HL Deb 28 April 1969 vol 301 cc642-56

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. A few days ago one of your Lordships, having heard that I was going to sponsor this Bill through this House—it is, of course, a Bill introduced as a Private Member's Bill in another place—said to me, "Is this a subject on which you feel passionately?" Well, my Lords, the true answer to that question is that it is a subject about which I knew nothing at all a few weeks ago, but I have since learned something about it. I was not even present at the debate on the Un-starred Question from the noble Lord, Lord Royle, which gave rise to a very amusing discussion nearly two years ago. I think it was the noble and gallant member of the Senior Service, Lord Ailwyn, who won the prize on that occasion. If any of your Lordships have been looking forward this afternoon, to a good giggle, I can recommend a study of the Hansard Report of that debate on June 31, 1967; but this afternoon I am afraid that you will be disappointed in me.

As I have said, I had no special knowledge of the subject of this Bill until recently, but what I have since learned has convinced me that it is a suitable Bill for me to present to your Lordships, not as a joke but as something quite serious. On the other hand it is not a piece of legislation which will rock the nation. It is a modest, sensible Bill, amply justified by the facts of the situation. If I fail to convert your Lordships to my way of seeing it, that will be my fault and not the fault of my subject.

I do not think that your Lordships would be inclined to accept the principle of this Bill if I were to speak to you for a great length of time, but you will want me to say sufficient, I think, to answer two questions. First, why do I think that the tattooing of minors is a bad thing? And secondly, why do I propose that legislation should be passed against it? As to the first question, the practice of tattooing is a very ancient one. I have in front of me a report of a survey carried out by the Victoria University at Wellington, New Zealand, on the tattooing of girls in borstals. There are one or two words in the preamble to that report which I thought might interest, if not amuse, your Lordships: Tattoos were in evidence in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and ancient Britain. More recently they became popular again in Europe to the point of being fashionable with royalty and the aristocracy, and of evoking the recent support of some noble Lords. Then the Report quotes the Hansard Report which I have mentioned already to your Lordships.

Tattooing was commonly held to give protection against insect bites, heat and cold and disease, and claims to that effect have been voiced quite recently. I believe there is no justification for those claims, but probably the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, can tell your Lordships about that better than I can. On the other hand I have come across no evidence, at all events of consequence, to support the accusation that tattooing is detrimental to health. Of course, my Lords, a dirty needle stuck in your skin can carry trouble in with it, but it does not seem that that is a sufficient reason for passing legislation.

At this point, let me say that the purpose of this Bill is not to prevent tattooing but only the tattooing of minors. If any noble Lord should feel an urge to have a picture of some charming young lady tattooed on his epidermis there is nothing in this Bill that would stop him. Why is the tattooing of minors objection-able? Let me say, first, that in recent years tattooing has become prevalent among minors to an extent unknown in the past. This is particularly the case among young people of low I.Q. rating. Some 40 per cent. of those in borstals and detention centres are tattooed. Why do they do it? Sometimes there is a little more behind their decision than the consumption of a few pints of beer.

Many young men have themselves tattooed to show that they are men, and not boys. They do it as evidence of their virility, or their courage—it is a rather painful operation. Young women have themselves tattooed to tesify their devotion to the "pop" star or the boy friend of the moment. Among young people generally it has become a "trendy" thing to do. The motives prompting them are often silly, sometimes smutty and generally not seriously reprehensible. What, then, is the trouble? The trouble is that as the years go by the foibles of youth fade, but the tattoo does not. That is at the bottom of the matter and that is the basis of my claim that the tattooing of minors is bad.

