HC Deb 16 March 1962 vol 655 cc1748-94

1.35 p.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

I beg to move, That this House is of opinion that a committee should be set up to inquire into the legal and social disabilities of illegitimate persons, and that the committee should be empowered to make recommendations for the removal or amelioration of such disabilities. In the United Kingdom at the present time there are over 3 million people who were born out of wedlock, and half a million of those are of school age or under. Figures for 1960, the last year for which records are available, show that of those then born one in twenty was illegitimate, the total figure for the United Kingdom being 47,000.

I am a strong supporter of any steps that may be taken to terminate the colour bar. The colour bar arouses a great deal of interest in this House, but there is far less interest—as the numbers now present in the Chamber indicate—in trying to abolish the bar sinister—that is, the taint of bastardy from which a considerable number of our fellow citizens suffer. Those having that bar suffer many legal and social disabilities, and in many ways they live in this country as second-class citizens, without the full rights of British citizenship. That is due to no fault of their own. One may argue that parents may have sinned in the past, but I do not think that in this year of grace one should therefore argue that the children's teeth should be set on edge.

Illegitimacy is am increasing problem. Allowing for the fact that the figures for the Middle Ages may not always have been accurate, the number of bastards born from those days right up to the seventeenth century was not very large—at least, as far as the records show. A big increase took place with the disturbances of the Industrial Revolution, and a decline followed the growth of Victorian puritanism, but there was a big rise during both world wars. Over the whole period, and particularly in the last twenty or thirty years, the general tendency has been for the bastardy rate to rise. The surprising thing is that the 1960 figures show that over 16,000 more illegitimate children were born in that year than were born in 1938—before the Second World War. On the whole, the figures appear to be rising in a period of greater prosperity, when we are told that we have never had it so good.

This is a difficult problem to tackle, because there is no political group pressure from bastards. They are not organised in any way. There is no group to press hon. Members to take steps to put right some grievance. There are no votes in tackling this problem, because the individual who is illegitimate, or the parents of an illegitimate child, is filled with some sense of shame. The child is usually filled with a sense of resentment. All the parties want to keep the fact of the illegitimacy private.

The sense of resentment that illegitimate children have about their status has a very big effect on their behaviour, particularly on the behaviour of those in the teenage group. The child who finds out, when he is a teenager, that he is illegitimate at once feels a sense of instability, and the interesting thing is that such studies as we have made show that juvenile delinquency rates amongst illegitimate children are about twice as high as those amongst legitimate children of the same age group. That seems to be almost entirely due to a sense of instability; and of resentment against the community because of their status—

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

Can the hon. Gentleman say why it seems that the delinquency rate is almost entirely due to that cause? Is not that jumping the gun? Is it not more likely to be due to the fact that in most cases those children do not have a normal home and parents to whom they can turn, but are very often in care? That, surely, must be a far more important predisposing factor than sense of resentment.

Mr. Parker

The sense of resentment and instability that they feel is a very strong factor in juvenile delinquency.

Another cause of disturbance is undoubtedly the longer birth certificate. As the House knows, a shorter birth certificate is now in existence, on which the father's name is not mentioned. On many occasions, however, the longer birth certificate is required and when it does perturbation arises in the minds of many parents who have not told their children that they are illegitimate. Many employers demand to see the longer birth certificate before appointing persons to jobs. Most universities, including most Oxford and Cambridge colleges, want it, and I believe that the Foreign Office also demands it before making an appointment.

The fact that in the case of the illegitimate child the longer birth certificate bears no father's name, or bears a father's name that is different from that of the child, brings home to that child the fact that he is illegitimate and gives him a sense of resentment about his status.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

Is my hon. Friend saying that there is a real prejudice in the Foreign Office against the entry of illegitimate persons?

Mr. Parker

I am not saying that, but the Foreign Office may have a better reason than other people for wanting more information on security grounds. I am not saying that it decides against the appointment of an illegitimate person, but I understand that it demands extra information.

Another cause of difficulty is the procedure for dealing with illegitimacy cases. The fact that there is a police court atmosphere when affiliation orders are applied for means that many people would rather not apply. They dislike the atmosphere. This, again, helps to build up the sense of shame and resentment which afflicts all people who have to deal with the problem of illegitimacy, either because they have illegitimate children or because they themselves are illegitimate.

What has been done to tackle the problem? The first and most important step was to try to reduce the number of illegitimate persons, either by legitimation or adoption. I understand that at present about one-fifth of those born illegitimate are adopted, and about the same proportion are legitimated. It is likely, therefore, that about I million persons who were born out of wedlock are either legitimated or adopted and, therefore, removed from the position of being illegitimate. That still leaves about 2 million.

When investigating the subject it is very difficult to obtain any firm facts. One has to depend mainly on various social studies, whose data is often rather limited in scope, and one is not always certain whether the samples used are fair ones. That is part of my case for asking for a further inquiry to be carried out. But it seems to be the case that of the 2 million people that I have mentioned a remarkably high proportion—about 39 per cent.—live in stable families, in the sense that there is a father and mother in the family. They are living in stable family surroundings, although the family is not a normal one, either because the parents do not wish to be married or, more commonly, because one or other is married to someone else and is therefore not free to marry the person with whom he or she is living.

That problem cannot be dealt with until we face up to the question of a possible reform of our marriage laws which might make it possible for rather more of these de facto families to become de jure families. I do not propose to discuss that problem now, but it means that a large group of illegitimate children who are in this special position would be living in an absolutely normal family if the parents were to marry. The children would then become legitimated under the 1959 Act.

A rather more difficult group to deal with—amounting to about 7 per cent.—is made up of those who are living in unstable families, in which a man is sometimes there and sometimes not, or in which there is sometimes one man there and sometimes another. Normally, there is a man and a woman running such a household.

There is a very large group where paternity is admitted or where affiliation orders have been won in the courts. If the various studies that have been carried out are correct, in no less than 93 per cent. of the cases in this group—inclusive of those living in stable families—the father either admits responsibility for the child or the case has been won in the courts. In other words, there is no legal dispute about paternity. But out of this very high proportion only about 50 per cent. of the men give any financial support during the life-time of the child, and then it is often irregular or only for a short time.

Private arrangements are sometimes made outside court orders, usually by middle-class people, in respect of illegitimate children. Such people are not normally anxious to be taken to court, but the legal adviser of the woman concerned often sees that a proper document is drawn up and stamped, so that it can be enforceable in the courts, providing her with an allowance for the maintenance of the child during its childhood.

Where the necessity to obtain an affiliation order arises, only one out of every seven mothers applies for such an order, and 12 per cent. only of the total are granted. The present maximum is 50s., although until recently it was 30s. Only very rarely was the 30s. maximum granted. The usual sum granted was 16s.—and the average was only 9s. 6d. The money can be paid until the child is 16 or, if it has an extended education, 21 years of age, but it is very rare for any money to be paid after the child has left school.

Only 12 per cent. of the fathers pay, and they pay less than two-thirds of the sum fixed, which is half the sum that could be fixed and less than one-quarter of the maximum payment. The curious fact is that when the sum was raised from 30s. to 50s. the number of claims rose sharply. The reason was that although many women did not think it worth the trouble of going through the affiliation order procedure in order to obtain the small sums granted, when it was announced in the Press that the sum would be rather higher they felt that it might be worth trying to obtain it.

The passing of the Maintenance Orders Act a few years ago has helped to ease the problem. It means that many of these orders are enforced and carried out over a longer period. Even so, it is fair to say that affiliation orders do not play a very large part in the maintenance of illegitimate children.

How are illegitimate children maintained? A common practice is for the child's grandparents to take care of it. A woman may go and live with her parents taking the child with her, and possibly she may obtain an affiliation order. Very often the grandmother acts as the mother, and in many cases the child comes to look on his own mother as an elder sister. The very big social job done by grandmothers in such cases is not always fully recognised by the community.

The care of an illegitimate child by grandparents can have difficult consequences. The mother may take the child to them soon after it is born. Later she may marry, in which case she may go away leaving the child with the grandparents. Sometimes the grandparents will adopt the child and sometimes they will not. The child gets used to the grandparents as its own parents. Then a difficult time comes when the grandparents become old. They either die or become incapable of controlling the child when it reaches adolescence and needs particular care and attention. Some of the difficult cases of delinquency arise when an illegitimate child is living with grandparents who either die or become no longer capable of controlling the child.

Another group are placed in homes, such as Dr. Barnardo's Homes, or are placed under the care of the local authority, and often they are boarded out with foster parents. Foster parents do a very fine job, but there is always this difficulty that they do not provide the real security and stability that home life with normal parents provides because there is always the possibility that the child may be moved to other foster parents, or the mother may want it back so that the arrangement comes to an end.

Then again a high proportion of illegitimate children depend on public assistance. In other cases the mother goes out to work and keeps the child with the money which she is able to earn. These are different ways in which the child is supported. My point is that all these ways are far more important than the affiliation order made by the court.

