HC Deb 04 July 1956 vol 555 cc1496-506

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wills.]

12.2 a.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance will not be unacquainted with the matter that I wish to raise tonight. She will be aware that I have had correspondence with the Ministry recently about the matter, and because the outcome of that correspondence was unsatisfactory on 14th May I put down a Question to the Minister. The Minister's reply to that Question was as unsatisfactory as his reply to my correspondence, and for that reason I felt that this matter ought to be ventilated further. Hence the reason for seeking to raise it on the Adjournment.

I am well aware of the line which the Minister takes. He takes refuge in the fact that from 1911 every Minister has adopted the policy that, because these names and addresses are obtained under Statute, and because it is accepted that they are secret, he would be guilty of a breach of faith if he disclosed to aggrieved persons the addresses which I am seeking that he should disclose. The Minister does not feel that there should be any exceptions to the general rule which he has laid down.

I think that most people would agree with the broad principle that the information which the Minister obtains under statute law ought not to be divulged to any third person, but there ought to be exceptions, and if there are not exceptions it means that, in the case in which I am interested, the Minister is guilty of condoning what is a basic wrong by witholding information and thus witholding elementary justice to the people on whose behalf I am speaking.

The Parliamentary Secretary must be aware that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of unmarried mothers in this country who have gone to the courts and have obtained affiliation orders. After an order has been obtained, the man against whom it is made disappears, and, despite every effort by the unmarried mother to trace where he is, she is unable to find him. In cases of this kind, the distress, anxiety and worry to the unmarried girl is almost beyond understanding.

Of course, the same applies to a married mother—a woman who, for some reason, is parted from her husband and obtains a maintenance order for herself and probably for her children. After the order has been awarded, the husband disappears and she is left with the responsibility of trying to bring up a family when the man who should act as the breadwinner has disappeared. She consequently has no money and no income in the ordinary way, and it does not take much imagination to understand the worry and the anxiety which both married and unmarried mothers are faced with in these circumstances. Very often it means that, after trying for some weeks to trace the man who should be paying alimony or maintenance, they are forced to go out to work.

There are very many people in this country who feel that the place of a mother is with her children in the home, and especially if they are young children. Yet, because the Minister refuses to disclose the information which would enable these mothers to stay at home, many have to go out to seek employment in order to maintain themselves and their children. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to try to understand what that means, particularly in the case of a married mother. It means that the children have not only lost their father because he has disappeared, but it also means that at a time when the strain in the home is very great the children are bound to be affected. It is a time when the care and affection of their mother is needed more than ever in order to help repair the damage; but the mother has to leave them for most of the day and they have to fend for themselves.

I now come to what I think is a rather remarkable thing. It is that some of these mothers, faced with the circumstances which I have described, go to the National Assistance Board, and while the Minister refuses to disclose to the mothers the whereabouts of the fathers, I am given to understand that once a mother goes to the Board and thereby becomes a charge on public funds the Minister does disclose the whereabouts of the father. The Minister discloses it, however, to the Board.

I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to speak to some of these unmarried mothers—and some of the married ones—and try to appreciate all that they are going through. If a man in this country steals a bottle of milk, or "pinches" a turnip out of a field, or commits the smallest crime which is indictable, then the whole force of the police is placed against him in order to try to bring him to justice.

I cannot understand why we are so keen to catch a man who is guilty of such an infinitesimal crime of that character, while we are prepared to do nothing to catch up with the man who may owe £200, £300, £400 or, in one case which has been brought to my attention, £500. In circumstances of that kind, why should the Ministry refuse to help these unfortunate mothers, whether married or not?

Before I came to the House, I knew of a woman in circumstances such as I have outlined. Her husband had gone, she did not know to which town, but she did know to which county. I did not then have the facilities to find out where this man was which I might now have, but with a number of friends I waded through the electoral registers for that county and eventually we caught up with him. Is it not wrong that ordinary citizens should have to go through that rigmarole with all its trouble and expense when a single word from the Ministry would avoid it?

It is because of that that I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to consider the general principle involved. Tonight I have deliberately refrained from referring to any of the letters which I have received on this subject, because I did not want to mention names, addresses or details and thus embarrass those concerned. I cannot believe that there would be a great public outcry, a great betrayal of confidence, if the Ministry agreed that where a court order for maintenance or an affiliation order has been granted—and that is all I ask—and where the man has disappeared the Ministry should help those who would benefit from such an order to catch up with the man by giving the mother or wife concerned his address.

I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to appreciate that tonight there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of mothers suffering a great deal of anxiety and worry because of the very circumstances which I have tried to portray. The hon. Lady and her right hon. Friend are in charge of one of our greatest social services. It is a social service which is known for its humanity, its understanding and its kindness. The attitude which the Ministry adopts towards the issue which I have raised tonight is a blot on an otherwise admirable administration. I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to tell me that her Ministry will meet my request. If she can tell me that, her name will be blessed by countless mothers.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

I desire to support the very earnest plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough). I am led to do so by a very distressing case, with which I recently dealt, in my constituency. It concerned a married woman separated from her husband who had deserted her and against whom she had obtained a maintenance order on the ground of desertion a considerable number of years ago. He disappeared and was apparently traced to Canada.

