HC Deb 12 February 1965 vol 706 cc804-14

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

4.9 p.m.

Dr. David Kerr (Wandsworth, Central)

During the last several years the country has witnessed an unprecedented rise in the number of children being born, as the old phrase has it, out of wedlock. The dimension of the problem is worth examination. I apologise for the necessarily boring process of giving figures on the subject. In England and Wales, between 1954 and 1963, the illegitimacy rates rose from 4.7 per cent. of live births to 6.6 per cent., an increase of nearly 50 per cent. In Great Britain as a whole, in 1962, there were just over 60,000 illegitimate children born; in 1963, over 64,000; in 1964, it is estimated there will have been born about 68,000. This is an increase over the years of about 6½ per cent. per annum. The percentage increase has tended to diminish, but meanwhile, of course, the numbers go up.

Looking at the figures for the large conurbations in England and Wales we find that the figure is even more impressive. It is here that the rise in illegitimacy rates is most dramatic. On Tyneside, for instance, the rate went up from 38 per 1,000 to 53 per 1,000, and increase of 40 per cent. In the West Yorkshire conurbation the figures went from 55 to 79 per 1,000, an increase of 45 per cent. In East Lancashire, they rose from 54 to 79, an increase of 45 per cent. In the Greater London conurbation the increase from 1955 to 1962 was from 57 to no fewer than 101 per 1,000, an increase of 78 per cent.

However, when one takes into account the increase in the birth rate the numbers are even more impressive. They have risen by numbers ranging from 40 per cent., in the case of Merseyside, where the numbers of illegitimate children have risen over these years from just under 1,200 to over 1,600, to as much as 130 per cent. of the total numbers in the West Midland and Greater London areas. In Greater London area the increase was from 6,540 to 14,418.

In the L.C.C. administrative area, which is the one with which I have the most direct personal concern, the numbers are even more shattering. In 1955, in the London administrative county, there were 3,827 illegitimate children, a rate of 7.7 per cent. of all live births, and the corresponding figure, I remind the House, was 4.6 in the whole of England and Wales that year. In the last year for which we have figures, 1963, that 3,827 had risen nearly two and a half times to 9,035 illegitimate births. The rate had risen just under twofold from 7.7 per cent. to 14.2 per cent. whereas the rate in England and Wales, rising dramatically, had risen by less than 50 per cent. from 4.6 to 6.6 per cent.

In London many of these cases are dealt with by the moral welfare associations, but although they necessarily and with justification attract interest and praise, they in fact deal with fewer than 40 per cent. of all the unmarried expectant mothers and in this number there is a disproportionately high ratio of non-Londoners who come to the moral welfare associations for help. In this context it is not surprising to find that the numbers dealt with by the moral welfare associations remain stable despite the increase in the number of illegitimate babies born. In 1960 the numbers dealt with by the moral welfare associations were just under 3,300; in 1963 they had risen only to 3,435.

Inevitably, the Press makes much of the rise in the illegitimate birth rate among the under-15s or under-16s. I must call the attention of the House to the fact that the proportion of illegitimate births occurring in that age group, at any rate in London, is less than two of every 1,000 illegitimate births. These are dramatic cases, they are headline catching cases, and they are, above all, tragic cases by reason of the fact of the inability of the girls involved to have chosen what to do in the first place, and suffer, in the second place, from the inability to decide what to do in the context of their situation, and in the third place, because of the very great contumely and discredit upon themselves and their parents. Their plight is more tragic, compared with the older woman, who can be said to have a greater right to decide for herself.

It is not among the under-16s that our concern should reside. It is rather in the group of mothers who have their babies between the ages of 20 and 30. It is here that we find the most important rise and the greatest contribution to this whole problem. In fact, if we are looking for drama, tragedy and headline cases for journalistic material, we might look at the fact that many mothers are over 50, which would be a rare sort of occurrence in a marital relationship. In 1960 there was one reported case of an illegitimate birth. In 1961, there were eight cases. In 1962, there were no less than 11 cases of illegitimate children born to women over 55.

The figures for the age goup 40 to 50 are no less a matter for concern. In 1960, there were 1,470. In 1961 there were 1,595. In 1962, there were 1,747. One sees the same inexorable rise in an age group when the majority of women can look forward to safety both from sex and its consequences.

