HC Deb 14 February 1947 vol 433 cc694-704

12.9 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I beg to move, in page 1, line at the end, to insert: Provided that any person applying for the first time for a certificate as authorised under section thirty of the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1874, and who has paid for it the prescribed fee shall be entitled also to a certificate in the form prescribed under subsection (2) of this section without further charge. This Amendment is in the name of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke), and as it is not my legislative child I think I shall have to ask for a shortened form of certificate for it. The purpose of this Amendment is quite simple. It simply requires that people who apply for the first time for an ordinary certificate, and pay the prescribed fee for it, shall automatically be entitled to the shortened form of certificate provided for in this Bill, without a further charge. It seems a commonsense suggestion, and I hope will be incorporated in the Bill.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

I think the meaning of this Amendment will be obvious to the Committee, but I would like to mention that under Section 30 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1874, the fee was only three pence. I have been trying to find out when that fee was altered, as obviously it has been altered, but I have been unable to discover it. I hope the Minister will be able to accept the Amendment, and as I made the intention clear in my speech in the Second Reading Debate, I will not enlarge further upon it now.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

I shall have to resist this Amendment on two grounds. First, it does not do what the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) and the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) intend it to do, and secondly, even if it did so, it would be undesirable. I do not blame the hon. Gentlemen for the fact that the Amendment does not do what they want it to do, because this is an extremely complicated field, and it is not easy to draft an. Amendment to do what they want to do. The three penny certificate referred to is a certificate given merely to certify that the statutory duty of registering the birth has been complied with. It is not a birth certificate. The effect of the Amendment would be that, every time a three penny certificate were asked for, the applicant would have the right to receive the sixpenny certificate as well. Obviously, that is not what the hon. Members desire.

I must, however, resist the Amendment on much wider grounds. It would, in fact, denigrate the status of the certificate itself if it were given freely. It is very important to remember that the reason for the Bill is to provide a certificate of sufficient validity, and if may say so, sufficient respectability, for it to be accepted widely, and for people not to require the longer certificate. I think it will be accepted almost as a general principle that things which are obtained for nothing are not regarded quite in the same way as those for which some fee has had to be paid, and if it were necessary to pay 2s. 7d. for the longer certificate and the shorter certificate were given free, I am afraid the general impression would be created that the shorter certificate was not of very much value. Therefore, I believe that on psychological grounds and bearing in mind always why it is that we have the Bill, it would be undesirable to have the free certificate.

There is another reason of an administrative nature against the Amendment. I am informed that it would very much add to the complications. These certificates are given in some circumstances by registrars who are paid fees for giving certificates and in other circumstances to registrars who are paid salaries, and the Amendment would mean that every time there would be a complication to the local authority in finding out how many certificates were actually given, because the registrar would have to account to the local authority in respect of each certificate given. If the Amendment were accepted, and if, in each instance, there were a free certificate given, the work of checking would be much more difficult. I hope that, having received this explanation, the hon. and gallant Gentleman will not press the Amendment.

Mr. Nicholson

I imagine that the administrative difficulty mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman would not be insuperable. The point I want to put to him is that the free certificate would be given only once, and it would not duplicate the work very much. As for the suggestion that it would not be valued because it would be given free, the person on whose account the certificate would be taken out would probably be an infant at the time, and therefore, I do not think this psycho- Logical argument applies very strongly. Surely, this Amendment would make the whole thing easier.

Mr. Bevan

That is not true.

12.15 p.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

I am disappointed that, even if the Minister of Health has not been able to accept the Amendment on account of its form, he has not given some encouragement that a properly drafted Amendment to deal with this matter might be acceptable to the Government. I think that, as a result of the Second Reading Debate a week ago, it was generally appreciated that, although the idea of a shortened certificate was excellent, the danger was that the production of the shorter certificate would of itself give rise to a presumption that the child was either illegitimate or adopted, and the general wish was expressed in all parts of the House that the shortened form of certificate should come into general use.

It was suggested that Members of Parliament should set an example by themselves applying for a shortened form of birth certificate, there being a presumption that, at any rate in regard to Members of Parliament, a considerable proportion of them are neither illegitimate nor adopted. If we are to get this shortened certificate into general circulation, what better way of doing so could there be than that proposed in the Amendment, which is to issue a certificate in the shortened form alongside every certificate in the longer form and when the longer form of certificate is first applied for? The right hon. Gentleman said that things which are given for nothing are not valued, and, generally speaking, we would all accept that as a principle, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Godfrey Nicholson) said, the person who receives this gift from the State of a shortened certificate, a piece of paper, will generally be an infant child, and an infant child cannot appreciate the difference between something which it has earned and something which has been given. I am not very much impressed by that argument against the spirit of the Amendment.