Evidence galore has been shown me of many young men and women who have lived to regret bitterly what they have done. I have had letters from consultant dermatologists and surgeons from all over the country, and I should like to read to your Lordships a line or two from a couple of those letters. A writer from Manchester says: There is a definite increase in the number of patients wishing to have this type of disfigurement removed, which causes a varying amount of psychological upset from personal distress to the breakdown of a marriage. Last year I treated an 18-year-old boy who had many tattoos on his arms, body and neck. Across his neck he had a horizontal four inch line tattooed in red and black, and in the centre of this line were the words 'cut here'. He was employed as an apprentice in a slaughterhouse, and apart from his own feeling of self-consciousness his pals made life intolerable at work with their constant gibes. … Many young men require tattoos on fingers and wrists removed before they can take up jobs as salesmen. There was also a young medical student with tattoos on his wrists and forearms who could not proceed with his medical course until these were removed. An extract from a letter from Hove, in Sussex: I have seen in the last few years about half a dozen girls whose tattoo marks were incidental to the trouble for which they were consulting me. When I pointed out their tattooing, all of them said spontaneously how much they regretted that they had had it done. This observation also applies to about 90 per cent. of my male patients. A much larger number of male patients are tattooed and it is surprising how many regret having it done, even those who are unskilled labourers. This applies especially when their hands are involved. I would read a word or two from another letter, which I think is rather a pathetic one, from a mother: I would say how happy I am that you are trying to pass this Bill to stop tattooing a minor. In 1957 our young 16-year-old son on vacation in England went with a group of teenagers and had a dreadful monstrosity put on his arm. When I arrived in England I was shocked and brokenhearted. … I am quite sure that a 16-year-old does not always know it is there for good. My son is now at school in the United States and only I know how ashamed of it he is. He still will never even wear a short-sleeved shirt. It is even more noticeable as there are no tattooists in the area where we live. The purpose of the proposed legislation is not to interfere with the liberty of the subject but to protect a youngster from committing a folly which he or she will perhaps later bitterly regret. There is an additional reason. A tattoo professionally executed can in most cases be removed only by a nasty operation of plastic surgery. Every year now hundreds of young people apply for this help to get them out of their difficulties. But surgeons are busy men and the applicant may be told to wait for a year or for several years. The alternative for him is to apply to a surgeon in private practice, but that costs an amount of money which he cannot afford. He should not have been so silly, one might say, and of course he should not have had it done. But that is not really an answer to the problem, is it? We ought to give a better answer.

I have been convinced that this legislation is justified, and I hope that I have said enough in my short speech to convince your Lordships to view it sympathetically. In its passage through another place the Bill was supported by a list of well-known Members from all parts of the House. They were men and women whose support is bound to cause respect for the Bill.

I will go through the clauses of the Bill briefly. Clause 1 is the main operative clause. It makes it an offence to tattoo a person who is under the age of 18, subject to two exceptions. The first exception allows tattooing by order or direction of a qualified doctor for medical reasons. This has been put in because a surgeon may wish to indicate by a small tattoo mark when an operation has been performed needing a scar though in fact the appendix or whatever it may be has not been removed. The second exception covers a situation where a tattooist genuinely believes that the person tattooed is aged 18 or over and the exception makes it a defence for the tattooist to show that he had reasonable cause to believe that the person tattooed was 18 or over and that he did so believe. This is a protection against unfair prosecution.

I am informed that there is one local Act with a precedent for this clause. Section 1 of the Cheshire County Council Act 1868 makes it an offence in Cheshire to tattoo a person under the age of 18 except with the consent of his parent or guardian. That kind of qualification has been carefully considered but has been thought not to be adequate since the consent of a parent or guardian would not in fact be a guarantee these days that the young man was being tattooed justifiably.

Clause 2 is the penalty clause. The maximum fine of £50 for the first offence and £100 for a second or subsequent offence is regarded as being proper in relation to the penalties which are inflicted for crimes regarding the safety of children and other respects. For example, the fine provided for the safety of children at entertainments is £50.