Whether or not these cases occur among women who are living happily and in a stable family way with men to whom for one reason and another they are not married, and whether a number of professional women choose deliberately to have a child out of wedlock to be able to maintain their professional careers, is not known, and I shall revert to this in a moment. In particular, we have no information about whether the illegitimate children born to this age group have any particular place in a family sequence, whether they are first or subsequent children of the mother.

One might reasonably ask why the Government should be invited to concern themselves with a problem which appears at first sight to be strictly a moral one, because the Government do not have to legislate for morals, and I hope that they will never be asked to do so, but the consequences of a high and growing illegitimacy rate for birth at all levels is of growing importance, as the numbers themselves grow.

First, of course, the Government can ignore the fact that a soaring illegitimacy rate is clear evidence of the manifestation of rapid social changes, of population shifts, and changes in social pattern and social mores. Secondly, a great burden is thrown on the maternity services, since hospitals are much more disposed to accept for admission mothers known to be of high risk. Thirdly, the effect of illegitimacy on birth rates is known to be disadvantageous.

Among illegitimate children, the infant mortality rate is significantly higher than among legitimately born children. For instance, in recent years, whereas the infant mortality rate among legitimately born children was 21 per thousand, among illegitimate children it was 25 to 27 per thousand. The illegitimacy rate contributes to the abortion rate, to maternal morbidity, to illness among mothers.

The Government must also recognise that the individual case of the illegitimate mother is something which should fall very much within our purview. We know from research that the future of the illegitimate child contributes disproportionately to future family stability, to future juvenile delinquency, and to further illegitimacy in future years.

I am sorry to use an impersonal word, but the disposal of illegitimate children is a matter of grave concern to local authorities and to the Government themselves. Only 20 per cent. of all illegitimate children are adopted. This represents no less than 80 per cent. of all adopted children, but 30 per cent. of the adoption orders taken in respect of illegitimate children are taken by the mother of the illegitimate child who adopts her own unwanted baby either by agreeing with the putative father or with another man to adopt the child as her own.

Some research done by Spence in Newcastle showed that after one year no less than 40 per cent. of a small group of illegitimate children were found to be living in a stable fashion with both parents, and a corresponding research in Birmingham revealed that 54 per cent. of children in one area were living in a stable family consisting of the mother and putative father.

None the less, the majority of children still go to the local authority, they still come into care, and at the same time the difficulty which is put on the single mother to retain her child finds in the local authorities mother and baby homes and in the mother and baby homes run by voluntary societies, a contradictory pressure on the mother which endeavours to encourage her to keep the child and maintain it.

One can speculate about the reasons for this rise. Is it, perhaps, that the rise in the illegitimacy rate reflects a rise in the rate of extra-marital inter- course? This must inevitably be a matter of conjecture. Is the disproportionate rise in London due to the anonymity of London; is it due to the fact that London has a great number of immigrants or to the fact—several would dispute this—that it has better social facilities?

These considerations may be relevant to London, but they are not relevant to the national figures. But even if we exclude from our considerations London's catastrophic rise in illegitimacy rates and the fact that a number of people come to London when they are already pregnant or have a baby within 12 months of their arrival, and exclude the high number of foreigners who may be under suspicion of living in stable cohabitation with unmarried partners, and the disproportionate number of single women in London between the ages of 16 and 44—the generally regarded chlid-bearing period—London has still a far higher average than the national average rate of illegitimacy.

This is a very striking fact, which we should note and which should be of concern to us. Recently, the Minister of Health was kind enough to receive a delegation from the London County Council which had considered the problem strictly in relation to London as an administrative county. Broadly speaking, that delegation asked for three major measures—first, for much more social research into the mainsprings of illegitimacy; next, for an extension of family planning facilities to include unmarried people; and, further, provisions for those facilities to fall within the responsibility of the National Health Service.

Those considerations and recommendations are very proper for the House to examine and reflect upon. The London County Council has done as much as any education or health authority to stimulate sex education in schools. I would draw the House's attention to the work currently under publication from the Central Council of Health Education, dealing with sex attitudes among young people.