The other argument used was that the proposal in the Amendment would "denigrate" the status of the new certificate. I confess I am not clear what the right hon. Gentleman means by that. We want the new certificate to be in common use. We want it to be the ordinary form of certificate which is produced in the ordinary way. We want the longer certificate to be reserved for those cases where special circumstances arise, where, for instance, there may be the question of entitlement to property, or, on entry into the Civil Service, there may be the question whether both parents were British born. I think it will still be required for that purpose, because, as far as I am aware the requirement still holds good that entrants to the Civil Service must be British born. That will not appear, as far as I am aware, on the shortened form of certificate. I am disappointed with the Minister's attitude. It is obvious that we cannot press this Amendment to a Division, since it is in a defective form, but I am sure that other hon. Members besides those who sit on these Benches will be disappointed by the attitude the Minister has taken.

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

I wish to press this Amendment upon the Minister. I am myself neither illegitimate nor adopted, and I am prepared to apply for a shortened form, of certificate. I hope that the Minister will, if he can find some way of overcoming the defective nature of this Amendment, accept the spirit of the proposal made in it. I am sure he realises that the feeling that was in the minds of all hon. Members in the Second Reading Debate was that this shortened certificate should not be anything that would place the person who wanted to buy it in an invidious position.

The fact that the certificate will be bought, probably later in the child's life as it would be in the event of the majority of children, may bring the certificate into disrepute. There are children who have to take such a certificate to school when they enter for their secondary school, and I have many friends who are in great difficulty. Some have adopted their own illegitimate children, and they are anxious about the position. Perhaps some hon. Gentlemen opposite did not know that was possible. It has become possible recently, and a number of women have adopted their own illegitimate children. They are looking forward to this certificate. If the shorter certificate would serve for general purposes, then people would be able to put the longer certificate in a glass case or away with their other documents, and the shorter certificate would be the one in ordinary use. It should be part of our duty as citizens to encourage the use of the shorter certificate, and I hope that the Minister, from that point of view, will look at this matter again. I cannot believe in the excuses which he has put forward this morning, because there is really nothing in them. The shorter certificate will meet the purpose which we are all anxious to achieve.

Mr. Bevan

I am disappointed with the speech of my hon. Friend, because I should have thought that the Bill would have been welcomed for its main purpose, and not detracted from by the fact that it does not go very much further than the situation which now exists in Scotland. We were able to bring this Measure forward because it was discovered that in Scotland the payment of 7d. for the shorter certificate had popularised it, and I would not dream of running the risk of making any modification for England and Wales that might result in underming its popularity. I think that we would be running the risk of taking away from the value of the shorter certificate if we were to make a distinction between Scotland and England and Wales in this respect. Its wide use will be determined by the fact that Government Departments will accept the shorter certificate. No one can suggest that there is any hardship involved in paying 6d. for the shorter certificate, and I hope that every one will use the shorter certificate for all the purposes for which it is designed. The fact of illegitimacy will he obscured by the universal use of it. I do not see any case for making a distinction between England and Wales and Scotland in this respect.

Major Legge-Bourke

I am rather amazed by the Minister's remarks. It seems only right that those of us who feel that the position could he made better should try to make it so. He has criticised us on the ground that our proposal will detract from the popularity of the certificate. That, however, is a matter of opinion. It is the opinion of many hon. Members that a great deal of improvement is required, if the object of this Bill is to be served. The Bill was given a welcome on Second Reading, and I myself welcomed it, but I believe that it could be made a great deal better. As my

right hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) has said, the whole success of this Bill depends on how widespread the use of the qualified certificate becomes. The great drawback of not encouraging people when they register birth to take out the shorter certificate is that all these certificates will be dated, and the shorter form of certificate will vary in date.

If the shortened form of certificate is taken out in 20 or 30 years' time by people born sometime after this Bill becomes an Act, it seems to me that there will be a suspicion that the certificate was obtained for some nefarious or other purpose, and I think that would be disastrous for the success of this Bill. Any suspicion which the shortened form of certificate caused would do harm. We are proposing that encouragement should be given to people to take out the shortened form of certificate when registering a child's birth. I can understand that the Minister cannot accept the Amendment as worded, and I am sorry to have misled the Committee in putting it down in a defective form, but I believe that the principle behind it has wide approval, and I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter, and, perhaps, in another place, something might be done to achieve our purpose.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Dr. Stephen Taylor (Barnet)

On Second Reading, I raised the question of whether this Clause covered the case of foundling children whose exact date of birth was not known. This kind of certificate is registered sometimes as "on or about" the date of birth, and that would have to be reproduced in the shortened form of certificate. I asked the Minister at that time, if the Bill gave him the power to omit the words "on or about," and I understand 'hat it does not give him the power to do that. I have not put down an Amendment to this Clause asking that he should be given this power, for one substantial reason. The number of foundling children involved is, I understand, very small—about 40 compared with 40,000 illegitimate children a year, and any attempt to help these people, which, at the same time, damaged the interests of a larger number whom this Bill seeks to help would he unjustifiable.