Clause 3 defines "tattoo". The British Medical Association have been consulted about this and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, when he is speaking will say whether the Government accept the definition also. Clause 4 contains the Short Title and applies the Bill to Great Britain. The Scottish Office have no objection to its application to Scotland. Its application to Northern Ireland would not be suitable since it comes within the jurisdiction of the Northern Ireland Parliament. There it is, my Lords. I hope that I have said enough to convince your Lordships that this is a proper Bill to which the House should give a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. (Lord Robertson of Oakridge.)

2.58 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has brought this Bill forward, and in spite of his introductory diffidence I am grateful to him for explaining it so fully and so sympathetically. Obviously there is no question of Party in a Bill like this. I personally am going to support it. The only point of significance in that remark is that I believe that I am the first woman to have expressed any view on this subject in Parliament either during the proceedings; on this Bill in another place or in the debate in your Lordships' House a couple of years ago initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Royle, whom we are to have the pleasure of hearing again this afternoon.

The point was made in another place that it is embarrassing for a young man who wants to marry a girl named Pamela if he already has Rose's name tattooed on some part of his anatomy. I can definitely say how disturbed I should have been as a girl if, when I wanted to get married, I found my noble kinsman already tattooed with, "I love Diana". I should not have known which Diana it was. He might not have told me. I know that I should not have been a bit reassured if he had explained that it had all happened when he was only 16.

I have had something to do with the National Health Service, and it seems to me utterly deplorable that overworked National Health Service doctors should have to spend their time in plastic surgery units removing tattoo marks from men and women who had had them put on when they were foolish boys and girls. I know what a nuisance it can be in prison hospitals when tattoo marks have to be removed from prisoners because the tell-tale marks will stand in the way of their getting a job and starting a new life when they leave prison.

It has been suggested—and the noble Lord referred to it in his speech—that a Bill like this might be an interference with personal liberty. In answer to that suggestion I think it is significant that in another place this Bill received its Second Reading "on the nod". As I understand it, this means to say that if one of the 630 Members had objected, it would have been held up; but no one did. Members of another place are as sensitive to infringements of personal liberty as your Lordships are in this House, and it seems to me a significant point that in another place not one honourable Member wished to take the opportunity of killing the Bill by raising objection to it.

I am sure that it is wise to permit the tattooing of boys and girls under 18 with their parents' consent, but not otherwise. I have never forgotten a German friend of mine telling me that at the time when the last war was drawing to an end, and he foresaw the risk of chaos all over Germany and Central Europe, he and his wife had a tiny, in-significant tattoo mark put on their little child, so that if she was ever snatched away from them they could be certain of her identity if either of them came across the child again. We can be pro foundly thankful that parents in this country have escaped fear of that terrible kind. There might well be some reason for putting a small tattoo on a child for recognition purposes, or indeed to hide a birthmark, and the Bill would allow that if the parents wished it. I support the Bill, for I think it will mitigate a small, but sometimes serious, social problem.


My Lords, is it really necessary to have a Bill such as this?

3.1 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to support the Bill. I gave support to the Question which was asked in June, 1967, and I would renew that support. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has introduced the Bill clearly and well. I would say to him that, so far as I am aware, there are no beneficial effects to be obtained from tattooing. However, I think there are one or two medical aspects to which it is worth while referring. About 50 per cent. of people who are tattooed regret that they have been tattooed, and about 70 per cent. of those who are tattooed and get married.

Removing tattoo marks puts a great deal of work upon surgeons. One surgeon about whom I read removed about 200 tattoo marks in two years. Another in London removed 85, and a hospital in the Provinces removed 90 in the course of three years. That represents quite a lot of work. These people have to be in hospital for 10 days to a fortnight, and this probably costs the State about £250 each. The average age of these people when they are tattooed is 17 or 18; therefore they would be covered by the Bill in its present form.

There are certain dangers which were referred to previously. They are not common, but they are dangerous and they apply to tattooing generally. If the needles are contaminated it is possible to communicate certain diseases, of which one of the commonest is a virus infection of the liver. This can be quite a serious complaint and can spread widely. Moreover, there is a certain amount of difficulty for people who have tattoo marks on the exposed parts of their body—on their hands and their forearms—in obtaining employment in shops and supermarkets, where they have to expose a certain amount of their body to the public view. Having made those short points, I support the Bill.

