HC Deb 01 February 1938 vol 331 cc105-23

6.41 p.m.

The Minister of Health (Sir Kingsley Wood)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 8, to leave out from "Britain," to the end of the Clause, and to add: every person giving information in accordance with the Registration Acts, upon the registration, on or after the first day of July, nineteen hundred and thirty-eight, of any birth, still-birth, or death, shall furnish to the registration officer such of the particulars specified in the Schedule to this Act as are appropriate to the registration and are within the knowledge of the person giving the information. Members of the Committee may recall the discussion on the Second Reading of this Bill. It is my purpose this evening to move a number of Amendments which I have put on the Order Paper in the light of that discussion, and I think it will be for the convenience of the Committee if I make one or two general observations on the Amendments, which must really be read together, and which, I hope, may commend themselves to the Committee.

The principal alteration which the Amendment that I am now moving, and subsequent Amendments, will effect is the substitution in the Schedule of a limited number of defined, but simple, particulars which may be required, for the ordinary census method of procedure, to which many hon. Members took objection. It will be a simplified course. It will secure the information desired by one operation instead of two, and will, no doubt, commend itself to hon. Members. The particulars which are to be given are to be given by the person whose duty it is to give the information under the Registration Acts. I may say also that such a person is required to give only facts within his or her knowledge, and if the person has no knowledge of them a statement to that effect will result in relief from any obligation in the matter. The date from which such particulars are to be furnished is fixed as from 1st July next. Another Amendment on the Paper, if approved by the Committee, wholly ensures a matter on which hon. Members had quite rightly some anxiety, that such information, if given, is secret and privileged. I think examination will lead hon. Members to agree that it does ensure what was generally desired. With regard to the particulars now asked for, as far as I can observe—and I have had an opportunity of discussing them with a number of hon. Members in all parts of the House—there are no objections to them, and there are a number of Amendments in the names of hon. Members on the Paper to the same effect. These particulars will generally supply information about the degree of fertility of the mother, about childless wives, and the information requisite for statistical utilisation of such information.

Anyone who has been in touch with people interested in this matter from the statistical point of view will, I think, agree that, with these particulars, simple and limited as they are, a considerable advance can be made in the study of fertility. By means of this information we shall be able to get, for instance, particulars of the whole issue of the mother. At present, it is true, we get particulars of every birth and of the parents of the child, but the whole of our birth-rate information in this country is based on a mass of unrelated units, consisting on each occasion of particulars of parents and one child. From the information we are able to obtain as a result of the particulars set forth in this Bill, there are certain supplementary lines of investigation which can be made. For instance, the particulars furnished as to the mother's issue, distinguished living and dead or stillborn children, will help us to investigate further the relation between high infantile mortality and a high birth-rate. Cancer in women has long been studied from the point of view of married and unmarried women, and the investigation will now enable us to investigate it further, from the aspect of childless wives and those who have produced children. Whether the results are negative or positive, they cannot fail to have an important bearing on the whole fertility problem.

There is another matter to which public attention has recently been called. A letter appeared in the "Times" from a number of eminent people who have taken an interest in this matter, in which they raised the question of occupation so far as the particulars in this Bill are concerned. In the course of the ordinary registration powers, we obtain to-day from the informant the particulars needed for filling up the column in the births and deaths register which is headed "Rank or Profession," but, in fact, the information supplied is much more extensive than those words imply. The model in the Schedule of the Act gives the word "carpenter" as the sort of thing that should be inserted. These gentlemen who wrote to the paper—and I hope to be able to meet them—want particulars to be provided further than the mere statement of the general term of occupation, and information to be obtained on much more detailed lines. They want us to adopt, on what I would call general census lines, the classification of over 600 heads. I think there is much to be said for further information being obtained. It will be obvious to hon. Members that, for the detailed requirements of this kind in the present Bill, it would be better to use the powers given under Section 44 of the Births and Registration Act, 1874, which permits the heading in the registers to be altered and various processes to be adopted whereby more detailed information can be obtained. Anybody who thinks of it for a moment will agree that that is a much more convenient procedure. This cannot, of course, meet the case of the inability of a mother to give detailed information as to her husband's occupation. While she may know generally what her husband's occupation is, she may not know it in the detailed sense required in the census, but could, by the means I have indicated, obtain more useful information, and enable it to be used in connection with a census.

