HL Deb 17 July 1979 vol 401 cc1378-93

7.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I have often heard it acclaimed that this House has, through its diverse membership, the capacity to field an expert on any subject, however complex, specialised, or obtuse. If I were asked to test that claim by a choice of any subject, I think that high on my list would be hypnotism. I am told that to learn to become a hypnotist in its very basic form can take as little as four minutes, but that apparently simple, single skill unlocks doors on the control of another person's mind which in itself unleashes ethical and medical arguments that have raged almost continually for the past 25 years.

Is it a skill, a science—as the medical profession claim—which in the wrong hands could inadvertently prove exceedingly dangerous and against which the public should have some form of protection, or is it a skill, as many lay hypnotists claim, that has never been proved, and will not be proved, dangerous to the public? That is an argument that is not new to either Parliament or the Government. Parliament faced a very similar argument in 1952 when it came down in favour of the medical world. I refer to the Hypnotism Act; and the principal purpose of this small Bill before your Lordships tonight is to extend a little the provisions of that Act.

Without wearying the House at this late hour, I should like to recall that hypnotism goes back a very long way in history. It was a subject which successfully baffled, intrigued, mystified, and confused generations as to its value or chicanery. If one looks back to the early records, one sees that ancient civilisations used it as a means of healing, usually in religious settings. But perhaps in medical terms it first came to prominence when Anton Mesmer, a leading Austrian physician of his day, began publicly to use it as a therapeutic aid in the mid-18th century. He was very swiftly denounced and ridiculed by his member profession, even to the point of hostility. But the development of hypnosis continued over the next 100 years through such names as Charcot, Bernheim, James Braid and, of course, Sigmund Freud. It developed, and through it emerged the growth of what is now modern psychotherapy.

I think it is true to say that in the last 30 years Britain has seen a substantial advancement in and acceptance of hypnotism in the medical world as a serious therapeutic aid to medicine. It has arisen partly, first, by a committee that was formed in the early 1950s by the British Medical Association to examine the value of medical use of hypnosis; secondly, by the Hypnotism Act 1952; and thirdly—and by no means least—by the formation by the Royal Society of Medicine of a branch society known as the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis. It is this new society, which I think was formed two years ago, which not only set the seal of approval for the medical use of hypnosis, but also encourages wider training of hypnosis in medical schools; and I am told that currently about 150 doctors and dentists are being so trained each year.

One could say that in Britain today there are three categories of hypnotists. There is obviously the medical category in which doctors, dentists and psychiatrists use a wide applicaton of hypnosis—in birth delivery, in extraction of teeth, and even, I am told, in operations. But much more prevalent is the treatment of the common anxiety-related problems, such as hypertension, migraine and nervous asthma, and there is also the treatment of alcoholics and drug addicts.

Then there are those who use hypnosis and are known as lay hypnotherapists, and sometimes they advertise, to the annoyance of the Law Society, as medical hypnotherapists. But they have no medical background, no society, no code of conduct; nor have they passed an examination. However, they advertise their service which deals with anti-smoking and slimming, as well as drug addiction and other anxiety-related problems. I am told that there are about 1,500 lay hypnotherapists operating in Britain, and that there are being set up what are known as suggestive relaxation conditioning centres—which is a rather long phrase for hypnotism—which claim that 60 per cent. of their cases are successful.

Many of these lay hypnotists are experienced people, even though they are not medically trained. They face a problem which is parallel with that which estate agents faced in Parliament last year, because anyone can call himself a lay hypnotherapist; and I was glad to see this week that there is likely to be formed a voluntary association of lay hypnotherapists, which could undoubtedly enhance the movement in the eyes of the public.

Then there is the third, and much the smallest, group of hypnotists; namely, the stage hypnotists. I am told that there are about 15 active stage hypnotists in this country. Some of them have been practising for many years—25 or 30 years, I have heard—and clearly are very experienced. In one case of which I was told a stage hypnotist had handled a total of 100,000 people on the stage with no repercussions and no post-hypnotic problems. But here again, there is no code of conduct, no training is sought, and anyone from the very experienced to the totally inexperienced can apply to perform.

