HC Deb 04 April 1963 vol 675 cc768-78

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

In 1961, British law followed the French law of 1790 and at last abolished suicide as a criminal offence. Thus, a dead man dead by suicide was declared at last not to be a criminal. It followed that attempted suicide also ceased to be an offence by English law.

The pathetic case of Guardsman Till, which I am raising tonight, would seem to indicate that the War Office, with an attitude which I regard as extraordinarily callous, apparently decided to ignore the change in the law. This lad, serving in the Coldstream Guards, barely 19 years of age, obviously sick in mind, was gripped, equally as obviously, by a severe depression, with the result that he made a serious attempt on his life.

With a razor blade, he slashed his wrists no fewer than 30 times. He probably swallowed scores of codeine tablets and is known also to have swallowed a quantity of denim buttons. Everyone, except, it seems, the Army authorities who have duties to young serving men which are certainly no less than that which the serving man has to the Army, should recognise that this was the classic suicide attempt and, like all such attempts, a plea for help, a desperate plea.

When the House of Commons abolished suicide as an offence, recognising that the police and the courts might no longer be able consequently to steer some of the 25,000 attempted suicides which take place annually to hospitals for treatment or supervision, the Ministry of Health caused a considerable number of circulars to be sent to regional hospital boards to ensure that the provisions of the Mental Health Act were known and applied so that, in short, succour could be given to those people and be given rapidly.

For the Army, however, it seems that time stood still. No attempt, apparently, was made in the case of this young man to have placed at his disposal the psychiatric attention which the Ministry of Health and all civilised people believe should be given to someone who finds himself or herself in such a melancholy and depressive condition that he or she would do what Guardsman Till clearly did do.

This wretched boy, instead of being given help, was hauled before a court and sentenced to 112 days' detention. If the facts are as reported, and as I am stating them, this conduct is little short of being barbaric. I am informed that no oral evidence was given, that the lad, doubtless in the gloom and apathy which characterise a depressive, pleaded guilty. As I understand the position, apparently he has been sent for punishment and not, as he should have been, for treatment.

I want to ask a few questions. Was there any psychiatric opinion received, or was it merely some medical officer giving written evidence and without the appropriate psychiatric qualifications? Is it correct that the defence statement was that this poor lad had broken his spectacles and was in a state of fear which was so great, that he was so fearful of the "bull" of the regiment, that he was frightened that without his spectacles he would be unable to have sufficient vision to lay out his kit?

If this was said by the defence in mitigation at that hearing, as I understand it was, and it is not accepted that there was this excessive discipline which could bring a young lad to this condition, why is it that no treatment was immediately administered and why is it that he was not given the obvious aid he required? If there was no real reason, no external reason, no objective reason which caused this lad to take such a desperate act, then, clearly, anyone with a modicum of common sense would recognise and acknowledge that he was in need of psychiatric help.

Perhaps no less important is the principle. I understand that this boy, who had inflicted at least 30 wounds upon his wrists, was charged not with attempted suicide—for this is not possible—but with malingering. Presumably he must have been charged under Section 42 of the Army Act, which says that Any person subject to military law who … injures himself with intent thereby to render himself unfit for service … shall be guilty of malingering and shall, on conviction by court-martial, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years … Quite clearly, anybody who makes an attempt upon his life must be rendering himself unfit for service; he is seeking to render himself unfit for life.

If the Army is not seeking, through the medium of this Section, to sidestep the express wish of Parliament, I should like to know what is being done to distinguish genuine cases of malingering—in which some act is performed of the kind we know to have occurred in cases of mutilation—from cases of attempted suicide. I should have thought that on the facts as reported, if a boy of 19, for no apparent rational reason—if there was no intimidation caused by excessive discipline—decides to take scores of codeine tablets, slash himself in the way that I have described, and swallow denim buttons, it was abundantly clear that he was making an attempt upon his life.

