Previous Section Home Page

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton): Could the hon. Gentleman be a little more specific about the place where the law was evaded? As I recollect, the event was due to take place in Taunton and the council that attempted to ban the performance was not Devon county council but

Column 747

Taunton Deane borough council. It was on that basis that I raised the matter and corresponded with my hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Pickthall: That is correct. I have had correspondence about the event in Taunton Deane. We have some evidence of another event in Devon and another in Lincoln where the loophole was used. I also have experience locally in Preston where the local council, despite its views, was unable to ban a performance because the performer declared himself to be involved in research.

There are three different groups. First, there are the legitimate and trained professional users of hypnosis for medical reasons. I think that all their organisations want to ban stage hypnotism, which they feel brings their profession into disrepute. They also often have to unscramble the sad consequences of stage hypnotism. Secondly, there are the societies of stage hypnotists. They seek codes of conduct and licensing regulations that will protect the reputation of what they view as responsible stage hypnotism. There are two such organisations, both of which have been in touch with me about the debate. Both have asserted that they want a register of stage hypnotists, an enforceable code of conduct and the closure of the loophole in the Act.

Thirdly, there are the unorganised, individual pirates, many of whom seem not to care in the least about the after-effects of what they do. Obviously, that is the group about which we are most concerned. I understand that, for many people, it is relatively simple to learn to hypnotise someone else. It is possible for someone to learn quickly how to hypnotise people and within days to be doing so on stage, even though that person does not understand, and possibly does not care about, the consequences of what he is doing. It is those "cowboys", as the other groups call them, that we are most worried about.

I have not come here tonight to urge a ban on stage hypnotism. I am not in the business of declaring that that form of entertainment, which I personally find distasteful, should be banned, although my constituent--the mother of the lady whom I described at the beginning of my speech--would want that. Although my instinct is that a ban is needed, if I were to propose one I fear that the Minister would reject it out of hand. I recognise that the Government's policy is to remove regulations, so I ask at this point for an improving alteration to the regulations.

Furthermore, attention should be paid to making the guidelines more effective and binding. In the longer term--I recognise that this is outside the Minister's remit, although I hope that he feels that it is reasonable to support it--it is vital that the Department of Health examines the effects of stage hypnotism on people who are liable to suffer badly from its after-effects. After all, it is a medical matter. We would not entertain for a moment the idea of untrained, unskilled, unlicensed people operating on people's bodies--in public, for that matter--but we seem to be prepared to allow untrained, unlicensed people to operate in people's minds in public. The Department of Health should examine the behaviour and expertise--or lack of it--of some stage hypnotists whose victims claim have done them serious damage. Such research should enable sound judgments to be made on whether the Campaign Against Stage Hypnotism is correct in its demand for a ban on health and safety grounds.

Column 748

Because the effect of hypnotism can be funny, it is easy to turn it into a funny subject. It is, however, extremely serious and many people have been seriously hurt by it. I hope that the Minister, in so far as his remit with the Home Office allows, can offer some assurance that the matter will at least be looked into.

12.17 am

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) on raising the subject of stage hypnotism, which is clearly a serious and growing problem. My constituent, Miss Gibbs, has raised with me the case of Mr. Christopher Gates. On 10 march this year, they went to see the Paul McKenna hypnotic show at the Wycombe Swan theatre, where Mr. Gates was hypnotised for more than two hours. As the hon. Gentleman said, Home Office guidelines were not followed, as he was put into regression and left unattended throughout the interval. After the show, he felt unwell. He was referred to a psychiatric unit for four weeks. Nine months later, his condition has deteriorated severely, and he now thinks of himself as eight years old and behaves like an eight-year-old. He must be accompanied by an adult at all times. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will investigate this matter with the seriousness that it deserves. I want the Home Office guidelines strengthened and effectively enforced.

12.18 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Forsyth): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Pickthall) on securing the opportunity to discuss the topic of stage hypnotism. I am not sure whether he is aware that we have in our presence a former president of the Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists in the shape of the Under- Secretary of State for Schools, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), so I answer this debate with considerable trepidation. Hypnotism is not a subject that features regularly in the House's deliberations, although it may offer some answers to the problems that have been experienced of late. I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's point that this is a serious matter, and I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in extending my sympathy to the hon. Gentleman's constituents--the family of Mrs. Tabarn--who died so unexpectedly last year. I fully understand the distress and sense of loss experienced by her daughter. I will begin by describing the legislation that applies to public exhibitions of hypnotism. Under the Hypnotism Act 1952, licensing authorities for public entertainments--district councils and London boroughs--may attach conditions to public entertainment licences to regulate or to prohibit exhibitions or performances of hypnotism. In places where no public entertainments licence is in force--because, for example, no music or dancing takes place--the licensing authority's authorisation is still required before any public exhibition of hypnotism takes place.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth): I am not an expert on stage hypnotism or any other form, but if one is willing to be hypnotised, one is acquiescing. It

Column 749

is a matter of personal choice. How does one strike a balance between personal choice and the adverse effects that may result?

Mr. Forsyth: I agree with my hon. Friend that personal choice is exerted when deciding to be hypnotised, but the whole point is that, once one is hypnotised, personal choice is somewhat diminished. That is the reasoning behind the legislation.

The licensing authority may specify conditions on which the exhibition shall take place. Anyone who gives a public performance of hypnotism as an entertainment without authority, or in contravention of a condition of licence, commits an offence. So does anyone who hypnotises a person under the age of 18 as part of a public performance. Demonstrations of hypnotism for scientific or research purposes, or in the course of medical treatment, are outside the scope of the controls in the 1952 Act.

