HC Deb 05 November 1968 vol 772 cc847-58

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

10.59 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

Much of what I have to say in this debate in reference to the unmarried mother includes the unsupported mother as well. I am particularly concerned with the latter category. In view of the increasing number of young women who find themselves in the position of trying to bring up a child of their own, I think that the attention of the Department and the Government should be drawn to the increasing problems facing them.

From time to time public conscience is stirred when sociologists and social workers draw attention to the situation of the unsupported unmarried mother. Many people pay lip-service to the difficulties and make suggestions about solutions. Then we forget all about it for a time and assume that the problem no longer exists.

Many of the problems to which I shall refer are not new. It is also true to say that great strides have been taken in changing attitudes compared with what they were in the past when the child was blamed for what many consider to be the crime of the parents. In this respect, I was particularly pleased to see in the Gracious Speech reference to the law of inheritance with respect to illegitimate children and to learn that a proposal will be put before this House to bring the law into line with that applying to legitimate children. Of course, this is a step in the right direction.

In trying to deal with these problems we are indebted to the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child. We ought to be concerned with the fact that the present financial position of this organisation is critical. If it is to continue the work that it does in helping so many young girls who arrive on its doorstep with their suitcases and carrying a child, it must be given financial support, and this support must be increased if it is to be assured of a future stable existence.

I have with me some figures of illegitimacy. First, I think that most people are aware that in this country last year nearly 70,000 babies were born outside of marriage. That is 8.4 per cent. of all live births, or, in other words, one child in 13 in England and Wales is born of unmarried parents. This figure is high. But, having said that, it is important to point out, as some of us pointed out when the Divorce Bill was under discussion, that many of these illegitimate births are the result of stable unions. They are not all the result of the situation with which I am mainly concerned tonight. The figures, therefore, have to be interpreted with that fact in mind.

I wish to draw attention to the report that was published on the health of the school child and which laid particular emphasis on the problem—although it has been exaggerated, as the report showed—of the schoolgirl who has a baby. The report goes a long way to destroying the idea that sexual promiscuity is excessive among boys and girls still at school. It also destroys the idea that those with knowledge are the ones who usually get themselves into trouble. In fact, it highlights what we ought to be concerned with, that it is often the young girl from the inadequate home and inadequate background who finds herself pregnant while still at school.

Nevertheless, the incidence of pregnancy among school girls is high enough for those of us here and others in responsible positions in schools and clinics seriously to consider whether enough is being done in our schools to deal with the difficult problems of sex and of growing up.

One of the points that I want to emphasise is the main problem affecting all unsupported mothers, namely, accommodation. We need to find out what are the policies of our local authorities in relation to the unsupported mother. How does the points system work in relation to a single mother with one child? Does she lose out because she is a single mother, as against married parents, although their housing needs may be exactly the same? Do some authorities, as I fear they do, still take the view that to house the unmarried mother is to encourage others to follow her example and is, in effect, a condoning of what she has done?

The real tragedies to which I draw my hon. Friend's attention begin when some young girls leave the mother and baby homes and their babies are about six weeks old. They have to find accommodation. Much the same problem may well arise a few months later, when the baby is a little older. Statistics show that the unsupported mother has three times more chance of becoming homeless than has the normal family, and this difficulty affects the unmarried girl even more acutely.

We must find ways of increasing the provision of short-stay housing and of providing good low-rent accommodation for people in this situation. Let us remind those who regard such provision, as many do, as an expense on the community that the inadequate home and the deprived child from such homes in the end cost the community far more than the offering of cheaper accommodation and better facilities in the first place.

Anyone who has traced the history of some of the sad cases of children of unsupported mothers knows how the tragic pattern of the inadequate home produces the inadequate child, who, in turn, produces the inadequate home and again the inadequate child. The sad tales goes on endlessly. The case histories of our children's homes, our remand homes and approved schools and our prisons are so often the results of inadequacy in early years.

The connection between inadequacy and illegitimacy or the circumstances of the unsupported mother was shown by the findings of the Seebohm Committee. If we allow the social conditions in which these children are brought to be worse than the conditions in which those whom we choose to call legitimate are brought up, they will be at far greater risk of coming into care and becoming social misfits.