If, on each occasion that this occurs in the Army, there is to be a distinction between what happens inside the Army and what happens outside, a very serious situation will exist. In this country there are 25,000 attempted suicides annually, and I do not doubt that by the simple fact that that number is so large there must perforce, unfortunately, be some people who, within the Army, will make similar bids to commit suicide. I hope that I may have some satisfaction in being told that it is clearly understood by the Army authorities that Parliament has willed that attempted suicide is no longer to be regarded as triable as an offence. Surely there should be no less humanity inside the Army than there is outside it.

I am no less concerned than any other hon. Member in seeing to it that the image which the Army presents is one that is informed with passion and humanity. As a result of recent events the Army has received a somewhat unfortunate image in this respect. We have heard of men complaining bitterly, with or without justification, about the treatment that they are receiving inside the Army. It will be a most unfortunate day if the opinion is spread abroad that if someone is in such a wretched condition as this young guardsman clearly was, the treatment that will be meted out to him is 112 days' detention or two years' imprisonment. It will be a sorry day if that image of the Army is presented to the nation and the world.

I hope that I may be told what is happening to this lad at this moment, and whether he is receiving psychiatric attention. I hope, equally, that I shall hear that some steps are being taken to ensure that cases of attempted suicide in the Army are clearly distinguished from cases of genuine malingering.

10.9 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State and Financial Secretary for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

I could not normally congratulate the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) upon having raised this case because, as I shall seek to show presently, I think that he has taken the wrong view of it. But perhaps I may congratulate him upon having had the opportunity to raise a matter on the Adjournment this week and express my condolences with him for not being able to speak yesterday.

The case which he has been trying to make out is that this was a young soldier with a grave psychiatric disturbance—so grave that he made attempts to commit suicide, and, with great hardness of heart, the Army charged him with malingering, court-martialled him, and finally punished him. This is a travesty of what actually did happen, as I hope to show the hon. Gentleman. I cannot begin to accept the construction which he put on the series of events on which he touched.

Before I come to that, perhaps I may say a word about the general legal position with regard to the law on suicide and its implications for those who are subject to military law. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that suicide or attempted suicide is no longer a civil offence, and the hon. Gentleman had something to do with that state of affairs. But it is not a military offence either, and no disciplinary action can be taken against a person subject to military law for committing suicide—obviously not—or even for attempting to commit suicide. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asked. That is the position today.

It sometimes happens that a soldier tries to do himself some injury in the sense that he may deliberately try to make himself unfit for duty. Anyone subject to military law who injures himself with intent to avoid service is liable to be charged with the offence of malingering, under Section 42 of the Army Act, 1955, which was correctly quoted by the hon. Gentleman. The fact that this is so is in no sense side-stepping the wishes of Parliament or the law in respect of genuine suicides. It is recognising a state of affairs which may come up in the Armed Services and which, in the interests of discipline, clearly cannot be allowed to exist.

There must be a clear difference between a suicide attempt and what amounts to malingering. It is equally clear that in the Armed Forces we cannot have a state of affairs where people can deliberately shirk their duty by doing harm to themselves. The hon. Gentleman asked how is this distinction valid and how does it operate in practice. I have had figures looked up from which it appears that at present in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, which is where psychiatric cases are treated, out of 140 cases in the first two months of this year 13 had an element of suicide about them. While this is not a precise figure for the Army as a whole, the number of cases with a suicide aspect may be about 100 in the course of the year, that is, attempted suicide. I emphasise that all these are cases where on medical grounds no action of a disciplinary character is taken; they find themselves subject to treatment in Netley or elsewhere.

Against these figures, since December, 1959, in a period of nearly four years, I have been unable to unearth more than nine cases where attempts by the soldier to harm himself were judged to be malingering and where disciplinary action was taken. Typical instances include wrist slashing, as in this case; a soldier drinking a tin of Brasso and that kind of thing. We are all glad to know that the number of these cases in relation to the numbers in the Army is not very large. But none the less I have indicated a fairly wide field and within this category the practical distinction which the hon. Gentleman asked about has been made very often, and in such a way as not to give any ground for complaint.

