HL Deb 29 April 1828 vol 19 cc196-9
The Earl of Malmesbury

rose to move the second reading of the bill for the Regulation of County Lunatic Asylums. He said, that the bill was a consolidation of seven different acts of parliament, and contained very few additional enactments. The object of it was to give to counties the power of establishing asylums, for a purpose which every man must have at heart; namely, that of placing in them such unhappy persons of the lower classes as, being deprived of reason, were reduced to the lowest extreme of poverty and distress. When their lordships reflected on the subject, they would be convinced that a greater evil could not befall an artisan, employed in endeavours to support his family, than the calamity of being deprived of reason, by which all his exertions would be paralyzed, and his wife and children forced to become inmates of that very house, in one corner of which the object of their affections was incarcerated. It was probable that many of their lordships, in their capacities as magistrates, had witnessed such a scene. The object of the bill was to give the means not only of maintaining comfortably and decently such unhappy individuals, but also of adopting a curatory process to restore them to reason, and thereby to enable them again to support their families, who had been driven to indigence. The bill enabled magistrates to increase the allowances given by parishes to private houses, to almost an unlimited extent. One of the greatest evils of the system which had hitherto prevailed was, that a parish, when it found itself burthened with a pauper lunatic, always sought for an asylum where the lunatic could be kept the cheapest. Of course, there was competition among lunatic asylum-keepers, as there was in every thing; and the owners of those asylums found themselves compelled to receive pauper lunatics at an allowance not exceeding 9s. per week. It was therefore obvious, that with such an allowance, nothing more than lodging and food could be given to a man; and as to establishing any curatory process, it was entirely out of the question. It consequently happened, that individuals sent to those asylums, who might have recovered had medical treatment been given to them, remained in them beyond the time when recovery might be hoped for, and became incurable lunatics. That evil would be got rid of by the present bill; for its object was to provide asylums, not only for the reception, but for the cure of insane persons. By this bill overseers of the poor were bound to give returns of all lunatics found within their respective parishes, immediately on their discovery, and the magistrates had the power of sending them instantly to an asylum. It was his intention to move, that this bill, and another of a more general nature, be referred to a committee up stairs; as he thought that that was the only way that so complicated a subject could be determined.

The bill was read a second time, and ordered to be referred to a committee. After which,

The Earl of Malmesbury moved the second reading of another bill, of a more general principle than that which had just been read, entitled "An act to regulate the Care and Treatment of Insane Persons." This bill repealed, apparently, three acts of parliament, but, in fact, only one; namely, the 14th Geo. 3rd. It was his firm conviction that the evidence adduced before the committee of the other House, fully justified the enactments of the present bill. By that evidence, their lordships would find that transactions, which fully justified them in making new enactments, had taken place in one of the lunatic asylums tinder the care of Mr. Warburton, which contained five hundred persons, forming from a fourth to a fifth of the lunatic paupers in Middlesex and certain districts. The transactions to which he alluded were made known by the confession of the owner of the asylum, whose statements were corroborated by other evidence, and they proved, that those asylums were too much crowded; that the medical assistance was wholly inadequate; and, that practices the most cruel and unjustifiable had taken place therein. By the assent of all persons interested in the subject, additional powers ought to be given to those who licensed lunatic asylums. At present the power of licensing was vested in the Royal College of Physicians. He had no desire to speak of that body in any other terms but those of respect; but if their lordships looked to the law as it stood, they would find that the college had responsibility without power. As the law now stood any individual who went to the Royal College and asked for a licence, could not well be refused; but a more extraordinary circumstance was, that if, in the course of their visits, the commissioners found much that was reprehensible in the establishment of any individual, they could not revoke his licence. That was a perfect anomaly. The law enacted that the visitor, after taking notes, should inscribe them on a tablet, and hang them up in the chamber in which the College of Phy- sicians met, in order to give publicity to their remarks. But not many persons had access to that chamber, and therefore publicity, for any useful effect, was not given. The law, in fact, was found to be so ineffectual, that the College of Physicians had neglected to comply with the enactment, and had not, for many years, placed any tablet in their chamber. It was proposed, by the bill, to take all the power of licensing and visiting lunatic asylums from the College of Physicians, and to invest it in fifteen commissioners, to be appointed by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, five of whom must be medical men. The commissioners would have the power not only of refusing, but also of revoking a licence. By the present law, any person—a druggist or druggist's apprentice—could sign a certificate consigning an individual to one of those asylums. The present bill confined the power of signing certificates to physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries.

Lord Calthorpe

said, he felt great satisfaction at the measure proposed by the noble earl, as he had been an eye-witness of the shocking and revolting abuses alluded to by that noble lord, and against the future commission of which he hoped the present bill would afford a full security.

The Marquis of Salisbury

said, he hoped the House would limit the power of magistrates as to confining lunatics. The effects of confinement in some cases were most injurious; and the suffering which unhappy beings underwent, in their lucid intervals, in consequence of such confinement, were calculated to destroy all chance of recovery.

The bill was read a second time.