HL Deb 05 December 1912 vol 13 cc61-8

LORD RIBBLESDALE rose to ask whether His Majesty's Government have any intention of reconsidering their announced decision not to proceed this session with the Mental Deficiency Bill. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I believe that every one here to-night, quite irrespective of the side of the House on which he sits, will have seen with regret the announcement that the Government have found themselves obliged to drop the Mental Deficiency Bill; and I think we shall all deplore the fact that a measure of the scope and intention of this Bill and of an agreed social value to the community should have been sacrificed to the peculiar and complicated—shall we say?—Party necessities of His Majesty's Government. In saying that. I make the Government a present of going on with their Home Rule Bill. I think they were bound to do that. But I confess that when I hear that. a Bill of this kind, as I say of an agreed social value, is to be set on one side because of the Welsh Disestablishment Bill and the Franchise Bill, I do not feel very comfortable about the state of affairs in this country. Whatever we may say about the Welsh Bill, the disestablishment part of it may have a great spiritual future value for Wales, upon which I should be the last person to hazard an opinion, but I do not suppose any one would pretend that under disendowment anybody would be very much happier, or that there would be any great accession of social prestige or social comfort to Wales or anywhere else because you passed that -part of the measure. What is quite certain is that under the disendowment part of the Bill a few needy and hardworking clergymen will be made very much poorer. As to the Franchise Bill, I confess that I view it as not an altogether unmixed benefit if the extended franchise which the Government propose is to be shared by a very large and increasing number of mentally deficient persons.

As against the Government's enforced liabilities I submit that the passage of the Mental Deficiency Bill into law is a matter of great concern to large numbers of authoritative people who are very well able to express and have very ably expressed themselves about it. But it is also a matter of great moment to an immense number of helpless people whose sad circumstances make them and their belongings peculiarly dependent on others to state and to further their case. I see that a few (lays ago Mr. Lloyd George made some speeches in Scot land, and when he got to Aberdeen lie naturally had a very fine audience, and he equally naturally had a great deal to say. Towards the end of his observations, some of which were not, perhaps, quite conciliatory to people like ourselves—he was, however, in a good-natured mood generally—he had a great deal to say on the duty of helping those less gifted in health, in strength, and in power than ourselves; and in the execution of this task Mr. Lloyd George discovered the Divine purpose. Indeed, he claims pretty often, not only to discover, but to interpret the Divine purpose. Unluckily as it seems the Divine purpose and the closure, the guillotine time-table, and "kangaroos" did not get on well together, and the result is that this Bill, which I should have thought was just the sort of Bill Mr. Lloyd George himself would be much concerned about from what he said, has had to go.

I spoke just now of the concern and anxiety felt by high authorities about this particular Bill. This has been attested in many ways. There have been many letters in the newspapers. We had one from the Bishop of Birmingham in The Times, a Times leader on November 21, another letter on the 22nd, a letter from Sir Thomas Acland on the 23rd, and on the 27th a very important letter appeared in The Times with a great many signatures, including Archbishops and other people who make the care of society their special concern and who are therefore very competent to write that kind of letter, in which they urged the Government to reconsider the course they were taking. I saw that all that the Westminster Gazette had to say about this mass of informed information, which took shape, as it were, in the letter in The Times on November 27, was this— We cannot quite understand the distress and dismay of the people who signed this letter. The Westminster Gazette was good enough to concede that they were influential people, but went on to say there was no special urgency, and so on. The Daily News, which I believe is to some extent the organ of His Majesty's Government, took the same sort of line and put in a strong plea for a well-thought-out plan. It comes very well, I think, from the Daily News, in view of the kind of measures that have been thrown at the head of Parliament by His Majesty's Government, that they can only move at all if they have a well-thought-out plan. They have not been very particular about that in the past.