Then there is the other group of children, the 7 per cent., odd, whose fathers are not known or where it cannot be proved who they are. There is no chance in those cases of getting an affiliation order. The mother's problem of caring for a child is far more difficult in those cases compared with the case where there is an admitted father in the background. All the various sources of income that I have mentioned come into play in these cases, but there is far greater lack of stability and background than in the other kinds of cases.

What are the legal disabilities from which illegitimate persons suffer? The first one is that death of the father terminates all responsibility for the child. If a child is halfway through his period of schooling when the father dies, there is no obligation to pay any affiliation after that. The only time that support for the child could be ensured would be if a man made a will specially providing that a grant be made to the Child.

There is one important and interesting exception. Under the Fatal Accidents Act, 1959, an illegitimate child is treated as a legitimate child of his mother and reputed father. This means that if a father is killed in a motor accident, whatever commitment he may have made by an affiliation order or otherwise to maintain the Child is taken over by the insurance company for whatever period he may have undertaken to pay. This maintenance may be paid up to the age of 16 or 21 if the child is receiving education up to that age. I think this is a precedent which might have some influence when considering what ought to be done in the future.

On the question of intestacy, an illegitimate child has no claim on what the father may leave. The phrase in a will "leaving property to my children Off grandchildren" does not include illegitimate children. If it is intended to include illegitimate children they have to be mentioned by name. The same is true in the case of brothers and sisters, although there is less objection there because in such a case the child would be a half brother or half sister and it would not be unreasonable when leaving property to one's brothers and sisters to exclude one's illegitimate half brothers and half sisters.

With regard to the mother's estate, it is a curious fact that if the mother has no legitimate issue the estate falls to the illegitimate child. But if she also has a legitimate child the illegitimate child has no right to the estate. Under the Testamentatry Dispositions Act, 1938, the courts have the power, if a man disinherits his family, to make some provision from the estate for the maintenance of the widow or for a child under 21, or a son over 21 if he is incapable of earning his living, or an unmarried daughter over 21. Many feel recognised illegitimate children should also be able to be considered under this Act.

Another curious point with regard to disabilities is that British citizenship is refused to any children of British parents if the children are born abroad and are born illegitimately. For example, if a child is born of British parents in Germany and if the parents are married, that child can have both British or German nationality, and when he grows up he can select which nationality he will adopt. If a child is born in Germany of British parents and is illegitimate, he cannot have British nationality. He can only have German nationality. Many difficulties have arisen in these cases both after the First World War and after the second when our soldiers were in occupation in Germany. This leads to all sorts of anomalies when a child is brought home to be educated and knows not a word of the language of the country whose nationality he has, and then receives calling up papers to serve in the Armed Forces of that country.

I suggest that the whole procedure of dealing with illegitimacy needs some kind of simplification. In many Continental countries there is a simple system of recognition. If the father is prepared to recognise the child he is put on a register and has certain rights. There is then no need to take the matter to court to prove anything. A simple procedure would be for some welfare worker or representative of the mother to call upon the father before the birth of the child. If the father agrees to recognise the child and make some financial arrangements for his upkeep, the representative could find out what he is able to pay, and, if he is prepared to pay a reasonable sum, the matter should be reported to the court and recognition granted. Such cases should be subject to revision in the light of changing conditions.

With regard to affiliation orders, I suggest that there is a strong case for making some other person than the mother, on behalf of the child, able to institute proceedings to prove paternity. If something more is to be done in this direction, it would be reasonable to allow the putative father to ask for a blood test if he should dispute paternity. As I understand the position, a blood test can definitely prove that a man is not the father, but it cannot prove that he actually is. Possibly, some of the procedures adopted in regard to the Transport Bill which is now going through the House, by which it is open to people to offer to have tests, and the fact that they are willing to do so is then taken into account, may be introduced here.

My last point concerns a very special case for protection for the child for whom no father can be found or in which it cannot be proved who is the father. This is the kind of case which I should have thought is in special need of protection, and I suggest that in such a case the court might appoint a guardian. The guardian might be some person connected with the court, or some relative or someone known to the family, but there is a very strong case for guardianship in the positive sense, not merely that of watching the interests of the child, but of reporting regularly to the court what is happening, so that the child's interests are looked after right through its early life.

After all, we take steps in Chancery to look after young ladies who happen to have fortunes and who might have their fortunes filched from them by someone or other, so that I should have thought that the case was even stronger for appointing a guardian to look after a child in such special need.

In this Motion, I am asking for a Committee of Inquiry. I think it is needed to collect information on the whole subject first. I have tried to give the House such information as I have obtained, much of which depends on very small surveys, but much more information is required before a Committee can decide what action should be taken. I suggest that, having collected all the information possible, the Committee should look at the law as it is now, see how far it is unfair to these people and what protection they require, and suggest possible solutions. I do not say that the various solutions which I have already tentatively put forward are necessarily the best—for dealing with these cases.

There is a lot of foreign experience which might be examined. In Scandinavia, quite a lot has been done in this field, and also in Western Germany, while behind the Iron Curtain they have abolished illegitimacy by law, although it is difficult to find out what this means in fact. I understand that in Poland it has meant that they have an enormous, number of affiliation orders before the courts, and, therefore, the proof or disproof of paternity becomes a very important feature of the case. I well appreciate that if we give greater rights to illegitimate children where paternity is proved, we need to have a better procedure for dealing with affiliation orders. In Russia, despite the abolition of illegitimacy by law, the birth certificate of a child born out of wedlock does not contain the name of the father, so that the child still has a bar sinister and comes to know about it.

In the long run, I hope that we will work towards some kind of solution in which we try to tackle the problem of fatherless children as a group. There are many problems in common concerning the children of widows, and of deserted wives, and of illegitimate children; in all these cases there is no father in the background. I think that possibly in the long run we should be able to treat these groups from the point of view of social need and on rather similar lines. I admit that this is going rather ahead, and might well require fuller investigation. The principle must always be that the needs of the child should come first. Whatever be the method of dealing with these matters, it will be necessary for the State to give some assistance; it ought to be willing to do so. On the other hand, the father should be made to meet his obligations, as far as is possible, and we should collect from him the money he ought to pay.

What kind of inquiry would be the most suitable. We could have a Select Committee of this House or a Departmental Committee, and I have no very strong feelings one way or the other, though I think that either would be better than a Royal Commission, which would take far too long to go into the matter. I should have thought that a Select Committee of this House was probably, on balance, the best way to approach the matter. The most important thing is that any Committee of Inquiry should have the power to take evidence and report on possible solutions. I hope the House will feel that I have made my case.

2.7 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

We are all very grateful indeed to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who moved this Motion, for the very great researches which he himself has personally undertaken and for the fact that, in addressing the House as he did in such interesting and lengthy detail, he went a little beyond the scope of the Motion. I imagine that nobody will object to that.

Clearly, from what the hon. Gentleman said, the problem affects a great many people, but there is nothing new in it at all. In 1066, there arrived in this country William the Conqueror, but a short time before that he was William the Bastard of Normandy. But whoever thought, in 1066, when he arrived here, having been known as William the Bastard, that he would become William the Conqueror? Ever since then, and probably before, the problem has been before the country.

It is not a one-sided problem. The hon. Member for Dagenham said with very great truth that one looks after the interests of these children in difficulties, and, naturally, one does, but the problem is so tied up with other questions as well—questions of marriage, maintaining marriages, questions of divorce, questions, sometimes, of blackmail, and one has to be very careful what one does before going any further.

For many years, efforts were made, generally by private Members in this House, to give the illegitimate child of persons both of whom fully acknowledge parenthood and who subsequently married, the same status as that of a person born in wedlock. There is nothing new in that. I used to learn about it when I studied Roman law, and Legitimatio per subsequens matrimonium was one of the questions of Roman law. These attempts on the part of private Members to get legislation through this House were generally unsuccessful. In 1926, the Government—and, quite frankly, I do not at the moment remember its political complexion—

Mr. Ronald Bell


Mr. Doughty

Without trying to take any political advantage of that, I am saying that that Government brought in a Bill which later became the Legitimacy Act, 1926, and which went a very long way to assist the position of such people, because before then the old rule had been that once a child was born illegitimate it was always illegitimate, regardless of what had happened afterwards. That Act, subject to two important exceptions, made the subsequent marriage of the parents of the child a ground for legitimation of the child. For reasons which I cannot explain—I was not in the House then—there was an exception made in respect of Scotland. There being no Scottish Members present, I shall not arouse the ire of those who are not here by suggesting that the Scots must clearly be in a different position from the English and the Welsh in these matters.

There was the further important exception in the 1926 Act that Nothing in this Act shall operate to legitimate a person whose father or mother was married to a third person when the illegitimate person was born. In other words, if one of the parents of the child born out of wedlock, the man or the woman, was married at the time, no subsequent act of theirs could ever legitimate the child.

