HL Deb 31 January 1967 vol 279 cc936-50

5.5 p.m.

LORD ROYLE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether their attention has been called to the growth of the practice of tattooing amongst young people, and if they will take steps to check the practice. The noble Lord said: My Lords, may I say at the beginning that it has been suggested to me that the steps that I hope may be taken on this Question would result in interference with the freedom of the individual. I hope that, in the course of what I have to say, I may show your Lordships that in my view it is not so much a question of interfering with the freedom of the individual as protecting some individuals from themselves, particularly young people.

At first sight, this unusual subject might appear to be an amusing one. In fact, it has very many amusing aspects. One of my noble friends asked me the other day whether "Tattooing" was a village in Lancashire; he did not altogether understand it. Many wonderful stories can be told of the type of tattooing and the weird designs that are indulged in by adults and, unfortunately, by very young people. I could produce to your Lordships a very long schedule of designs with which I could amuse you for a long time, but my purpose is not to amuse; it is to bring to your notice, and to the notice of the Minister, the serious side of this practice.

I confess at once that my interest was aroused by conversations I had with eminent dermatologists and plastic surgeons. My friend Dr. Patrick-Hall Smith, who is a distinguished consultant dermatologist in Brighton, and also the Medical Officer of Health for the town, have told me of the appalling increase in the practice in Brighton. This is also happening in many of our resorts, and certainly at our seaports. The matter has become so serious that it has been taken up by the British Medical Association, and a special committee has been devoting serious attention to it. In addition, the assistant secretary of the British Medical Association has taken the matter up with Dame Albertine Winner of the Home Office. Every year dermatologists and plastic surgeons in many parts of the country are confronted with a large number of patients who request the removal of what can only be described as outrageous and disfiguring tattoos executed, in many cases, upon very young people when they were minors.

My Lords, I am told that the removal of a tattoo is a very difficult procedure, and that it can mean a couple of weeks in a plastic surgical unit. Many of the tattoos are on the hands and forearms. If the practice is amusing, it also has its serious and tragic side. I was told the story of a girl of 18 who at the age of 16 had a tattoo put on her arm with "George" emblazoned on it. In tears she went to a plastic surgeon, because she was now engaged to Henry, and was keeping a plaster on her arm and telling Henry that she had a sore which would not heal. Boys and girls have the letters of "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on the fingers of their hands.

My friend told me of a young man who went out with his pals one evening and, after he had had a little too much to drink, had a snake tattooed on his neck so that it protruded from his collar. In addition, the tattooist put a buttercup on one ear and a daisy on the other. These stories may be multiplied very many times. The operation of being tattooed, particularly with a very young person, is followed by misery and even remorse. Apart from the psychological trauma sustained, by these disfigurations it is possible to transmit skin infections such as boils and impetigo—and tuberculosis, syphilis and virus infections are far from being unknown.

The reasons given for people indulging in tattooing vary considerably. In some cases it is a "dare" from the youngster's associates. Sometimes it is the desire to be different. Boredom is mentioned. Sometimes it is to symbolise manliness and virility. It is done to record attachments and even filial devotion, to show admiration for some pop singer or to display patriotism.

Removing the tattoo involves expenditure of medical man hours, additional cost to the Health Service and in-patient stay of up to two weeks in an expensive plastic surgical unit. In the Evening News the other day there was a story of a man who had been refused a job because of unsightly tattooing on his face and hands. A letter to the Guardian on December 16, signed by several eminent consultant dematologists, told of a successful prosecution of a tattooist for an assault on two boys aged 12 and 13, and it was revealed that in the town of Castle ford, in Yorkshire, 53 boys aged 13 and 14 had been tattooed. In one regional plastic unit 90 patients had tattoos removed in three years, and 12 of them were under 16 when the tattooing took place. Among 150 cases treated in two London units in the last few years, 70 were known to have been done when the persons were between the ages of 5 and 16; 16 was the age of greatest activity and 17 the lowest age of request for removal.

