The ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ is the usual name given to the Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act. The ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ came into being in 1913. It was introduced to weaken the Suffragettes led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
The Liberal government of Asquith had been highly embarrassed by the hunger strike tactic of the Suffragettes. Many of the more famous Suffragettes were from middle class backgrounds and were educated. While society as a whole expected certain behaviour from them (which was not forthcoming), society also held certain values on how the government should act with regards to when these women were in prison, and therefore under the jurisdiction of the government.
When some Suffragettes were arrested they would go on hunger strike. This was a deliberate policy to bring attention to their cause and also to embarrass the government. To counter this, the government resorted to force-feeding those women on hunger-strike – an act usually reserved for those held in what were then called lunatic asylums. This simple act greatly embarrassed the government. While it avoided the political disaster of a Suffragette dying in prison – thus creating a martyr for the movement – it simply did not reflect well on the government.
To get around this, the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was introduced. The logic behind this was simple: a Suffragette would be arrested; she would go on hunger strike; the authorities would wait until she was too weak (through lack of food) to do any harm if in public. She would then be released ‘on licence’. Once out of prison, it was assumed that the former prisoner would start to eat once again and re-gain her strength over a period of time. If she committed an offence while out on licence, she would be immediately re-arrested and returned to prison. Here, it was assumed that she would then go back on hunger strike. The authorities would then wait until she was too weak to cause trouble and then she would be re-released ‘on licence’.
The nickname of the act came about because of a cat’s habit of playing with its prey (a mouse) before finishing it off.
Research does indicate that the act did not do a great deal to deter the activities of the Suffragettes. Their violent actions only ceased with the outbreak of war and their support of the war effort. However, the start of the war in August 1914, and the ending of all Suffragette activities for the duration of the war, means that the potentially full impact of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ will never be known.