HC Deb 01 February 1938 vol 331 cc132-7
Sir K. Wood

I beg to move, in page 5, line 9, to leave out "and the Marriage Acts, 1811 to 1934."

This Amendment and the next Amendment are consequential.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 5, line 11, leave out "and registrar of marriages."—[Sir K. Wood.]

8.28 p.m.

Mr. Lewis

I beg to move, in page 5, line 13, at the end, to add: (4) This Act shall continue in force until the thirtieth day of June, 1948, and no longer, unless Parliament otherwise determines. Provided that, in the event of the expiration of this Act, Sub-section (2) of section 38 of the Interpretation Act, 1889, shall apply in relation thereto as if this Act had, at the time of its expiration, ceased to have effect by reason of the repeal thereof by another Act. May I express my regret that this Amendment has to be in manuscript form? It is not altogether my fault. I endeavoured to put the substance of the Amendment into what I thought was the proper form when I put it on the Order Paper, and the Minister was kind enough to intimate that he would be prepared to give me the substance of the Amendment but that the Parliamentary draftsmen did not like its wording. I had a conference with him during the Recess, and the Amendment was re-worded to meet their objections, and as this Bill is taken on the first day after we have come back, it has not been possible to put the amended words on the Order Paper. The Amendment raises only two points. One is that the operation of the Bill shall not be for an indefinite period, but for 10 years only. The other paragraph is common form, to provide protection for anybody who has started an action under the Act if the Act comes to an end while the action is pending.

The only point that I would put before the Committee now is the question of the 10-years limit. There is a good deal of difference of opinion about the utility of this Bill as a whole, and there was much criticism of it on Second Reading. As a result of that criticism, the Minister has certainly, I think everyone will admit, done his best to meet the views then expressed, and I do not think he could have done more than he has done. The only other thing that he could have done would have been to have put the whole Bill into the waste paper basket. But if we are to have the Bill at all, we should be grateful to the Minister for having tried to meet the objections which were urged against it. The point is still left uncertain as to the period for which the Bill should operate. I suggest a time limit of 10 years, and the Minister has been kind enough to say that he will not raise objection to that.

There are really two points of view in this matter—that of those who wish to collect these statistics and that of those who have to furnish them. It quite commonly happens that Government Departments, for example, are empowered to collect statistics from private individuals, who have to go to a lot of trouble in filling up forms. Time goes on, and again and again it has been observed that, whereas further questions are added to these forms, it very rarely happens that questions are struck out on the ground that they have become obsolete or are not serving any useful purpose. As one of those who doubts very much whether these questions will serve a useful purpose, I am anxious that they shall not go on indefinitely merely because nobody takes the trouble to get rid of them, and that is why I suggest that we should now set a term to them. I think that, from the point of those who approve the Bill and want it, the suggestion is not unreasonable, because, after all, if in 10 years nothing useful can be shown to have come out of the Act, it is not unreasonable to ask that it should come to an end, whereas if good can be shown to have come out of it and at the end of 10 years the Minister can come to Parliament and ask for another Bill, it will serve his purpose.

Sir K. Wood

I am happy to accept the Amendment.

8.32 p.m.

Mr. Cartland

If at the end of 10 years Parliament has to make a decision, are we to take it that it will not be until the end of 10 years that we shall have any indication as to what statistical information has been obtained? There is nothing in the Bill which lays it down when the information which is to be obtained under it will be published, and I am quite certain that it is not the intention not to publish this information at certain regular intervals. What I should like to know is when it is proposed to do so, at what sort of intervals, and whether it will be at the end of five or 10 years, or annually, that the information will be published. My right hon. Friend, when he first agreed to the extension of the Registrar-General's work, arising out of the Motion, promised that from time to time he would come to the House and make a report as to what that Committee was doing. I want to know whether it is still proposed to give a report to Parliament as to the work of the Committee, quite independent of the information which is going to be obtained under the Bill.

8.35 p.m.

Sir F. Fremantle

May I utter a word of protest against the Minister accepting this proposal? It is a most astonishing one. We have to make up our minds whether we believe in this Measure or not. If we do we shall add a corpus of vital statistical inquiry to the registration system of this country, but the Amendment proposes that after 10 years this particular body shall be taken out again. It would be more logical for the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis), if he still represents Colchester at the end of 10 years, to move that we abolish the whole births and deaths registration system, but to say that we agree with the collection of these statistics, but only for 10 years, and that then we should make up our minds again is the most childish suggestion I have ever heard.

8.37 p.m.