The Seebohm Report deals with this aspect of the matter at some length. It points out that the number of illegitimate babies coming into care between 1963 and 1966 was rising by roughly 800 a year. The cause of their coming into care was not illegitimacy; it was their mothers' lack of the means to maintain them in their own homes. It is a terrible reflection on us all if we force a young girl or a woman who has a child to give it up or put it into care simply because we do not provide the necessary support in terms of finance and accommodation.

I hope that we shall have opportunity on another occasion to discuss at greater length the complex problem of fostering. Sometimes, after several years, a child becomes involved in a tug-of-war between the foster parents and its mother. Sometimes, they are children of deserted mothers or were born before their mothers were married, and the mothers are able to establish a home a few years later.

In many cases, the mother really believes that her child will have to stay in the care of the local authority or of foster parents for only a short period. But time runs on, and then one finds the child being taken from foster parents with whom it has been for as long as eight or ten years and put back with its own parents—or one new parent and its mother—whom it does not really know and from whom it has lost all contact.

If, because of inadequacies in our social services available to the unsupported mother, we encourage this situation to arise or fail to check it, we bear a heavy responsibility. We must do better. Many of the mothers I have come across who have been faced with a contest over the moral right—to call it that—of the foster mother as against their own legal right originally intended that their children should stay in care for only a short time, but, because of bad housing and the other problems confronting them, they were not able to take them back into their own homes. We need particularly to look at the problems of the unsupported mother and her children in the long school holidays, when she must continue to work but the children need to be looked after.

Perhaps we could look with interest and support at some of the housing projects that have sprung up during the past few years to help the unmarried mother, very often through voluntary organisations that have put forward imaginative schemes to local authorities and asked for help. Some local authorities have been very forthcoming with assistance to mother-and-baby homes and hostels that provide facilities to help girls keep their babies and go out to work at the same time. But some refuse to help in getting these projects off the ground. If the Government could consider offering assistance in this connection we could begin to move along the right road.

It is very important that, whatever a girl decides to do with her baby, in the end she is not forced to make a decision that she does not want to make, because she cannot keep her child owing to housing or financial difficulties. Many people in that situation will decide that adoption is the best solution. It may well be, but to force such a person to make a decision against her will is something that many of us would feel very guilty about.

There is also the question of financial arrangements for unsupported mothers, and this does not apply only to the unmarried mothers. No doubt we shall be able to discuss this subject more fully another time. A little while ago the Lord Chancellor dealt in another place with the question of the unmarried mother receiving National Assistance. The figures showed that of those concerned about 17 per cent. had no hope of ever getting a court order; about 35 per cent. had not been able to prove entitlement; and in about 3 per cent. of cases there was no arrangement for payment because no financial payment was available. If we could start to think of other means whereby unmarried and unsupported mothers could get maintenance and support for their children, we should be moving in the right direction.

I received today a letter from a constituent who had noticed that this was the subject of an Adjournment debate. He told me that his 16-year-old daughter, a schoolgirl, was pregnant, and wrote of the distress, shock and misery this was causing to his family and daughter. He blamed the permissive society, the accent on sex, and all the things we have heard blamed so much. It is not for me or anybody else here to start trying to say who or what is responsible for young girls who find themselves in that situation. But in a sense all of us are responsible for what happens, particularly to young people and the inadequates in our society. If they are inadequate, it is in a sense society that has made them inadequate. We must try to find ways and means of redressing the balance of the inadequacy which has caused many young unmarried mothers to find themselves in that situation.

11.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security (Mr. Julian Snow)

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) for raising this matter. I know of her specialised knowledge of this matter. I will try to deal with all the points that she has raised, but this may not be absolutely possible in the short time that I have at my disposal.

There are many problems which beset the unmarried mother. She needs an adequate health service; appropriate accommodation, whether a home temporarily or long-term housing within the community; social support, including advice about the unmarried mother's legal rights; support to assist her in resuming her place in the community after her child is born; and adequate means.