I want to say a final word in connection with the Amendment on the Paper in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis), fixing the operation of the Act at 10 years. I do not regard this as unreasonable. It is in some respects consequential on the limitations proposed as set out in the Schedule. In my original proposals, I adopted the procedure in which whoever was Minister then would be able to come forward and get a positive Resolution from the House. That has gone. It may well be, therefore, that experience will show during the next few years, or it may not, how far these matters suffice which we are putting in the Bill to-day, and whether further information is necessary, or whether further modications of the scheme are desired. I hope, at any rate before the end of 10 years, that we may have sufficient information upon which to consider the whole matter in its larger aspects, and, therefore, if my hon. Friend will move his Amendment at the appropriate time, so far as the Government and I myself are concerned, we are prepared to accept it. I hope the Amendment I have put on the Paper will meet the wishes of hon. Members.

6.58 p.m.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

It is the usual practice in this House and in its Committees when a Minister makes a concession to thank him for what he is doing. If I depart from that practice to-day, it will not be because I minimise the concession, or from any lack of courtesy to the Minister, who has certainly dealt fairly and, in the main, wisely, with his critics from all sides. The reason why I propose to take a different view is that I think the thanks are due from the Minister to us in this matter, because we have, in fact, saved him from that grave unpopularity throughout the country which he would have had had the Bill in its original form become an Act. The fate of unpopularity is one which no Minister, and, if I may say so, least of all the present Minister of Health, would wish to reap.

The facts are, in the first place, that on certain assumptions, which may or may not eventuate, there would be a declining population in this country. In consequence of that, statisticians have made out a case for obtaining more facts of a specific character. Whether the elicitation of those facts will help the Minister to form a Bill or not, it is certainly a reasonable proposal that certain facts should be obtained. But there is this proviso, that those facts to be obtained for statistical purposes must not be at too great a cost of public inconvenience and an invasion of the privacy of individuals. That being so, the Minister gave instructions for the preparation of a Bill. It was couched in extraordinarily wide terms. The extravagant proposals contained in it very much surprised many statisticians who were asking for information, and very much alarmed many Members of the House who read the Bill. Before the Second Reading they realised, what the general public was only beginning vaguely to realise, the grave implications of the way in which the Bill was drawn. It was no answer to these views that the powers that the Minister would possess might not in fact be abused, or might not even be exercised in the full form in which they were given. It was no excuse to say that the House would have a further opportunity of considering any Orders that the Minister would make under the Bill because the House has only, even on an affirmative Resolution, a very limited amount of time and opportunity for giving adequate consideration to any such proposal. Therefore, on the Second Reading there was in all quarters of the House wide opposition to the Bill as drafted. I particularly emphasise the words "as drafted," because the opposition was not to the obtaining of such statistics as are really necessary, but to the form in which the proposals were embodied in the Bill.

Some of the statisticians, who, I think, had not read the Bill, and some sections of the Press which certainly had not given full consideration to its terms saw fit to condemn some of us, and to suggest that our purpose would have been served had we meekly praised the Bill on Second Reading and put down a few Amendments. But, had we taken that course and put down the very Amendments which the Minister has put before us today, is it at all likely that the Bill would have been modified in the way that it is being modified now? The only way to secure the drastic alterations that we have secured was to attack the Second Reading, and we attacked it, making it clear that our opposition was not to the principle but to the form in which the Bill was drawn. In consequence of that criticism, reflecting in advance, as it did, what would have been the attitude of public opinion had the Bill become law, the Minister saw the red light and recognised it when he saw it and, though be naturally proceeded to the Second Reading, he has very wisely, very fairly, and very courteously drastically altered the Bill. I have gone through it with a pen and a bottle of red ink and put in the alterations that the Minister proposes. Having done so, I was tempted to a rather interesting analysis of how much of the original Bill was standing, and I found that of 180 lines less than 67 remain, and even in those 67 there are considerable alterations of individual words. Therefore, about a third of the Bill as it originally appeared will stand and two-thirds will disappear. I confess straight away without the smallest difficulty that by these drastic changes our criticism is mainly met, particularly as it is a fact that these changes are not merely of the character but are to a certain extent in the very form in which we ourselves recommended them to his consideration.