I come, after these generalities, to the case of Guardsman Till. On 21st November, Till complained of a headache. He was given some Codeine tablets and told to go sick. The next morning, when he did so, it transpired that he had taken all the tablets—30 of them, and not "scores" as the hon. Gentleman suggested. He told the medical officer that he did so with a view to putting an end to his life. I am being completely frank with the hon. Gentleman and giving him all the facts, and he will see that at various times Guardsman Till did give various reasons for doing what he did do. The medical officer arranged for psychiatric advice to be taken. In the meantime, on 27th November, Guardsman Till again went to the medical sergeant in his unit. He said that he had cut his wrists, and again, that it was because he was fed up and wanted to do himself in.

Mr. Abse

When was the first incident?

Mr. Ramsden

On 21st-22nd November.

The day after the wrist-slashing on 27th November, he was again seen by the medical officer. The cuts, which were on the outside of his wrists, were superficial and required no dressing, let alone stitches. Guardsman Till again said that it was a suicide attempt. The medical officer had him put in custody where he could be kept under supervision.

The hon. Member asked me whether a qualified psychiatric opinion was taken. I come now to the question of the psychiatric advice which we took and this, as the hon. Member indicated, is crucial to the whole question. But I am in a difficulty because, for reasons which he will appreciate. I cannot quote this advice. By general agreement advice of this nature is confidential. I therefore cannot quote it.

I hope that the hon. Member will accept from me that, having studied everything which is relevant to this case in great detail and after a careful study of all the facts—I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands what I am saying—my conclusion is that Guardsman Till was an immature personality, that he regretted his original decision to join the Army, that he had no intention of trying to soldier properly, and that he meant to go on making a deliberate nuisance of himself in order to work his discharge. One thing which has coin out of this is that he had a job lined up to go to after his discharge, which he hoped to get, had been obtained. This in itself discounts the idea of the suicide attempts being very genuinely conceived.

The evidence is that the so-called suicide attempts were no more than rather childish exhibitionist displays and that there were no medical grounds for not taking disciplinary action. On the evidence which I have seen, including technically qualified evidence, I cannot accept that this is what the hon. Member called a classic suicide attempt, and I cannot accept that there were grave emotional disturbances in the case of this young man. Put into plain words, Guardsman Till was not an attempted suicide but what we call in the Army a malingerer. He was remanded on custody by his commanding officer and disciplinary proceedings were started and subsequently carried through.

Mr. Abse

Will the hon. Member be kind enough to deal with the third incident in which I understand this boy was swallowing denim buttons? In his reply will he bear in mind that in recent surveys, for example in Wales, of 8,000 suicides, it was found that four out of five had affected this type of suicide attempt? They had been to doctors. There were people who subsequently, unfortunately, committed suicide.

Mr. Ramsden

I have not yet finished with the history of this case. I will come to the two incidents of swallowing buttons and the outcome, when I reach it, will reassure the hon. Member.

I said that disciplinary proceedings had been started. While he was in the guardroom, Guardsman Till again cut his wrists, this time on the inside. Most of the wounds were scratches, five of them described as deep enough to have damaged superficial blood vessels, but none was deep enough to need stitches. He had also swallowed some button rings. The only evidence which came out of this incident was that when the N.C.O. took him to be X-rayed after the incident of the button rings, he said to the N.C.O. accompanying him that he had done this in order to get out of the Army.

Eventually the soldier was sent to the Military Corrective Training Centre at Colchester. He arrived there on 13th February, after conviction on 14th January. The hon. Member said that Guardsman Till was not given the help that he should have been given. I commend to the hon. Member—I say this seriously—the Military Corrective Training Centre at Colchester, because it is an extremely fine institution in every way. I will not attempt to describe it. Time would not suffice. I should like the hon. Gentleman, and indeed any other hon. Members interested in this field, to go and see it some time, because an excellent job is done there. They have an impressively high rate of success in making good soldiers out of young men who have got off to a shaky start in the Army and found difficulty in adjusting themselves to Army life. Incidentally, while Guardsman Till was there he happened to be near his family home. His family were able to visit him while he was there. I understand that no complaint has been made from that direction about his treatment, how he was looked after, and how be was helped.