The Attorney-General

As the Committee has heard, my right hon. Friend proposes to accept the Amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Cartland) asked about the use that will be made of this information. I cannot give any specific assurance as to the dates, and so on, but he will notice that in the new Amendment to Clause 4 one of the lawful uses of this information is to enable the Registrar-General to perform his functions under Section 5 of the Census Act, 1920. That imposes on the Registrar-General the duty from time to time to collect and publish any available statistics, and full use of that power will be made at convenient times. Experience will show what times are convenient. The Committee to which my hon. Friend referred will be consulted and kept informed of the position. The actual times of publication will be decided as the information comes to hand and can be tabulated and considered.

8.38 p.m.

Mr. G. Griffiths

Is not the whole purpose of the Bill to see that the birth rate goes up? The hon. Member for King's Norton (Mr. Cartland) brought forward a Motion one Wednesday about the declining population. The Government accepted it and set up a committee of inquiry. The committee made a report and the Minister introduced this Bill. As the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said, about 40 per cent. of the words of the old Bill are in this one and the other 60 per cent. consists of new stuff put in to-day. Its whole purpose is to stop the declining birth rate. The hon. Member for King's Norton and I agree with the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Lewis) that if, when we have had 10 years of this Bill as an Act, we find that the birth rate has gone up to the satisfaction of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) then surely there will be no need to bother any more about this Measure. If the upper and middle classes will do their job as well as the working classes are doing their job in this respect, the population will go up in the next 10 years.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. Ede

Without being so emphatic or revolutionary as the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle), I am rather surprised that the Minister has accepted this Amendment. We are dealing here with a matter that appears from one's survey of history to move over rather long cycles, and to suggest that 10 years will be an adequate period in which to find whether this particular information is of any value seems to me an unwarrantable assumption. The causes which we are attempting to discover by this inquiry for statistical information operate over far longer periods than 10 years, and at the end of that period we shall not have a sufficient body of information to enable us to say whether we are justified or not in continuing the Bill. I have never opposed the idea that this information ought to be sought, but I felt on Second Reading that we were asking for a good deal of information which was useless, and were really collecting statistics for collection's sake. I do, however, want the Measure to be one that will be a really useful contribution to the study of the social conditions of our time. I regret the decision of the Minister to accept the Amendment limiting the Bill to 10 years. We want more than that period to discover whether particular causes are in operation and I should have preferred a longer period.

8.42 p.m.

Sir A. Salter

I join with the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and the hon. Member for St. Albans (Sir F. Fremantle) in regretting that the Minister should have accepted the Amendment. We are now adding to the ordinary machinery for acquiring information as an aid to research into this important subject. The Bill as it is now to be amended is, I think, an admirable addition to that machinery and I do not see why it should be regarded as temporary any more than any other similar machinery that is set up by Parliament. Parliament can pass another Act in 10 years' time or at any other time, and this limitation of period to 10 years seems to be unnecessary.

8.43 p.m.

Mr. Gallacher

I am pleased that the Minister has accepted the Amendment, because by doing so he has exposed the whole sham of this Bill so far as the question of population is concerned. It is true that you can get out of this Bill a measure of registration, but when we discuss it we try to make it clear that the question of population is related to security, and that if we have a mass of unemployment and insecurity we are bound to have a decline in population. The fact that the Minister is perpetrating a fraud when he introduces this Bill and tries to give the impression that he is concerned about population and the causes of decline, is made clear when, without any discussion, he accepts an Amendment of this kind. When did a Minister ever come forward with a Bill that was supposed to be of value in this all-important question of population, and then accept an infantile suggestion such as might have come from a first class room, that it should be finished in 10 years? That is not the way to deal with a serious question. It is playing with Parliament and with the people of this country, and demonstrates clearly that the Government ate incapable of dealing with the question of population, which is one of the most serious questions that confront us. Therefore, I am pleased that the Minister has accepted the Amendment, because it has exposed his own character and the character of his Bill.

8.45 p.m.

Sir K. Wood

Perhaps the Committee will allow me to say a word on this Amendment, because I should like to tell my hon. Friend opposite and others who have spoken what is in my mind, and why I think that, even from their point of view, it is not an undesirable thing to assure the review of this matter by Parliament in 10 years' time. My own judgment is that, following the experience of other countries, before the expiration of 10 years we shall, perhaps, have to examine larger questions which are involved in the population problem in this country. If that view be correct it may very well be that any larger examination, say by a Royal Commission or anything of that kind, may result in a desire for additional information. I may then be even more justified than I feel to-day. That is my own impression; but in any event I do not think it will harm anyone if the matter should come up in 10 years' time, or in 10 years after, because it will always be possible for the Bill to be continued under the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, and we shall be able to note the position again. I do not think this proposal will interfere with the continual progress in the compilation of statistics of this character.

Amendment agreed to.

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