HC Deb 28 October 1975 vol 898 cc1359-77

'In section 22 of the 1958 Act—

(a) the following words are added at the end of subsection (4)— or a local authority or an approved adoption society which is providing counselling, under subsection (4A) of this section, for that adopted person.";

(b) the following subsections are inserted after subsection (4)— (4A) Where the Registrar General for Scotland furnishes an adopted person with information under subsection (4) of this section, he shall advise that person that counselling services are available—

  1. (a) from the local authority for the area where the adopted person lives: or
  2. (b) if the adopted person's adoption was arranged by an adoption society which is approved under section 4 of the Children Act 1975, from that society,
and it shall be the duty of such local authority and approved adoption society to provide counselling for adopted persons who have been furnished with information under subsection (4) and who apply to them for counselling in respect of that information.

(4B) Where an adopted person has arranged to receive counselling under subsection (4A), the Registrar General for Scotland shall, on receipt of a request from the local authority or adoption society which is providing that counselling, and on payment of the appropriate fee, send to the authority or society an extract of the entry relating to the adopted person in the Register of Births."'.—[Dr. Owen.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Owen

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Government Amendments 150, 151 and 152, and we may also take Amendment No. 21, in Clause 26, page 18, line 4, after 'years', insert ', and who was adopted on or after 1st January 1976'.

6.15 p.m.

Dr. Owen

The clause refers to Scotland, and perhaps it is important at this stage that we should talk about Scotland first, because Scotland has led the law. In this case, English practice is to some extent catching up with common Scottish practice.

The Scottish clause differs, however, from the corresponding provisions for England and Wales by virtue of the fact that counselling of adopted persons who seek access to their birth records is placed entirely on an optional basis, as in the case of persons in England and Wales for persons adopted after the Bill becomes law. This is entirely appropriate in view of the fact that the law in Scotland since 1930 has allowed that adopted persons should be permitted access to their original birth records on attaining the age of 17. There is, accordingly, no question of a change under the present Bill in the circumstances in which persons given for adoption in Scotland can subsequently trace their natural parents.

While the Scottish provisions do not provide for counselling as a necessary preliminary to the receipt of information by an adopted person, they lay down a clear avenue to such a person obtaining counselling in Scotland if he wishes to receive it. The Government amendments all relate to access to birth records for adopted persons. Amendment No. 150 is a paving amendment and combines the existing provisions of Clause 26 with those proposed in Amendment No. 151 to form a new Section, 20A, for the 1958 Act.

Amendment No. 151 provides for the counselling schemes which will be obligatory for persons adopted before the passing of the Bill—subsection (6)—but will merely be offered to those adopted after the Bill. Subsection (3) places a duty on the Registrar General, local authorities and approved adoption societies to provide counselling for adopted persons who apply to the General Register Office for information to enable them to trace their birth record.

Subsection (4) reques the Registrar General to inform every applicant of the counselling services available to him. These include the General Register Office, for those who prefer the anonymity of a central unit; the local authority in whose area the applicant lives, for those who wish to receive counselling locally; the local authority for the area where the court which made the adoption order sat. That authority may have supervised the placement while the application was pending, or provided the guardian ad litem to report on the application and might therefore have some detailed information. Finally, there is the adoption society which arranged the adoption, if known and if approved under Clause 4. This choice could not be offered until after Clause 4 was put into effect; that depends on high standards in relevant agencies.

After our debate in Committee I took the Bill away and came to the conclusion—and it was my personal view—that unless we could have a system of counselling, this provision would not be acceptable to the House. It seemed to me the will of that Committee that all counselling should be obligatory for people who were adopted before the passing of the Bill. We have therefore tried to make a distinction in the legislation on that score. We undertook extensive consultation, but I do not claim that we have met every point. I think that these compromise proposals genuinely meet the consensus, and I get the impression that most people feel that the balance we have struck between centralised counselling and a local authority arrangement, in giving a choice, is probably the best way out of a difficult situation.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Will the Minister say something about the consultations? What was the balance of advice to the Department? We all recognise that this is a difficult question, but it would help if he could tell us.

Dr. Owen

The directors initially wanted counselling to be handled by the local authorities and were not so keen on the idea of a centralised unit. I think that they changed their view when they realised that a high priority was being given to the local authorities for those who wished to receive counselling locally. That was the slight difference. Otherwise, I think that broadly the ABAA and most other organisations have favoured a combination of a centralised unit and a local authority option. Some, of course, have not been altogether happy about the idea of obligatory counselling. I think that it should be put on record that some of the social service workers feel that this is not necessary, and they point to experience in Scotland.

However, I think that the feeling of the House is quite different. It is a feeling that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) holds strongly, and I understand her point of view. Some felt that although under the present rules people could obtain access to their adoption records, this fact was not so widely known, and many people had been adopted in the belief that the arrangement had been a private one.