The expectant mother needs social support during the time before and immediately after the baby's birth, when she has to take difficult decisions about her own and the child's future. She may receive the support she needs from any one of a number of agencies, including her general practitioner, the local health authority through its local welfare department, child guidance clinic or maternity services or perhaps from a moral welfare worker. Perhaps on the other hand she will go to the National Council for the Unmarried Mother or another voluntary body. Voluntary organisations do a large part of this work, but I hope that in the time to come we shall see local health authorities doing more.

All these services have to be seen against the unfortunate background of the ambivalent attitude of society. The unmarried mother continues to occupy a lowly place in the scale of public tolerance, and, although public attitudes are changing, the tempo of reform is very slow.

Much of the reform that has so far been brought about has been due to the efforts of the voluntary bodies active in the field, and I would at this point like to refer particularly to the work of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, to give it its proper and full title. The Council acts as an advisory and co-ordinating body in the field of illegitimacy, campaigns for improved social services for unmarried mothers and their children, presses for changes in the law where necessary, and promotes public understanding of the problems of illegitimacy.

It is particularly timely that I should pay tribute to the National Council at the present time for it is celebrating its golden jubilee this year and will be holding its golden jubilee annual general meeting on the 21st and 22nd of the month. Society is much indebted to it for all that it has done in this sphere of work during the past 50 years. I understand that it is launching an appeal to try to rectify its financial problems, and we shall be watching the results of it very closely.

I would also like to pay tribute to the voluntary societies, many of them church organisations, active in this field. Although they would share with me the feeling of regret that it should be so, there is no doubt that greater calls than ever before will be made on their services in the future. I am confident that they will respond to these calls.

I think that I should also mention at this point the finding or recommendation of the Seebohm Committee, in paragraph 211: The risks to which the young illegitimate child is exposed are greater than those faced by legitimate children and they are likely to need more help from the social service department. Likewise unmarried mothers also need special assistance. Where they retain their children and look after them, help is necessary in the form of guidance, accommodation and in ensuring adequate income. We recognise the outstanding pioneering work which has been done by voluntary bodies in this field, particularly religious organisations, and there is no suggestion that they be superseded. But we do recommend that, first, there should be a realistic alternative sources of assistance to those unmarried mothers who do not wish to approach religious bodies and, second, that there should be a clear assignment of responsibility to the social service department for ensuring adequate social care and advice for both the unmarried mother and her child. I have read that paragraph because I feel that what the young unmarried mother really wants is not merely to know that there are certain services available but some social worker on whose shoulders she can cry and unburden her soul. I have in mind a typical case of the young girl from the provinces who comes to London, occupies a bed-sitter, finds herself pregnant and then is lost because she is out of touch with her family, is not associated with any particular body and has nobody to advise her responsibly.

The public bodies who play the major part in dealing with the problems of the unmarried mother must necessarily be the local authorities. But, apart from promoting the expansion of local authority services for the unmarried mother and direct forms of assistance such as the payment of supplementary benefit, central Departments also contribute directly in various way—for example, an annual grant, which was more than doubled two years ago, is paid by my Department to the National Council.

Local authorities make provision for unmarried mothers in a variety of ways. The services provided by local health authorities for all mothers are equally available to the unmarried mother. The problem is, of course, to ensure that their services are adequately used by unmarried mothers, who, with their babies, have been shown to be at special medical risk. The relatively high rates for infant and perinatal mortality in these groups suggest that they tend not to take advantage of the ante-natal services until a very late stage in their pregnancy. The adverse effect of illegitimacy on the outcome of pregnancy is well known.

Local health authorities also provide accommodation for the unmarried mother, either themselves or by arrangement with voluntary agencies. The day care needs of pre-school children of unsupported mothers, a large proportion of whom are unmarried, are given priority, and they will benefit from the considerable extra amount of day nursery building by local health authorities, assisted by a new Government grant, to which I referred at Question Time yesterday.

Apart from problems arising over accommodation, we must ensure that the unmarried mother does not, under stress, neglect her health and that of her child, that she is able to find out without too much difficulty what services exist to help, and that skilled help and support is available to her for as long as she needs it while she is deciding upon her child's and her own future.