The hon. Gentleman will recollect that in 1959 he introduced to the House and succeeded in having passed into law his Legitimacy Bill. He did not refer to this in his speech, but I propose to refer to it now. His Bill, which became the Legitimacy Act, 1959, removed the disability to which I have referred. I have referred to the terms of this Act and I have studied what was said in the Second Reading debate, which took place on 30th January, 1959. The hon. Gentleman introduced his Bill, not entirely without opposition, to remove the disability to which I have referred and enable parents married to someone else at the time of the conception to legitimate the child.

I spoke in the Second Reading debate. I shall not read my speech again now. If hon. Members wish to refer to it, they will find it reported in Volume 598 of HANSARD, beginning at column 1417. Although there was a Division upon the Question "That the Bill be now read a Second time", I took no part in it because, although I fully understand the arguments which the hon. Gentleman advanced on that occasion and which, in essence, he has repeated today, I realise that there are dangers and difficulties likely to arise if further change is made.

Although, of course—to use a colloquialism—one wants to do a good turn to the child, one must remember that the change proposed would undoubtedly lead to a weakening of the bonds of matrimony, because the parent of the illegitimate child who was, at the time of the conception, married to someone else would, naturally, have an additional argument or ground for pressure to break up the marriage already in existence.

Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have to consider the children in all these cases, we have to consider, also, how far we should go along the path which he has said is open to us. Ought we thereby to make marriages which, although already shaky, might continue a little longer more likely to break up, with the consequent disadvantages, both social and otherwise, falling upon the children of the actual marriages?

As the hon. Gentleman has told us, a number of children have by reason of these two Acts been subsequently legitimised, and I think that we can agree that, their position having been regularised, we need worry no further about them.

The hon. Gentleman spoke at some length, out of the fruits of commendable research, about affiliation orders, but affiliation orders do not come within the scope of his Motion. An affiliation order affects the parents. The child is too young to know what is his legal or social position when an affiliation order is made. Affiliation orders raise extremely difficult questions, of course. If a man admits paternity, there is an end of the matter and it need not go to court. A man of any substance or sense of responsibility at all will make an arrangement out of court. Questions of proof—there are technical and legal matters surrounding the proof required to obtain affiliation orders—often form a stumbling block, but I do not think that in this debate we need touch further upon such matters which are strictly outside the subject we are discussing.

The Motion expressly refers to the legal and social disabilities of illegitimate persons. I say at once that for this purpose we can dismiss the question of social position. We cannot deal with a person's social position by a committee of inquiry, or by legislation thereafter in the House. I will give an example. We have frequently before us—it will come before us again today—a Bill designed to deal with racial discrimination. We all have our views about whether racial discrimination is good or bad, but we must recognise that, no matter how strongly we oppose it, it cannot be dealt with by legislation. It is a matter of feeling and behaviour.

Mr. Parker

Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman recognise that, if we remove certain legal disabilities from a group of persons, we raise their status and this improves their social position relative to other members of the community? One of the strongest arguments for dealing with legal disabilities is that the removal of them helps to deal with social disabilities.

Mr. Doughty

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I understand perfectly what he has in mind. Even if we raise a person's status or social position—I do not mean his class position, but his social position having regard to his disabilities, if any—we still leave it open to people to say, "By law, he is something which he is not." We cannot change a person's social disabilities, if any, by Clauses argued and passed through Parliament.

The inquiry for which the hon. Member asks is an inquiry into the legal position of illegitimate children. We all know something about this subject, no one better, perhaps, than the hon. Gentleman who has studied it in so much detail, and I am sure that, if he requires further information, any hon. Member in any part of the House who has information to offer, including my hon. and learned Friend who speaks for the Home Office, could provide it. These matters are not new. There is the position of people who may or may not be entitled to inherit. Their position vis-à-vis their parents is well known. A committee of inquiry could only set out—in convenient form for us to read, I agree—the information which we could all find out for ourselves, as the hon. Gentleman has done, through research and inquiry.

I come now to the nexus of the whole question. Having made the inquiry and found out what the legal disabilities of these children are, ought we, in fairness to people who may be affected by a change, to take any action? If the hon. Gentleman is ever lucky in the Ballot for a Private Member's Bill, as he was on a previous occasion, and he thinks that there is something here which ought to remedied by the House, he can do so. He knows better than I do that the House is not harsh or unkind on such occasions. Perhaps one of his hon. Friends might be persuaded to introduce such a Bill which he could support in order to put the matter through the House of Commons in the ordinary way.

It is significant, I think, that, since I have been in the House, about ten years now, many Private Members' Bills have been introduced but, with the exception of the one which became the Legitimacy Act, 1959, which dealt with something which was regarded by many people as a wrong or hardship, no private Member—I shall be corrected if I am wrong—has ever sought to introduce a Bill to remedy the position of such persons as we are discussing today. Therefore, I do not think that I shall be unduly criticised if I say that, although we would wish to remove causes of suffering and hardship, we cannot change the position of these children because we cannot change the circumstances of their birth. In making such alterations one is liable to create greater hardships for other people.

Let me give an example. A person may feel certain that, because of what his mother has told him, Mr. X is his father. Suppose that Mr. X dies a rich man, but he is not mentioned in his will, or that Mr. X dies intestate. The unfortunate person in that position feels that he has been "done out of" something, or is, at any rate, entitled to a share in his father's estate. Can the hon. Gentleman really say that he should have a share?

Mr. Parker

Surely there is a distinction between a child recognised by the father or by the courts as being his child and a child in respect of whom there is no such recognition. Obviously, in the latter case, he should not have a claim, but, when there is recognition, I should have thought that he should have a claim.

Mr. Doughty

That is the answer that I would give if the question were put to me. That is the whole difficulty of the matter. One cannot slide over it by saying, "If there is recognition, he should have a claim." In many cases, there is not recognition and there is dispute right to the end. The courts may make a decision, but—and I say this with some hesitation in view of my connection with the courts—one cannot say that the court is always right in these matters. Very difficult questions have to be decided.

For instance, women who have these children—and many of them do—have at the back of their minds that they know that the father is what we call in law a man of straw. Naturally, they try to get an order against someone who is better off and, because of the desperate straits in which they find themselves, they are often not averse to a little bit of untruth, and an order may be quite wrongly made. I therefore do not think that the fact that an order has been made against someone should necessarily give a person a legal right in an estate in which he thinks he should share.

The hon. Member for Dagenham was right in what he said about the 1959 Act, and in saying that in divorces the question of illegitimate children must be considered nowadays. We have gone a very long way to alleviate the hardships of those who, through no fault of their own, were born into this condition. But before we go any further we should be very careful to ensure that we do not inflict hardship on others. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he brings a Bill before the House to alleviate a hardship which he thinks should be alleviated, I will give it my most careful consideration and, possibly, approval. I remind him that his last Bill was not opposed by me.

2.23 p.m.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

Many speeches similar to that of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) have been made over the years. I do not say that in any hostile way. He referred to the debates going back to, I think, 1927, the date of the original Act.

Mr. Doughty

No, 1926.

Mr. Pannell

If he refers to a debate which goes back even further than that, namely, to the time when the question whether the grounds of misconduct and other things should be equal in divorces, speeches were made very similar to the one which the hon. and learned Gentleman made today. They were largely pleas, although humane pleas, in favour of the status quo because of the harm which might be done to others if it were changed.

I am sure that during the ten years in which the hon. and learned Gentleman has been in the House—I have been here nearly thirteen years—he has often been appalled by the choice that we often have to make between two or more evils, and take the papal injunction—of all evils choose the least. That is the way in which we must consider this matter today.

If one traces the history of social relationships back to, say, 1832, which was the time of the Reform Bill from which our modern legislation stems, we come to the question of the social position of different classes of people. This is where the hon. and learned Gentleman was fundamentally wrong. He said that we do not legislate for social esteem. But that we do. It is legislation which, to a degree, gives recognition and social esteem, and we make a great mistake if we think otherwise. I hope that I have not gone back too far in my researches, but I attach great importance to the problem as to how we can legislate to remove social disabilities.

I have been interested, as hon. Members know, in the position of women over a number of years with regard to equal pay, and so on. If we go back to the period of which I am speaking and consider the work of Josephine Butler in the matter of the esteem in which we should hold women, we go back to a society in which social convention was built on the idea that, although men wanted virgins brought to the altar, they still wished to sow their wild oats. It has been a long period of disenchantment for all sorts of men, but we have now been forced to recognise women as equal elements in society.

Speeches similar to that of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East must have been made when the Married Women's Property Bill was being considered. We cannot separate the esteem in which we hold illegitimate children from the esteem in which we hold women generally, because, if we cannot legislate for social esteem, equally we cannot legislate for the disabilities of one sex as against another. But we have steadily legislated against that. I think that the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) served on the Committee dealing with attachment orders which was initiated by the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers).

Mr. Ronald Bell

I was. It sat for a very long time, and I examined the Bill most carefully line by line.

Mr. Pannell

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did. I am glad that he reinforces my memory on that matter. I would not question his disinterestedness or integrity in this subject. It is a question of a fundamental approach.