When it was known that I was to raise this question this afternoon I received a letter—I understand that I am quite at liberty to mention the writer's name, although he is a serving officer—from Surgeon Commander Scutt, of the Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth. He tells me that over the past three years he has questioned 2,000 patients attending his clinic about tattooing. Approximately 46 per cent. of the lower deck are tattooed. It is 60 per cent. in the case of seamen, non-skilled engineering ratings, cooks and stewards, as against 10 per cent. in the case of artificers and writers. Two-thirds of those tattooed had it done before the age of 18. About 50 per cent. were tattooed for the first time in home naval ports and about 33 per cent. in foreign ports. The incidence of jaundice following the practice can be shown. The surgeon commander tells me that the percentage of regrets is about 55, but in the case of married men it is 70 per cent.

The latter part of my Question in effect asks for legislation. As a start, perhaps it could be made illegal for anyone to tattoo a person under the age of 18, even if at first this applied only to exposed area carts of the body. If this were done in civilian circles, I feel that the Services would in course of time follow suit. A commanding officer might decide that the tattooist's premises should be made out of bounds or that tattooing could not be done without his permission. While there have been successful prosecutions for assaults on young people, there are few parents who feel financially able to undertake a private prosecution.

I am not treating this as one of the great evils of our day. I do not think that nations will rise or fall about it. It is a matter quite different from many of the subjects we discuss in your Lordships' House. But I believe that it is now reaching a serious state, and therefore I ask my noble friend whether he can give the House an assurance that one of the Ministries—I am not sure which, either the Ministry of Health or the Home Office—will look at the matter seriously, to see if they can do something about introducing some form of legislation which will limit what I regard as a pernicious practice.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot altogether agree with the noble Lord, Lord Royle. I was tattooed many years ago, as a midshipman in Her Majesty's Fleet, and I never suffered from dermatitis. In fact, I have never regretted it. The tattooist who did me—a Japanese, by the way—told me that tattooing was a good preventative against Eastern diseases. So far I have been lucky. I have been out East many times and have never had any of the Eastern diseases.

I think that I ought to tell your Lordships that it has other bearings on the young man. I believe that it gives him a certain sense of strength, and it is good for a young man in many ways. It hurts like hell—it did in my day—and it takes sometimes two or three hours to have it done. When a man sees the tattooist heating up the needle to a red-point heat in front of him, ready to line him in, he needs to have a certain amount of strength of mind to go on with it. I cannot help feeling that it would be the greatest mistake to try to prevent any sailor or any young man from being tattooed if he wants to. I believe it does not really do him any harm.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to take a line opposed to that of the noble Lord, Lord Teynham. The Japanese was wrong in giving him the advice that tattooing was a preventative against diseases of the East; I think he could have got them, whether tattooed or not. The noble Lord also said that tattooing gave a young man a sense of strength. I suppose that is true, but it seems to me to be going a long way back to a primitive sort of attitude that we should not think much of to-day. There is a serious side to tattooing. The noble Lord, Lord Royle, mentioned that it was possible to acquire syphilis and tuberculosis of the skin from dirty needles. That is a danger which is present, although not so well marked as it was. Another difficulty is the psychological effect, but I will not go into that at great length. If a person is tattooed when he is young, it may prey on his mind, not necessarily because he has fallen in love with somebody else but because it may be rather a peculiar tattoo. He begins to wonder why he did it and does not know what to do about getting rid of it

There are two questions that I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to reply. The first is this. If a person is tattooed and the tattooist uses dirty needles, or there is something wrong with the tattoo, with the result that the person suffers some illness, is there any protection under the Public Health Acts? I thought that there would be, but I have been looking up a number of the Acts dealing with public health and I can find no specific mention of tattooing.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Royle, has already given the answer to the second question. But supposing a minor was tattooed, at his or her request, when the parents objected to the tattoo, would the tattooist be liable to prosecution? Would the prosecution need to be undertaken by the parents, or could it be instituted by the police?

5.21 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad my noble friend Lord Royle has raised this matter. It is not, as he said, something that is going to alter the fate of nations, but it is a matter which is of real and genuine importance to the young people who get themselves tattooed. I may say that I had thought about bringing in a Private Member's Bill on this subject some time ago, but I was inhibited because of my personal connections with the prison services. It is those connections which have led me to realise that this a genuine evil.