There, after considerable effort, the order was registered in one of the courts in Ontario. Unfortunately, before the Canadian authorities could take steps to enforce the order, the court of appeal in Ontario declared that the Ontario Act for the reciprocal enfocement of maintenance orders was ultra vires. There was an appeal to the Supreme Court, and we were told to await its decision. The original registration was in August, 1953, and eventually, a few months ago, the Supreme Court reversed the order of the lower court and it then became possible to take steps to try to enforce the order in Canada.

As soon as we tried to do so we found that the man had returned to this country, We tried to trace him, but were unable to do so. He was a pensioner, and so I eventually communicated with the Ministry of Pensions. The answer I got was to the effect that it knew little about the man, but it could not help in any way in supplying information with regard to tracing him.

That is a concrete case of a woman who had a separation order, made immense efforts to trace her husband, was unfortunate in her efforts to enforce the order in Canada, had been doing all she could for many years, and is now unable to do anything more simply because the Ministry refuses to supply the information which is in its possession.

One can understand the reluctance of the Ministry to supply information generally, but surely it can exercise a measure of discretion in certain cases. If a case of this kind, or of the kind mentioned by my hon. Friend, were brought to the attention of the Ministry, surely it would be proper for the matter to be investigated, and for the Ministry to exercise its discretion if it were found to be justified, and supply the necessary information to enable the woman concerned to take action to enforce the order.

I am authorised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle)—who was unable to remain tonight—who is Deputy Chairman of the Magistrates' Association, to say that he and many other magistrates are extremely concerned about the position. They feel that a great deal of injustice results from the failure of the Ministry to disclose this information. I hope that the Ministry will see its way to change its attitude in regard to this matter.

12.18 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt)

We all have considerable sympathy with the situation of the deserted wife or mother, and we understand the distress, worry and anxiety to which the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) referred. My remarks will also cover the case mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzmann). The hon. Member for Jarrow need not ask me to talk to unmarried mothers to learn about their problems, because for seven or eight years I served in the city of Birmingham on the committee which looked after unmarried mothers and have real and practical experience of the problem. The law gives certain rights of maintenance to the women about whom we are talking tonight.

It is scarcely necessary for me to state that the Ministry has no desire to protect the husband or father who absconds to avoid his responsibilities under a maintenance order. However, the proposal made by the hon. Member for Jarrow, that the address of the absconding husband or father, as supplied by him to us for National Insurance records, should be given to the wife or mother who has secured a maintenance order, raises rather difficult and delicate issues, and has much wider implications, which must be considered.

The Ministry obtains addresses and a great deal of other personal information in connection with the operation of the National Insurance Scheme. The scheme is universal and compulsory. Addresses and certain other information are obtained from all insured under the scheme. Further, when claims for benefit are made, it may be necessary to ask for quite detailed information about an individual's personal circumstances. Although National Insurance became universal only in 1948, this kind of personal information has been obtained from large sections of the public under the old schemes since 1911.

It is clear that from the outset it was appreciated that the question of using any of this information, including addresses, about private citizens for purposes other than those for which it was obtained, raises issues of grave importance. The issues are practical and political and there are fundamental moral considerations which we have to take into account.

The hon. Member for Jarrow said that he was well aware of the line taken by the Minister in this matter, which is based on the fact that there have been many Governments, of differing political complexions, since 1911, and all of them, whatever the party in control, have followed the policy, laid down in 1911, that personal information, including addresses, obtained by the State for the purposes of insurance schemes must be treated as confidential.

Mr. Fernyhough

I would like the hon. Lady to understand that I am not asking for any information except the address.

Miss Pitt

The information we have in our Ministry is personal and confidential. I quite understand that the hon. Member is concerned tonight only with addresses, but we must consider the whole of the confidential information.

Mr. Weitzman

Is there any disclosure of this information to the police for any purposes?

Miss Pitt

I am coming to that. The answer is "Yes", but with qualifications.

Where exceptions have had to be made to this policy of confidentiality, the Government of the day seem always, and rightly, to have taken a conservative—with a small "C"—and cautious attitude in weighing the considerations and judging whether the case for making an exception to the general policy has been demonstrated so strongly that it ought to prevail.

The practical reasons for treating information, including addresses—I must deal with the whole of the picture—as confidential are not far to seek. The addresses and other personal details are obtained from insured persons because that information is necessary to the proper administration of the insurance scheme. It is important, therefore, that people should not be tempted to withhold or to falsify information about themselves and their circumstances. To put the extreme case, if the Ministry were to break faith with the insured population and make available addresses and other information to all and sundry, the operation of the scheme could be seriously impaired.