No one would argue that the Bill of the hon. Lady the Member for Devon-port has not justified itself quickly. Many of the speeches which were made in Committee and in the House by opponents to it have been proved nonsense. That is why it seemed to me that the hon. and learned Gentleman was sounding a belated warning note in 1962 which must have been sounded over the ages. He went back further than I have gone back. He referred to the illegitimacy of William the Conqueror.

The cause of illegitimacy often has a class connotation. The bar sinister may have been all right in its way, but it carried no disabilities among the aristocracy through the ages. There was then a society which did not have so much of a middle class as we understand it today, and the institution of marriage was not commonplace. I do not know whether it mattered so much then or not.

We have to consider the position in modern England. We have also to consider the Puritan phase through which this country went and the attempt during the long reign of Victoria to give stability to marriage. It seems to me that, in attempting to give stability to that estate—this applies to all classes in society—many people were the victims of Victorian respectability, and that sort of thing lives to this day.

I have spent a bit of time on this, because I am trying to tell the hon. and learned Gentleman, through you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, how much I disagree with him on this question of legislation and giving esteem. The Motion itself calls for a committee of inquiry. into the legal and social disabilities of illegitimate persons". Why do we want that? We want that so that we can get on the record what is our belief and because we want authoritative evidence on the subject.

With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who has done a great deal of research upon this, while we shall have his speech and the debate as a whole reported in HANSARD—perhaps a couple of lines in the newspapers tomorrow—I am sure my hon. Friend would not claim that the statements which he has made have the authority which those made by, say, a Departmental committee would have, if a Departmental committee, including some distinguished persons, were brought together to do some research and give us its results. We need research into the sort of things which could be done to remove the disabilities on illegitimate persons without harm to others. That is really all we are asking for, and I am sure I carry the hon. and learned Gentleman with me on that point.

Mr. Doughty

Yes, of course, the hon. Gentleman carries me with him on that point. I grasp the point that he is making. I ask him to grasp this point, that the easier we make the position of these people the more we increase the number of cases we have of difficulty, if we remove the stigma from the parents, between the children of persons married and of persons unmarried. We have to keep the balance somewhere without going to extremes which would affect the morality of social, and moral, behaviour.

Mr. Pannell

I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will acquit me of being offensive when I say that if ever one has had to look at this problem subjectively one tends to take a view of it different from that of those who look at it objectively in the courts. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman looks on this sort of thing too objectively.

What oppresses me is that the numbers of these people are increasing. Marriages are younger. And children are coming of younger parents. That they arrive is not their fault. I have often thought that one of the few wise sayings of the late Horatio Bottomley was that if we were to stop talking about illegitimate children and to start talking about illegitimate parents we should probably get nearer to the heart of the problem.

Therefore, I would hope that the Government would set up an inquiry. We do not want anything as massive as a Royal Commission, and I do not agree with my hon. Friend that a Select Committee is the sort of body for this sort of thing. Hon. Members are busy with a great variety of subjects. I should have thought there were enough of all sorts of specialist people in this field whose experience could be brought together to bear upon the matter, and I should have thought that a Departmental committee could do the job.

We need not, however, quarrel about the sort of set-up. It seems to anyone who has done any sort of research into the matter, even in the Library, that there is a great deal of information which we still need to get about people, about illegitimacy, about the delinquency which follows deprivation—all that sort of thing. Therefore, I would hope that the Joint Under-Secretary of State would respond today on behalf of his Department.

The Home Department has not a very good record for jumping to attention upon these matters. I remember that the former Member for Ealing, North, Mr. James Hudson, who is still remembered with affection in the House, called the Home Department the great squasher of humane causes. We shall see how far that is true at the end of the day. The Under-Secretary started his political life here, I can remember, by speaking at the 1945 Labour Party conference. He was speaking then about liberties, not squashing them, not squashing the old Liberal tradition. On the morrow of Orpington, I find that rather moving. However, I can at least ask him to remember with compassion the fact that he did have a leftward look at causes not so very long ago.

We should get together a body of evidence on these social disabilities and on how they can be met, in view, particularly, of the changed social pattern. There are so many girls being put in the position of mothering children even when still at school themselves, and the figures are frightening. I think that if the Government would have this inquiry they would be fulfilling a social purpose. With great respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Surrey, East, we could then look objectively at this body of evidence and decide whether we could take some further steps which would increase these people's social esteem.

I take it that we are all on common ground here, that a man is a person in his own right. He has a right to be judged, as he passes through life, without reference to what his father was. As a Socialist, I happen to believe that people should not be judged by inherited wealth, or by what family they spring from. Having said that one way, of those people who are well endowed with this world's goods, I say it also the other way, that a person should not be disadvantaged unduly by the circumstances of his birth.

Surely that is not unreasonable. If we could take away the stigma from these people so that as they pass through life they are judged as persons making their contribution to society and not by consideration of their beginnings, we should, I think, be at accord with the aspirations of hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House.

I therefore hope that the Home Secretary will be able to do something about it. He is a Butler. He traces his kinship with the greatest of the women who took up the cause of women, Josephine Butler herself, and one of her sayings was that that which is morally wrong can never be economically right. That which is morally wrong, I think, can never be legally right. These are the sorts of considerations which we all of us should have in mind in accepting the Motion which has been so well moved by my hon. Friend today.

2.37 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

As I listened to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) moving his Motion I must say that the sentiment he left on my mind was one of wanting to agree with him as much as I possibly could. I congratulate him on bringing this subject before us, and particularly on the way in which he moved his Motion.

I am only sorry that that impression has been so smudged and almost eradicated by the speech to which we have just listened by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell). The hon. Member for Leeds, West always brings this strident note into our debates, even when they are on such non-partisan subjects as that which the hon. Member for Dagenham has raised today. It is always possible to do as the hon. Gentle man has done, to consider these questions as aspects of the great conflict between progress and reaction—

Mr. C. Pannell

They are.

Mr. Bell

—of good social attitudes and bad social attitudes. For him to speak, as he has done, somewhat aggressively as a Socialist and turn this whole thing into the great social crusade of our time does not really help at all in a subject where one is bound to start from the proposition that there can be no happy solution.

Once children are born outside wedlock, and more especially if they are not legitimised by a subsequent marriage, one is faced with an unhappy situation and no theorising will turn that into a sunny and fortunate situation, as the hon. Member for Leeds, West seemed to think it would.

Mr. C. Pannell

I did not say so.

Mr. Bell

The hon. Member did. That is the trouble with approaching this matter from the point of view of principle. The hon. Member said that it was a question of the status of women. He indicated that that was the root of the problem. He gave the analogy that men used to want to bring virgins to the altar, to use his own phrase, but they themselves to behave as they liked. He said that there was now a much better attitude and equality was attained. I do not know what he meant by that.

It is not the case that all men now go chaste to the altar. I fear that the result of the change to which the hon. Member referred is that women less frequently go chaste to the altar. This is not my idea of progress, if it is his. If the hon. Member's view is that we should not take too bad a view of women having illegitimate children because men have always been promiscuous in their behaviour, it is not a helpful approach to one of the great problems of human life.

Mr. C. Pannell

It was not a question of rationalising my own feeling. I referred to the Married Women's Property Act and to all sorts of things. I meant to refer to the legal structure of society. I referred to divorce legislation in the early 1920s. The legal structure of society was based on what Josephine Butler used to call "dual morality"—one morality for men and another for women. We have got away from that to some extent, and I am not saying where women or men have reached now.

Mr. Bell

The hon. Member says that we have got away from dual morality for men and women. He instanced the different approach now from what it was when women were supposed to be chaste at marriage. If one wanted to summarise the difference between the hon. Member and myself it could be conveyed by my saying that he regards Josephine Butler as a noble person whilst I regard her as a silly old woman who never said one good thing in her life. I regard everything that she wrote as thoroughly uninformed and misdirected.

The hon. Member must realise that there are two sides to these controversies and that people are entitled to have their views on a moral question without this foolish admixture of reaction and the rest being brought in. We have the problem because someone has misbehaved and there are children who are born outside the family framework. The question, which to some extent is a practical one, is what we can best do not to abolish the sorrow caused—because we cannot do that—but to lessen it, and not just for the children who are the result of the misbehaviour but for the community as a whole.

It is important to bear this in mind because, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) said, and as I have said in previous debates on this subject, the great difficulty that we face here is that if we lessen some of the consequences of being born out of wedlock we run the risk of lessening the importance of the marriage bond itself. Somehow we must try to steer a course between the evils of unnecessary cruelty to the children, on the one side, and damage to a basic institution of civilised human life on the other.

Let nobody think that there is any unreality in this problem. The hon. Member for Dagenham mentioned Scandinavia, which offers us a terrible example of where one can get when one begins to weaken the bond of marriage and to attempt, as he said, to abolish illegitimacy—whatever that means. I have never verified the statistics, but I believe that in Stockholm and that part of Sweden the illegitimacy rate is about 50 per cent. That is a quite dreadful thing. I am sure that there is no hon. Member who would think otherwise.