It has been pointed out that if the Minister had power to alter any of the particulars introduced into the new certificate, as against the old, and the alteration was to omit the words "on or about," that might introduce suspicion about the validity of the shortened certificate, and for that reason I have not sought to get the Minister to take this power. I think that the correct approach to this would be to tackle the original certificate. The Minister has power probably to issue regulations to registrars to nominate the date exactly, rather than in the vague manner in which they have done in the past. Apparently, when children are discovered under the age of about three weeks, the registrar may use his discretion as to the date of birth which he enters in the original birth certificate. Where the child is over three weeks, the registrar has to refer to the Registrar-General for him to give a ruling as to the date of birth. I hope that my right hon. Friend will have a look at the original Acts to see if he can adjust them, so that the registrar may make an exact entry, and the exact date is introduced into the shortened certificate without those qualifying words. I cannot see any reason for having the qualifying words, since, for every practical purpose, the date named, even without qualification, must be deemed as the birth date whether for calculations of pensions or insurance, because there is no other date to go by. I would urge my right hon. Friend to look at the Regulations under which these entries are made and to see whether he can put this small point right.

12.30 p.m.

Mr. Somerville Hastings (Barking)

May I add a word on this subject, to induce the Minister to take the action suggested by the hon. Member for Barnet (Dr. Taylor)? I hope it will be found possible to apply the principle of the Bill to the other, most deserving and unfortunate class of foundling children. We all know how children who are adopted feel under some disability because, sooner or later, they find out they are orphans or illegitimate. The foundling child is in a worse plight when he discovers not only that his parentage was unfortunate, but that his parents were actually willing to leave him under an archway or on a doorstep. I used to live in St. Marylebone, and the guardians there had a way of dealing with foundlings which was rather—

The Chairman (Major Milner)

I do not think the hon. Member's present line of argument has any relevance to the Clause. The Question before the Committee is, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill." The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting some action by the Minister which does not come within the scope of the Bill at all, and is therefore out of Order.

Mr. Hastings

I hoped that it would be possible to add words to the Clause between now and the Report stage to bring within the Bill, and to help, the unfortunate class of children to whom we have been referring. If the suggestion is out of Order I will sit down.

The Chairman

The proper course for the hon. Member to have adopted would have been for him to put an Amendment upon the paper for the Committee stage.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

I should like to point out to my right hon. Friend a fact which might operate as a deterrent to popularising the shortened certificate. Superintendent registrars and registrars depend upon fees, which vary according to the number of certificates which they issue. It is clear that they will be out of pocket if people prefer the 6d. certificate to the 2s. 7d. certificate. Can my right hon. Friend make sure that registrars will not be influenced in that way, and that they will have an incentive to popularise the shortened certificate?

Mr. Bevan

It will be quite easy by administrative action to see that that condition of affairs does not arise, and I will certainly keep in mind the point which has just been brought to my attention by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton). With regard to the other point, I have the deepest sympathy towards the foundling children. They are in the worst position of the lot. I am in a quandary, however. I would like to protect the foundling child as well as the others, if I could find a way to do it. I have thought about the matter deeply but I can see no way of protecting the foundling which might not withdraw protection from the others.

The Bill has nothing to do with the original entry. It provides a short certificate which reproduces certain particulars of the original entry, but it does not falsify them. If the short certificate said that a child was born on a certain day when the original entry showed that that was not the case, the short certificate would be false. As soon as it became known that the shortened certificate was not a faithful reproduction from the original, the status of the shortened certificate would fall. If there were some way of getting over the difficulty I would certainly adopt it. The smallness of the number of children involved is no justification for not attending to them. If we can prevent injustice to one person we ought to do so. There is an old English roundelay which runs as follows: One is one and all alone And ever more shall be so. It varies in different parts of the country, but it is very old, and it shows how deeply sympathetic mankind is towards the isolated individual.

If I can find some way of meeting this difficulty I will certainly adopt it, but I am afraid I cannot see my way to do so at present. I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnet (Dr. Taylor) for not putting an Amendment down and so adding to my embarrassment still further. I will see what the possibilities are about the original entry, but I must make it clear that the Registrar-General and his colleagues are very anxious to preserve the statistical purity of the entry.

Dr. Taylor

I do not think that the statistical purity of the entry is disturbed by adding the words "on or about" as a footnote to the entry. It will not need to be reproduced upon the copy.

Mr. Bevan

To protect these children their record must he assimilated to that of other children and we must be able to give a date of birth. If we cannot find the actual date we say "on or about". I will see whether it is possible to give some protection to these children in the original entry.

Major Legge-Bourke

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the possibility of assuming the birth of a child within the nearest half month, so that the child probably born after the 15th of the month would have the 15th as its date of birth? Could he not make an assumption of the date of birth within the nearest half month?

Major Cecil Poole (Lichfield)

Before my right hon. Friend replies to that suggestion, may I ask whether it would not increase the number of people whose birthday fell on 1st April?

Mr. Bevan

It would still be an assumption and not an ascertained fact and, therefore, we should be in trouble about it. If medicine were an exact science, it would be possible to say on what date a foundling child had been born, and we could give that date, but it is not an exact science and, therefore, to record an assumption as an ascertained fact would, of course, be wrong. However, I have just said that I will look at the possibilities, though they do not seem to me to be very fertile at the moment.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.