The Bill before your Lordships seeks principally to amend the 1952 Hypnotism Act. That Act was the first recognition by Parliament that the public should have some form of protection against stage performances in theatres, and that protection was in the form of a licensing procedure through the local authorities. The Act defined hypnosis on the stage as a process which produces induced sleep or trance in a person and increases the susceptibility of that person's mind to suggestion or direction. That is a precis of the wording of the 1952 Act. The Act further went on to include provisions for a licensing procedure for all theatres and places of public entertainment, and it imposed fines for a failure to obtain a licence. It banned those under 21 years of age from taking part as volunteers on the stage. This, of course, has now been reduced to 18 years of age. It gave power to the police to enter premises if they had reasonable cause to suspect the contravention of the Act; and it specifically exempted exhibitions for scientific and charitable purposes. It also exempted, I would say by default, the licensing of clubs.

My Lords, the principal purpose of the Bill before your Lordships is to seek the inclusion of the licensing of club performances. It also contains other provisions concerning advertisements and the sale of records and tapes capable of producing hypnotism, to which I should like to refer briefly later. In trying to persuade my noble friend and the House of the very good case for this Bill, perhaps the most direct question one could ask rhetorically is: What is the scale of need for extending the licensing to clubs? The answer would, I believe, be twofold: first, that the majority of stage performances that are now carried out are in fact carried out in clubs and not in theatres; and, secondly, that the need remains the same as Parliament recognised in 1952. And why should the public be granted a degree of protection in theatres, but not the same protection in clubs? Is it not inconsistent?

The second question I should like to pose, again rhetorically, is: What is the evidence in support of this need? The Bill is supported by all the major medical bodies in Britain—the Royal Society of Medicine, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the British Medical Association and the British Dental Association. It is a formidable list, and I hope that there has been some communication between these bodies and my noble friend's department to demonstrate what has occurred. If not, I would suggest to my noble friend that I should endeavour to obtain information, which almost certainly can describe each case only very generally, as obviously each case will be confidential.

My Lords, the basic worry as regards stage hypnosis as far as the medical world is concerned, as I understand it, is that the stage hypnotist has no prior knowledge of the medical history of the volunteer, and if that volunteer happens to be anxious by nature he could become more anxious, or if he is depressed he could become more depressed. So, in the view of the medical world, it is vital that the stage hypnotist should know and should have a prior knowledge of the medical history of volunteers. There is also worry that post-therapy is not often completed, and that an induced suggestive state is only half removed. Other evidence for the need, I think, could be obtained by reference to the Journal of Mental and Nervous Diseases, which is a medical record of these sort of cases.

There is, of course, a sizeable file of Press cuttings, some of which record the degrading spectacle of volunteers quacking like ducks after performances, and other, more serious cases, but on none of them would I rest my case tonight, through lack of verification. However, I should like to draw the attention of both the House and my noble friend to one case that was quoted in a letter read out by a Member of Parliament in another place in 1972. It described the case of a young girl who had volunteered to go on the stage and had subsequently suffered acute mental distress, and who, despite treatment, had not recovered even after three years. Perhaps that is the case which emphasises the support of the medical profession.

My Lords, I think it is fair to ask: How is the licensing procedure under the 1952 Act working? If there is a weakness in my case of support for the Bill tonight, or my argument, it would in fact be the current licensing procedure. This is something which I hope we could examine at the Committee stage of the Bill, if it is granted a Second Reading. It seems odd that theatres are licensed rather than the performer; and one has heard criticism that there is very little prior consultation between the licensing authority and the experts, checking up on the experience of the performer, or indeed discussing the matter with medical opinion. It seems that the licensing policy up and down the country is patchy and fragmented, and in certain areas, like the GLC, they simply have a "No" policy, whoever the stage performer is, whatever the conditions and however great the demand. I hope we can examine that at the Committee stage.