The shortcomings of sex education fall broadly into two categories. The first is the fact that when it is left to the parents there is, as research shows, a preponderance of moral obloquy about sex and a moral teaching unrelated to biological and physiological teaching and, secondly, that the teaching in schools, when it takes place, appears to be a preponderantly negative one and an admonitory one. We have to examine the problem closely to see whether we should encourage sex education to be much more positive, so as to allow our new generations to understand that a sexual relationship is not merely a transitory and passing enjoyment, but a continuing, constructive and positive contribution to personal relationships.

These few scattered reflections on this important matter I welcome having had the opportunity to put before the House. It is my earnest hope that within a measurable span of time the Government will examine sympathetically the recommendations which the London County Council has put before them and will extend beyond the confines of the current L.C.C. area the responsibility to examine the whole problem outside London.

I emphasise the fact that the London County Council will disappear in a few weeks, and within that time we shall be faced with the prospect of having no statutory body which is in a position to examine this problem in quite the way that the L.C.C. would have been able to do had it been continuing.

In those circumstances, I hope that my hon. Friend will find a way to substitute some sort of social research unit, perhaps through the working of the Greater London Council, in order to reveal to us some of the as yet undiscovered reasons for illegitimacy which alone can indicate to us the paths that we should follow in order to deal with the problem.

4.25 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Department (Miss Alice Bacon)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansdworth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) has dealt with an important problem which is causing great concern to all responsible authorities, to social workers and to parents. My hon. Friend appreciates, I am sure, that in the first-class speech which he has just made he has ranged over many subjects which affect many Ministries. To some extent, the problems which he has raised affect the Home Office, but largely they affect the Ministry of Health and, to some extent, the Ministry of Education and Science.

I will do my best, as the Minister for the Home Office, to answer the points which my hon. Friend has made, and I have had information from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health to help me to reply to those points particularly directed to that Ministry.

First, with regard to my hon. Friend's figures about the high illegitimacy rate in London. The figures which he gave are quite correct. The illegitimate births per 1,000 of the total live births for the whole of England and Wales were 47 in 1954, 60 in 1961 and 72 per 1,000 in 1964. My hon. Friend is quite right in saying that in London they are much higher than that.

In London, in 1954, the illegitimate births per 1,000 were 71. In 1961, they had risen to 127, and in 1964 to 145. But where my hon. Friend is slightly wrong is in thinking that London is so very much different from some of the other big cities in the country. For example, if we take Nottingham, there the rate has risen from 74 in 1954 to 111 in 1961 and to 135 in 1964, which is only slightly behind the figure of 145 in London.

The figure for Manchester in 1964 was 134, in Bradford 116, and in Birmingham 111. So it will be seen from these numbers that there is a very high illegitimacy rate not only in London, but in the other big cities, in the provinces and in the rest of the country.

In 1963, about 1,000 illegitimate babies were born to 15-year-old girls and over 2,000 to 16-year-olds. But 75 per cent. of the live illegitimate births are to women between the ages of 19 and 29. In so far as London is higher than the rest of the country, my hon. Friend has tried to find the reasons for this. I do not think that there is any simple explanation. The question was considered recently by the L.C.C. with 15 voluntary organisations, all concerned with the problem of illegitimacy. They could offer no generally acceptable explanation. But there are certain factors which influence the committee.

There is in London a greater proportion of single women of child-bearing age. Also, there is a continuous influx of women, many of whom arrive already pregnant, seeking the anonymity of a large city. London offers good facilities in ante-natal care, with many modern welfare associations and accommodation at mother and baby homes. Some of the cities, including London, with high illegitimacy rates contain many immigrants from overseas countries.

It is usual, for example, for some West Indians to have common law wives. Although they live with them all their lives, and consider themselves married, they have not actually gone through a marriage ceremony and, therefore, according to our laws, their children are considered statistically to be illegitimate. In the cases dealt with by five moral welfare associations in 1963, of the 3,435 mothers of illegitimate children who were seen, 2,100 were born in the United Kingdom; 684 were from Eire; and 342 came from the West Indies. There were 158 Europeans and 147 others.