I have already indicated that there are other considerations of a more general character which we ought to take into account. They are perhaps less immediately obvious than the practical point which has been raised tonight but they are none the less of great importance to all of us. Perhaps I may summarise it in this way. As the State becomes more and more involved in our private lives, as is the case with the development of our social service schemes—particularly National Insurance—it becomes more and more important to limit the use of information which we ask for to the purpose for which it is necessary. This view should command the widest support.

On the other hand, it was seen from the early days of the insurance scheme, that a policy limiting the use of personal information in insurance records to purposes of the insurance scheme, could not be applied with complete rigidity. The conclusion was reached that in certain circumstances it was right to make exceptions. Since the early days, it has been the practice to give the police names and addresses from our records in cases of serious crime—I emphasise "serious"—but not in cases of petty crime such as the hon. Member for Jarrow referred to. This departure from the general practice dates back to 1913. Everyone would accept the over-riding interest that society has in the apprehending of a criminal guilty of a serious crime.

Over the years, other proposals have been made for departing from the principle of keeping information about insured persons confidential. Each of these has been weighed by the Government of the day against the principle that all records should be confidential. It will be seen therefore that both the principle of treating as confidential the personal information which the private citizen has given to the Government for insurance purposes, and the practice of making exceptions where the interests of Society are of overriding importance, have been endorsed by many Governments over 40 years.

We believe that this approach to the question is as sound now as it was in 1911. Although the circumstances of the people on whose behalf the hon. Members have spoken tonight command great sympathy, and the case for using insurance records in order to help is obviously worth serious consideration, to do as they ask would amount to something more than making one exception to the general rule.

Addresses would have to be made available to wives and mothers. There are two important practical differences between the results which might flow from that and the situation which exists when addresses are given to the police or to other Government agencies. The central records of the National Insurance Scheme contain more than 30 million names and addresses. There is a formidable number of people with the same Christian name and surname. In the case of the commoner names and surnames, the number of those which are identical is really astonishing. There are plenty of cases, in less common names, even where other particulars are supplied, in which the Ministry can say no more than that Mr. X appears to be the person sought, and that the last known address—which may be out of date even in our records—was so and so.

When information of this kind is given to the police or to another Government agency, these can, and indeed must, take steps to satisfy themselves that the person whose address they have obtained is the person they are looking for. This may not be easy. If they are on to the right person, he may not want to be found. If he gets foreknowledge of the inquiry he may slip away. On the other hand, if the person whose address is given is not the one sought, there may be embarrassment, distress and grave trouble if a direct approach is made. Where family relationships are involved, as in the case with which we are concerned tonight, the circumstances may be very difficult and delicate.

Just imagine Mrs. Smith, who has a maintenance order against John Smith from the magistrates' court. Suppose we do our best with age and other details to identify the particular John Smith. Mrs Smith then goes to the address. If she is met on the doorstep by the John Smith who lives there she realises at once that it is not her husband. But, suppose Mrs. Smith is told by the lady who answers the door that she is married to the man who has absconded, I think we can well imagine the difficulties which might result. This is not really a totally imaginary situation; it can happen and lead to much more serious trouble than that of temporary embarrassment.

Another point for serious consideration is that once the Ministry gives the addresses of insured persons, although that may be for a particular purpose, all control is lost over the purposes for which that information could be used. It might well be used for purposes for which emphatically we would never give the addresses in the first place.

There has been some criticism tonight, and I know it has been levelled at the Minister earlier, that while refusing the address of a deserted wife, he has been willing to give it to the National Assistance Board if the wife is claiming national assistance. Successful maintenance proceedings could then perhaps prevent a charge on public funds, but the essential difference in the two cases lies in the points I have mentioned. The National Assistance Board makes careful and tactful inquiries in order to establish the identity of the person concerned and gives a firm undertaking not to divulge the address for any other purpose.

Some consideration to this problem was given by the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce on the question of tracing missing husbands. It was dealt with in a paragraph which, I hope, I have time to read to the House. After discussing various suggestions, the Commission said in paragraph 1148: We are satisfied that it would be wrong to require Government Departments to disclose the husband's address, whether to an officer or a court or to the wife. Against the right of a wife to maintenance must be placed the right of the husband to have his privacy respected; in our view the latter must prevail. This problem, therefore, was carefully and sympathetically considered by the Royal Commission, which found it intractable. The considered statement of those responsible people was that so many Governments had followed this practice over many years and they felt that all who came to examine the matter would agree that it was one which should be handled with the greatest care and tact.

The present position, as the hon. Member knows, is that in order to try to help as far as we can we are prepared to send on letters to third parties if they are sent to us in sealed envelopes, which should be addressed to the Liaison Officer, Records Branch, Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, Newcastle-on-Tyne. But the Ministry takes no responsibility for the contents of the letter.

For the reasons I have given, it seems to my right hon. Friend that it is of considerable public importance that the confidentiality of these records should be preserved. But, as I have indicated, it has been thought necessary from time to time to make disclosures where the broad public interest so demands.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to One o'clock.