The "Cat and Mouse Act"
(formally the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913
) was an Act of Parliament
passed in Britain
under Herbert Henry Asquith
government in 1913. It made legal the hunger strikes that Suffragettes
were undertaking at the time and stated that they would be released from prison as soon as they became ill.
After the act was introduced suffragettes were no longer force-fed
during their time in prison. Although this had previously been common practice to combat the hunger strikes it was assumed all would commence upon arrest. Instead they were kept until a point of extreme weakness before being released. This created a scapegoat for the government who could claim that any harm (or even death) that resulted from the starvation could be blamed entirely on the suffragette. Of course this meant women who had been released were too weak to actively protest and thus were kept from trouble. However, these women were kept under a watchful eye and arrested again for the most trivial reason, restarting the whole process. This is how the government attempted to control many of the more committed activists.
To attain the goal of universal suffrage
, the Women's Social and Political Union
(WSPU, known colloquially the suffragettes
) engaged in acts of protest such as the breaking of windows, arson, and the "technical assault" (without causing harm) of police officers. Many WSPU members were jailed for these offences.
In response to what the organisation viewed as brutal punishment and harsh treatment by the government at the time, imprisoned WSPU members embarked on a sustained campaign of hunger strikes. Some women were freed on taking this action, but this rendered the policy of imprisonment of suffragettes futile.
So, the government turned to a policy of force feeding hunger-strikers by nasogastric tube. Repeated uses of this process often caused sickness, which served the WSPU's aims of demonstrating the government's treatment of the prisoners.
The Act as a response to suffragette hunger strikes
Faced with growing public disquiet over the tactic of force feeding, and the determination of the jailed suffragettes to continue their strikes, the government rushed the Act through Parliament.
The effect of the Act was to permit the release of prisoners who were suffering illness for them to recuperate; however, the police were free to re-imprison offenders again once they were better. The intention of the Act was to counter the tactic of hunger strikes undertaken by jailed suffragettes and the damaging consequences for the government's support among (male) voters by the force feeding of women prisoners.
Unintended consequences of the act
The ineffectiveness of the act was very soon evident as the authorities experienced much more difficulty than anticipated in re-arresting the released hunger-strikers, many of whom eluded the police with the help of a network of suffragette sympathisers. The inability of the government to lay its hands on high-profile suffragettes transformed what had been intended as a discreet device to control suffragette hunger-strikers into a public scandal.
This act was aimed at suppressing the power of the organisation by demoralising the activists, but turned out to be counter-productive as it undermined the moral authority of the government. The act was viewed as violating basic human rights, not only of the suffragettes but of other prisoners. The Act's nickname of Cat and Mouse Act, referring to the way the government seemed to play with prisoners as a cat may with a captured mouse, underlined how the cruelty of repeated releases and re-imprisonments turned the suffragettes from targets of scorn to objects of sympathy.
The Asquith government's implementation of the act caused the militant WSPU and the suffragettes to perceive Asquith as the enemy — an enemy to be vanquished in what the organisation saw as an all-out war.
A related effect of this law was to increase support for the Labour Party, many of whose early founders supported votes for women. For example, philosopher Bertrand Russell left the Liberal Party, and wrote pamphlets denouncing the act and the Liberals for making in his view an illiberal and anti-constitutional law. So the controversy helped to accelerate the decline in the Liberals electoral position, as segments of the middle class began to defect to Labour.