The concern of the hon. Member for Lancashire, West stems from Mrs. Tabarn's untimely death last year, only a few hours after she had been hypnotised in the course of a public display at the public house where she worked. I certainly understand her family's feeling that the two events were connected, but, as I understand it, the coroner did not find a connection, and his verdict was that Mrs. Tabarn's death was due to natural causes.

The hon. Member for Lancashire, West mentioned the Home Office pathologist, and I saw a letter that he sent to Sheffield university in which he stated that, as far as he was concerned, there was no evidence that the hypnosis show the night before could have brought on the cause of Mrs. Tabarn's death.

I am aware also that opinion is divided on whether people taking part in exhibitions of hypnotism can suffer physical or psychological harm as a result. I am not aware of any incontrovertible evidence of harm. It seems that there is not a case for banning stage hypnotism altogether, as some have advocated--although the hon. Gentleman distanced himself from that view this evening.

Although watching or participating in a display of hypnotism may not be everybody's cup of tea, it is clearly an entertaining and enjoyable experience for many people. The hon. Member for Lancashire, West recently sent me some papers about hypnotism that included letters from members of the public claiming that they or someone they know suffered adverse effects.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) for his contribution. He also wrote to me on behalf of a constituent who feels that her friend suffered after-effects following a demonstration of stage hypnotism. I am not competent to judge whether or not those claims are valid.

Another question that has arisen about the 1952 Act in the last few months is whether it can be effectively enforced. My hon. Friend the member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) has been in touch with me about an unauthorised display of hypnotism in a public house in his constituency. It seems that the hypnotist concerned claimed that the performance was being conducted for research, and argued that he needed no licence or other authorisation because of the exemption that I mentioned earlier.

Column 750

It is not for me to interpret the law in that or any other particular case, but it seems questionable whether a performance of hypnotism in a public house can genuinely be described as research. However, the local licensing authority, on which responsibility for enforcing the requirements of the Hypnotism Act 1952 rests, did not feel able to initiate a prosecution.

Further concerns over enforcement were raised by an article published in October in Stage and Television Today , which the hon. Gentleman drew to my attention. It suggested that other stage hypnotists were to conduct demonstrations for research purposes, so avoiding the licensing requirements of the Hypnotism Act. Clearly, if it were possible to circumvent the controls in the Act on entertainments involving hypnotism simply by labelling the performance "research", the purpose of the Act would be undermined. In fact, the issues arising out of stage hypnotism and the legislation controlling it have never been clear-cut. The Home Office issued guidance to licensing authorities in 1953, at about the time when the Hypnotism Act came into force. That guidance was revised in 1989, and issued as a Home Office circular to local authorities. The circular is quite detailed: it sets out the legal provisions of the 1952 Act, and provides model conditions that licensing authorities might wish to apply to entertainment licences either to prohibit or to control exhibitions of hypnotism.

The circular suggests the conditions that might be imposed if an authority chose to regulate rather than prohibit public exhibitions of hypnotism. They include a requirement that the exhibition shall be conducted in such a way as not to be likely to cause harm to anyone attending it. Although it is not obligatory for licensing authorities to impose the model conditions set out in the Home Office circular, I understand that many do so.

It seems clear, therefore, that there are genuine concerns--whether justified or not--about the possible adverse consequences that some people might suffer after participating in performances of stage hypnotism. In addition, there are apparently problems over enforcing the controls in the Hypnotism Act; as a result, performances are taking place that are not licensed, but no action is brought against those who may have breached the licensing requirements.

Indeed, I believe that the event in Lancashire to which the hon. Member for Lancashire, West referred was not licensed or otherwise authorised, but that no proceedings were instituted. I understand, however, that the licensing council concerned subsequently advised all venues where public performances of hypnotism might take place of the licensing requirements, and of the sanctions and penalties that unlicensed performances could entail.

In all the circumstances, I do not think that we can let matters rest. Like other Departments, the Home Office is progressively reviewing regulatory legislation for which it is responsible. The purpose of those reviews is essentially deregulatory, to remove unnecessary constraints and controls; but when regulation is essential it will be retained, and it can be strengthened if public safety requirements suggest that that is necessary.

Column 751

I am impressed by the representations that I have received from my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Lancashire, West, and it is therefore my intention that officials review the workings of the Hypnotism Act shortly.

Mr. David Nicholson: I am glad to hear how seriously my hon. Friend and the Home Office are taking the matter. May I remind my hon. Friend that I have intervened not only on behalf of my local authority but on behalf of Avon and Somerset police, whose job it is to enforce the law in this regard?

Mr. Forsyth: Indeed. My hon. Friend has drawn my attention to representations from the police and the local authority, and that played no small part in persuading me that we had to take the matter extremely seriously.

That is why a review will take place. It will examine evidence of the possible risk of harm to people taking part in public entertainments involving hypnotism, and the

Column 752

appropriateness of the present regime of control that the Act provides. The Home Office guidelines will also be scrutinised. The review will examine the arrangements for enforcement and, if necessary, prosecution, to establish whether the present arrangements are satisfactory. It will draw on medical expertise, and will involve consultations with all interested parties--particularly the local authorities on which responsibility for licensing and enforcement falls.

Clearly, I cannot anticipate the outcome of the review. It may reveal that no substantial change is needed; but I think that the Government need to consider very carefully whether the arrangements established more than 40 years ago for the control of public exhibitions of hypnotism remain the right way in which to deal with today's circumstances.

I thank the hon. Member for Lancashire, West for providing an opportunity for us to debate an important and interesting topic. Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Twelve midnight.

Column 751

Column 751

Written Answers Section

  Home Page