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, in view of what has been said about the fact that I first introduced the subject of tattooing in an Unstarred Question in your Lordships' House, and the lucid way in which the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has introduced the Bill this afternoon, I do not think it is necessary for me to say anything along the lines on which I then spoke; but when I asked my Question in January, 1967, I did it at the instigation of a number of eminent dermatologists who had expressed to me their grave concern about the spread of this habit. So it came about that we then had a short debate in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has referred to the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Ailwyn, "won the prize" on that occasion for his contribution in the debate. I should not put it like that: I was very annoyed indeed, because he "pinched" my debate completely. But the House enjoyed the noble Lord's contribution on that occasion. It is an extraordinary thing that the unnamed admiral he mentioned seems to be known by everybody in these days. I do not know how that comes about.

On the occasion of the previous debate I received a great deal of encouragement from my noble friend Lord Beswick, who answered for the Government, and I should like to quote some of his words. He said: However, 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 according some assistance."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31/1/67; col. 950.] I re-read this remark some weeks ago, and I was just in the process of trying to prepare a Bill along these lines when I heard that Mr. Martin Maddan was introducing a Bill in another place. Naturally, I was delighted that this was so.

Many things have been said in another place—and I think they were said on the occasion of my asking the Question—about interference with personal liberties. But I would suggest to your Lordships that it is not a question of personal liberties. This is a Bill which, if it is passed, will be a protection against impulsive decisions by young people, always resulting in disfiguration, and often later regretted and bringing remorse with the regret. In those circumstances, I feel that Parliament has a responsibility to see that young people are protected from what I regard as a very nasty habit and custom.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Teynham (or it may have been another noble Lord), who during the course of the previous debate said that we did not want to make "cissies" of our young men. Well, my Lords, if I may express an opinion about it, whenever I see a tattoo on any part of the body of any of our young men walking about the streets "cissie" is not the word that comes to my mind; "pansy" is the word I think of, and that is the impression that it leaves with me.

It is interesting to note the enormous amount of support that this Bill, and the suggestion that we should do something about tattooing, so far as young people are concerned, has received from surgeons of the Royal Navy. They conducted a test at Portsmouth, and it was found that out of 2,000 ratings 46 per cent. had been tattooed; and under questioning, 50 per cent. of those expressed regret. Dermatologists tell me that they are inundated in many of our hospitals by people asking to have their tattoo marks removed. Dermatologists and other consultants in our hospitals have more important work to do in these days that to spend their time removing tattoos. Yet they can hardly resist a request from a person to have his or her tattoo removed. I suggest that this in itself is a reason for the prevention of tattooing in the early stages of the lives of our young people. In addition to the Private Act of Parliament to which the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has referred, of the Cheshire County, there is another one that came soon after I had asked my Question in your Lordships' House. That related to Portsmouth. The promoters did not approach the matter in this way; they put a clause into a Private Bill, which is now law, making it compulsory for tattooists' premises to be licensed, so that the local authority might have a control over those premises from many points of view, and probably particularly from the health point of view.

I have only one regret about this pre-cent Bill. It can affect only tattooing in our own country, and I recognise that much of this tattooing is done, particularly in the Forces, by tattooists in other countries: and young men come back to Britain with it already done. I can only hope that if Parliament at this stage decides that it is not a good thing that young people under the age of 18 should have tattoos, other countries will in the future follow our example. With those few words, my Lords, I want to give all the support I can to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and to congratulate him on the fact that he has seen fit to introduce this Bill into your Lordships' House, after it has had such an easy passage in another place.


