HL Deb 03 May 1951 vol 171 cc718-29

5.23 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have been asked to take charge of this Bill in your Lordships' House by some friends of mine who have been waiting for many years for an opportunity to secure the reform of the law as it is applied to spiritualist mediums. I will endeavour to be as brief and concise as possible, and I will try to limit myself to essentials, being prepared to reply on any other matters which may arise in the course of debate. I should like to begin by saying that although this is a Private Member's Bill it has received the unqualified support of His Majesty's Government so far as the Home Office are concerned. The Bill has been prepared in close consultation with the Home Office staff. Its wording is that of the Parliamentary draftsmen, and the lily was finally painted in the Committee stage by two Amendments which were moved personally by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Not a word of criticism has been uttered against the Bill during its passage up to this present stage, and the Home Secretary himself has spoken of it in the warmest terms in another place. Altogether, it may be said to have been born into this House with a silver spoon in its mouth.

The Bill has a twofold object. In the first place, as its name implies, it is designed to ensure that there shall exist penalties adequate to deter the practice of fraudulent mediumship. At present, the maximum penalties on indictment under the Vagrancy Act and the Witchcraft Act are twelve months imprisonment and/or a fine of £25. Under the Bill now before your Lordships, the maximum period of imprisonment is raised to two years and the maximum fine is increased to £500—that is to say, the time is doubled and the fine is multiplied twenty times. There is also a further small alteration in the new Bill in that it raises the maxi-mum penalty on summary conviction, as distinct from indictment, to four months imprisonment instead of three. The object of that, of course, is to give an accused person the opportunity of elect-ing for trial by jury if he so desires. In addition, the maximum fine on summary conviction is raised to £50.

The second object of the Bill is to abate a present injustice. In the past, both the Vagrancy Act and the Witchcraft Act have proved harsh and oppressive as applied to persons claiming to be spiritualist mediums. Until comparatively recently it was Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act which was normally applied in cases of prosecution of mediums. The Vagrancy Act was passed in 1824 at a time when spiritual mediumship, as it is generally understood and practised to-day, was virtually unknown, and Section 4 of the Act was aimed largely at disreputable persons who made a living out of the proceeds of prostitution or by other indecent or immoral methods. Such people were comprehensively classified as "rogues and vagabonds," and spiritualists have long had a legitimate grievance at being treated by the law as though they belonged to this nauseous class of society. It also includes those pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means or device to deceive and impose on any of His Majesty's subjects. It seems reasonable to suppose that, at the time when this Act was passed, those words were aimed at itinerant gypsies and the like—though personally I think that gypsies should enjoy the same protection from injustice as any other class; it is the intent to deceive which is, or should be, the crux of the matter. The Vagrancy Act was first invoked for the prosecution of a spiritualist medium in 1876, and thereafter mediums have been subjected to all the indignities of street arrest and of classification on a second conviction as "rogues and vagabonds," or "incorrigible rogues." It has even been maintained that the mere claim to be a medium is sufficient to establish an offence. Though spiritualists now have the assurances of the Home Secretary and of a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Simon, that fraud must be proved if a medium is to be held guilty of an offence, these assurances are in no way binding upon a court in giving judgment in a case of fraud brought by the public or by a common informer.

I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the powers-that-be for the wise consideration which they have generally shown in their policy during the last few years. In this expression of gratitude, I think I am speaking for many spiritualists, but that is no reason why the law should not be altered so that mediums may carry on their important work by right, instead of by favour which is cap-able of being withdrawn at any time. I suppose what I have just said about the injustice of treating perfectly respectable people as rogues and vagabonds struck home to the official mind about seven years ago, and these stirrings of con-science, if such they are, were reinforced by the difficulty of proving intention to deceive. At any rate, in 1944 it occurred to somebody to revive the long-moribund Witchcraft Act of 1735 for the purpose of prosecuting a medium. If the Vagrancy Act is unsuitable and out of date for dealing with fraudulent mediums, what shall we say about the Witchcraft Act?