We know, and we have had reference to it in debates on the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill, that in the West Indies the average illegitimacy rate is between 65 per cent. and 70 per cent. Therefore, of countries of that kind one can either say, as in the case of Scandinavia, that the institution of marriage has to some degree broken down, or, in the case of the West Indies, that it has never really become established. We must be careful that in humanitarian zeal in trying to benefit one section of the community we do not inflict a terrible detriment on another section. This, therefore, is a question of how far we can go in humanitarian betterment of the condition of the children without doing serious damage to the institution of monogamous marriage on which, so far as we can tell, all progressive human societies have been based.

The legal consequences of being illegitimate are nowadays pretty small. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East mentioned them and so did the hon. Member for Dagenham, who listed a number of the disadvantages which still survive. He might possibly agree with me that they are very small. All the major ones have already been abolished, though not without much battle. Legitimatio per subsequens matrimonium has been fought against throughout the centuries. One can go way back beyond the Reform Act to the barons, because the Church was always trying to get a change introduced and the barons were against it. We all know of the famous occasion when they clashed their shields and said, Nolumus leges Angliae mutare. There has always been very strong instintive feeling that we might weaken the institution of marriage if we went too far in abolishing the attributes of illegitimacy.

In the present century we have, on the whole, overcome our doubts and scruples about that, and in the last 30 or 40 years we have passed a series of Measures which have abolished all the serious disadvantages. The ones that are left do not make an impressive list. It comes down to the question of the division of an estate on intestacy. That is the only substantial one, and there it can be seen that there is a difficulty. The law of intestacy has always been based upon the assumed intention of the deceased. If he had made a will, the terms of the will would have been carried out. If he fails to do so, the law, basing itself upon the average dispositions of reasonable men, provides a law of intestacy which takes the place of a will. And so we have to approach it from that point of view.

What would the ordinary reasonable responsible man have done had he remembered to make a will? The law of intestacy has not, on the whole, been regarded as an instrument of social policy. It has always been an attempt to fill a gap. It is probably rather difficult to know what the average person would do in relation to an illegitimate child. Of course, if he did not recognise the child he would do nothing. That is pretty obvious. If he did recognise it, probably he would want to make some provision, if he made a will, but not the same provision as for his legitimate children. So I think that there is scope for looking into that. But, with respect to the hon. Member for Dagenham, I should hate to think of it being looked into by a Select Committee of this House.

Mr. Fletcher

Does not the hon. Member recall that this question was ventilated and debated at length in this House when the intestate succession legislation was passed about ten years ago?

Mr. Bell

I remember the Act, but I have not refreshed my memory recently by looking up the debate. I was in the House at the time.

It is obviously a difficult question. I agree—here I adhere to what was said by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East—that one does not want an inquiry into this matter, but one would certainly be interested to know of legislative proposals which might be made. Someone must give a judgment of Solomon on that matter.

The hon. Member for Dagenham seemed to indicate that there was some disadvantage relating to nationality still surviving, but I do not think that there is much substance in that point. The German cases, arising out of the presence of British troops in Germany, are not typically—indeed, extremely rarely—cases of a British soldier having an illegitimate child born in Germany by a British woman. They are, more characteristically, cases of British men having illegitimate children by German women.

Mr. Parker

Surely that is a different problem. But the other cases do arise, not only in Germany but all over the world, where illegitimate children born of British parents acquire not British nationality, but only the nationality of the country in which they are born.

Mr. Bell

The number of cases arising out of the presence of British troops in various parts of the world where an illegitimate child is born to British parents is extremely small and hardly raises a problem worthy of being dealt with by legislation. Unfortunately the cases where there is an illegitimate child and the mother is not British, though the father is, are far more numerous. I think that most people would regard it as reasonable that in such cases the child should take the nationality of its mother and not be able to claim British nationality because its putative father was British. To do otherwise would be striking at the structure of the family for a really trifling advantage.

The hon. Member for Dagenham has included in his Motion the words … legal and social disabilities of illegitimate persons.… In common with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East I think it would be absurd to set up a committee to inquire into the social disadvantages of illegitimate persons and try to cure them by legislation. I know that the hon. Member for Leeds, West thinks that there is nothing inherently unreasonable about that. The hon. Member argued that esteem and status are raised by Parliamentary legislation and that if we wish to raise the esteem and general social regard in which illegitimate persons are held, the right way would be by some act of Parliament.

I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman, assuming that was a desirable thing to do, how he would set about doing it. The surviving legal disadvantages are negligible. Perhaps we could amend the law relating to intestacy a little bit, but it would not come to much. The point regarding the law of nationality is quite a trifling one, and even assuming that there was some adjustment which could be made the impact would be infinitesimal. The scope for reforming the law is exceedingly narrow and trifling compared with what has been done. Therefore, I ask both the hon. Member for Dagenham and the hon. Member for Leeds, West how we could do anything about the social attitude to illegitimacy, assuming that it were desirable to do anything, by legislation—unless we were directly to legislate about the attitude of people, as is proposed by the Bill relating to racial discrimination which the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) desires to introduce. Once we begin to try to do that by Act of Parliament it is not much use talking about freedom and liberty.

Mr. C. Pannell

I would not intervene again except that the hon. Gentleman has referred to the Bill which my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) seeks to introduce. I think that the hon. Member has made a fair parallel. Surely what this House sets out to do is to assert human principles on which a civilised society should work. I do not say that the feelings and prejudices of people against either coloured people or illegitimate children can be entirely overcome by legislation. But in the light of history—I mentioned women as an example—I think that the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) would find it difficult to put up a case which would convince me that no contribution may be made to social esteem by legislation.

Mr. Bell

I agree that if a certain class of the community were under grave legal disabilities we might raise its status if we removed the legal disabilities. But when we reach the point where those legal disabilities have virtually disappeared, we have also reached the point where legislation cannot do any more, I should have thought, unless the next step is taken—as the hon. Member for Eton and Slough desires to do—to make it a criminal offence to think and to act upon certain social attitudes. That is direct action by Parliament to force a set of values upon the people of the country. I am sure the hon. Member knows that that is something which I would fight against to the last ditch for reasons which are constitutional, moral and all the rest of it, and which I need not go into today. I do not suggest for a moment that the hon. Member for Dagenham wishes to clamp a particular standard of values about illegitimacy on the people of this country. He is not a militant extremist of that kind. I put it in that way because I ask him to say what it is proposed could be done by Parliamentary action in that direction, assuming that it were desirable to do anything.

We might gain some consolation on this subject by reflecting that the facts given by the hon. Member for Dagenham and the hon. Member for Leeds, West about the increase in the number of these people are wrong. The number is not increasing. It is increasing in London and Manchester and in other places to which at the moment there is considerable immigration. One understands that, because of the characteristics of West Indian immigration to which I referred just now, the illegitimacy rate is about 65 per cent. to 70 per cent.

Mr. Parker

I think that the hon. Member is incorrect. The figures I gave show 16,000 more illegitimate persons in 1960 than in 1938.

Mr. Bell

I was primarily concerned with the last ten years which I think are a better indication, because the number of illegitimate births rose steeply during the war period and then settled down to about 5.1 per cent.

Mr. Parker

The figure is 5.4 per cent.

Mr. Bell

It is 5.4 per cent., as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, for last year, which is .3 per cent. up. If he examines the figures he will see that the increase is due entirely to the dramatic rise in the figure for the County of London, where it stands at about 11½ per cent., and for Manchester and one or two other centres of Commonwealth immigration. If we eliminate the effect of Commonwealth immigration, which is localised in a very few centres, we find that the illegitimacy rate in this country has remained absolutely stable for about eleven years, having fallen to the level of about 5.1 per cent.

While it certainly is very sad that even one child in twenty should be illegitimate, let us congratulate ourselves on the fact that this is one of the best figures for any large nation in the world. The truth is that, in spite of all that is said, this is a highly moral nation with a very low illegitimacy rate of which we ought to be proud. We are quite right to be critical of ourselves and try to make ourselves better, but let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that there is some rising tide of illegitimacy which threatens to engulf our institutions and threatens us with a particularly urgent, growing problem, because that is not true, apart from the special problem of Commonwealth immigrants which can, one hopes, be dealt with.

Whether or not we regard one illegitimate child in twenty is a serious matter and whether or not we should try to abolish the whole definition of illegitimacy—and I regard it as a very sad phenomenon even in that degree—I do not think that one should try to get rid of it by masking it.

The hon. Member for Dagenham said that 39 per cent. of these children are in what he called settled families, although later he most properly qualified that by saying that a foster family was in no way the same as the natural family, because a child was moved from one foster family to another, sometimes from a foster family to a home and sometimes the natural parents re-took the child. But with all these qualifications, the figure is still 39 per cent., which means that 61 per cent of all the illegitimate children are not in families at all. They are under the care of local authorities or in homes or charitable societies, like the Church of England Children's Society, Dr. Barnardo's Homes and many other societies which do such excellent work for children in this unhappy position.