The House was therefore obliged to recognise this fact by making a distinction in the procedure. Once the counselling procedure is carried out, however, there is no way of stopping a person from having access to his or her records. I think the House is taking broad precautions to prevent distressing situations. They cannot, however, be prevented completely and may well arise. On balance, I believe that we have adopted the right approach to a very difficult problem, and I commend it to the House

Mrs. Knight

I am deeply troubled about Clause 26 and the new Clause which we are now discussing. In Committee I withdrew my amendment so that I might raise the general idea again now. Hon. Members do not generally understand exactly what Clause 26 seeks to do. This is a Children Bill, not an adults' Bill, and I accept that. I am determined at all times to help children, even unborn children, because I recognise that they have very strong rights.

I am, however, still troubled by the clause. In giving a child the right of access to its birth records and in doing so from the date when the Bill becomes law, we are creating a situation that will cause many women sleepless nights. Many women have had children, perhaps when they were very young, and they allowed the children to be adopted. They then closed the door on that episode of their lives.

My concern springs mainly from my experience of a constituency case where an excellent marriage was totally ruined. The wife at the age of 17 had had an illegitimate child, and the child had gone for adoption. The woman subsequently married and had a very happy marriage with three children who were brought up lovingly in a very happy home. When her illegitimate child was 21 he discovered his mother's whereabouts and went to see her. That visit totally destroyed the marriage. The husband, who had not been informed of the wife's first child, found his trust in her totally ruined. He felt that if she had not told him about her illegitimate child, he did not know what else she might be keeping from him. The case had such a sad ending that it led me to form the views I hold about this clause.

We have permitted women to close the door on any indiscretions in their past. Goodness knows, the men do it very successfully, indeed. Until now, it has been accepted that this is a woman's right. Having allowed her child to go for adoption, if she does not wish to see that child again, or to have that child in her life, it is very difficult to decide whether the child ought to have a right to know her when she would prefer not to know the child.

One wants to give children the right of access to their records. I do not object to the theory for the future. That seems perfectly reasonable. We are passing a Children Bill and saying to the country "From now on, any child who is adopted may know that he has access to the records of his birth". But I do not think that we are being fair to the women involved if we make this provision retrospective. They understood when they allowed a child to go for adoption that henceforward that would be the end of that. Parliament is now dragging before them the spectre of something that they thought was finished.

I beg hon. Members to appreciate that this is a genuine human dilemma. It is very difficult to have to weigh in the balance that sort of situation with the right of the child to have access to his birth records. It is not a light matter. It is not true that the whole problem can be got over by the adopted child being able to get access to counselling. There is not one word in all the clauses about counselling for a distraught and distracted woman who might find her family life threatened by what we are doing by the clause.

I question very much whether obligatory counselling is a good thing—any more than obligatory schooling is good for certain children who would much rather leave school. What sort of use will it be to grab someone by the scruff of the neck, sit him down and say "You are to have some obligatory counselling whether you like it or not"? With the best will in the world, the Bill insists on obligatory counselling. I should not feel so badly if we were told that the counsel- ling service was available and if people were left to choose themselves whether they wished to take advantage of it.

Over and above that, however, I am very worried about the whole pious hope that counsellors will be available. Where are they to come from? We have not enough counsellors in any part of our social service network. I know of no area where all of the social workers both sides of the House would wish to have available are actually available.

I am greatly worried by the effect of Clause 26. I have recognised, as has the Minister, that it is a difficult matter. I do not seek in any way to be awkward or argumentative, but I believe that in this clause we are being grossly unfair to a number of women who will be astonished that the House of Commons should so lightly and easily take away their rights.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I find it very difficult to follow the argument of the hon. Lady for Birmingham Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) about Clause 26 as opposed to new Clause 26—and we must be careful of the distinction that we have here. The hon. Lady mentioned a specific case of a specific marriage being ruined by a specific event. I do not dispute for one moment that the case to which she refers is genuine or that the marriage was ruined because an illegitimate child found its way into the home and destroyed the husband's trust in the woman concerned. But the fear that some day her husband would find out about her previous indiscretion must have been with her for a very long time. I appreciate and am concerned about the fact that all of the women who have committed what we in this House call an indiscretion—women who have had an illegitimate child and had the child adopted—and who have subsequently married and said nothing to the husband must today, irrespective of the passing of this Bill or of Clause 26 on access to birth records, have at the back of their minds the nagging fear "What happens if my husband finds out?" There is no way in which anyone can be certain that a husband will not find out, or what the effect of that will be.

During our lengthy discussions in Committee—I do not want to go into all of them again—I said that one of the problems of legislation of this kind, where there was an element of retrospection or where there was no element of retrospection, was that we must legislate for the uncommon, while maintaining a sense of proportion in legislating in the common sense. If because of one or two or, perhaps, dozens of cases similar to that mentioned by the hon. Lady we were to deny children the right to see their original birth certificates, perhaps to deny that right to many thousands of people, that would not be sensible law. This is an issue in which no amount of argument or persuasion, no question of obligatory counselling or voluntary counselling, will make one bit of difference to those who are opposed to the retrospection. On this matter sooner or later we shall have to divide, and each must stand where he will on the issue.

