HC Deb 07 February 1947 vol 432 cc2107-20

Order for Second Reading read.

11.30 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Key)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I wish at the outset to express the regret of my right hon. Friend that other urgent and important business prevents him from being here to move the Second Reading of the Bill as he would very much desire to do. It is not necessary that I should make a long speech in regard to it, because the House is already aware of what the Bill seeks to achieve and the importance of the object that is in view. I will, however, briefly summarise the effect of the Bill.

The main purpose of the Bill is to enable all the authorities who at present have power to issue ordinary birth certificates to issue also certificates in shortened form and at a reduced fee of 6d., omitting all reference to parentage; and, at the same time to enable the Registrar-General to issue similar certificates in respect of adopted children, omitting all reference to adoption. The existing form of birth certificate is a certified copy of an entry of birth and gives particulars of the date and place of birth; name and sex of the child; name, surname and occupation of the father; name and maiden surname of the mother; signature, description and residence of the informant; date of registration; and signature of the registrar.

The certificate including all this information is useful for a great variety of purposes. In a very large number of cases the certificate is wanted purely as evidence of age. The production of a certificate in the existing style imposes a quite unnecessary hardship on those who were born out of wedlock, and those who have been adopted or who, for other reasons do not wish to disclose the details of their parents. Quite apart from the embarrassment that this causes to the unfortunate persons themselves, it is alleged that the production of the full certificate, has, in quite a number of cases, led to the refusal of employment or the losing of jobs. Let me quote from a recent letter that I have received about a case which arose at the education department of a large local authority. This is the quotation: A young girl got a post there and had to produce her birth certificate. She was an illegitimate child. Not wishing this to be known, she altered her sister's certificate to meet her own case. This was found out by a clerk who was very interested in the manufacture of paper. He held the certificate up to the light and drew the attention of his senior to the alteration that had been made. The girl was prosecuted. She lost her job and everybody got to know that she was illegitimate. Quite a number of cases of that kind occur. To obviate a situation such as that it would be a good thing, we feel, to issue this abbreviated certificate.

In this matter as in many others, it is to the credit of Scotland that she has moved ahead of what we were doing in this country, and she has provided the nation with an experimental try-out on a sufficiently large scale.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

In 1934.

Mr. Key

In the Scottish Registration Act of 1934, provision was made entitling any person to obtain for an inclusive fee of 6d. an abbreviated birth certificate of the type which I now recommend for England and Wales. The experiment in Scotland has proved so successful that we have come to the conclusion that it should be extended to England and Wales. We had hoped that this reform could have been put in hand without the necessity of taking up time for legislation, but legislation is necessary because the existing provisions do not enable a certified copy to be issued of anything less than the full entry in the birth register. The reform which we now propose is of such importance and affects such a large number of people that I express no regret whatever at the necessity of bringing the matter before the House and asking for these necessary reforms.

Although this is a short and simple Bill, the subject with which it deals is not free from difficulty and complexity. Perhaps I ought briefly to indicate some of the points which have to be considered. The full form of birth certificate will still be required for a variety of purposes and the Bill leaves that full form available as hitherto. At the same time, to guard against the new certificates being applied for only by those who have something they wish to conceal, which would mean that what we are doing would not fulfil its purposes, therefore, following the example of Scotland, we are arranging for this shorter certificate to be issued for 6d. as compared with 2s. 7d for the full certificate, apart from search fees. This is the solution which has been adopted with success in Scotland.

The result in Scotland has been that the bulk of the shortened certificates issued have been for persons born in wedlock. The production of the short certificate does not of itself therefore evoke any comment from the people to whom it is produced. I trust that in England as in Scotland the shorter form of certificate will rapidly come to be regarded as the normal form for use on all occasions where only evidence of age is required. I understand that it will be normally acceptable to the Civil Service Commission and to the Passport Office, and for the purpose of the Shops and Factories Acts. I am confident that it will be generally accepted also by educational authorities, and I see no reason to believe that employers will refuse to recognise it as well. In providing for the details that will be settled by the Regulations the Bill follows the usual procedure under the Registration Acts. It is the established practice for the Registrar-General, with the approval of the Minister of Health, to give directions in this way as to the manner in which he thinks that the certificate should be compiled.