I am very glad that he has been able to make these alterations. I think between us we shall make a very much better Bill which will attain the object which statisticians have at heart, and which will not give the same amount of difficulty and embarrassment to the general public.

The particular Amendment now before us meets one of the objections which I stressed specially on the Second Reading. As the Bill was originally drafted, a considerable number of people could have been called upon to assist in supplying the information, and I foresaw the possibility of the unhappy individual who went to effect the registration being sent back several times and having to badger a large number of people to try to obtain the information. As I understand the Amendment, the whole of that has gone. What will happen is that one person will go to effect the registration and certain questions will be asked. He or she will be expected to give an answer to the best of their ability, and, if they are unable to complete the whole of the interrogatory, they will be told they have done all they can be called upon to do and the rest, being outside their knowledge, will be left over. That sweeping alteration was one of the points that I stressed most particularly, and I am very glad that the Minister has seen his way to take this course. I think that will relieve the general public of a great deal of the difficulty that there was under the original proposal. The right hon. Gentleman in other parts of the Bill has made full pro vision for the information being confidential, but what he has not provided for—

The Chairman

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman has not observed that there is a special Amendment with regard to that matter, which as at present advised I propose to call.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

Perhaps I may indicate my point and, if you think it better to postpone it, I will do so. There is no provision, as I see it, anywhere in the Bill for a person who is going to be asked for information being told that it will be confidential. The Minister may say he intends to tell the registrar that he is to make that observation to the person, but, even so, I think it ought to appear in the Bill. I would ask the Minister whether he will at some stage put in an Amendment instructing the registration officer to inform the person giving the information that it is confidential. I am very glad that he proposes these alterations, and I am sure that he and the general public ought to be very much indebted to the criticis in all parts of the House who have induced him to make these very wide changes.

7.13 p.m.

Mr. Kingsley Griffith

Of course, it is an extraordinary thing to look at the Bill with the Amendments now proposed and to reflect on what it was in its youth. There is really nothing left of the old dog except the collar round its neck. I seemed almost to detect some kind of congratulation by the right hon. Gentleman who spoke last at having saved the Minister from himself, but I do not think he is quite entitled to take that credit to himself. His Amendment was not put down until the Friday, the Bill being taken on the Monday. I had my Motion for rejection on the Paper for three weeks before that and, if it had not been put down, the Bill would have had its Second Reading in its original form as an agreed Bill. I do not want to indulge in an undignified wrangle as to who killed Cock Robin, but I thank the Minister heartily for the ample way in which he has met the wishes of the House as clearly expressed on the Second Reading. It seems to me that this is a vindication of Government by debate, that when discontent is expressed on all sides the Minister should set himself industriously to recast it thoroughly in such a form as the House will accept, not by the mere exercise of a mechanical whip-driven majority, but with real approval and enthusiasm.

A number of Amendments which I have put on the Paper will now, as far as I can make out, be out of order because the Minister has removed all the words that they were designed to amend. In ordinary circumstances that would pain me very much—all my pretty chickens at one swoop—but as the Minister's own Amendments are fulfilling the purposes that I had in mind—he having a staff of skilled draftsmen at his disposal—much better than I could have done myself, it only remains for me to say that I am glad to accept all the Minister's Amendments, and I advise my hon. Friends to do the same. It is not necessary for me to remove any of my confidence, and I hope that when the Bill has been amended by the Committee and finally comes up for Third Reading, it will be in a form which will achieve the object of the scientific gentlemen who genuinely desire information upon this all-important subject with a view to the future of our race, and will, at the same time, avoid those difficulties of unnecessary interrogation which many of us fear both for themselves and their effect upon public opinion.

