HC Deb 28 July 1961 vol 645 cc822-5

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

1.10 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 the Third time.

This Bill has been universally welcomed and yet practically unnoticed, perhaps because it was universally welcomed. It is a fundamental Measure in that it removes the stigma of a crime and of criminal proceedings for attempted suicide, and thus changes a very ancient law.

It is not for me at this stage, and for a third time, to extol the merits of the Bill. I repeat the word of warning which I gave during the Second Reading debate, and during the Committee stage proceedings. Because we have taken the view, as Parliament and the Government have taken, that the treatment of people who attempt to commit suicide should no longer be through the criminal courts, it in no way lessens, nor should it lessen, the respect for the sanctity of human life which we all share. It must not be thought that because we are changing the method of treatment for those unfortunate people we seek to depreciate the gravity of the action of anyone who tries to commit suicide.

One of the consequences of removing from the ambit of the criminal law this hitherto crime of attempted suicide is that it may be feared that some people may not be reached through the Mental Health Act; that there will be some who will not submit themselves to voluntary treatment, and cannot be persuaded by then medical advisers or members of their family to receive treatment. It may be apprehended that some gap in the welfare of the country may follow from that.

We would all agree that it would be quite wrong either to keep the present criminal structure or to impose a new one purely for what we believe to be a very small minority. But we shall watch the situation and the Government will keep an open mind. We will see whether that small number increases and if a proposal not involving the odour of criminality is put forward to meet the situation, we shall certainly look at it again.

1.12 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I wish to support what the Minister has said. The hon. and learned Gentleman drew attention to the fact that, although this is an important Bill which makes a significant change in the law, it appears to have passed through Parliament practically unnoticed. That may be partly due to the fact that, owing to the vicissitudes of the Parliamentary time-table, it has come up for consideration in this House either late at night or on a Friday afternoon. But we are all very glad that now it is about to reach the Statute Book.

We should also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson). It is very largely as a result of his pertinacity and persuasion over the years that the Government were prodded sufficiently to introduce this legislation. We all welcome this change in the law. It has been repugnant to a great many people for a long time that the machinery of the criminal law should be called into operation in order to deal with people who attempt to commit suicide. They need a great deal of help and medical attention as well as perhaps spiritual guidance and advice of other kinds. But no one would seriously suggest that there is a need for the police to intervene.

May I also endorse what the Minister said, that it would be a travesty were it thought that by passing this Bill, removing suicide and attempted suicide from the criminal code, we were in any sense attempting to lessen the sanctity of human life. Suicide will still remain a mortal sin. This Measure should not in any sense be interpreted as an encouragement to people who wish to commit suicide and, of course, by the provisions of Clause 2 it still remains a criminal offence to advise or counsel anybody to commit suicide.

It is a matter of public importance to ensure, after this Bill is passed, that those unfortunate people who either make unsuccessful attempts to commit suicide or who are minded to do so shall have access to the treatment, whether medical or otherwise, that their mental condition calls for. I hope that, as a result of what was said during the Second Reading debate and during the Committee stage proceedings, we may be assured that where these cases come to the notice of hospital authorities or doctors in general practice, steps will be taken as a matter of course to ensure that they are referred either for psychiatric treatment or for guidance from some voluntary society which specialises in this work; so that in future such people may obtain the assistance and guidance which their condition requires. I commend the Bill to the House as the Minister has already done.

1.17 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) for his kind references to the efforts which I have made over, I think, four Parliamentary Sessions to bring about this reform. I freely admit that during that time many far more important voices than mine have been added to the pleas to the Home Secretary to make action in this matter. With this Measure we shall end a law which the Whole House now recognises as having been cruel and uncivilised. We are glad to see it brought to an end.

This subject comes into the category of what one might call social controversial legislation. I think that it was for that reason that this reform was resisted by the Home Secretary in the earlier stages. Matters which come within this category always are met with timidity on the part of Governments of all colours. Governments tend to overestimate the opposition to reform, particularly when the matters involve religious aspects or, indeed, sexual aspects. Despite all the fears expressed by the Home Secretary some years ago, this Bill has passed through all its stages in a period of rather less than three hours. It has not met with any objection from any quarter.

I hope that the Home Secretary will not lose sight of the moral of this. There are other reforms which are equally urgent in the category Which I have described. Possibly the right hon. Gentleman may reflect on the ease with which the Bill has been secured when considering such matters as the Wolfenden Committee's recommendations on homosexuality and the question of therapeutic abortion—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Mr. Robinson

—and conclude that the opposition may not be as great as he might imagine.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am glad that the hon. Member has finished.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without Amendment.