The noble Lord, Lord Teynham, pointed out that young sailors have this done as a sort of dare, as a test of courage. That is fair enough if they have reached years of discretion. But when you get young girls of 14, 15 and 16 who get themselves tattoed with extremely embarrassing inscriptions on their fingers—sometimes, as my noble friend said, on the tips of their fingers, so that they can make a rude gesture at a boy friend—or when they get the name of a boy friend tattoed on their arms, or even something on their faces, then this can be an absolute tragedy for them. They get this done as a sort of gesture of defiance—and young girls are particularly prone to gestures of defiance. They sometimes get their hair bleached just to annoy their parents. This is all right, because the hair grows out in time. But having got a tattoo on themselves, they may bitterly regret it; and, what is far more important, it may destroy their confidence in themselves in their ordinary social relations. Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Royle said, it can make it difficult for them to get a job. Supposing they apply for a job in a supermarket, or in any kind of shop, if a tattoo is on their hands, or if they have to work with short sleeves, they cannot do it. It is quite a serious matter.

My noble friend mentioned the case of a young lady who had to keep the tattoo covered up to hide it from the eyes of a boy friend. I came across the case of a young girl who had a similar inscription which she had put on at the age of 16. When she was about 18 she became engaged to a decent young American, and he would not marry her until it was taken off. I cannot say that I blame him. She was one of the lucky young girls, of course, because she got engaged. But with many of these girls their confidence is destroyed by having one of these horrible tattoos put on.


If the noble Lord will permit me to interrupt, I can tell him of a reverse case, which occurred just about the time I was in Malta. It concerned a very pretty girl who had a bad birthmark on her left arm. I suggested that she should go and see a tattooist—and upon my soul she did! And a few weeks later I saw her at another dance with a beautiful red admiral tattooed on her left arm.


I was going to say that there is a case for cosmetic disguise of birthmarks, but this is the only justifiable case for a girl getting tattooed. For most of these young girls and boys it is a serious matter. I understand that the situation is now that at Wormwood Scrubs, Grendon and Holloway there are clinics where tattooing is removed as a part of rehabilitation. The tragedy of it is that there are now great waiting lists of people who are in trouble and waiting to have these tattoos removed; and they cannot get them removed because there are so many of them. I do not think there is the slightest doubt that my noble friend Lord Royle is quite right in saying that it should certainly be illegal to tattoo any one under the age of 18. To protect these young people from doing an extremely foolish thing is entirely a worthwhile thing to do. It will also save a great deal of money. It must be borne in mind that to-day it costs approximately £50 of your and my money per week for somebody to go into a plastic unit; and if my noble friend is right it costs £100 every time it is desired to take these things off. Even from the national wealth point of view, is that sensible? But it is far more important, I should have thought, from the point of view of the young people themselves, who through stupidity, an act of bravado, a dare or an act of defiance, disfigure themselves. I hope that my noble friend will follow up this Question with a Private Member's Bill; and, if he does, I shall certainly give him my full support.

5.27 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Royle, has drawn attention to what is undoubtedly a serious social problem. But it seems to me that, with so many desirable things needing legislation, it is going to be difficult to put it into practice. First of all, there is the question of what contitutes a young person.


Under 18.


Under 18 may be a fair answer. But how are we going to ensure that the person is under 18? They do not carry identity cards.


In the same way as is done in pubs.


We could obviously discuss the age limit for some little time. Clearly, if young people are going to submit themselves to tattooing they should have their parents' consent. But what I think is more important—and I should like to put this point to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick—is that tattooists should be compulsorily registered, as are the majority of chiropodists and physiotherapists. I know that one cannot really draw an analogy here, because physiotherapy and chiropody are strictly medical treatment. But if these people had to be compulsorily registered, the point raised so cogently by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, would be met, because the public health authorities could inspect the premises.


My Lords, may I interrupt for one moment? It would not make it easier for the public health authorities to inspect premises if these people were registered. They have the right to inspect premises whether they are registered or not.


