HC Deb 24 February 1986 vol 92 cc787-92

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

11.3 pm

Mr. Vivian Bendall (Ilford, North)

This matter is worrying and causing considerable problems for some of my constituents. It concerns Dennis Foskett, who last November was committed for trial at the Old Bailey, having committed a double murder in May 1985.

In many respects this is a tragic case, as the two people killed were the man's doctor and the man's wife, who tried to intervene. The real and urgent problem that is causing my constituents and myself concern is that the court recommended that Mr. Foskett be put in an open hospital — Goodmayes hospital — which is an open mental hospital in my constituency. Obviously my constituents are concerned that this person, having committed a double murder, should be in a hospital which is generally open. It means that he has fairly easy access to the grounds of the hospital and to areas outside the grounds.

I accept that much of the problem relates to the Mental Health Act 1983, but I feel, as do many of my constituents, that a period of six months between May 1985 and November 1985, when he came to trial, is rather a short time in which to assess an individual who has committed two horrific crimes, one against his doctor and the other against his wife. Therefore, I understand the concern of my constituents. I have many letters written by my constituents concerning this matter.

One of the other concerns is that the grounds of the hospital and the gates to the grounds are open, as are the buildings of the hospital. Therefore, anybody can walk freely from the hospital building or the grounds in virtually any part of the day or night. It means that there is an element of risk to children at an adjacent primary school. Can anyone with any certainty and with any guarantee say sincerely, even with the best professional experience and advice available, that an individual who has committed such crimes may not on another occasion take it upon himself to find a way out of the mental institution, which is completely open, and commit a further crime? That is the essence of the problem which faces my constituents. I have some sympathy with them.

Others have also expressed concern about the placing of Mr. Foskett in this mental hospital. The Confederation of Health Service employees has lodged complaints with the local hospital management committee. I have also received verbal complaints from members of staff at the hospital.

I have been in correspondence with the Department of Health and Social Security and the Home Office. I am a little perturbed at the time that it has taken to receive certain answers. I originally wrote to the DHSS on 30 December and received an acknowledgement on 9 January. I then heard nothing from the DHSS or the Home Office, the DHSS having informed me that the matter was the responsibility of the Home Office. I wrote to the Home Office again on 20 January, and did not receive a reply until 5 February. This matter has caused a great deal of local concern. It has been well reported in local newspapers and on Essex Radio. There has been much local concern.

I shall give an example to the House of how easy it is to gain access to Goodmayes hospital. A reporter of a national Sunday newspaper was able to go to Goodmayes hospital quite openly. He went to the reception desk and asked which ward Dennis Foskett was in. He was directed to the ward concerned, and when he arrived at the ward he asked a doctor or nurse where Mr. Foskett was. He was pointed out to him at the end of the ward. The reporter then took a photograph and left the building. I do not condone such an attitude or such irresponsibility by a national newspaper, but it emphasises how easy it is to enter some of these mental hospitals and, therefore, how easy it would be for a patient to get out of such a hospital.

I understand the problems of my hon. Friend the Minister with regard to the 1983 Act, but I challenge that Act. I do not doubt that sooner or later someone will walk out of a free hospital and commit another such offence. Society generally wants to avoid that, and it is right that society is concerned about this issue.

I firmly believe that a period of six months is not long enough to assess someone who has committed such a crime. That person should be kept in an establishment for rather longer, so that a fuller assessment can be made. Perhaps, after a period of time, if the person is seen to be of stable nature, it might be appropriate to consider moving him to a place with more freedom.

I understand the concern felt by my constituents. I thank the House for the opportunity to bring the matter before it tonight. I hope that my hon. Friend will give some assurance that such cases in open hospitals will be closely monitored, and also that he receives regular reports from the local hospital management committee or other responsible bodies about the progress of individuals put into those institutions for the sort of offence committed by Mr. Foskett.

11.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Bendall) has spoken eloquently of his constituents' anxieties in this matter. Let me say at once that I think it perfectly understandable that this matter should have given rise to genuine concern. I want to set out the facts of the case as I understand them, and hope that there will be some reassurance for my hon. Friend.

Prior to the tragic events of 17 May 1985, Dennis Foskett had lived peacefully with his wife for more than 20 years. Statements before the court describe him and his wife as a devoted couple. He had no convictions but did have a history of depression which started after a bout of influenza in 1970. The depression recurred periodically over the intervening years, and his most recent illness began in April 1985, following another attack of influenza. It was so severe that he was forced to give up work because he suffered from anxiety to such an extent that he spontaneously broke down in tears.

A few days before the tragedy he consulted his family doctor, Dr. Glickman. She prescribed some drugs, which he thought made him worse, and on Friday 17 May Mrs. Foskett asked Dr. Glickman to visit her husband at home because his condition had deteriorated. Dr. Glickman agreed to visit him on her way home after she finished surgery.

At 7.12 pm the same evening neighbours saw Mr. Foskett run out of his front door shouting for help. He had a hammer in his hand which he put on a dustbin lid and he kept repeating that he had killed his wife. The police and an ambulance were called and several passers by went to his assistance. He returned to the house to fetch a glass of water and some tablets which he immediately took. Mrs. Foskett was found to be already dead and Dr. Glickman died shortly afterwards in hospital, the cause of death in both cases being a fractured skull. Mr. Foskett was also taken to hospital for a stomach washout. He made a second suicide attempt three days later, which was also unsuccessful.

