attention to it. What has troubled a great many hon. Members, I think, including the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), is this question of the gap that there may be as a result of this legislation—namely that there may be a number of people attempting suicide who, in future, will not appear to be reached in the sense that the police, who in the past used to look after them, will no longer do so, or, at least, will not do so in the same way because attempted suicide will be no offence in future.
The numbers of those persons is a matter of opinion. The hon. Member for Pontypool seemed to think that the numbers would be large. My advice is that it is thought the numbers will be a small minority of attempted suicides, that is to say, those neither liable to compulsory treatment nor willing to receive treatment voluntarily. There is another way in which the gap is somewhat narrowed, because where the nature of the attempt has an element of nuisance and entails the possibility of injury or danger to others, as, for example, where the person making the attempt has to be rescued at the risk of another's life, it may be possible to bring the person before the justices, either under their inherent powers or under the Act of 1361, to bind him over to keep the peace. In that case the normal provisions would apply.
We do not want to create an offence to cover the small group in this gap. The whole purpose of the Bill is to get rid of the odour of criminality. Although I appreciate the parallel with guardianship orders and, in the case of those people suffering in the way that that was mentioned, under the National Insurance Act, nevertheless I think that it would be a pity to try to define and frame an offence to deal with this small group. We shall have to see how we go on. If it becomes a menace, we will no doubt look at the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Pontypool of the possibility 1424 of using the guardianship machinery or some other way, but for the time being I suggest we try to see whether we can get on without any such resort to the courts, because that is what we are trying to avoid.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
No one suggests that we should create an offence to deal with these people. But whether the gap be great or small, what I have suggested and what some of my hon. Friends have suggested today is that there should be some machinery, perhaps through the assistance of the police or other social welfare, to deal with the gap and to ensure that these people receive the treatment that is appropriate to their condition.
§ Mr. Fletcher-Cooke
I have no doubt that there will be machinery to provide treatment if they are prepared to take it. The problem arises in exercising compulsory powers on them if they are not prepared to take it. Compulsory powers involve the use of penal machinery almost inevitably and that brings back in its turn the odour of criminality which we seek to avoid. That is the crux of the problem and it is certainly in our minds. We will examine it all the time to see whether anything need be done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk) raised two points which he regarded as more than Committee points, and I think that he was right. He wondered whether it was really necessary to create a new offence of aiding or abetting suicide or attempted suicide and he suggested that serious cases of that kind might be dealt with under the provisions of the Homicide Act. But if the suicide is not successful there is no homicide, and even if it is successful the provisions of the Homicide Act do not apply unless there has been a suicide pact. We think that complicity in the death of another person ought still to be properly regarded as criminal conduct. Since the effect of Clause 1, if nothing more were done, would be to make such conduct no longer an offence, it is necessary to include the provisions in Clause 2 creating a new offence. This was the recommendation of the Statute Law Revision Committee.
The other point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend dealt 1425 with the distinction between circumstances covered by Section 4 of the Homicide Act and those covered by the new offence. Both deal with suicide pacts, because it is only in the case of a suicide pact that the offence is reduced from murder to manslaughter under the Homicide Act. I should like to deal with the distinction that we seek to draw. There are two possibilities. In the first case the successful suicide has killed himself with his own hand. In that case we think that the offence of the survivor who has failed to kill himself with his own hand is less grave than in the other case in which the death of the deceased occurred through the act of the survivor. The gravity is much greater in the latter case. For that reason, it remains manslaughter under the Homicide Act.
§ Mr. Peter Kirk (Gravesend)
I still do not see this subtle distinction. If it is a suicide pact, both of them want to die. Which one is the active partner in the death seems to be quite immaterial to this case. Why one should draw this distinction between a life sentence and 14 years is very curious. If it is not a suicide pact, if one is killed and the other did not intend to die, it is murder and the situation does not arise. If they both want to die, it is a suicide pact, and if they survive, they should be punished impartially.
§ Mr. Fletcher-Cooke
The view of the Committee, though I see that it is arguable, is that there is a greater offence in actually striking somebody else than in striking oneself, and that is the distinction that the Bill seeks to draw. I do not think I can take it further now, but no doubt we can argue that in Committee, as no doubt we can the arguments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson).
Since it is so late, perhaps I might just conclude by thanking the House for the general welcome to the Bill. I think it has had a general welcome, subject to the fears of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) and those of the hon. Member for Paddington, North that the Bill itself might somehow give potential suicides the impression that what they were proposing to do was no longer regarded as wrong. I should like to state as solemnly as 1 can that that is certainly 1426 not the view of the Government, that we wish to give no encouragement whatever to suicide, that a great many people, probably the majority of the people of the country, have regarded it, now regard it and will continue to regard it as a mortal sin, and that, in the words of the hon. Member for Paddington, North, there is a duty, as there certainly is, to stick it out.
With those words, I hope that nothing that I have said will give the impression that the act of self-murder, of self-destruction, is regarded at all lightly by the Home Office or the Government.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).