7.16 p.m.

Mr. Ede

As one who took some part in criticising the Bill on Second Reading, I want to join with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) and the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) in expressing gratification at finding that, somewhat late in the day, the right hon. Gentleman was glad to adopt our views. His difficulty was that he thought that he was drafting a poster for the general election which would not be criticised by anybody whose voice would be heard by him. One now realises, when he sees the effect of criticism upon the right hon. Gentleman's draftsmanship, what a pity it is that he cannot be kept more under control in some of his extra ministerial activities. I have carried the analysis of his repentance a little further than my right hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh. I have counted every word in the Bill, and I find that he started off with 1362, of which he proposes to remove 894, leaving him with 468, to which he proposes to add 400, giving him a total Bill of 868 words, of which 468 alone represent his first thoughts. The 400 representing his second thoughts are a great deal better than the 468 of the original Bill which remains. I do not understand the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman this evening, because if what he said in his Second Reading speech, and in the article which appeared in the "Daily Express" on the morning of our discussion, were accurate statements, the amended Bill is totally inadequate, and he ought really to have stood by his guns.

Does he now believe that Australia, New Zealand and various other Dominions have legislation like the Bill that he introduced, and, if so, why has so great an Imperialist as himself been converted by a Little Englander like the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough? Either the right hon. Gentleman was telling us the truth on the original occasion, or to-day he is running away from the truth. I do not think that he could escape from that dilemma even if he wanted to. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that if that for which he then asked was required, this Bill is inadequate. If, on the other hand, the present Bill is adequate, why did he inflict upon the House the trouble of having a Second Reading Debate of the kind that we had, which caused one of the Burgesses of Oxford University (Mr. A. Herbert) to use such language that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Ritson) feels that he has to explain to his constituents the reasons why he has to associate with persons who deal with such subjects in such plain language? The fact is, of course, that the right hon. Gentleman tried to put it across the House, and, unfortunately for him, was found out One can only hope that it will be a warning to him in future, when pseudo-scientific people like the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) ask for information in the name of science, not to fall into the trap in the simple way he did with regard to this Bill. I join with my right hon. Friend in feeling satisfaction that we shall not now have to divide upon many of the points that we raised on Second Reading. I rejoice also with my right hon. Friend in this vindication of the power of the House of Commons in controlling even so elusive a Minister as the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health.

7.21 p.m.

Sir Francis Fremantle

In view of the remarks of the pseudo-serious politician the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), I feel that I must, as being perhaps the nearest approach to a scientific Member of Parliament on the subject of vital statistics, maintain the position he has challenged. It is perfectly true that the attitude taken up by me, in trying to defend the Minister on the Second Reading of the Bill, was somewhat at variance with that which I propose to take up in supporting his attitude to-day. That has to be vindicated from the point of view of the statistician. I have been in touch since the Second Reading Debate, with statisticians, economists, and sanitarians, and I have met the leading body of members in each respect, and despite the epithet applied to me by the last speaker, I may, anyhow, venture to speak on behalf of the really scientific people and their attitude to this Measure. The main point is, how far were the original proposals essential, and how far the present proposals fulfil the purposes of the Bill. Obviously, the first perturbation of those who have to work in respect of matters of vital statistics must be whether the Bill is being cut down far too much. It is obvious that it is being cut down in response, and doubtless according to the wishes of the people as expressed in this House, and it is equally obvious that that wish is expressed in this House in total disregard of the real objects of the vital statistical bureau of inquiry, which is the object of the Bill.

It was a try-on as between the scientific department of the Government, that is, the Registrar-General's office, on the one hand, in the investigation into the population question, wanting to have as free a hand as possible in order to get whatever figures that were necessary for research, and, on the other hand, Members of this House rightly trying to defend the liberties of the people, but without any regard to the position of vital statistics and the need for vital statistical and scientific inquiry. The hon. Member for Oxford University (Mr. A. Herbert) convulsed the House with laughter on what to me did not seem very relevant, but the point of the Bill is quite clear, and the main object of the requirement of statistics is still maintained. I cannot make further inquiries—and I do not think that any hon. Member of the Committee can—as to the reason why the Bill was brought forward in such a complicated form as was the case on the Second Reading. I still believe that there are certain points that would have been useful to a statistical inquiry but which were not essential. That seems to be the conclusion of the statisticians, as far as I have been able to consult them on the subject. The drafting of the Measure originally gave rise to all sorts of excessive and unnecessary fears as to what might have happened and might have been avoided.