After hundreds of years of persecuting and hanging and drowning people accused of witchcraft, the authorities in 1735 suddenly became very modern and enlightened. They said, in effect, that there were no such things as witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, and that consequently no prosecutions could be instituted for any such offence. On the other hand, if any person should pretend to exercise any of these arts, undertake to tell fortunes, or pretend by occult methods to find lost or stolen property, that person should suffer a year's imprisonment for each offence. It is reason-able to suppose that the word "pretend" was used then in its archaic sense of claim, in the same way as the Young Pretender was not a deceiver but a claimant to the Throne. This line of reasoning was excellent from the prosecution's point of view, as they did not have to prove fraud. The argument was that there was no such thing as a medium. The accused claimed to be a medium, therefore the accused was automatically guilty under the Witchcraft Act. And under the wording of the Witchcraft Act that was a perfectly sound argument. Since 1944, so far as I am aware, only two other prosecutions have been brought under the Witchcraft Act: but it is still law, and it could be brought into action again to-morrow under control less enlightened than that which we happen to have to-day. It is a bad, antiquated and tyrannous law, and its repeal is perhaps the most important object of this Bill.

There is a widely prevalent view that fraudulent practices in connection with mediums are very common. I have a certain amount of practical experience in this connection, and in my opinion cases of deliberate fraud are very rare, constituting only a tiny percentage of the total activities of mediums, in this country at any rate. Mediums are not infrequently mistaken. That is something different. They may be mistaken for various reasons, but that does not imply that they are cheating. I know for a fact that spiritualists as a whole are exceedingly jealous of their good name in this connection and have readily concurred in the greatly increased penalties for proved fraud contained in the Bill now before your Lordships. Equally, however, they demand that no medium shall be punished unless he or she has been proved guilty of deliberate fraud. They also put forward a strong and, I think, unanswerable claim to be released from the odious implications imposed upon them by the Vagrancy Act.

There are one or two small provisions in the Bill which I have not mentioned. One of them is that a person shall not be convicted of an offence under this Act unless he has acted for a reward or some valuable consideration, which need not have been paid to him but may have been paid to somebody else. That means that if a medium has no financial motive in his actions, he is protected from prosecution. The Bill also contains a proviso that no proceedings shall be brought in England and Wales except by and with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. That is a proviso to protect mediums against frivolous accusations. I am informed that it is not necessary in Scotland, because every prosecution there is undertaken under the direction of the Procurator-Fiscal. Fin-ally, nothing in subsection (1) of Clause 1 of the Bill will apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment. If there is a stage show which either claims to be mediumistic, or leaves it open as to how these tricks are done, and it is purely in the line of entertainment, the person concerned will not be liable to prosecution. I hope that I have made it clear that the Bill now before your Lordships is clearly and simply drafted for the purpose of dealing with persons fraudulently claiming to be mediums or with mediums guilty of fraudulent practices. I confidently ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading, and I now beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Dowding.)

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dowding, on his Bill, which has already passed through another place without dissent, and on the prospects of its early passage into law. I do so the more readily because my own opinions do not in the least coincide with those of spiritualists, and I have no personal confidence in the value of communication with the dead through mediums. But that is not the point. The question is whether, since there are honest and reputable people in this country who hold and teach the doctrines of Spiritualism and believe in communication with the dead through mediums, the law as it stands makes a proper provision for their rights as free men, in a free community, where we are all agreed that it ought to be lawful to hold and to promulgate any opinion, as long, at any rate, as what is advocated is not advocated for the purposes of the use of violence or to destroy the foundations of the State. I feel that most intensely, and I regard it as beyond question or dispute that in this country, at any rate, that freedom is one of the essential human rights.

On the other hand, as the noble Lord has just said, no honest person, whatever his opinions, religious or otherwise, would wish to protect fraud and swindle. It is quite right, and indeed essential, that in this Bill fraudulent pretences, intentions to deceive and fraudulent devices, are classified as a crime, and will be a crime in this connection. Fraudulent pretence by a dishonest medium must, of course, be condemned, and I can well understand what the noble Lord has just said, with his own sympathies in this matter: that nobody feels that more strongly than the devout and genuine spiritualists and mediums in the country; and all the more so, it seems to me, because the dishonest and fraudulent medium is exploiting to his own advantage the sorrow of the bereaved and is deceiving them by pretending to put them in communication with those they have lost, when he does not really believe he has any such power. Therefore, this Bill falls into two essential parts: it protects— and I think it ought to protect—the honest practitioner; and it condemns, and condemns with increased severity, the swindler and the fraudulent person.