That is all I need to say with regard to Clause 1. It will be seen in Clause 2 that the Bill is to come into force on 1st January, 1948, or such earlier date as may be appointed by Order in Council. There will be a good deal of printing to be done —in times when printing is very difficult— and a good many arrangements to be made to bring the Bill into operation. I assure the House that if it is found at all possible to bring it into operation before 1st January, 1948, we shall take the necessary steps to do so at the earliest possible time. The Government feel certain that this Bill will be regarded in all quarters of the House not only as non-controversial but as a measure of social justice. In my humble opinion it bids fair to make a great contribution to human happiness by freeing from embarrassment many people who have suffered from it in the past. In that spirit I commend the Bill to the House.

11.40 a.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

This is a modest Measure, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out. It is a well-meaning Measure, and we can only hope that it will prove to be an effective Measure. It is on the latter point that doubts will arise in the minds of a good many hon. Members for, at any rate in: the early stages, it seems to me that the production of a shortened form of certificate will in itself tend to arouse a suspicion that the holder of it is an illegitimate child. From what the hon. Gentleman said as regards the issue of the shortened certificates by the Registrar General as opposed to the ordinary registrar, it seems to me that the certificate is bound to bear on it the name of the issuing authority. I do not see how you could have a certificate which did not, and where the only issuing authority is the Registrar General, a presumption is bound to arise that the child is an adopted child.

That seems to be the main difficulty about the effectiveness of this Bill. The hon. Gentleman said that in Scotland a great many certificates in the shortened form have been issued, and have been applied for because of the saving of the sum of 2s. 1d. which results to the applicant from making such an application. I am not quite sure whether similar considerations of economy will be equally effective in England; I can only hope that they will. We must all recognise, however, that a good deal of inconvenience and a certain amount of rather unpleasant publicity have attached to a great many cases where a birth certificate can be legitimately demanded. I believe it is almost invariably a public authority which has the right to demand a certifi- cate; it is mainly in the employment of the State and of local authorities that age limits are prescribed by law. I cannot think of a case in which a private employer is entitled to demand to see the birth certificate of a prospective employee. I have certainly never done so myself, and at the present time I should be doubly chary about making any inquiry as to the age of a prospective employee because, by so doing, one may become particeps criminis. It is the law today that women between the ages of 60 and 65 cannot earn more than 20s. a week, without suffering a reduction of their old age pension. He would be a very unwise man today who inquired of a prospective cook or housemaid whether her age was over or under the critical period of 60 because, if it turned out that her age was over 60 and he knew of the fact, then by paying her the ordinary wage, he would be rendering himself liable to prosecution. Therefore, I issue that word of warning. I know of no case in which a private employer is entitled to ask an employee his or her age; this inconvenience has arisen from the duty laid upon certain public authorities to make inquiries as to the age of employees, and it is in those cases that hardship has arisen in the past.

Mr. Rees-Williams (Croydon, South)

Is it not a fact that where the firm has a superannuation scheme, the employer would be very much interested in the age of the employee?

Mr. Peake

Yes, but of course the superannuation scheme in that case would not be run by the employer; it would be controlled by a joint committee of employers and workpeople.

Mr. Rees-Williams

But the same condition applies.

Mr. Peake

Yes, that is an instance where the employer might get to know, or might think it his duty to get to know, the age of a person in his employment. We hope that the Bill will prove to be effective in practice. Only experience over a number of years will show whether that will be the case, but it is more with hope than certainty that we give our approval. to the Bill.

11.46 a.m.

Dr. Stephen Taylor (Barnet)

I shall not delay the House for more than a few minutes. I am sure the intention behind the Bill is welcomed by everybody, but I wish to draw the attention of my hon. Friend to a particular difficulty in the case of one very unfortunate class of children, the foundling children. I have here the birth certificate of such a child and the registrar has entered the date of birth "on or about" what the date may be. The result is that if this certificate were reproduced in its shortened form it would at once give away the whole show. Already, over this very adoption certificate a great many difficulties have arisen. The certificate was given by the registrar because the child was found in a cinema and the medical evidence was that the child was about four weeks old and could not be more exact. It may be legally necessary that in such cases the exact date should not be given; that there should be an approximation to safeguard against some subsequent discovery of the exact date. I imagine that cases where foundlings have great expectations must be very rare, whereas cases of adopted foundlings who find themselves inconvenienced and made very unhappy by this information being given on a birth certificate are very common.