Clause 2 of the Bill includes a prohibition on advertising except where authorised exhibitions have been licensed. It also seeks to prohibit the sale of records inducing hypnotism. This clause was originally drafted because it seemed somewhat offensive to witness advertisements guaranteeing the cure of smoking addiction, and slimming, when it was known that the hypnotist had had very little experience. It has been pointed out to me that Clause 2 as drafted would inadvertently limit established lay hypnotherapists from conducting their business. As this was not the intention, perhaps I could advise the House at this stage that if the Bill reaches Committee I shall wish to examine this clause again to meet this worry.

My Lords, hypnotism is not a subject I would normally commend for introducing yet further legislation, but tonight I do so because this small, modest Bill seeks only to complete what Parliament saw fit to do 27 years ago. The Bill seeks, not to ban stage hypnotism, not to spoil an entertainment which to many is highly popular, not to take away the livelihoods of stage hypnotists, but simply to add a safeguard which the whole of responsible medical bodies support; and none of us who accept this strong medical advice would wish to wait for a tragic case to occur before introducing some form of control. My Lords, I commend this Bill, and beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Kinnoull.)

7.58 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with very considerable interest to what the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has said with regard to this Bill which he is introducing, because I want to say at the very outset that I hope the House will be able to persuade him to withdraw it. I think there are very grave reservations as to whether people should be allowed to act as hypnotists at public-gatherings. This is precisely what the 1952 Act permits them to do, and, if I may say so, I think the present Bill does little more, if anything, than extend to clubs the provisions of the Hypnotism Act 1952 and increase the maximum fine for those found guilty of an offence from £50 to £500. I would suggest, unless the noble Earl can advise me that I am wrong, that his present Bill does little apart from adding those two things to the 1952 Act.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, would it help the noble Lord if I were to answer that point now? In fact, the Bill goes a long way towards controlling stage hypnotism. It does not seek to ban—which I understand is what the noble Lord would like to see happen, not only in clubs but also in the theatre—which is something that I would not support; but at the moment stage hypnotism acts almost always take place in clubs. It is this form of control that this Bill is seeking to provide for.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. As I understand it, the 1952 Act controls demonstrations of hypnotism at places licensed for public entertainment. Where the local authority has the power to grant licences for the regulation of public dancing singing, music and public entertainment, the 1952 Act included power to attach conditions regulating or prohibiting the exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnotism. So that the decision rests entirely with the local authorities. I am wondering how many local authorities since 1952 have refused to allow hypnotists to perform. I have not been able to find any such case, and therefore it means that it rests entirely with the local authority. And I do not think, if I may say so with respect, that the local authority is in a position to make a judgment.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again, but I think the noble Lord said that he had found no local authority which had exercised its power to prohibit a stage performance of hypnotism. If he were to ask the GLC, he would find that they have a general rule—I do not remember its number; but I spoke with them yesterday—that, as a matter of policy, does not allow stage hypnotism in theatres, except for charity performances.


My Lords, what I am getting at is that the onus is entirely on them; they can do so if they wish. While a local authority may decide that they will not allow a hypnotist to perform under certain circumstances and certain conditions, all over the country hypnotists do in fact give exhibitions. The noble Earl is going to include clubs, but from the fact that clubs are to be included, it does not necessarily follow that hypnotists will be prevented from giving performances. It only means that the hypnotist, whoever he is, must get authority from the local authority to put on his performance.

I was reading an article, which I am sure the noble Earl has seen, in yesterday's Guardian which drew attention to the fact that there are something like 150 commercial hypnotists. That article, went on to refer to one particular man:— … of usually impeccable self-control who wandered round his home town begging policemen: ' Help me! Somebody has stolen my belly button'. They give other instances of where the police have had to get the hypnotist to come along to try to release persons from the particular control under which they had been placed.

Hypnotism is like a good many things, like psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy, which are all right in the hands of people who know exactly what they are doing. The only people who know what they are doing are people who have been very carefully selected to do it and who have undergone skilled and expert training in the hands of those who are able to help them to become hypnotists. I know that the noble Earl has the best intentions and he wants to control this; but I am saying that we must do more than control it. We must make it impossible for people with no competence at all (other than the fact that they can hypnotise people) to do this unless they know exactly what they are doing.