I have had a full account of Guardman Till's progress during the time he was at Colchester. It is significant that this confirms in every respect the view of him which the authorities of his unit had already taken. I am afraid he did not come along very well with his subsequent training at Colchester. In spite of professing on more than one occasion an intention to do better and get down to Army life, he did not find himself coping with life any better and when he was had up for not getting on parade he again cut his wrists with a razor blade. Again, what he did produced no more than slight scratches on the outside of his wrist.

Mr. Abse

Was this the fourth or the fifth time?

Mr. Ramsden

This was the third time. The psychiatric advice which was taken did not differ from that which had been already received. The hon. Gentleman has asked me how many times. He is using a slightly emotive term in the sense of wrist slashing. These were very slight scratches, none of them severe enough to require a stitch to be inserted. They were done, in our view, and in the view of qualified advisers, in an attempt to attract attention and in pursuit of the individual's intention to call attention to himself and make a nuisance of himself. There was also another incident when Till swallowed some more buttons.

The Commandant at Colchester has been to a great deal of personal trouble with Guardsman Till, as indeed it is his duty to do and as I know he does with all his cases. But I am afraid he concludes that the soldier has not sufficient determination or stability to make a satisfactory career in the Army. His intentions are good, but when he is faced with having to get down to make a serious effort he tends to lose control of himself, and in these circumstances he does these rather foolish things.

He was released yesterday from Colchester at the expiration of his sentence, but he went out with an unsatisfactory conduct assessment, and he has now been discharged—that is, today—under Queen's Regulations, on the ground that his retention is no longer desirable in the interests of the Service, because of these frequent petty breaches of discipline. I hope that I have convinced the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Abse

The hon. Gentleman has not convinced me.

Mr. Ramsden

—that the Army has handled this case correctly. I have drawn the distinction which I think must be made between a genuine suicide attempt, in respect of which anybody under military discipline is in no different position from any other member of the community, and a case of malingering, which is a crime by no means unknown throughout the annals of the Service, though not, I am glad to say, very common, and a crime which has to be seriously treated and properly dealt with if proper conditions of military discipline are to be preserved. Guardsman Till was not—this was confirmed by all the evidence I have seen, professional and otherwise—a would-be suicide. He was trying to work his way out of the Army by taking refuge in doing the things he did.

Such conduct on the part of any one under military discipline cannot be overlooked in the interests of discipline. The punishment which followed, I submit, was no less than could have been expected. It was combined, as punishment of this kind rightly is for a young soldier, with a chance for him to make good. I very much regret that it did not work, that the outcome was not what we would have wished and that Guardsman Till has not turned into a satisfactory soldier.

None the less, I believe that he was fairly and correctly treated and that he was given every chance by the Army authorities to make good. I am only sorry that he was not able to avail himself of it.

Mr. Abse

With the leave of the House, may I suggest that if, in the first instance, this boy had been treated—from what would appear to me from the clinical history we have been given—as a boy in very deep and serious difficulties, the situation might have been different? Instead, as has clearly been proved, through a mistake on the part of the Army, they treated him as a malingerer should be treated, by punishment. Had they treated him differently we may have had a healthier individual who could have been either integrated into the Army or into civilian life.

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree that there has been an incorrect diagnosis from the start and that it was assumed by whoever were the advisers that punishment could put it right. That punishment lamentably failed, precisely because the boy has not received from the word "go" the psychiatric help and attention which I am sure in civil life—or, earlier, in the courts in similar circumstances—he would inevitably have received. It is not a very pretty picture; the idea of a boy of this kind being punished. It has clearly been proven that the punishment has been a complete and absolute failure from the point of view of the Army and the boy.

Mr. Ramsden

With the leave of the House, I hope that the hon. Member will read carefully what I have said. He suggests that the treatment was inadequate. I was at great pains to say that there was no grave emotional disturbance diagnosed and that therefore—in the sense meant by the hon. Member—there was nothing to treat. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Pontypool takes his view and I take mine. I would remind him that my view is based on the best advice available to me and I regret that, over this, we must disagree.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.