I am grateful to the noble Lord for that information, because it is clearly necessary that these premises should be regularly inspected, to make sure that the needles and equipment are clean, otherwise infection may ensue. It seems that a decision must be left largely to parents. No self-respecting parents would allow daughters of 16 to be tattooed, even allowing for the fact that in these days teenage daughters are very adamant and do defy their parents—in fact, they defy them now a good deal younger in their teens. But I cannot see that this or any other Government can bring in carte blanche legislation here, because of the enormous administrative problems involved.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, may I say one word? Once upon a time, many years ago, my duty as a signal midshipman was to report a signal one day to my Admiral. The Admiral was in his bathroom. On being told to enter the bathroom, I was faced with the nude figure of the great man, who had modestly turned his back upon me. And in front of me, was the panorama of a complete hunt, in full cry, travelling down the great man's back: horses, hounds, and the fox. Well, my Lords, the fox was gradually disappearing. The pursuit was in a North to South direction. The great man was aged about 60 or 65 at the time. No harm had come to him, so far as I know. He commanded a Fleet and he was a very famous Admiral indeed.

I put that point of view only to show that there is a light-hearted way of looking at this question. I agree with the noble Lords that there ought to be a certain limit upon youths being allowed to be tattooed. Nevertheless, do not let us be too "cissy".

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an interesting, and at times amusing, discussion about a matter which I think the majority of us on both sides of the House agree can be treated lightheartedly, but which also involves some more serious considerations. I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Royle for bringing before the House this problem which, while, as he says, it is not one of the major evils of our time, nevertheless is a matter of some real concern, and does affect a not insignificant number of young people in the country.

To some extent it seems that being tattooed is a matter of following fashion; but, unlike some other fashions, the consequences of following this particular one cannot be undone quite so rapidly. One cannot take off a tattoo as some young ladies can take off a mini-skirt, and the consequences can be much more far-reaching. Her Majesty's Government have for some time been aware of the existence of this problem; and, as I have said, I am grateful to my noble friend for the constructive way in which he has raised the matter this afternoon.

He gave us some statistics, and I have others which. to me at any rate, made interesting, indeed fascinating, reading. There are no official statistics of the national incidence of tattooing, but the indications are that it is on the increase. This is particularly so among boys and youths who go into detention centres, borstals and prisons, about whom it is possible to collect figures. I understand that something like 40 per cent. of boys and youths going into borstals and detention centres are found to be tattooed. This seems to be about the same percentage as my noble friend himself quoted.

In the young prisoners' centre at Liver-pool 90 per cent. of the young people who go in there for some unfortunate reason or another are found to be tattooed. I cannot myself think that there is no correlation between this incidence and the behaviour of the young people concerned. No doubt the percentage who are tattooed is high owing to the fact that Liverpool is a seaport, and, as indeed we have heard this afternoon, there seems to be some correlation between those who go to sea and those who are tattooed. In junior detention centres, the proportion among boys aged between 14 and 17, I understand, ranges between 16 and 40 per cent.

I quite agree that on purely medical grounds there is no reason for undue concern, although, as my noble friend Lord Royle, the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and my noble friend Lord Taylor have indicated, the known factors ought not to be overlooked. We have been given evidence that tattooing does not necessarily mean that ill-health follows. I am very pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, looking so hale and hearty, but I really wonder whether he would have been quite so satisfied if the needle to which he subjected himself had been applied to a more exposed part of his person. It is then conceivable he would have taken a different view later in life.

My medical advisers tell me that because some of the tattooing is carried out under poor hygienic conditions, occasional infection may be expected. As the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, said, this can include septic infections, syphilitic, tuberculous and viral infections. There is also the possibility of unsightly scar formations. Another possibility, which is more dangerous, and to which I think my noble friend Lord Taylor referred, is that of the incidence of virus hepatitis. This is a serious disease, and is easily transferred from one person to another by an infected needle. It is relevant that there is a higher incidence of reported cases of jaundice among persons a short time after they have been tattooed. Nevertheless, the risk to health, while real, is not such as to justify the restrictive legislation to which my noble friend has referred.

A more important consideration—and I think this is agreed upon by most noble Lords who have spoken—is the fact that a young person subjecting himself to this form of disfigurement may in later life suffer, as my noble friend Lord Royle said, acute remorse and embarrassment. Sometimes the tattooing is not just one or two words or pictures, which may or may not be visible, but, as we have heard, a tattoo can cover a good deal of the body. While I do not intend to pursue the adventures of the animal on the back of the noble Lord's superior officer, I think there are cases where that kind of thing, when seen on occasions other than when the person is in the bath, can cause psychological upsets in later life.