Here, I should like to make a brief reference to the conclusions of the Seebohm Report, one of which I have already quoted, on the personal social services. Whatever decision may eventually be taken by the Government on the Report's central recommendation that there shall be a family oriented social service department within the local authority structure, I am confident that one of the categories of persons that will directly gain from any arrangement made will be the unmarried mother and her child.

I must emphasise that I think this link between a girl in trouble and what the local authorities can do is one of the answers we have to find in the provision, in due course, and as quickly as we can, of more social workers of the right type. In the case of social work services, authorities have tended in the past to discharge their responsibilities by delegating the care of unmarried mothers to voluntary agencies. Particularly is this so for the one-sixth of unmarried mothers in any given year who are accommodated in mother and baby homes. This aspect of the services for unmarried mothers has been the subject of a recent study and fine report by Mrs. Jill Nicholson, a research worker, on behalf of the National Council, which is at present under consideration.

In the field of housing, the Minister of Housing and Local Government's Central Housing Advisory Committee, in a report sent to all housing authorities in 1955, and again, in a joint circular with the Ministry of Health and Home Office in September, 1967, drew attention to the housing difficulties which confront "unsupported" mothers and suggested that councils should, in the interests of the children, offer such families some of their lower-rented accommodation. There are also 16 housing associations, set-up wholly or partly to assist unmarried mothers and affiliated to the National Federation of Housing Societies.

On the question of financial assistance to the unmarried mother, it is axiomatic that life will seldom be easy for mothers who have to bring up a young family without a husband's support. But owing to the supplementary benefits scheme, there are today about 180,000 "father- less" families, containing 340,000 children, who enjoy a degree of financial security unknown to previous generations, and unmarried mothers account for some 50,000 of these families.

These benefits must continue to be reviewed from time to time to take account of the rise in the cost of living and the improved circumstances with which we would like to surround the unmarried mother.

I would be glad to write to my hon. Friend and give her examples of the sort of income of this nature which is at present being provided, but I ask her to believe that this is not the end of the story. I hope that there will be further improvements in due course.

It is no part of my task today to make suggestions about the prevention of illegitimacy, but there is no doubt that a need exists to give young people advice and instruction about personal relationships, i.e., dealing with the emotions and responsibilities of the whole relationship between the sexes and not with physiology alone. An understanding of this is a basic essential for living happily in a community. We have to face the fact that numbers of our young people engage in pre-marital sexual intercourse and will continue to do so. But I hope that all who may read my speech and that of my hon. Friend will rid their minds of any question of moral rectitude in dealing with this problem.

There is no doubt that in the future we can look forward to increasing provision by both central and local government for the needs of unmarried mothers. There is need for an increased number of trained social workers, and I would hope that local authorities will play an increasing part in this problem.

My hon. Friend referred to illegitimacy rates, and also to the question of the very young girl who becomes pregnant. There is a special need for provision for this latter category, and the likelihood is that the children's department will be concerned here and will provide guidance and assistance under the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963. Next year a new establishment will be opened by a local authority which will provide for 20 girls and their babies where a court has made an order, and some voluntary bodies such as the Salvation Army provide homes specially for mothers in this age group. It is a facet of society which we must face, but, like my hon. Friend, I think it has been perhaps over-dramatised and over-publicised in recent years.

Statistically, the illegitimacy rate is going up, but many illegitimate conceptions end in abortion either spontaneous or induced and on this no statistics are available. We do, however, have statistics, derived from birth registrations, on the number of illegitimate births, and these show that there has been a considerable increase in both the number and proportion of illegitimate births in recent years. In the period 1928–1940 the proportion of illegitimate live births to total live births remained fairly constant at between 4.1 and 4.6 per cent. There was an increase starting in 1945, followed by a decline in the 1950s. There has, however, been a steady rise in the 1960s from 5.4 per cent. in 1960 about 8 per cent. at the present time.

The incidence of illegitimacy is by no means uniform over the country. It is bad in London, but there are some provincial towns where it is very bad indeed. This means we have a developing problem on our hands, and I hope that with the help of my hon. Friend and of society at large we shall be able to give increased protection to and provision of care for these girls who are in trouble.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.