When Mr. Foskett appeared at the Central Criminal Court on 22 November 1985—six months later—he was convicted of two offences of manslaughter, both by reason of diminished responsibility. The court had before it three medical reports—one from Dr. Paul Bowden in his capacity as consultant forensic psychiatrist to Her Majesty's prison, Brixton, where Mr. Foskett had been held on remand, one from Dr. Patrick Galloway, consultant forensic psychiatrist at St. George's hospital and one from Dr. Hirst, consultant psychiatrist at Goodmayes hospital. All three doctors agreed that Mr. Foskett was suffering from a severe depressive illness at the time of the offence and that he continued to need treatment for his depression. However, they also agreed that in the six months since his offence, during which time he had received appropriate treatment for his condition, there had been a marked improvement in his mental state. In their view, so long as Mr. Foskett continued to receive the appropriate treatment for his illness, he was unlikely to pose a significant danger to other people and did not require conditions of security. It was their unanimous recommendation that treatment could safety be administered at Goodmayes hospital.

The court accepted the psychiatrists' recommendations, making a hospital order under section 37 of the Mental Health Act 1983 placing Mr. Foskett in Goodmayes hospital, together with a restriction order under section 41 of the Act. The latter order ensures that Mr. Foskett cannot be set at liberty without the consent of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or a decision by a mental health review tribunal.

Mr. Bendall

Will my hon. Friend say where Mr. Foskett received his treatment while he was in custody before trial?

Mr. Mellor

He was treated in Brixton prison while on remand. All that followed flowed from the judge's order, which directed that Mr. Foskett be placed at a specific hospital. It was not a special hospital order that provided for any form of security. The evidence before the judge was that Mr. Foskett did not require any security. I stress that, because many of the powers that might have flowed from a special hospital order do not arise in this case.

As my hon. Friend realises, I cannot comment on the court's decision. it is fundamental that the Government do not seek to interfere in the decisions of the judiciary or to question the exercise of its discretion. Parliament provides the courts with powers to deal appropriately with all types of offender, but it is for the court to decide in an individual case what the appropriate sentence should be. I can say, however, that judges at the Central Criminal Court are very experienced in dealing with cases like this one.

It is, of course, essential that courts should have full information on which to base their decisions, and that was so in this case. The court had the three reports from psychiatrists, which I have mentioned, which were able to take account of the period Mr. Foskett had spent on remand, not just the few horrifying moments in which the dreadful killings took place. It also had a full description of the facilities and accommodation available at Goodmayes hospital, so that it knew precisely in what circumstances Mr. Foskett would be held and how he would be treated. If the court had been dissatisfied or worried, it could have called for further reports or made a different disposal, but it did not do so. I am sure the court thought very carefully about these matters and took the decision which seemed proper on the evidence before it.

It is normal practice for my Department, when receiving a court order, to call for copies of any medical reports which may have been made and to confirm that the placement is an appropriate one. If there seems to be any reason to think that the placement is inappropriate—for example, if we are not sure that it is sufficiently secure —we consult the responsible medical officer, but —I stress this point, as it is relevant to my hon. Friend's anxiety—the Home Secretary has no power in such circumstances to direct that a particular patient should be transferred. Accordingly, if the patient's responsible medical officer And the hospital managers are satisfied that the placement is appropriate, there is no action which the Home Secretary—or the Secretary of State for Social Services—can take to effect that patient's transfer to a different hospital. That is the rub of my hon. Friend's anxiety.

My hon. Friend has been punctilious in carrying out his obligations on behalf of his constituents, and he wrote a letter expressing his worry. That letter reached the Home Office before Goodmayes had sent details of Mr. Foskett's reception. I immediately arranged for Dr. Knapman, Mr. Foskett's responsible medical officer, to be consulted urgently on the suitability of Mr. Foskett's placement at Goodmayes hospital. My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security similarly arranged for my hon. Friend's concern to be drawn to the attention of the health authority.

I am sorry that as a result of those steps being taken there was a longer delay in replying to my hon. Friend's letter than I should have wished. I hope he understands that inquiries needed to be made. I regret that that time elapsed. I sought to explain the position in my letter of 5 February, and further on 17 February, when I was able to tell my hon. Friend that Dr. Knapman has confirmed that in his opinion Mr. Foskett remains free of any symptoms of mental disorder and poses no risk of any sort to anyone at present and that there is no case for transferring him from Goodmayes hospital. That being the responsible medical officer's view, there is nothing that I can do about the matter. It is for the responsible medical officer to make his decision.

That is the case at the moment, but I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance which he seeks, which is that I shall ensure that Mr. Foskett's case is kept under close scrutiny, and if there is any evidence of any deterioration in his mental state or general behaviour I can assure my hon. Friend that I shall not hesitate to take up with the responsible medical officer once again the question of Mr. Foskett's placement at Goodmayes hospital.

Although, as I have explained, the Home Secretary has no power to order the transfer of a restricted patient from one hospital to another against the advice of the responsible medical officer, such a patient cannot be given permission to leave the hospital, even for a short period, without my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's consent. I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend's consent would not be given unless he was satisfied that the patient could re-enter the community without danger to the public. I very much hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents will have been reassured by what I have been able to tell him this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Eleven o' clock.