One really cannot be satisfied or happy about a category of children of whom 61 per cent. are without any family background. If one bears this in mind, and bears in mind the fact that the legal disabilities are now virtually non-existent although minor adjustments might be made, we are up against a problem to which Parliament, unfortunately, can make little contribution. That is the main point I want to make in this debate. It would be a bad debate if it left anyone with the impression that a major contribution to this subject could be made by Parliament. It cannot. We have done quite a bit, but the scope from now on will be limited. There is some scope for administrative action, and in so far as administrative action involves money Parliament would have to come into it; but with the low illegitimacy rate that we have, I think that the next step is to use centres of action outside this House. Perhaps we get a little pot-bound in our deliberations here and think that there is no reality outside this House, that the centre of action is here and that to say that remedies must be taken outside is to take a mere procedural objection and to shuffle off responsibility.

Mr. C. Pannell

The unreality is in it.

Mr. Bell

The hon. Member says that the unreality is in it, but one can be too much of a politician. Many things which happen outside this House do not owe their source to this House, nor their end to this House.

There is no real solution to the problem of the 5 per cent. of illegitimate children now except the raising of the moral standards of this country—high as I emphasise they are—and the growing acceptance by people of both sexes that it is a grossly irresponsible thing to have illegitimate children. We may make the best provision we can for them and the most well-meaning people in the world can make speeches about their being treated exactly as anyone else with no regard being had to their origin, but, nevertheless, the child born illegitimate has three chances out of five of not having a family background at all, and, if he is one of the lucky two out of five, it will still be a permanent disadvantage to him throughout his life that he was not born inside matrimony. These are facts which we have no right to mask, or to pretend do not exist.

I am quite sure that Sweden will lose very much in its national life by trying to pretend that it does not matter very much whether a child is born inside or outside the family circle. Stockholm will be a poorer place for having 50 per cent. of its children illegitimate. We can all recognise that. I emphasise to the hon. Member for Dagenham, whose whole activity in this matter I greatly respect—I make that clear—that I say this not to indicate that he is wrong in asking for action and bringing this matter before us, but because I want to emphasise that side of the problem lest his emphasising of his side of it should lead to the erroneous impression outside in the country that the inevitable line of progress is that less and less and less attention should be paid to the question whether a child is born inside or outside a properly constituted British family.

I hope that the hon. Member will take what I have said this afternoon as a contribution made only in that spirit.

3.8 p.m.

Mr. Alan Brown (Tottenham)

I begin by thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for permitting me to take part in this debate, particularly because for many months I have been silent. It is, therefore, quite an experience for me. I say to hon. Members opposite that the fact I have entered the field today bears no relationship whatsoever to any events which may have happened this week, although I must confess that there are some blessings in being an Independent which have been brought home to me in latter days.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) has rendered valuable public service by drawing attention today to this very important matter. I also take the opportunity of expressing, on behalf of my colleagues in the children's services and voluntary organisations throughout Britain, their sincere thanks and appreciation for the monumental work which the hon. Member has already accomplished in this field, for, as we all know, it was due to his labours that the Legitimacy Act, 1959, came on to the Statute Book.

This Act was an important social Act, if ever there was one, and it was long overdue. Its importance cannot be overstated. To bear witness to the truth of my assessment, one need only quote the words of Lord Denning, in another place. The noble Lord said: Your Lordships are asked to set … your seal on a great change in the law of England—or, rather, on the last step in it …".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 16th June. 1959; Vol. 216, c. 1190.] Set their seal they did, to the everlasting fame of the hon. Member for Dagenham.

The Act was highly controversial, because the problem of illegitimacy, throughout the years I have been connected with child care and the welfare of children and young persons, has been acute. But, of course, it has been politely ignored. It is of academic interest that, in considering the findings contained in the Reports of the last 22 bodies which this House has, from time to time, set up to inquire into various problems of the welfare of children and young persons, I find that none of these Reports dealt with the problem of illegitimate children, apart from the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, which reported in 1955.

I have always accepted the Report as such, but I have always rejected it when anybody has attempted to saddle the children with its recommendations. It does not belong to child care, but rather to the world of delinquent and immoral adults who do not care.

However, as I have often said, the work of the children's service is still carried on in the face of apathy, misunderstanding and ignorance. I say that with all due respect to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope to say a great deal more about this in another debate. There is, perhaps, ample excuse for this unfortunate state of affairs. It is purely and simply, in my view, due to the fact that very many complex sociological factors exist in Britain today. Particularly do they exist in large cities like London and Manchester, and they adversely affect every section of the very wide field covered by the Children's Service.

I will not enlarge upon this subject. Let it suffice if I say that this work is divided into eleven main sections, ranging from abandoned babies to delinquent, 17-year-old youths who are often steeped in criminality and probably in approved schools. Each section is divided into subsections—into many subsections in some cases—and the problem of the illegitimate child forms a subsection.

When, in addition to the complexity of the work and of the factors involved, we consider the legislation affecting children and young persons, an already desperate situation begins to deteriorate rapidly. Because of the time factor, I cannot deal further with the legislation today, but it is of interest to note that there have been no less than eight Acts of Parliament directly affecting children, which shows that there is a considerable measure of misunderstanding and confusion abounding in this work.

Despite the admitted complexity to be found in every section of this branch of social welfare, hon. Members in the last Parliament showed a remarkable degree of understanding of the problems occurring in the subsection to which I have referred, namely, illegitimacy. A few of us who were concerned at the time were surprised, albeit agreeably, to learn in 1959 that the Measure promoted by the hon. Member for Dagenham had received the Royal Assent and was safely home. All honour, therefore, to those who, like the hon. Member for Dagenham, have had faith in their own clear appreciation of the value of such work and have carried on in spite of all the difficulties involved and achieved the ultimate success of their heart's desire.

By the passing of his Bill into law the hon. Member for Dagenham achieved a great deal, because prior to 1926 an illegitimate child, according to the old common law, was the child of nobody. It is on record that in 1236, at the Parliament of Merton, the House was asked whether it was willing that our law should be changed so that a child born before marriage would be just as legitimate as one born during marriage. It is recorded that the House replied, "We are not willing to change the laws of England".

It was not until 1926 that the law was changed so that children born before marriage were legitimated by subsequent marriage. The present position, which has been brought about by the hon. Member for Dagenham, in effect means that a child born out of wedlock becomes legitimate by Section 1, which has the effect of extending legitimacy in a number of cases. Probably the most important part of the Act is Section 3, which introduces the fathers of illegitimate children by means of the Guardianship of Infants Act. In my experience, this is very largely used. It is a procedure which naturally involves the acceptance of the child by the father. Perhaps the hon. Member has thought about this difficulty.

The hon. Member for Dagenham made affiliation orders the main background to his speech. There are dangers here, both to the child and to the alleged father. In my experience, an affiliation order often involves an unwilling father, sometimes a man who absolutely denies paternity. In another place, Lord Denning pointed out the danger of the woman who makes a trumped-up case against an innocent man. The hon. Member for Dagenham has realised these difficulties.

The problem of illegitimacy, as with almost every other aspect of child care, permits of no easy solution. The work presents a tangle of problems which one comes to realise are part of the story of life itself. As Sir Basil Henriques once said to me—as hon. Members will know, he was a man of vast experience—"There is no short-cut remedy to any one of these problems. You will discover that fact sooner or later as you gain experience in this work. There can be no short-cut remedy to problems which have existed since the beginning of time and which will, I believe, exist even unto the end of time". I entirely agree with those words. Sir Basil's religion was vastly different from mine, but that makes little difference here, because these problems are of great complexity and their true lexicon lies in God and eternity.

Our canon law accepts that human life is transmitted by means of the family. The family is based upon marriage, which our Catholic brethren hold to be indissoluble, and which they and all other Christians have raised to the dignity of a sacrament. The transmission of human life is the result of a personal and conscious act, and, as such, is subject to the inviolable and immutable laws of God, which man ignores or disobeys at his cost. Man is not permitted to use certain ways and means of transmitting life that are permissible in the propagation of plant and animal life. At the same time, canon law accepts that human life is sacred, and we all recognise that. Therefore, while God forbids adultery and adulterous unions, he does not forbid or condemn the child of such a union, and that is how we should regard this matter.

I promised to sit down at twenty minutes past three Mr. Speaker, so, with the leave of the House, I will sit down.

3.22 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher, (Islington, East)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) on having initiated this debate and so once more putting us into his debt by bringing to our attention the status of illegitimate persons—a field in which he already has such a large record of achievement to his credit.

I agree with the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) that this difficult problem is not one that admits of any easy solution. It appeals to some of our deepest humanitarian emotions, but in dealing with it we are all conscious of a real dilemma. The dilemma is that our whole civilisation is based upon the sanctity of marriage and the integrity of the family as a unit of society. That concept, which is derived from the Christian law of monogamy, is widely accepted, regardless of any particular religious belief. It is one of the foundations of society.