My Lords, I have listened to the impassioned speech by the noble Lord, Lord Royle, but I cannot say that I accept it in entirety. I think it is perhaps unnecessary to have a Bill to control the minors of this country against themselves. I was tattooed as a minor and it had no ill-effects; and in fact, as a result, I probably kept myself free from Oriental diseases, in spite of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, suggested that to have been tattooed as a minor I must have had a low I.Q., but I can assure your Lordships I did not have one as low as he thinks—at least I hope not. I cannot help feeling that it is a mistake to bring in these Bills—we have had many of them in the past—to keep on controlling the young. They have had enough trouble as it is, and I really cannot accept this Bill.


My Lords, as your Lordships can see, I have a tattoo mark on my right hand. I would support what the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke, said, that there is a point in favour of an identification mark. Parents should allow young people, if they think fit, and in the circumstances which the noble Baroness mentioned, to be tattooed. They may even want them to be tattooed. I am thinking back to the days of the 1914–18 war when there was a lot of loss of memory, shell shock, and many people wandering about. An enormous number of people were missing, and it was never found out where they were and what had happened to them. There was then a considerable fashion for being tattooed, as can be seen.

I must say that there is a reason in favour of identification, such as I have mentioned. If parents want to see their children again in the circumstances I have referred to, after they have lost their identity discs, they can perhaps, if their children have a mark of identification, find them in some asylum or somewhere in Europe (if the war is in Europe) and see what they are like. If they have a mark of identification the parents have a chance of finding them. Without that, it may be difficult to | identify very young children, for they all look much the same. Therefore, I would support an alteration of the Bill to the effect that, with the parents' consent, minors might have tattooing done.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, all noble Lords who have spoken are, like myself, grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, for his lucid presentation of this small but useful Bill, which has the Government's very firm support. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, invited your Lordships to have a good giggle if you wish. But this is certainly no cause for laughter. I should have thought that the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte—and repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Strange—would be covered by the Bill; but if that is not so, then I am quite sure my noble friend Lord Robertson will be glad to look at it.

I said that this is no subject for laughter. Certainly in recent years my Department have received many representations from parents, school teachers, doctors and others, asking us to legislate to prohibit the tattooing of young persons. The reasons for this, as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, indicated, and Lord Amulree confirmed, are not primarily the fear of the risk of physical health, although, as the noble Lord made clear, tattooing is often done in unhygienic conditions and there is thus a risk of transmitting disease.

The basic case for prohibiting the tattooing of youngsters rests on the need to prevent them in their tender years from marking themselves for life. There is abundant evidence that tattoos, often of a grossly unsuitable kind, on parts of the body where they cannot be hidden by clothing, lead to embarrassment and even acute distress in later life. Only a few days ago the Daily Mirror ran an article with a picture of a young man of twenty-five who had more than 100 tattoos on his body, including an eagle in full flight across his forehead. He said that prospective employers are put off by it. They take one glance and say, "Sorry, nothing doing." So, now, after five months out of work, he decided to "give his eagle the bird". He is to have a skin-grafting operation to remove the six-inch tattoo. He said: People just stare at me wherever I go. They think I'm a hard nut and always want to fight me to find out. Employers won't take me on. I never stand a chance. The eagle appeared after a night out with the boys. I had a few drinks. I just remember paying £3 10s. and asking for the eagle's wings on my forehead. He said he had had his first tattoo done at the age of fourteen.

I can perhaps understand the feelings of the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, since he disclosed that as a young man he had a tattoo. He asked us, as it were, to look at him and see that it made no difference. But who can tell? I have heard noble Lords in your Lordships' House say, "As a young man I was flogged regularly every week—and look at me now". My Lords, I have looked, and it has caused me to wonder whether they would not have been better if they had not been flogged regularly every week. But unfortunately the practice of tattooing has been growing in recent years, and it often indicates a disturbed or damaged personality. That is presumably why so many offenders are tattooed. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, mentioned that two out of every five boys and girls sentenced to borstal training are tattooed.