The foundling child is in a position of particular difficulty in this respect, because if it is known that it is not only an adopted child, but a foundling child in its tender years, it has very unpleasant experiences. It knows that it has been abandoned by its parents, and presumably not loved sufficiently by them to make any arrangements for its future. Clearly, it is outside the scope of this Bill to give any directive to registrars that they should not enter an approximate date in the original certificate, but I hope that my hon. Friend will look at the wording of the Bill during the Committee stage to see if he might add to the second Subsection of Clause 1 something on these lines: Where an approximate date of birth is given in the original certificate, regulations may provide for this to be given as the actual date of birth in the shortened certificate. I cannot believe that there can be any real serious legal objection to this, because there will always be the full certificate available for dealing with a case if serious legal proceedings arise. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at this matter and see if he can help these people. The parents of this particular child have already had great difficulty over its school where it was asked to be produced, and at once inquiries were made when this peculiar entry was seen. The parents appealed to the Registrar General, to the London County Council, and also to John Bull's legal aid section, but nothing can be done at present.

The other point I wish to make was touched upon by the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake), that the whole purpose of this Bill will be defeated unless the shortened certificates become generally used for a great variety of purposes. I think the low price will achieve this, but there is one other small matter which would help. I was glad to hear my hon. Friend say that the Civil Service will accept the shortened form. I was hoping he would say that.

I have recently been in Canada. Two Provinces there have introduced a shortened form of certificate which is very much like a season ticket. It is a very convenient little document which is embedded in cellophane so that it cannot be forged and will last indefinitely. It is of great convenience to have such a little thing which one can carry in one's wallet. If one is a post office savings contributor it is very useful to be able to produce such a form of identity instead of having to produce a large document. When the system of national registration cards comes to an end, possession of a document of this kind would be very useful. I hope the Minister will consider copying the practice which has been adopted in New Brunswick and, I think, Ontario, on the advice of the Canadian Central Office of Statistics.

11.51 a.m.

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh South)

I wish to acknowledge very warmly the generous observations made by the Parliamentary Secretary. This useful Measure was pioneered in Scotland and I think it has been found extremely useful. It will be found that it will become the common form. It will be universally accepted, and only for the purpose of record or in exceptional circumstances will reference be made to the original. To the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) I would point out that his example of a cook or a domestic employee is not by any means the one which really concerns us. Group insurance is the practice of many businesses and for that purpose this certificate is absolutely necessary. The insurance company handling the risk requires to know authoritatively the ages of the new entrants into the scheme. Just as in superannuation schemes, so in group insurance schemes this form will become the standard and it will relieve many of these unpleasant anxieties which have existed hitherto. I hope in the future more notice will be taken of the very valuable pioneering legislation done in Scotland and that this great country of England will not hesitate or not wait so long before following some of our successful experiments in the future.

11.52 a.m.

Mrs. Ganley (Battersea, South)

I welcome very warmly the suggested new form of certificate. Those of us who have worked in juvenile courts in connection with the adoption of children know how important will be the effect of this Measure. We appreciate how difficult the position has been and the anxiety which has been caused to people when they have been compelled to reveal the true facts. Children who feel this disadvantage very strongly and often exhibit a sense of shame will be relieved by this development. A youngster who has grown up without any real knowledge of the facts feels a sense of shame when the true position is suddenly forced upon him. Therefore, I am very glad that it will be possible in future to avoid this, and that for educational, employment and insurance purposes the old procedure will not be followed. Certificates are required for a vast number of purposes. They are required by large firms who run a superannuation scheme. Very often it has been a question of asking for a birth certificate because the superannuation scheme includes people between the ages of, say, 17 and 50. The certificate is required when the question arises whether people who are older than 50 should enjoy the full advantages of the scheme. A shortened birth certificate, giving the age and nothing more, obviously, will be very useful for industrial purposes.