I hope that whenever a future Measure is presented to Parliament dealing with a really technical and scientific point, it will be drafted in a much simpler form, and much more in the form of the Bill with which we are to deal this evening. When you are dealing with a technical subject, it is essentially beyond the purview of almost all Members of the House, and should be left to the Minister to decide, with his experts in the office. Many advanced countries in the world to-day would say that certainly that is the only way in which you can really scientifically conduct a Government, certainly as regards technicalities. As a matter of fact, it is largely done in this country. Many of the most technical subjects are under departments, special committees, councils and so on that are under the Privy Council, and do not come under the purview of this House at all. There are many other departments of Government where a great deal of the work and technicalities is carried on without this House being consulted. This was a case where such an investigation was required and naturally as is the way of scientific men, they ask for a great deal more power than they thought they were likely to want or to exercise. Hon. Members, as a result of the Debate in this House, have decided to restrict them to the severest and smallest limit. I hope that it is not too great a restriction. The Minister himself has suggested that if it is found that there is too great a restriction, a further amending Bill may be introduced in the course of a few years.

Meanwhile, the object of this inquiry, let us remember, is infinitely more important than the actual difficulties of getting these intimate facts from the people. It is a question of whether the nation shall survive at all. I fear that the real seriousness of the depopulation question is not understood by this House or by the people at large. It has been decided to adopt an inquiry which will take a considerable time and we may be losing precious years while certain other countries have taken steps which have been successful already. You are side-tracking and delaying an issue, which you think is absolutely of no immediate importance. It is of immediate importance and brooks no delay. I am sorry that there should be this great delay, but I am glad that there is to be simplification of that which is required in order that we may become more active in regard to registration. I hope that the administration of this proposed Measure, as it is to be amended by the Minister, will be satisfactory, and I only hope that the distinguished economists, who, on a perfectly non-political or non-party basis, wrote a letter to the "Times" after very careful consideration, will be satisfied with the proposal which is now being made.

To-day we are taking a step, I do not know whether it is forward or downward, in deciding the best method of dealing with this matter, either the method of trusting the Minister by Order in Council to decide what things are necessary or, on the other hand, to adopt the course of saying: "Hands off the liberties of the people; whatever happens to vital statistics we must not invade the privacy of the people." I am not sure that the House has taken the right decision. It is a very vital decision but it has been taken, and I do not desire further to interfere with that decision.

7.31 p.m.

Sir Arthur Salter

In rising at this moment when my senior colleague in the renresentation of Oxford University (Mr. A. Herbert) is not here, I shall perhaps remove some misconception if I say that I am not in any way rising as his spokesman. It is quite clear that I could not emulate the presentation of his opinion, even if I should in every respect wish to do so. Quite apart, however, from the question of presentation, my own view is substantially different from his in regard to this Bill as he expressed it on Second Reading, although we then both voted against it. I rise without any reservation whatever to congratulate the Minister not only upon the Amendments that he has moved but upon the Bill as now to be amended. I believe that from the point of view of the scientific purposes for which the Bill is intended it will in its future amended form be of greater assistance than the Bill which was originally presented.

I do not regret in the least having given a silent vote against the Bill on Second Reading. The Amendments now proposed by the Minister are, I think, a complete justification of those of us who acted as I did. If any further justification was needed it has been supplied by the right hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). While, however, I do not in the least regret what I did, I have been rather sorry that the Minister should have had more trouble when he was making a disinterested contribution to research and giving his own time and the Government's time for this purpose than on other occasions when he has less conspicuously displayed such virtue. I dare say he may have thought it rather hard that some of us connected with institutions concerned with social research should have opposed him in these circumstances for I do not in the least agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) who said that the Minister thought that he was drawing up an election poster when he drafted the Bill. I have never seen a Bill that was less like an election poster than the Bill that was first introduced to us.