I recently visited a girls' borstal of some 70 girls sentenced to borstal training. I suppose I spoke to virtually every girl there. There the proportion of those tattooed seemed higher than 40 per cent. We are considering girls aged about 16 to 20, more than half of them tattooed. They had a word tattooed across the back of their hand; perhaps a letter on every finger, or on the tips of their fingers. The noble Baroness, Lady Brooke, said how embarrassed she would have been if, her name being Rose, she had found that her husband had the name Pamela tattooed across his chest. Just think of what we are confronted with—a future Home Secretary in a position of that kind!

Among the girls I saw, only two or three months ago, in that borstal there were many who had such messages on their forearms; an arrow-pierced heart with a frank declaration such as, "I love Jack". I said to one little girl who had such a tattoo on her forearm, "Is Jack your boy friend?". To which she replied, "No, I gave him up two years ago." I do not suppose she even remembered what he looked like, but she had his name on her arm for life. She told me that she was having an operation to remove the tattoo the following week. The remarkable and revealing thing is that these borstal girls, offenders all and virtually, by definition, disturbed girls, ask for an operation to remove their tattoos within a week or two of starting their sentences. I would say that was proof positive that even while they are still very young they come to regret their earlier folly. There is no doubt that unless the tattoos are removed, those which cannot be covered up by clothing can result in permanent psychological and social damage.

The prison medical service does its best to cope with this demand, but it is an expensive and not very constructive use of surgical skills. I heard the noble Lord say that outside prison people have to wait for over a year before they can have an operation of this nature. I should not like to feel that any young person might think, "If I am to get rid of my tattoo I had better get into a borstal as soon as possible, because I shall not have to wait there".

The removal is painful, and one sees these people with blistered skin and with the stitches in their arms. We are doing, and will do, as much as we possibly can, not only with boys and girls but with adults in prison; but surely a much better way is prevention, and that is precisely the object of my noble friend's Bill. It may be argued—and this may well have been the thought which prompted the interjection of the noble Lord, Lord Teynham—that subsequent embarrassment, regret or distress, or even descent to a sub-criminal culture on the part of those tattooed, is not a sufficient ground for interfering with individual liberties. It may be argued that the criminal law should not be used to restrict the freedom of even young children without evidence of very serious harm. My Department is traditionally concerned with questions of individual freedom and its preservation, and therefore this is a point we would not dismiss lightly.

I suggest, however, that a philosophical argument on the part of someone unlikely to be affected cannot seriously be weighed against the need to protect the young from falling into a temptation whose long-term effects they, at a tender age, are not in a position to grasp. Group pressures such as are to be found in the Services, local crazes, doing what everyone else seems to be doing, being tattooed for a lark or a dare, are the kind of things which can easily result in permanent disfigurement. In my submission, if this Bill is passed we shall be increasing, and not reducing, the true, adult freedom of choice of the individual if we prevent him, while he is young, from taking decisions of this sort which may have permanent, distressing and entirely unforeseen consequences. The Bill deals with a real problem in a way which is entirely justifiable. I believe it will prove effective, and I trust that it will receive unqualified support from your Lordships.


My Lords, may I be allowed to intervene in order to join the list of those other noble Lords who have had a tattoo? I had it done at the age of 20, when I was a minor, and I still have it—but I did marry the right lady.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to end by expressing my great appreciation of the support for this Bill given by the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke of Ystradfellte, the noble Lords, Lord Amulree and Lord Royle, and, of course, from the Government Front Bench, by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham. I am indeed grateful for their moral support. As to the point that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brooke, and by the noble Lord, Lord Strange, in relation to permission for tattooing and parents' consent, I think that matter can be covered by the Bill, and if it is thought that some slightly different wording would improve it I shall be glad to give it consideration in Committee.

As regards the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, it may be that he and I cannot see things in the same way. I feel strongly that we should protect young people from making asses of themselves in this way, because it is a lasting thing which they can live many years to regret. I hope he will not press his opposition to this modest Bill.

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