HC Deb 23 February 1966 vol 725 cc583-5

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a means by which illegitimate children can be recognised at law by their fathers. The problem of illegitimacy is extremely grave. From the latest statistics which are available, we know that there are between 50,000 and 60,000 illegitimate births a year. That is 6.6 per cent. of the birth rate, and in England today we are faced with the position that every year one child in every 15 born is illegitimate. Of these, one-third are brought up by both parents. My proposed Bill is not concerned with them so much as with the remaining two-thirds who are not so brought up.

There are 40,000 children born a year who have only a dim prospect of subsequent legitimation and who bear a stigma which they will carry with them until they die. I think one might ask: is not the high abortion rate of which we have heard so much perhaps due in part to our failure adequately to help the illegitimate child? Would we not be better employed if, instead of trying to make abortion easier, we tried to make illegitimacy a less burdensome weight to carry? We have, after all, made provision for the welfare of children of divorced parents. Should we not do something for those who have known only one of their parents?

The present position at English law is that whereas mothers have some rights and duties, fathers of illegitimate children have virtually none. What my Bill would do is to provide means at law by which the man who fathers children outside of wedlock can voluntarily assume parental responsibility. It would also provide a means by which the child itself can proceed through the courts and claim recognition from the father. This, of course, will mean creating a new status at English law, but it is a status which exists in various forms in 19 different Continental countries.

The practical effects of the new status will be these. First, it will give the illegitimate child some kind of legal relationship with the father, which will probably be of great psychological help to the child. Second, it will mean that the child will have a right to adequate maintenance by the father. At present, maintenance rights vest in the mother, and they are for a derisory sum, and are available for only a few years. Third, it will give the illegitimate child a right to inherit on intestacy along with any legitimate children. At present, the illegitimate child has no claim of any kind against a father's estate unless a will is made in its favour.

How will this status of recognition be technically brought about? First, if it is voluntary recognition, it can be carried out by means of a statutory declaration in court or by a declaration before a registrar. There would be in the Bill a Clause providing for objection by the mother if she wishes to deny paternity. Secondly, the Bill would include a proviso to cover cases in which a child is happily in the custody of another couple and has a settled home. We must avoid the sort of injustice which only this week was perpetrated in the Court of Appeal, when a child was taken away from a good home because its parents, who had, in effect, abandoned it, claimed to have the child restored to them. The welfare of the child must always be the paramount consideration, and it is that consideration which is behind the Bill.

In the past, there has been opposition to doing anything for the illegitimate child. It is said that, if we help the illegitimate, this will weaken the status of marriage. This, of course, is the view that the sins of the fathers should be visited on the children, and I regret to say that it has had support from Christian opinion in both the nineteenth century and in this. Nothing could, in fact, be more un-Christian than such a notion.

Fortunately, in recent years, opinion has changed, and I pay tribute to the Church of England Board of Social Responsibility for the pioneer work it has done in this matter, particularly in its Report, recently published, "Fatherless by Law". I believe that the Bill would be supported by Christian opinion generally today, and I think that in this we are going back to an older tradition because, 700 years before Parliament recognised legitimation by subsequent marriage, this was recognised by English canon law.

The other argument deployed against a change in the status of the illegitimate is that it would encourage illegitimacy itself. I believe quite the contrary to be the case. By making the father liable to recognition, the law would provide a strong disincentive to adulterous and fornicatory adventurers. Responsibility provided for by law will lead to a higher degree of personal responsibility than we have at present.

The law can do little to alleviate what is a tragic situation. Society will always stigmatise illegitimacy. What the law can do is to refrain from adding legal disabilities to the inevitable social ones and do something to relieve the economic handicaps of the illegitimate child. The Bill would help to relieve the suffering of those who are, in the strict sense of the word, innocents, and I hope that it will commend itself to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas, Dame Joan Vickers, Mr. Leo Abse, Mrs. Shirley Williams, Mr. Dennis Walters, and Mr. Jeremy Thorpe.