A good deal of surprise has been expressed in the Committee and elsewhere as to why some of us who not only agreed with the principle of the Bill and ardently desire it in its present form should have voted against its Second Reading. May I say why I took that course? I took it, not in spite of being in social research and social science, but because I am interested in them, and because this science will often require information—

The Chairman

I do not think the hon. Member can elaborate that part of the Bill. That must be dealt with on Third Reading.

Sir A. Salter

I bow to your Ruling and will leave that point. I sincerely hope that the effect of the processes through which the Bill has gone will not at a later stage be a discouragement to the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary or their successors if in the future those who are interested in the social sciences come forward with a request for reasonable information not involving an undue amount of inconvenience to the public, although inquiries on these matters must always involve a certain amount of inconvenience. I hope that when essential information is in future asked for by those interested in social research, it will more willingly be given, because some of us have urged that what is now demanded should be strictly limited to what the population experts have stated they really need.

I congratulate the Minister upon having not only escaped a great deal of unpopularity for himself and saved a great deal of inconvenience to the public by the course that he has adopted, but also on having by his present proposals served the true future interests of scientific social research.

7.37 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

I should like to thank hon. Members for what they have said in regard to my own part in connection with this Bill. I do not think that I shall regret my association with this matter. My view is that public opinion will grow steadily in favour of the course which has been taken. Opinion in this country has been growing steadily in favour of the necessity of knowing much more in regard to this vital question than we know at the present time. Looking at the matter not merely from the point of view of this Bill or the question of population, I am convinced that in the next few years we shall need this kind of information more and more in connection with our social policy.

Although I have not had as comfortable a journey as I have had in connection with other legislation, I am not ashamed at having been associated with this proposal. I thank those who have supported me consistently all the way through. There is, of course, a difference between the Bill as originally proposed and as it is now proposed to amend it. We shall not be able to obtain all the information sought in the original Bill, but because you do not obtain all the information that was originally suggested it does not mean that the information that you will get will not be of value. Naturally, I should have preferred, if I could have got the acceptance of the House, all the information that was originally sought, but I am I hope a good House of Commons man and I accept the will of the House. It is in that spirit that I have made my new proposals. I am advised, and I think that everyone will agree with that advice, that the information that will be obtained as a result of my Amendment to-day will be of considerable value.

As far as my own personal association with the Bill is concerned, I do not in the least regret it. I have certainly had a far less uncomfortable time than many of my distinguished predecessors who have been associated with proposals of this kind. I think King David started on this subject and he had a very difficult time. When proposals were made in this House for the first census in 1753 the hon. Member for Oxford University at that time said that the proposal for having a census would be followed by some great public misfortune or an epidemical distemper. Another hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for York, said that he did not think that there was any individual of the human species who was so presumptuous or abandoned as to make such a proposal as that made by the Ministers. No one has said that of me. Therefore, on the whole I do not think that I have done very badly.

In answer to the right hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) I may say that I will consider what he said as to the position of the registrars in relation to the confidential nature of the particulars referred to. It occurs to me that perhaps a greater safeguard would be that on the documents to be prepared we should state quite plainly that this is confidential information. That would perhaps be better than having it in an Act of Parliament. However, I will confer with the right hon. Gentleman on the matter.

Amendment agreed to.