It follows that if anybody is born illegitimate there has been a breach of the recognised law of marriage. We have, therefore, to try to reconcile our natural sympathy with the illegitimate person—who, himself, has done no wrong—with our other desire to do nothing to erode the sanctity of marriage. That is the dilemma.

There must, inevitably, be some limit to what we can do by legislation to remedy what the Motion calls "legal and social disabilities". The difficulty is that, whether or not we like it, whatever we do by way of alleviating legislation an illegitimate person in most cases inevitably feels a sense of shame and frustration which, very often, nothing can remove. We cannot make him legitimate. We can do all we can to remove any possible disability from him; we can treat him just like any other member of society, and do all we can to see that he does not suffer in our esteem, but with the best will in the world we can never affect his own self-esteem and self-regard.

There are many cases in history—one of my hon. Friends mentioned the case of William the Conqueror, and there are many others—where the persons concerned have transcended any disabilities that might have been thought to have attached to their state of bastardy, but we know that in our generation men of eminence in more than one walk of life have suffered throughout their lives from a sense of shame and humiliation at their illegitimate birth. Unfortunately, laws passed by this House cannot change that. Ultimately, we can remove that cause of concern only by ensuring that the number of illegitimate births is reduced, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South.

I hope that as the social conscience of our country becomes more developed, refined and educated we shall be able to discriminate between natural feelings for illegitimate people, and that, at the same time we shall do nothing to erode the fundamental concept of the sanctity of marriage. We have made considerable legislative progress in recent years. The Act of 1926 was a great step forward. Other hon. Members have referred to the fact that since the Statute of Merton, in 1236, there has been on the Statute Book the curious and anonymous rule that nobody could be legitimated by a subsequent marriage. There was never any sound reason for that rule, which has now been abrogated.

As I recall, when the barons threw out the suggested amendment of the law in 1236 they did so in the teeth of opposition from the Church, which led by Bishop Grosseteste, of Lincoln, took a far more liberal, humane and enlightened view, and wanted the law of England changed to conform to the canon law and the law prevalent in other parts of Europe whereby a subsequent marriage did legitimate a person. It was that conservatism among the baronage, rather than any interest in legitimacy, that prevented the change being made seven centuries earlier than it was.

I can understand that in those days the status of legitimacy was of much greater interest to the nobility than to the Church. It affected inheritance and titles, although it may be observed that it does not seem to have caused very much concern either in the Royal family or among the nobility. We remember that in the debate on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Queen Elizabeth I it was quite impossible to contend that both Mary and Elizabeth were legitimate, but they each became Queen of England. A large part of the nobility was replenished by the illegitimate sons of Charles II. It is, therefore, clear that at one time or another, many people have been able to overcome the disadvantages of illegitimacy.

In our own day we have done a good deal by social legislation to ensure that there are no financial disabilities. Illegitimate persons have complete equality in the eyes of the law in our social legislation and it would, of course, be intolerable if that were not so. All steps are taken to see that children, in particular, suffer no discrimination or any inferiority complex at school, work or elsewhere.

I come to this question of intestacy that has been raised. I think that was the strongest ground raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham. Fortunately, anybody is able to make will and anybody, by his will, is able to dispose of his goods as he pleases among legitimate or illegitimate children or others. It is unfortunate if some parents fail to make a will and their illegitimate offspring suffer as a consequence. But I would remind my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham that this matter was examined at great length only a few years ago when the law of intestacy was changed by Parliament.

There are arguments on both sides. We cannot necessarily assume that a person who fails to make a will and dies intestate had intended, if he had made a will, to leave his property or part of his property to his illegitimate children. To make such an assumption might be doing an injustice to his legitimate children. Therefore, I do not think that on this aspect of the subject we can hope for much change in the law, but what I think we can do is to emphasise the particular duty of anybody who has illegitimate children to make provision by a will of how they want their property disposed of on their death.

Reference has been made to what can be done by administrative action. I would have hoped that we would hear from the Minister, at any rate, that so far as he knows there are no disabilities suffered by any illegitimate people in a sphere that can be dealt with by administrative action. Reference was made to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and, I have no doubt, other universities, which require production of the longer birth certificate. I should not think that it can be argued that any illegitimate person, on that ground, suffers any disability in getting to a university.

We have heard today about entry to the Foreign Office. It seems to me that it would be intolerable if the status of legitimacy or illegitimacy were allowed to weigh with the rights of entry either into the Foreign Office or any other branch of the Civil Service. In view of the fact that that suggestion has been made, I hope that it will be repudiated.

There are some other spheres outside the action of the State where certain disabilities remain. I suppose that the chief one today is the disability of an illegitimate person to be ordained either into the Church of Rome or into the Church of England. That is not a matter for this House. It is a matter for the ecclesiastical authorities. To some extent, I suppose, it goes to this question of social esteem.

I was particularly glad to learn recently that in the revised Canons of the Church of England now being considered by the Church Assembly, and which will, no doubt, shortly come before this House for approval, it is proposed to remove that particular disability, so that in future there will be no objection to an illegitimate person being ordained a priest in the Church of England.

The disability will still remain in the Church of Rome, subject, as I understand it, to the possibility of dispensation by the Vatican. Anything that can be done in spheres of that kind to eradicate any impression in the public mind that an illegitimate person should be under any disability to fulfil any kind of office, because, through no fault of his own, he is subject already to the hardships and unhappiness of being an illegitimate person, is to be profoundly desired and encouraged, and the more that can be done in that sphere, the better, I am sure, will not only my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham, but the whole House, be pleased.

Having said that, I must say that I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South. There is, unfortunately, a limit to what we can do to improve still further the status of illegitimate persons, and there are limits to which any amount of legislative action can carry it out. I should like to express the hope that whether or not the Joint Under-Secretary for the Home Department accepts the proposal that there should be a committee of inquiry he will give the most careful consideration to the various suggestions, largely of detail, whereby, by legislative action, further steps can be taken to remove the legal disabilities of illegitimate persons.

3.37 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke)

The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who introduced this Motion with such restraint, and yet with such obvious emotion, has already left upon our Statute Book in the form of the Legitimacy Act, 1959, a permanent memorial which will be known as "Parker's Act" as long as this subject is debated.

This was a great achievement with a Measure that was by no means uncountroversial, and was an outstanding example of how much it is still open to the private Member to accomplish in the field of social reform. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to acknowledge the help that he received from the Government at various stages in the passage of the Bill. Indeed, it will be within the recollection of this House that, in another place, it ran into some very heavy weather at one time, and but for the fact that subsequently the Government gave time for the consideration of the Lords Amendments, it might have been lost. It was a good example of partnership, although the first credit must undoubtedly go to the hon. Gentleman.

The Act of 1959 takes its place in a series of Measures enacted in the course of this century which have progressively both narrowed the area of illegitimacy as a legal concept and improved the legal position of those who were still left within its scope. I should make clear that I am dealing throughout with English law, as the provisions of the Scots law on this subject are different, though they have in some respects served as models for our reforms, as so often happens between the two systems.

The series began with two Statutes passed in 1926. The Legitimacy Act is best known for having introduced into English law the concept of legitimation by subsequent marriage, but, of course, under that Act it was necessary for both parents to be single at the time of the birth. At the same time, the Act improved the position of the child who remained illegitimate by enabling him to succeed on his mother's intestacy if she had no lawful issue. That, too, was an innovation.

In the same year came the Adoption Act introducing another new concept, legal adoption, which has given so many children, the vast majority illegitimate, the security of new homes and a new status in the eyes of the law. It is even possible for the mother of an illegitimate child to confer that adoptive status on him by adopting him herself. The law of adoption has undergone several amendments and improvements and was recently consolidated in the Adoption Act, 1958, as the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. A. Brown) reminded us.

The Legitimacy Act, 1959, Parker's Act, removed the requirement that the parents must both have been free to marry at the time of the child's birth and it also conferred the full status of legitimacy on the children of void marriages where the parents reasonably believed the marriage to be valid. Not only did it reduce the number of illegitimate people, but it dealt with some problems of those who remained illegitimate. It enabled the courts to grant the father of an illegitimate child custody of the child if that was the best arrangement, as it might sometimes be, and it enabled a woman who was unmarried at the time of the birth of her illegitimate child to apply for an affiliation order even though she had since married another man. Those were small amendments but they were generally welcomed and recognised as improvements in the law.

In 1958, the Matrimonial Proceedings (Children) Act extended the powers of the High Court in matrimonial proceedings to a child of one party to the marriage, including an illegitimate child, who had been accepted as one of the family by the other party. The court can, therefore, make an order as to the custody or maintenance of such a child and must be satisfied, before making a decree absolute, that proper arrangements have been made for its care and upbringing. Similar powers are exercisable by magistrates' courts under the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act, 1960. I should mention also the provision first made in the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1947, for the issue of a short form of birth certificate which gives no particulars of parentage or adoption. These certificates are accepted for all ordinary purposes for which evidence of date and place of birth is sufficient. An important fact is that they are not used only by people born out of wedlock. About half of all the birth certificates issued are short certificates and, therefore, the mere holding of a short certificate does not automatically carry with it suspicion.