As neither the Westminster Gazette nor the other Liberal newspapers seem able to understand that there should be any special urgency for this Bill, I must try and enlighten them. I need not remind the House that the case for the Mental Deficiency Bill rests on the Report of the Royal Commission on the Feeble Minded. At Paragraph 17 of that Report it is estimated that in England and Wales there are 149,628 persons who are mentally defective—that is, mentally defective but not certified lunatics. Of these, 66,500 are in need of care in their own interests or for the welfare of society or for public safety, and of this latter class 9,500 are in London. I will not take your Lordships through the various classifications, but there is one class to which the Education Committee of the London County Council attach great importance—that is, the children discharged from the schools under the Defective and Epileptic Children's Act, 1899. These children the Education Committee of the London County Council urge should not be thrown, as they are at present., upon the world. Unfortunately persons who are mentally defective do not get any better. They remain mentally defective, and when thrown on the world with nobody in particular to take charge or care of them, not only are these unfortunate people of no use to anybody else but they run very great danger of being exploited in all kinds of ways by other people. I think that is one of the problems which, although the Westminster Gazette thinks that no one is filled with dismay or concern about these poor people, has filled a great many of those who have been interesting themselves in this Bill with very grave regret that the Government have not been able to go on with the measure.

The only other paragraph in the Report of the Royal Commission with which I will trouble your Lordships is Paragraph 9, which deals with the seriousness of the problem which the Bill is to solve, and I think you ought to know about this because this will enable you to form some sort of opinion of how ill it comes from the Government to drop this Bill. This particular paragraph was quoted almost in extenso on June 10 by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons. The Bill came into the House of Commons, I think, on May 16; the Second Reading was taken on June 10, and on July 19 the Under Secretary for the Home Department, at the conclusion of the Second Reading debate, declared that the Bill had been waited for by the country for many years past, and he added several other very proper observations of the same kind. Then the Bill went into Standing Committee of the House of Commons, and the Home Secretary gave pledges on more than one occasion to the Standing Committee, without any qualification, that the Bill should be carried through all its stages in the present session. This unfortunate Minister does not appear to have foreseen the events which, I suppose, are responsible for having led to the Bill being dropped owing to the time-table having been upset. I dare say I shall be told that that is the reason and that it cannot be helped. Well, possibly it cannot. But if that be so, I confess I think it is greatly clue to the infelicities of noble Lords below me and their friends in their Constitution-making or rather Constitution-remaking. Speaking generally as a spectator and a bystander, it seems to me that you have got the whole Parliamentary machine into such a condition of over pressure and jar that what has happened to this unfortunate Bill is not likely to prove an isolated instance, and I believe it is perfectly possible at any time that agreed social legislation in the true sense of the word "social" may have to be dropped under the rigid and standardised machinery which the Parliament Act has brought into operation and activity. I have only now to put my Question to His Majesty's Government, whether they will not see their way even now to reconsider their decision to drop a Bill which the country at large outside Party politics is anxious to see proceeded with.


My Lords, I do not think there is any difference of opinion between His Majesty's Government and the noble Lord who has asked this Question as regards the merits of the Bill or the necessity for it; but I at once take issue with the noble Lord when he compares the merits of the Mental Deficiency Bill, not with the Home Rule Bill because he admits that it is inferior to the Home Rule Bill, but with the Welsh Disestablishment Bill and the Franchise Bill. I would remind the noble Lord that both of the last-named Bills have been long overdue, and have been discussed at great length for many years. Reform of the franchise and registration has been a question which has been constantly before the house of Commons and the country during the last twenty years, and I take issue at once with the noble Lord when he says that these two Bills are inferior to and could be put behind the Mental Deficiency Bill.

Then I noticed that the noble Lord stated that the Mental Deficiency Bill is being sacrificed to Party necessities. It is not being sacrificed to Party necessities, but to House of Commons necessities. Those who have sat in another place know that constantly when Bills that have the approval of both sides of the House and apparently are not controversial in any sense at all begin to be examined in detail they are very often found to be most controversial and take up greater time than a Party Bill would. The mere fact of their being non-Party Bills induces the Government of the day to give greater latitude and allow longer time for debate in the hope that they may go through as agreed Bills. This has been simply the old story over again. This Bill, as the noble Lord truly said a Bill that is much wanted and on which there was general agreement, came before the House of Commons on June 10 in an evening sitting, when one might have t bought it could have been given a Second Reading and referred to Standing Committee. But nothing of the kind. At once there developed, I will not call it obstruction, but that desire to talk on the Bill which has characterised it during the whole of its course through the House of Commons. The consequence was that the Second Reading had to be put off from June 10, after the evening's debate, until July 19. Noble Lords will at once see that the mere fact of having to postpone it till July 19 made it impossible for the Bill to be considered in Standing Committee before the autumn sittings.