One of the real problems that I want to mention is this. I have no medical competence at all or qualifications; but I believe it is medically desirable that any would-be hypnotist should have a fairly accurate and detailed knowledge of his subject's medical history. There is no doctor or consultant in this country who would dream of putting a person under hypnosis without knowing at least the medical facts of the individual. There can be depressives, psychotics and others with mental and psychiatric problems. I accept that they can be helped by hypnosis, but I think it highly dangerous that there should be on the Statute Book any Act which would enable an incompetent body like a local authority to exercise this kind of control. Perhaps I ought quickly to qualify that by saying that I mean "incompetent" in the sense that they are not in a position to judge whether people whom they have never seen, are never likely to see and who are likely to attend these performances, should be invited to place themselves under hypnosis. I think we ought to be careful to see that people who practice this kind of hypnotism have a fairly wide and accurate knowledge of their subject's medical record.

The noble Earl asked: "Is it a skill?" I do not know whether it is a skill or not. I know that certain people in the community can do it. What I say is that it can cause, does cause and has caused, considerable havoc in a large number of cases. I want to join with the noble Earl in trying to do something to control this situation. There are a number of what I believe are called "cowboys" in this particular field. They ought to be stopped. I am not in favour of the local authority having the power to say that a certain person, for the purposes of entertainment, should give a performance of hypnosis.

I should like to see the noble Earl withdraw this Bill. I wish that we could withdraw the 1952 Act as well, but we cannot do that. I should like to see him withdraw this Bill, in the hope that he could persuade his noble friend on the Front Bench that some sort of inquiry should be undertaken into the whole question of hypnotism. The noble Earl rightly pointed out that there is a fairly reliable, competent body made up of a number of medical concerns. I think that there ought to be some kind of inquiry as to whether hypnotism should be completely controlled in the same way as are some professions which are supplementary to medicine. They can be counted on one hand. Although there are a large number of other bodies who want to become professions supplementary to medicine, for various reasons (many of them good) they are not accepted. I think that we have reached the stage where this matter needs to be looked into.

I hope that I can persuade the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, to say that if asked to do so, he would see whether his right honourable friend the Secretary of State would be prepared to set up a committee and it is not for me to suggest its composition—to inquire into this subject, in the hope that it can be done very quickly. I also hope that, meanwhile, the noble Earl will feel that perhaps this is not the right time to pursue the matter.

8.10 p.m.


My Lords, may I say that I heartily agree with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell. From the angle of my church, the Church of England, I am sure we agree with what he has said: one is playing with something which could be dangerous fire as well as something which could be very good. What he said was very sound.


My Lords, may I add a brief word to what has been said by other noble Lords. I had not intended to intervene in the debate, but I have listened carefully to what has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell. I have a good deal of sympathy with the aim of the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, who, as I understand it, thinks that hypnotism for entertainment purposes should be banned or at any rate very strictly controlled. I am inclined to think that he is right in saying that.

However, at the same time, I cannot see why in the meantime we cannot have this Bill, which is at least extending the degree of control beyond the present level and making control a little more effective than it now is. So I should be inclined to support the point of view of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, while supporting also the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell. I hope that in passing this Bill—if that is what happens—we would not be ending the matter but beginning it and going further if he would like to do so.


My Lords, I also would venture to support the plea for restraint in this matter. To the best of my knowledge, hypnotism has a certain very narrow field of usefulness in certain carefully selected cases, provided that it is undertaken by a fully qualified medical man. Preferably, hypnotism as a means of therapy should be conducted in absolute privacy; the only exception one might allow for is where it is used as a demonstration for medical students to prove its efficacy or otherwise as a method of therapeutics. In America, hypnotism is very widely practised by skilled registered medical practitioners in a narrow field of child hypnotism, where one has a patient who is resistant to ordinary and orthodox treatment but is susceptible and is receptive to what one still regards as a relatively unorthodox form of therapy.