The hon. Member for Dagenham and the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) asked me about the requirement of the longer birth certificate by the Foreign Office. There is nothing peculiar to the Foreign Office in this. The Civil Service Commissioners for all purposes require the longer certificate as evidence of British descent where British descent is an essential qualification for the appointment. Therefore, there is in that requirement no suggestion of a social stigma which might be considered unsuitable for the Foreign Service.

It may be helpful to the House if I give some figures showing the extent to which advantage has been taken of the main statutory provisions. The number of illegitimate children each year is rising both absolutely and as a proportion of the total number of children born in the year. I was much interested, like the House, in the explanation of this given by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell). His speech was a mine of information and of good sense. If I did not altogether agree with his strictures on Josephine Butler, he must put that down to my pious duty in my present position.

In 1958, there were 36,174 illegitimate children; in 1959, 38,161; and in 1960, the latest year for which figures are available, 42,707. This represents 49, 51 and 54 illegitimate births to every 1,000 births in the year. The number of illegitimate children legally adopted in a year is over 11,000 and the number whose births are re-registered in consequence of legitimation by subsequent marriage is usually between 2,000 and 3,000, although in 1960 it rose to 6,000 because of Parker's Act. Thus, a substantial proportion of those born illegitimate ceased to be classed by the law as illegitimate.

Mr. Parker

I take it that the figures are for England and Wales and do not include Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I think that that is right. If it is not, I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Dagenham accepts, I believe, that we have gone some way to remove the legal disabilities which once lay on the illegitimate child—and a very long way, too. The remaining disabilities are extremely few and on the whole relate entirely to inheritance. Now the law no longer regards illegitimacy, if it ever did, as a quality inherent in the person whom it affects, colouring all his legal relationships and reducing him to the level, as the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) put it, of a second-class citizen. It does not do that. It takes the view that illegitimacy is a feature of a person's relations with his mother and more particularly with his father, reflecting the absence between the parents of the marriage bond which has so often and so rightly been called in this debate the basis of a secure and stable family life.

Mr. C. Pannell

Why is he no longer a second-class citizen? He is no longer a second-class citizen because of the "Parker" Act and other Acts. In effect, the hon. and learned Gentleman has rejected the argument of his hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), who seems to think that social legislation would do nothing to affect a person's status.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

That is a travesty of my hon. Friend's argument. My hon. Friend said that it is no good assuming that all proposals for reform are automatically good and that all resistance to them is automatically bad. He wishes to examine each one on its merits—

Mr. C. Pannell

And oppose the lot.

Mr. Fletcher Cooke

No—irrespective of these slogan words.

In practice, what is left? There are many things which we have not discussed in respect of which Parliament has specifically removed any suggestion of disability. The question of insurance and road accidents was mentioned. There are many others. There are the Rent Acts in which, for the purposes of being a member of the family and thus being able to succeed to a rent controlled tenancy, illegitimate children are included. The same applies to the workmen's compensation Acts. This is so throughout this field, except in inheritance.

Why is it so? I think the reason is that throughout the law of inheritance it has been, and still is, considered essential that there should be certainty—even at the expense, as so often happens, of efficiency, of fairness or of other desirable qualities—because the prospect of the squabble over inheritance has to be reduced to the minimum. That is why, as the hon. Member for Leeds, West reminds us, there was the necessity of virginity at the altar, that is why the old barons clashed their shields at Morton in 1236—very reactionary: it was because they were determined to preserve certainty at all costs, because they knew the dangers to society if there is a squabble over inheritance, certainty even at the expense perhaps of fairness and efficiency, and that, of course, is ultimately at the root of primogeniture. That is why there was this insistence on chastity in brides, because of the dangers if there were an unchaste bride of somebody saying that this was not the son or that this was the son of somebody else. That is the historical origin of the system, whatever its justification may be.

What does it mean in practice? In our determination to preserve as far as we can this quality of certainty in inheritance it means first of all—I do not think this is a matter which the hon. Member for Dagenham would mind about—that an illegitimate child cannot succeed to any dignity or title of honour Which his father may happen to possess, even though he is subsequently legitimated. It may certainly be that some Members of this House at this time may wish that they were legitimated in that fashion rather than by another fashion. I do not know, but I think it would have spared them what they very much dislike the prospect of. Secondly, an illegitimate person cannot share in his father's estate under an intestacy.

This was considered by the Morton Committee in 1951, and its Report on this point emphasises with great force the importance of certainty. I should like to read it all, but I cannot; but what it says is: Moreover, considerable difficulty might arise in considering the claims of persons claiming to have been the mistress or to be the illegitimate child of the intestate, and it might become necessary to adjudicate between the merits of rival applicants, a situation made more complicated by the absence of the one person who would be in a position to know all the facts, namely, the intestate. There we have set out in the Morton Report the argument which emphasises in cases of inheritance, particularly intestate inheritance, the importance of certainty, and that, again, was, of course, the reason why illegitimate children are unable to apply to the High Court under the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act which is the corollary of their not being able to succeed on intestacy.

Mr. Justice Harman, as he then was, in 1955 said this, that if they were allowed to apply The tasks of the courts would not only be odious but impossible to carry out, for who could know what other dependants might enter the lists to make further claims to a share? It would indeed be visiting the sins of of the father on the children. So, therefore, in the field of inheritance where certainty is so important we feel we cannot go any further.

Some people may think that the expression "illegitimate children" is a bad one and that in our universal dislike, which has been expressed from both sides of the House today, we should somehow find a way in which to alleviate all possible social stigma because it is not their fault that this has happened to them. It is sometimes suggested that some other expression should be used, though I think all of us will agree that it is a much better word than that which used to be used for the same state.

On this question of social disabilities I must disagree with the hon. Member for Leeds, West, that we can remove these by legislation. I think that what he said was that social esteem does depend on legislation. If we do remove their disabilities we cannot further promote them in social esteem. I agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South, that if a person has the misfortune to be born out of wedlock that is a matter he must come to terms with himself, and as to the views of other people we cannot by law say what their attitude should be. Indeed, their attitude to such people has often been kinder. They have certainly been prepared to receive them in society with all sorts of honours in days long before these disabilities were removed and when they were very heavy. One has only to read of the honour with which the Fitz-Clarences were received in society more than 130 years ago, and the honour with which M. Waleski, the Ambassador of Napoleon III to this country, was received. It may be that social esteem did not depend one way or the other upon the legal disabilities which they then suffered and which were very great.

The most that we in Parliament can Jo is to ensure that neither the law nor the exercise by public authorities of their discretionary powers inflict upon people who are illegitimate any disability which does not arise necessarily out of the fact of the illegitimacy itself. I am glad that there is to be a Measure from the Church Assembly to remove disability as regards the ordination of an illegitimate person. I will certainly see if there is any field for which the Government have responsibility where we can make that sort of administrative change which the hon. Member for Dagenham suggested should be looked into. That must be done if we are to make sure that at least in this attempt to achieve social esteem they have no legal or administrative disability behind them.

The forces of education and example have done much to dispel prejudice over the years, and people are much less ready than they were once to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. This process, I am sure, will continue, aided by the efforts which the hon. Member for Dagenham and others are making to create an informed public opinion on the subject, but I fear that Government action affords no hope of a quicker or more effective remedy.

This being so, and this being our view, we do not think that there is anything that could come out of a committee such as that proposed by the hon. Member for Dagenham, upon which one could take action, in view of the fact that the only remaining disabilities are there for very good purposes which have been recently and frequently affirmed by Her Majesty's Government. It would be dishonest to suggest that one could somehow win a little popularity by appointing a committee, knowing that one was not going to do anything about it. It is an instinctive reaction of a Minister confronted with a problem of this kind to appoint a committee, but I must tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does not feel justified in accepting the hon. Member's invitation to do so.

I submit that we ought not to ask a group of distinguished and public-spirited people to give up their time to study a problem if it is one which has been examined already in the recent past or if it is obviously one whose solution lies outside the proper sphere of Government action, as I submit this is. We have had, and still have, many committees and we do not want to add to their number unless it is essential or productive to do so. I have to tell the House that we do not think that it would be so in this case.

The legal disabilities of illegitimates have been the subject of a gradual process of attrition and those left have been recently examined and on grounds of public policy have deliberately been allowed to remain. The social disabilities, likewise, are tending to disappear, but there is no reason to think that we can hasten the process in the way that the hon. Member for Dagenham or any hon. Member has suggested. This must be a matter for the education of our children by our people and I believe that that is growing fast. That being so, I cannot advise the House to accept the letter of the Motion. Its spirit commends itself to us all, and the hon. Member for Dagenham has again done a valuable service—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.