What happened on July 19? The Bill was given a Second Reading by 242 votes to 19. It is true that it was supported by Mr. Lyttelton, speaking on that occasion on behalf of the official Opposition, but the right hon. gentleman entered a caveat. He said the Bill must be drastically amended. Then, again, Sir Frederick Banbury, who was a very strong critic of the Bill, spoke on July 19 of the Bill containing sixty-eight clauses, and he defied any one who had read it for four or five days to thoroughly appreciate what was contained in the Bill. That was the opinion of Sir Frederick Banbury, who certainly on this matter is a great expert in another place; and he stated, in the same way as Mr. Lyttelton, that the Bill was one of very great complexity indeed. Although it passed with only nineteen Members voting against it, yet those nineteen gentlemen are very active Members of the House of Commons and are drawn from both sides, including such men as Sir Frederick Banbury and Mr. Booth, who have opposed the Bill at all its stages. This is a Bill of thirty-four pages and sixty-eight clauses. When it got into Standing Committee in the autumn sittings there was a shower of Amendments. So much so that in sixteen sittings only seven clauses were passed and when the Bill was reported this week to the House, with a special report that the Committee were unable to deal with the whole of the Bill, at that very moment on the Order Paper there were actually thirty pages of Amendments to the Bill. I think that will show the noble Lord that this is not a non-contentious Bill or a Bill that the House of Commons could have hoped to pass through Committee before Christmas except with the greatest difficulty, and it could only have been done by sacrificing other measures to which the Government are more particularly pledged.

But as regards the future of the Mental Deficiency Bill, I think your Lordships are aware that the Prime Minister has stated that he hopes to reintroduce the Bill early next session, embodying as a basis the Amendments made in the Standing Committee. Therefore it is not certain that the time which has been spent upon the Bill is going to be lost, because there will be the advantage of the discussion which has taken place on these seven important clauses, and it is hoped that if there is no obstruction these clauses will go very rapidly through the Standing Committee next session. I can assure the noble Lord that His Majesty's Government are fully conscious of the importance of this Bill, and had time permitted they would have liked to see it placed on the Statute-book this year; but, though they had the best intentions in the matter, in the circumstances of the case it was impossible for them to proceed with the Bill.


My Lords, the House must have heard with regret the confirmation of the report that this important Bill is not to be further proceeded with this session. Its fate is. I venture to think, an object lesson. Its abandonment is the inevitable result of an attempt to force through Parliament in a single session three great measures of dimensions which would have occupied the greater part of the time of an ordinary session in ordinary circumstances. It must result from that that legislation of the ordinary useful type has to he side-tracked. The noble Lord who spoke for the Government drew what seemed to me rather a fine distinction between what he called Party necessities and House of Commons necessities. The House of Commons necessities are Party necessities. You bring in three measures intended to placate different sections of your supporters, with the result that those who are not in a position to put in similar claims and to use similar methods to enforce them are obliged to stand aside. This Bill is admittedly a Bill of the greatest urgency. The noble Lord who brought the subject before the House to-night dwelt upon the fact that there are, in round figures, 150,000 people in the country who would come under the operation of this Bill, and of these a large number are poor creatures whose case stands most urgently in need of immediate treatment. That is admitted by the Royal Commission. It is admitted by the Education Committee of the London County Council. I noticed the other day that a member of the Government, the First Lord of the Admiralty, announced that he saw nothing in certain recent by-elections to discourage His Majesty's Government from bringing forward what he called "large constructive social policies." I venture to think that under the present dispensation large constructive social policies will stand a very poor chance of receiving the attention which they deserve. The business of Parliament is carried on under what my noble friend very properly described as over-pressure, and the result of that over-pressure is that valuable measures of this kind are put aside in order to make room for those other more controversial pieces of legislation for which House of Commons necessities apparently call so urgently.