There was a recent case about which there was a good deal of publicity in the newspapers, to which I do not wish to add as I do not wish to bring additional pain to the parents of the person concerned. But in this particular case there was a tattoo on the throat. This showed vividly, I think, the foolishness of this kind of activity on the part of the young and how it is regretted in later life.

It is possible, as I think my noble (friend suggested, to seek to have, or indeed to have, the tattoo marks removed by plastic surgery. But, of course, it is not always possible. But if tattoo marks, are removed by plastic surgery, or by the skill of the medical profession, we are surely here misusing these skills. Some tattoo marks are removed in borstals and prisons, where it is felt that the removal is practical and the results will be beneficial; but if we could somehow avoid the necessity for this kind of surgical operation, I should have thought there would be value in doing this.

My noble friend asked about the possibility of taking steps to check the practice. As the law now stands, some restriction is possible, although there is no prohibition of tattooing as such. The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, asked whether the Public Health Acts offered protection, and I am advised that there is no protection there. However, as my noble friend mentioned, a tattooist was recently convicted of an assault occasioning bodily harm, as the result of his operation on two boys aged 12 and 13. An appeal to the Divisional Court was dismissed, the court holding that if the child was unable to appreciate the nature of the act, apparent consent was no consent at all.

There are, nevertheless, difficulties, and whilst it is possible for the parents to take action if there has been assault, I think the noble Lord will agree that this is not the kind of protection which is satisfactory in all cases. Prosecutions have also successfully been brought against tattooists who have made tattoo marks that have been held to be obscene. I could not say without further evidence whether this applies to the particular case we heard about in the admiral's bathroom.

It is clear from what has been said this afternoon that these legal provisions do not suffice to prevent the fairly widespread and probably increasing incidence of the tattooing of youngsters, and this is the problem which I think we have to face. Her Majesty's Government understand the feelings which have been expressed by my noble friend and others this afternoon, and which have also been expressed by parents, teachers and doctors to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

The question arises as to what justification there is for legislation. And it was also suggested that we might meet the problem by registration. I do not myself think—and indeed my advisers do not think—that registration is the answer here. If tattooists were required to be registered by local authorities that would not of itself deal with the problem of the young person. Moreover, the improvement in the hygienic conditions of the premises in which this operation was carried out would be a difficult matter. It would not be easy to ensure that sterile techniques were used. I suppose it is also true that registration might give the impression that the local authority was satisfied with the conditions, and that tattooing had some sort of official sanction. Therefore I think that, if we are going to deal with the matter, we shall have to look at the possibility of legislation.

I agree with what has been said by noble Lords opposite; one does not wish to be "cissy" in this matter. It is also true that a question of individual liberty is involved, and, as we have seen, there is more than one opinion on this point. I suppose the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, for example, would require a good deal of additional evidence that positive harm is being inflicted before he would agree to an extension of the criminal law. Evidence of regret or distress on the part of those tattooed might be thought by some to be insufficient to warrant the intrusion of the criminal law into the private activities of individuals.

Nevertheless, we return to the question of young persons, and there is a point of view which my noble friend and others gave: that the law already restricts certain actions of young people, on the ground that they are not yet of an age at which they should be left completely free to take decisions which will permanently affect their lives later on. Tattoo marks are so permanent that they can be removed—if they can be removed at all—only by expensive surgery. On this ground it is arguable that true freedom of choice would be preserved, and not limited, if young people were made to postpone the decision to have themselves tattooed until they had reached more mature years.

Certainly if action is to be taken to deal with this problem, that action should be achieved by a straightforward amendment of the law, rather than by the use of existing laws on obscenity and assault. I cannot this afternoon hold out any early prospect of Government legislation, and as an ex-Whip my noble friend is well aware of the present pressure upon the Parliamentary machine and the Parliamentary timetable. How- ever, I can say that a Bill promoted by a Private Member would be a useful way of securing the view of Parliament. Though I cannot give my noble friend any firm commitments, I would emphasise that if he feels disposed to introduce a Bill, not necessarily in this Session but on some future occasion, I shall be glad to discuss with him, constructively, I hope, the possibility of affording some assistance.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down may I ask whether he knows of any country which has used legislation to curtail, in one way or another, this habit?


My Lords, I know that consideration has been given in other countries, but I cannot answer that question without notice.

House adjourned at thirteen minutes before six o'clock