Here, one ought to proceed with the utmost caution. Hypnotism has a very limited field of usefulness; but to prostitute a recognised method of therapy by qualified medical men into a form of public entertainment ought, to my mind, to be anathema to any wise, sensible, thinking person. That is why I believe that here one ought to proceed with the utmost caution. I venture to reinforce the plea so strongly put forward by my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell that this matter requires careful investigation. It needs further inquiry—even research—before any form of legislation is attempted, and I too support his plea that at this stage it would be wise to withdraw this Bill.

8.14 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene at this point in the debate in order to explain the Government's attitude to the Bill and to give your Lordships an indication of those issues arising from the Bill which seem to call for particular attention. At this point, I think that it would be for your Lordships' benefit, to say that there are, as your Lordships may or may not be aware, two identical Bills before Parliament at the present time. In another place a Bill has been introduced in similar terms. The Bill before us now—if we were to proceed with it—would assume that there would be a parallel process going on—should it go on—in another place.

Before I go further, I should like to say in response to Lord Wells-Pestell's request to set up a committee that I shall naturally bear his remarks to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, but I can do no more than that and can give no assurance whatsoever at this stage as to whether a committee would or would not be set up as a result.

The Government can well understand the concern felt by those who use hypnotism as a therapeutic instrument. The noble Lord, Lord Segal, referred to this as a doctor, and your Lordships were particularly glad to have his advice in this matter. The consequences which may follow from its use in other ways by people who have not the same medical or other professional qualifications, and who are not bound by the same professional code are something which we should ponder upon.

It was this concern which led to the passing of the Hypnotism Act 1952 and, as my noble friend Lord Kinnoull said, the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnotists has for some years been expressing the view that the system of control established by that Act needs to be strengthened. Whether a need for amending legislation has been established is a question on which the final decision rests with your Lordships and with Members in another place. In considering this question, we are bound to take account of the opinion held by those who are experts in this particular field. But we are in no way bound to follow the views of the experts or those who claim to be experts. Our duty is to exercise our judgment, and to bring to bear our own expertise as legislators, which includes an awareness that legislation is not necessarily the best remedy for all human ills.

I think that the first question which the House needs to consider is the scale of the problems which are said to arise from the present state of the law and which enactment of this Bill would solve. I am afraid that it is on this basic point that the Government find themselves at variance with the views put forward by my noble friend, Lord Kinnoull. The British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnotists has brought to the notice of successive Governments a number of reports of harm alleged to have resulted from particular performances in which hypnotism was used as a form of entertainment. We have carefully considered this material, but our conclusion is that these incidents are insufficient either in number or seriousness to justify a change in the present law. And I have also to tell your Lordships that there is no other information available to the Home Office, the Scottish Office or the Department of Health and Social Security which indicates that problems exist on a scale that justifies amending legislation.

There are two distinct areas in which the Bill now before the House seeks to extend the law. My noble friend Lord Kinnoull explained this in some detail. I hope in repeating the views of the Government simply to underline what has been stated already, if perhaps to give greater emphasis here or there. First, the Bill would amend the Hypnotism Act 1952 so as to strengthen the controls which the Act provides over the use of hypnosis in the field of entertainment. It is important to remember that the 1952 Act confined its attention to performances of hypnotism in places of public entertainment—that is to say, places to which the public are admitted whether on payment or otherwise. That Act accordingly built to a large extent on a system of licensing controls over public entertainment which were well established. What this Bill now seeks to do in Clause 1 and in the Schedule is to effect a significant extension of the scope of the Act of 1952 by bringing clubs of all kinds within the controls exercised under the Act either by local authorities or licensing justices. In particular, it would be made an offence to give an exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnotism by any living person in any club without permission of the controlling authority. In addition, the police would have a right of entry—and I stress this point—into clubs where there was reasonable cause to suspect a possible contravention of the Act.