To me it is shocking that we should keep on the Statute Book the Witchcraft Act, 1735. In times past there were people of the highest standing in this country who believed in witches. That great judge, Sir Mathew Hale, who in some respects was so advanced a thinker, believed in witches and punished them accordingly. But to treat an honest spiritualistic medium as though he ought to come within the ambit of the Witchcraft Act, 1735, or to class him under an Act which is more than 100 years old as a rogue and a vagabond, is surely something of which we all ought to be somewhat ashamed. The freedom to express and to advocate your own opinions and to practise your own religion in your own way, is not only among the first of human rights but is deeply embedded in the convictions of every decent citizen to-day. The bad old days, when John Bunyan was thrown into prison because he was a dissenter and an inspired tinker; the days when Tom Payne was denounced and his name became a byword, because he wrote The Age of Reason; and the day, not so long ago, when Charles Bradlaugh was pursued and assailed because he declared himself an unbeliever—to me all those days are gone, and gone for ever. In this connection one might well proclaim the famous declaration of Voltaire, and be prepared on occasion to say: "I oppose and abominate your opinion, but I am ready to go to the stake for your right to express it and to preach it."

I therefore have no doubt whatever that this Bill is very much overdue. Lord Dowding was good enough to refer to me in his speech. What he said related to the last occasion when I was at the Home Office. I am glad that he should remind me of it, because I re-collect his sincere concern as to how the Witchcraft Act, or the Vagrancy Act, might be used against people who quite honestly held the view of spiritualism and, as he believed, were acting in honesty and reverence. The noble Lord is quite correct in saying that I told him that the view that had long been held at the Home Office, by Home Secretaries before me (and, as I now know, it has been held by Home Secretaries after me) was that, whatever the Witchcraft Act might say, we would never encourage the police to prosecute in this class of case unless it was a case where they felt that fraud could be proved. Therefore I feel that recent practice, at any rate, has not really done much harm. But, be that as it may, it is quite wrong to keep on the Statute Book enactments which may well be understood to go much wider than that, and then to arrange that to a large extent they shall be a dead letter because we do not mean to apply them according to their terms. It is to me a great satisfaction that we are now going to strike this ancient absurdity out of the Statute Book and substitute for it something that we really mean.

So far as I can see, the Bill in effect does no more than establish the Home Office view. If the medium is an imposter —if he fraudulently pretends, for his own advantage, to exercise these alleged powers when he does not really think he can—then he will under this Bill be guilty of a criminal offence, as he should be, and he may be punished more severely than this antiquated law would punish him to-day. To my mind, without any of us in the least necessarily sharing the opinions which some entertain in favour of Spiritualism, we ought to pass this measure with enthusiasm. What shall we be doing? We shall be getting rid of an archaic Act of Parliament which nobody to-day would really wish to apply according to its terms, and we shall be substituting for it a carefully drawn Statute which, so far as I can see, corresponds both with the practice and the intention which are now pursued, and which ought to be the limits within which the criminal law is applied to this mysterious matter.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, although I feel certain that the Liberals support this Bill, since it is entirely in accordance with Liberal principles, I should like this evening to say a few words, not as a Liberal but as a Roman Catholic. Roman Catholics, being in a minority themselves, do not feel able to oppose a measure which is intended to remove certain disabilities suffered by those who belong to the Spiritualist movement in this country. I understand —and I am reinforced by what the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Simon, has just said—that the provisions of the earlier Acts which have been referred to were, as a matter of fact, purely legal and were not enforced in practice. Nevertheless they were, and still arc to-day, part of the law of the land. It is therefore fitting that they should be revoked, and that Spiritualists should receive the same measure of religious freedom and toleration as is given to other religious bodies in this country.