Commander Sir Archibald Southby

I beg to move, after the words last added, to add: (5) Any particulars furnished in pursuance of this Act shall be privileged and shall not in any event be liable to be produced in any court of law. We seem to be in an atmosphere of congratulations, and the air is full of bouquets. May I remind the Minister that when he talks about numbering the people, it was the people who suffered while King David was immune? I join in thanking the Minister for his drastic alterations of the Bill so that it is now a reasonable and workable Measure. I congratulate myself that my Amendment still stands when so many other Amendments in the names of hon. Members have fallen. I move my Amendment in order to point out the dangers to personal liberty and personal privacy which are entailed in legislation such as that which was envisaged in the Bill as originally presented.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) is more concerned as a scientist with scientific data and less with the privacy of the individual. It is the duty of this House to see to it that when information has to be supplied by a private individual there should be some safeguards—drastic safeguards—in order that the individual may be protected, I will not say against the misuse but the use against himself of information obtained by law. That information should be privileged. The Bill asked for powers the exercise of which it is now generally conceded would have been intolerable from the point of view of the individual citizen. There is a modern fashion for statistics, very few of which, it seems to me, are ever used. People are compelled by law to furnish all sorts of facts and details about themselves and their families which many years ago would have been considered entirely their own affair. It may be that it is right that we should now extract from the individual so much private information about himself or herself, but as it stood the Bill went so far in the invasion of the privacy of the individual that the House and the country became alarmed.

When I put the Amendment on the Paper it was to safeguard the individual from the provisions of the Bill as it then stood, and from the Schedule as it then stood. We have not reached the Schedule, but I understand it is to be so altered as to make it more or less innocuous. I realise that the action of the Minister in meeting the wishes of the House and of people outside has robbed my Amendment of the force it would have had if the Bill had remained unaltered, but I still think that there might be occasions when information which is forcibly obtained under the law should remain privileged, and should not be disposable in a court of law. There may be, of course, occasions when it should be disclosed, but the main principle should be that the citizen should not be forced to furnish information which might be used against himself. I agree with what the Minister has said that the information furnished to the registrar and his staff remains secret and confidential.

No one has suggested, and I do not suggest, that the registrar and his staff are failing in their obvious duty, but it is not from a disclosure by the registrar or his staff that I wish to safeguard the individual citizen. I wish to safeguard him, in the main, from the danger that the information which he furnishes may be called for under subpoena in a court of law. I suggest that this is a point which this House should bear in mind when discussing this Bill and similar legislation in the future. More and more we are encroaching, perhaps rightly, on the individual liberty of the citizen, and more and more we are running the risk that some fact which is disclosed in filling up some form may be forced to be given as evidence in a court of law. There are occasions when that would be perfectly right, but this House should watch most carefully, in passing any legislation, that information which the Bill demands from the individual shall not be disclosable in a court of law unless the individual gives his consent for it to be so disclosed. I move the Amendment in order to call the attention to the trend of modern legislation and the necessity which exists to safeguard the individual.

7.49 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

The object of the hon. and gallant Member will, in fact, be attained if the Committee accepts an Amendment of the Minister of Health to Clause 4 which appears on the Order Paper. The Committee will notice that that Amendment ends with the proviso: Provided that nothing in this Sub-section shall apply to any disclosure of information made for the purposes of any proceedings which may be taken in respect of an offence under this Section, or for the purposes of any report of such proceedings. Subject to these two exceptions, which I am sure the Committee will agree ought to be made, the effect of the form of words in Clause 4 will be to make it impossible to obtain this information by subpoena in a court of law. The form of words in Clause 4 follows closely the form which was recently before the courts, when the court said that as these two exceptions were made it was quite clear that there was a general prohibition against their production in ordinary cases. As this form of words, therefore, has been construed it is desirable to follow them in the Bill, and by using this form of words we impose the privilege which the hon. and gallant Member desires. I agree that we have to consider carefully before conferring this absolute privilege in regard to information, but in cases where the information is wanted for statistical purposes in order to get a picture of the country as a whole, it seems right to give this privilege.

Mr. Foot

If I follow the Attorney-General correctly the effect of the Amendment to Clause 4 will be that there will be an absolute privilege except in respect of proceedings for offences under the Bill. Under the form of words would it not be impossible to waive the privilege?

The Chairman

That it a point which we can discuss when we come to the Amendment of the Minister on Clause 4.

Mr. George Griffiths

I think it would be better to put it in Clause 1 as Subsection (5). If it is definitely clear, why not put it in the first Clause of the Bill? I ask the Minister of Health to be a man and accept the Amendment.

Sir A. Southby

After the explanation of the Attorney-General and the assurance he has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.