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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Wells.]

12.20 am

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West): I am glad of the opportunity to raise this issue. I have been informed that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) wishes to speak later, and I am happy with that, as I believe, is the Minster.

Stage hypnotism has been a long-standing concern of mine since I was alerted to its dangers by one of my constituents, Mrs. Margaret Harper. Some years ago, her daughter, Sharon Tabarn, was hypnotised at a club in Leyland in Lancashire. At the end of the trance, she was told to come out of it as if she had had a 10,000 volt electric shock. Her husband took her home in a somewhat dazed state, and five hours later she died.

The coroner's inquest found that this was an accidental death. The expert witness, a Dr. Heap, declared that there was no connection between hypnosis and any physical side-effects. That is patent nonsense. The Home Office pathologist said:

"It is hard not to think there was a link."

My view is that the coincidence is too great to be dismissed and that evidence from other incidents shows that the link is likely to be real.

Following the tragedy, Mrs. Harper began, and still sustains, a campaign to ban stage hypnotism, and she has pulled together a vast amount of information, some of which I have sent to the Minister. I began to put questions to Ministers about the issue and was passed from one Department to another, no one seeming to want to take responsibility for the problem, although, to be fair, it crosses the responsibilities of Home Affairs in the context of licensing, of the Department of Health and of the Department of National Heritage, no doubt because of the stage element.

I was alarmed by the answer to a question from the Minister for Health, who wrote:

"The Department has not investigated the medical effects of stage hypnotism and currently has no plans to do so."--[ Official Report , 7 February 1994; Vol.237, c.52.]

On 15 March this year, a Home Office Minister answered a further question by writing that he had no present plans to review the licensing guidelines for acts of hypnosis, to institute a central register or code of conduct or to install compulsory public liability insurance. Given the level of concern and the obvious potential of misused or badly used hypnotism to do severe damage, those answers are unacceptable and complacent.

I have had letters from all over the country giving disturbing accounts of the effects of stage hypnosis, some of which I have passed to the Minister. I shall give some examples. Mr. Cannon from Barnet in the summer of 1992 was hypnotised and as a result he has had violent headaches ever since. He describes it as having made his life hell. A Mr. Hill of Rotherham was hypnotised by one Henry James--I do not think that it was the Henry James-- and is subject to violent headaches, violent uncontrollable anger and persistent panic attacks. He was hospitalised several times on anti- depressants and has a permanent sleeping disorder.

Dean Chambers from Blackpool had his arm paralysed for four weeks as a result of the condition under which he was placed under hypnosis. A young man from High


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Wycombe who was hypnotised by Paul McKenna, who is quite famous in this area, had to go to a psychiatric unit two days later where he was detained for six weeks and was still receiving treatment seven weeks later. While he was hypnotised he was put into regression, which is against the code of conduct, and was left unattended, which is also against the guidelines.

Mr. Nickson of Prestatyn became unable to work as a result of stage hypnotism, and was unable to hold a conversation and has attempted suicide. His case is attested by Mr. Trevelyn, the consultant psychiatrist for Clwyd. David Burill of Blackpool was hypnotised by Alan Bates and collapsed immediately after being brought round. He went crazy--his words--and had to be re-hypnotised by Bates. He suffered from violent headaches for weeks afterwards.

Ruth McLoughlin, a Glasgow university student, was hypnotised in October by Stefan Force and doctors found afterwards that her heart rate had dropped to a dangerously low level. Those are a few of the complaints that I and others have received.

Dr. Prem Meisra, who works in Glasgow, described a patient who became a compulsive eater of onions after being told to eat onions instead of apples while in a trance. It sounds funny but it is not. Another of his patients went into a trance again every time someone clapped, and a further patient began to suffer from a schizo-affective disorder.

This is plainly a highly dangerous business with potentially, perhaps actually, huge consequences for the national health service, as well as for the people concerned. In some instances, it may even have consequences for spectators. In the past, the Home Office has referred complainants first to the guidelines, which are worthless because they are largely ignored; secondly to the fact that responsibility for performances lies with local authorities; and thirdly to the Hypnotism Act 1952, which apparently covers the eventualities.

In August, on advice from doctors, Devon county council banned a stage hypnotism show by Mr. David Tabb. He used a loophole in the Act--the fact that, if stage hypnotism is called research, the licensing orders do not apply--and continued with his performance, which he called research, in a local pub. I shall quote Mr. Tabb's comment to Stage and Television Today on 25 August. He said: "Under the wording of the act you don't need permission for research so I just say my show is private research and there is nothing they can do. Basically the act is a load of wallop, but I haven't heard a dicky bird from the council since." Obviously he is a man of great literary ability.

It is clear that the Act is not working as intended. Local authorities are reluctant to take cases to court because that is expensive and because they would end up prosecuting their local pubs, hall or other venues. We must separate the different groups involved.

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


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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.


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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


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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.


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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.


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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


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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.

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