The Home Office has to contend with this problem of the rising number of illegitimate children that are received into the care of local authorities. In 1956 the total number of children received into care was just over 38,000. In 1963 that figure had gone up to, roughly, 48,500. That is for all children received into care. If we look at the number of illegitimate children received into care we find that during that period the number had more than doubled, rising from 1,040 to 2,119. It is true that not all these are permanently in the care of the local authorities because many of them are subsequently adopted, but it can be seen from these figures that the number received into the care of the local authorities because they were illegitimate more than doubled between 1956 and 1963.

My hon. Friend raised the question of family planning, which, he will appreciate, is a matter for the Ministry of Health. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Health has asked me to state the position with regard to family planning.

Family planning, advice and treatment is already provided under the National Health Service for women for whom pregnancy, or a further pregnancy, is undesirable for medical reasons. These facilities are available through the local health authority hospitals and general practitioners. Local health authorities, for example, can either provide advice and treatment themselves or refer cases to voluntary family planning clinics and pay for the advice and treatment given there.

As my hon. Friend knows, because he was a member of the deputation, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health received a deputation from the L.C.C. on the whole subject of illegitimacy and family planning. The L.C.C. expressed the concern which has been expressed here this afternoon at the high illegitimate live birth rate in London. It thought that family planning advice should be made available without restriction, that is, to unmarried persons, as part of the National Health Service and that the Minister should take steps to encourage research into the social causes and consequences of the increase in extra-marital and pre-marital intercourse.

My right hon. Friend explained to the deputation that he regarded family planning advice as an important and proper part of health education and he was currently reviewing all aspects of departmental policy on family planning. He doubted whether the suggested wider availability of family planning advice would, in practice, have any significant effect on illegitimacy. Such advice would probably be called on mainly by the more intelligent type of girl and not be sought by more promiscuous and less responsible type of girl who, no doubt, accounts for a large number of illegitimate births.

My right hon. Friend stressed that his remarks related to family planning advice only and that there could be no question of providing free appliances under the National Health Service except on medical grounds. He also agreed to consider how further research into the problem of illegitimacy might best be promoted and to take the views of the deputation into account in his review of policy on family planning.

My hon. Friend has raised the whole question of how far illegitimacy and juvenile delinquency are connected. I have had a check done and I have found that the number of girls found to be pregnant on admission to approved schools during last year was 25 to 30 out of a total intake during the year of 1,000.

I will readily admit, however, that very often when a girl is found to be pregnant, the magistrates try to send her somewhere other than an approved school. It is quite true that many girls in approved schools and in borstals have had some sexual experience and have had children, but girls in approved schools are not necessarily delinquents. Many of them are there in need of care, protection and control, and that care, protection and control is often necessitated by the amount of sexual experience which they have had.

With regard to the possible relationship between the increasing illegitimacy rate and the rising rates of juvenile delinquency, conclusions of research workers are far from clearly defined, and it is difficult to draw from them generalisations which would enable this to be affirmed or denied. In so far as a proportion of illegitimate children may grow up in unhappy surroundings, this will undoubtedly be a contributory cause of delinquency, though probably not a significant one.

The rise in the illegitimacy rate in the last 10 years will have made no contribution to this, as children of those years are under 10 and have not yet reached the age where delinquency begins to show itself in the figures. What we have to ask ourselves is, have the same social changes which have caused the increase in delinquents also led to the increase in the illegitimacy rates? It is impossible to say, as a scientific fact, that this is so, but it is a reasonable guess that there are some causes which are common. This, of course, is a matter for speculation.

Changes in social patterns and attitudes in the past 50 years have been swift, complex and numerous, and their impact on individual behaviour is difficult to define. Increased delinquency is causing concern to a great many in advanced societies, not only in this country. Is this a consequence of the replacement of the sanction of the disapproval of public opinion in the closed society of a village or small town by the freedom produced by the anonymity of a conurbation, or is the clue to be found in a freeing of the human mind and spirit from old taboos and inhibitions as a consequence of close on a hundred years of universal popular education, leading to a greater tolerance and respect for human individuality, but, on the other side of the coin, to a diminished sense of concern for the well-being of others?

We are indebted to my hon. Friend for bringing this problem to the notice of Parliament. Various agencies will do all that they can, and I assure him that the Government, through all their many Departments, will also do all they can, but in the end it is a matter of education, as he realised, and the establishment of conditions and such a life as will reduce promiscuity, particularly among our young people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Five o'clock.