I suggest that your Lordships should give very serious consideration to the question whether these additional powers are necessary. As I have already indicated, the Government's view is that the need for them has not been proved. Before we further extend the reach of the law, and the scope for control by public authorities, into an activity which involves no element of force or fraud so far as the Bill is concerned, we ought to require evidence of harm or abuse which is serious and widespread. Here, in parenthesis, I should say that any committee of inquiry would indeed investigate any evidence which could be adduced in this field. I welcome the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, should your Lordships think fit to support him in his proposal. It seems to me very significant that neither the police nor the local authorities, who are responsible for enforcing the existing law, appear to have received any substantial volume of complaints indicating that the law is defective.

At this point, I turn to what my noble friend Lord Kinnoull said. He suggested that the law, if not defective, was insufficient in its scope. The view of chief officers of police and local authorities who have been approached by the Home Office on this matter is this: it is not necessarily so far assumed that a case has been made out. The conferment of additional powers will necessarily make demands upon their limited resources of finance and manpower, and I am sure that in reaching a decision about this Bill the House will think long and hard as to whether it is right to impose any further burden on the police or local authorities.

The second area in which the Bill would introduce new controls is in the publication of advertisements and in the issue of records relating to hypnotism. Clause 2 makes it an offence, punishable on summary conviction by a fine of up to £500, to take part either in the publication of any advertisement relating to hypnotism or in respect of any person as a hypnotist or in the issue to the public of any record capable of inducing hypnotism. "Record" is defined in Clause 2(5) by reference to the Copyright Act 1926 as—and I quote: any disc, tape or other device in which sound is embodied". I understand that what the sponsors of the Bill have in mind is not music of a kind which induces a drowsy or trancelike state, so much as records containing spoken words which purport to provide some sort of do-it-yourself hypnotism course. Again I would suggest to your Lordships that the evidence of abuse which has so far been presented is not strong enough to justify the extension of the criminal law. For our part, the Government have seen no evidence of any substantial dangers resulting from advertisements or from the sale of records capable of inducing hypnotism.

In concluding, I should like to make it clear that the Government's mind is in no way closed on this subject and that the responsible departments are willing to consider any fresh evidence advanced in support of a change in the law and to seek the views of the licensing authorities as to whether new controls are required. For the present, however, we are not satisfied that there is a need for further legislation to protect the public from the misuse of hypnotism, and I would advise your Lordships not to give this Bill a Second Reading.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether we can crystallise this. Is he saying that the Government are of the opinion that the problem is not so serious as to require additional legislation?—because, if so, then I think we support the noble Earl.


My Lords, from my last statement I hope it was clear—certainly we intended to make it clear—that the Government's mind is not closed on this. In other words, the Bill which is before your Lordships we believe to be unsatisfactory and insufficient in the areas to which it directs attention. We believe that a further examination of this subject, rather than legislation, is required at this present time.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I should like to thank every speaker who has taken an interest in this short Second Reading debate. It is an example of a Private Member's Bill coming on very late. I should have insisted on my right to take it at an earlier stage, because it would have been fairer to the House in judging whether or not this Bill should receive a Second Reading.

It was very interesting to sec that those who did take part seemed to be arguing against me on opposite sides, although I think the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, was right in saying that he is not on the same side as the Government. He wants to ban the subject and therefore thinks that the Bill is insufficient. What my noble friend is saying, with respect to him, is that there is insufficient evidence even to extend the present legislation.

I should like to put to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, the point that the British medical body—that is all the societies—regard this Bill as important because it will at least regulate where stage hypnotism acts are now being performed. I should like to make that clear, because I may not have explained that sufficiently clearly when I spoke earlier. At the present time, if we simply do nothing we shall be back at square one and all the performances can carry on in the clubs, with the inherent danger continuing, as the noble Lord recognises.

I hope the House will not find it disagreeable if I say that I am in favour of taking the view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, which is that the Bill should be given a Second Reading and examined in Committee, because there are areas of the Bill which should be examined, particularly with regard to licensing. I think that some good could come out of that. If we let the subject drop, it will go back into the wastepaper basket and will not reappear for some years. I therefore beg to move that this Bill should receive a Second Reading.

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