It is not a question of saying that at some time we shall need a birth certificate. It is a question of having it until it is needed. Quite suddenly someone may be asked to produce a certificate and the full facts, under the present system, may be revealed and come as a shock to the inquirer. A shortened certificate would merely give the age. This Measure will make the matter much more simple and will not cause anxiety to an innocent person. I hope that this form of certificate will become universally accepted. Many people have got into the habit of feeling that a certificate may be necessary at some time but 2s. 7d. is something they are not prepared to lay out. The sixpenny certificate should be made more easily available so that everyone will obtain one. The child is the person concerned and if the habit was universal, the certificate would be easily available. It is a very great worry to the natural parents, who have become the adopting parents of children, when they think of the time when they must explain the true position. We hope that the time will come when possession of the certificate will make it unnecessary for such explanation to be made. I strongly welcome this Measure.

11.57 a.m.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I wish to welcome this Bill. I had considerable correspondence with the Home Secretary at the end of 1945 on this subject with special regard to adopted children. While I believe that this Measure has behind it the right intention, I am not quite happy in my mind about the method by which it is hoped to achieve that intention. I believe that we shall find that as long as two types of certificate are being issued a great many people will prefer the full form. If that is so, I am certain that there will be the same quality of injustice, if not the same quantity. The case which I took up originally involved a case of refusal of employment on the ground that a child had been adopted. We must face up to the fact that there are some citizens of this country who, rather unnecessarily, are inclined to be busybodies. They like to know the full details about those whom they take into employment. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary was right when he said that he expected that the new form would become the common form.

It is a little dangerous to take Scotland as an example. I think that there people are more inclined to mind their own business than they are in England. That is my impression. That may be humorous but this is too serious a subject to be made into a laughing matter. It is one which really affects a very small minority. Therefore, it is apt to be overlooked and considered unimportant. This is a case where the minority should be considered as of the greatest importance. It is a minority of unfortunate people who have suffered in the past whom we are particularly anxious to satisfy in the future. When the Home Secretary replied to me at the beginning of 1946, he said that he could not think that it would be a very generally acceptable remedy to provide that all children should have certificates which leave in doubt the question whether they are naturally born or foster children. Evidently, he has changed his mind and I am very glad that he has. I am certain there are other people who hold the same view. It seems to me that what we have to consider is the method by which this Bill is to be made to work.

I have one constructive suggestion make. It is that, as soon as this Bill becomes an Act, wherever a birth certificate in the full form is applied for by the parents—and I think it is understandable that many parents will apply for it, perhaps to show their friends now and again—at the same time, the new form should be issued free with the full form. I believe that by that means the parents would be provided with a proof of parentage which they would keep, and would probably not use very much. At the same time, it would be providing the child with a certificate of his age when he requires to use it.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is a most important thing, but I am a little uncertain as to what he had in mind when he said that there were several reasons why the full form would have to continue. I think it is mainly parental pride that would require it, and litigation. From the point of view of litigation, I wonder whether it would not be better to put the power in the hands of the court to obtain that evidence, as and when it is required, rather than still leave it possible for the full certificate to be obtained. Personally, I think we have to be a little careful on this matter. It is one which infringes directly on the individual rights of the citizen, and I believe that for some time ahead people will want the full certificate.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has said that certain Government Depart- ments do not intend to demand the full certificate. I hope that that will also apply to the Armed Forces, and that recruits will not have to provide the full birth certificate on attestation. I believe that this Bill will serve a minority of people very well indeed, provided it works. But I believe the Bill will only work if we can use every possible means to encourage people to believe that the only birth certificate necessary in this country is the simplified form. I am not satisfied that it will be achieved under the Bill, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to look into other means by which he may obtain that result.

12.3 p.m.

Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park)

Like other hon. Members I would extend a warm welcome to this Bill. For a considerable time I have been associated with the work of the public assistance committee in a not unimportant county borough, and with the children's homes under its jurisdiction, and I have come up against many difficulties which the proposed certificate will obviate. I am sure that the Bill meets a real need. I am glad, too, that the question of the foundling has been raised, because the problem of the foundling has, as I read the Bill, not been considered. I know it is extremely difficult. I remember an incident when I was chairman of the children's homes sub-committee of the public assistance committee. A male foundling child was brought in. The problem of a name arose, but when members of the sub-committee suggested that as a compliment to the chairman it should be given the chairman's name, I politely but firmly declined that honour.

There is, however, one point which I would like to put to the Minister. There are still registrars of births and deaths whose total remuneration is based upon the amount received for the issue of birth and death certificates, and not only their remuneration, but their superannuation. It is perhaps an unfortunate system, but it still obtains, and if, as the Minister indicated, this shortened form of certificate becomes widely used for a number of purposes, and it is quite right that it should, it may mean a serious diminution in the income of these registrars. I am sure that in doing justice in one direction we ought not to do an injustice in another. I am sure that the point has received the Minister's consideration, and if he can give me some assurance on it I shall be glad. With that, I would extend a warm welcome to the Bill. I have myself been in correspondence with the Department about a number of cases in my constituency, and I know that in those instances the Bill will be warmly welcomed.

12.7 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

The main anxiety shown by previous speakers has been concerned with the desirability of popularising the shortened form of certificate. In introducing the Bill my hon. Friend referred to the fact that the Civil Service Commission had expressed their willingness to accept the shortened form. I do not know exactly what that means-, or what he intended to imply by that, because Government Departments almost invariably require from applicants details of parentage, at least on their application form. I wonder whether Government Departments, for the purpose of verifying, details of parentage given by applicants, will, as in quite a number of instances I know, require the existing full form. It is most important that Government Departments, local authorities, education authorities, and bodies of that kind, should be persuaded to ask for the shortened form, and not for the longer one.

The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) made an interesting suggestion that the shortened form of the certificate should be supplied free at the time of the registration of the birth. While I do not, perhaps, altogether disagree with that suggestion, I would like my hon. Friend to consider the suggestion that a person who goes to register the birth of a child should be informed by the registrar that this sixpenny form is available and that the registrars themselves should be asked to do whatever they can to popularise the issue of these shortened certificates. I think the new form will save a certain amount of work in register offices. It will probably reduce the number of requests that frequently come in for the correction of errors of substance or fact which arise from a desire to cover up the fact of illegitimacy or adoption. It may help to reduce the number of applications to re-register the birth of a legitimated child. In a case of that kind all sorts of difficulties arise if one of the parents of the legitimated child unfortun- ately dies before the application to re-register is made. My hon. Friend, in introducing the Bill, quoted the hard case of a girl who had rendered herself liable to prosecution because of the falsification of a birth certificate which she produced. I will quote just one example of the kind of thing which will be avoided when this Bill is in operation. Let me quote the case, which is fantastically true, of married women adopting their own child to cover up the illegitimacy of that child. That is the only legal method at present available to them to cover up this fact.

It is within my own knowledge and experience that a soldier's wife registered her child leaving the name of the father blank because, by reason of overseas service, her husband could not possibly have been the father of that child. When the soldier returned and discovered what had happened, he forgave his wife and said that he would take her back and also the illegitimate child. He wanted his name to be recorded as the father of the illegitimate child, which was impossible, and the only course available to the soldier and his wife was to apply to the local county court for a court order of adoption under the provisions of the Adoption of Children Act, 1926. A copy of the order, having been obtained, was -then sent to the Registrar General, who -caused the entry regarding the adoption to be made in the adopted children's register after which he issued the certificate showing the soldier and his wife as being the adoptive parents, without disclosing the manner in which the birth had originally been registered. That is the certificate which is now being used in respect of that child. Of course, that is a ridiculous rigmarole, that a married couple should have to resort to that kind of thing under the present law in order to remove what they considered might be a stigma or a handicap to that child in after life.

In conclusion, I would ask my hon. Friend to bring this Bill into effect, if possible, before 1st January., 1948, because one of the things we have to remember is that a large number of illegitimate or adopted children born, say, in 1942 are now about to go to school, and if they can be relieved of this embarrassment a very useful purpose will have been served.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Monday next.— [Mr. Simmons.]