Of course, the removal of these disabilities does not affect people belonging to my faith, since we are forbidden to take part in any activity which seeks to make contact with discarnate spirits. In case any of your Lordships may feel that a charge of obscurantism lies against the Church in that connection, I should like to add that scientific investigation of such phenomena as levitation and telepathy is permitted to qualified persons, subject to the one condition which I have outlined. The Catholic position is this. We believe that our Faith, and indeed, we hold, our reason, tells us that the soul does survive after death, and that the ultimate fate of that soul, except in very exceptional cases, cannot be known. So much for what we hold. While we feel that the legal basis of the present law against spiritualists is obsolete and absurd—and we are glad that it should disappear—we feel strongly that the penalties imposed in the Bill against fraudulent activities should be strictly enforced. In spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Dowding, has said, I am informed that to-day there is a considerable spread of fraudulent practices. I hope that those whom I may perhaps describe as leaders of ecclesiastical spiritualism will watch the situation most carefully. I am quite certain that it is in their own interest to do so. Finally, I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Dowding, and your Lordships that although I thought it desirable to explain briefly the Roman Catholic position towards Spiritualism, I sincerely respect the right of all my fellow citizens to hold freely their own religious convictions, and I hope that this Bill will receive a Second Reading this evening and will shortly be placed on the Statute Book.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor had arranged to speak on behalf of the Government in this debate, but unfortunately at the last moment public business has drawn him elsewhere, and almost at the last moment I have been called on to act in his place. It would be easy for me to put in my own words what I think the Government position would be, but in view of the fact that the Lord Chancellor himself would have spoken, I had better use words which might have been used by him had he been present.

The attitude of the Government to this Bill is briefly as follows. In the first place, the Government are not concerned with what people believe, and with how they worship or conduct their religious services, so long as their behaviour is not an offence against law and order and public decency. Secondly, the criminal law should not discriminate, or even appear to discriminate, against persons because they practise any particular belief or class of belief, however unorthodox their mode of worship may be. The Government are, however, interested in seeing that the changes which these good people wish to introduce into our law, for reasons which no doubt appear very good to them, do not take away from the public the protection which our present law affords against fraud. The Government have to be satisfied that the Bill does not make it easier for ignorant and credulous people to be exploited. The promoters of this Bill appear to have recognised this fact, and the Bill seems to do little more than to restate what has for some time now been the practice of the police in enforcing the law as it now stands.

The complaint of the spiritualist, as I understand it, is directed at the letter of the criminal law, and not now at the way in which it is administered. In 1943 the police were in fact advised by the Home Office that proceedings under the Vagrancy Act should be taken only against persons whose activities had been complained of by the public, or where there was sufficient evidence that a person concerned was an impostor or was taking money or other valuable consideration. In 1945 the police were further advised that, in order to secure uniformity of practice, they should consult the Director of Public Prosecutions before taking proceedings under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 against any spiritualistic medium.

Since then there have been very few prosecutions for this offence. There have been none since 1945 under the Witchcraft Act. Such prosecutions as there have been under Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act have been confined to palmists, fortune-tellers, and the like. No complaint about any of these prosecutions has been made through the Government. It appears to His Majesty's Government that this Bill does not bring about any really substantial changes in the law, but it is clear, from what has already been said about the subject in another place, that many people attach great importance to the relief which this Bill seeks to give them. The Government understand and respect the motives of the promoters of this Bill, and welcome the occasion it provides for removing from the Statute Book the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which is now an anachronism.

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, the hour is late and I do not propose to say more than a very few words indeed. I thank the noble Lords who have spoken for the encouragement that they have given, and the Government for meeting our wishes so completely. I speak, of course, as a spiritualist. Two points were raised in the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Perth, which I purposely left out of my original remarks. The first was the question of religion. I know that to many people Spiritualism is very much a religion; they feel this very strongly as the core of their beliefs, and it is the pivot around which their activities revolve. But my point is that Spiritualism is not necessarily a religion; and if you deal with it entirely as a religion, you leave out a large and important part of Spiritualism. A spiritual communication is, in fact, more to be likened to a telephone than anything else; and it is a telephone of which you cannot always postulate who will have pressed Button A in the box at the other end. I only want to make the point that, although Spiritualism does include religion, it comprises a wider area.

The other point which Lord Perth mentioned was that these ancient laws might make it possible for a defence to be made nugatory because the very claim to be a medium was an admission of guilt. It is a fact that various judges and authorities at different times have definitely held that opinion and have recorded it in writing. I shall be very glad to supply the noble Earl with instances if he is interested. Those are the only two new points that have arisen in the debate, and I hope I have dealt with them. I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken in support of this Bill and to your Lordships who have listened with such attention.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.