I turn to new Clause 26, which deals with the Scottish position. As I have said, I do not want to rehearse the arguments about the Scottish position, but the House ought to be aware that since 1930 and the Adoption of Children (Scotland) Act people in Scotland have had the right of access to their birth certificates. There is nothing to suggest that this has caused any untoward difficulty over the past 45 years.

That is an experience that should be weighed carefully by those hon. Members who represent English or Welsh constituencies and who are looking for some way of resolving their personal dilemma about access to birth certificates. If they have not done so, I suggest that they read the Hansard for the Committee proceedings for 17th July, from column 354 onwards, where the results of the Triseliotis survey are very well detailed.

I come to the subject of counselling. Having looked into it very carefully, I am of the opinion that counselling was unnecessary, in Scotland at least. There is nothing to show that we needed it. Nevertheless, I would not object to counselling being brought in. It is done at present, admittedly in a rather rudimentary and informal manner, by the Registrar General. I have no objection to the general idea of counselling being spread out to the local authorities and adoption agencies. I have no disagreement in principle.

However, we must recognise—it would be foolish not to do so—that the social workers and the local authorities are at present under a very heavy strain. Most of them have case loads far beyond what any reasonable person would expect them to carry. Simply adding to this another duty, that of counselling, does not make a lot of sense in the present climate of public expenditure. Although I would be prepared to accept the new clause as regards counselling, I hope that counselling will not reach the point where it becomes an absolute priority with local authorities.

I want to ask one or two questions about the new clause. I am concerned that there should be no interference whatsoever with the right of access which has hitherto applied in Scotland. It is worth while. I do not see why we should change it. That is not to say that because it has worked as a general overall principle, what has been good in Scotland for 45 years is automatically good, or that we cannot learn from English experience. That is not the point at all. Our experience is that the right of access has had no great effect.

6.30 p.m.

I hope that we can take it that counselling in Scotland will be purely voluntary, and that if an applicant who is advised of the counselling that is available from the local authority or adoption agency says that he is not interested in counselling, but wants the information now, that information will be made available to him, as it would have been before the passing of the Bill. There will thus be no need for a person to refer to the counselling service before the information is made available.

I am curious about the possible effect of subsection (4B), which is as follows: Where an adopted person has arranged to receive counselling under subsection (4A), the Registrar General for Scotland shall, on receipt of a request from the local authority or adoption society which is providing that counselling, and on payment of the appropriate fee, send to the authority or society an extract of the entry relating to the adopted person in the Register of Births. We are often told that the law is not what we think it is but what it says it is. In an earlier debate the appearance of reporters in the sheriff court was referred to. It was thought that the law allowed reporters to appear but, the law being silent on that point, that right is not conferred on them. It would be curious if, by voluntarily accepting a counselling service, the rights of the individual to access to his birth certificate were delegated by his voluntarily handing over to the adoption society or local authority his right of veto.

I am sure that that is not the intention of the subsection, but it says nothing about the individual's right once he goes for counselling. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will make clear that this device is simply to assist the applicant and will not result in the applicant's rights being removed. It would be extraordinary if a diminution of an individual's rights or civil liberties resulted from a clause designed to be helpful and not restrictive.

I am not opposed to counselling, but I hope that people will understand that resources are restricted. The Scottish system, which has served us well for so many years, should not be interfered with. The experience we have gained will be of great service to England and Wales. I hope that it will help to resolve the personal dilemmas of hon. Members and that they will support the Government on the clause and the subsequent amendments.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

I warmly congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on his recent appointment. Will he confirm that he agrees with what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said and that counselling in Scotland will be purely voluntary, bearing in mind that the Scottish system has worked extremely well for the past 20 years?

Mr. Robertson

I, too, am apprehensive about the wording of the clause, particularly subsection (4B). Its intentions are obscure. There is no need to alter the law, because anyone who wishes to receive assistance can easily obtain it. We would perhaps do better to look at the Money Resolution to see whether extra resources are to be made available to local authorities for counselling services. The Strathclyde Region is 1,400 social workers below establishment. What possibility is there of establishing a counselling service in Strathclyde? It is a pious hope, the fulfilment of which would add an extra burden on local authorities.

The Scots are wiser. We never inquire too deeply into our antecedents. We might find a sheep stealer among them and prefer to keep it quiet. That is a policy which the English could well follow. It is sometimes better to leave well alone. This information for many years has been available to anyone who wanted it, and I have never heard of any person becoming distressed on receiving the information.

My hon. Friend is not doing us a service by insisting on the inclusion of the clause. It gives us nothing. If he were saying that there would be a voluntary service for which extra resources would be provided that would be fair enough, but he is putting on local authorities a duty to provide such a service at any time they are called upon to do so without providing an extra penny piece to pay for it. That is just another bit of cynicism which experience tells us is unnecessary.

I should like to be reassured about the meaning of subsection (4B). It seems to me to be superfluous. Will my hon. Friend tell us its purpose?

I do not wish to say much about Amendment No. 151. I dare say the position in England and Wales is the same as it is in Scotland. Our social workers are hard pressed and local authority resources are being cut, not added to. To put extra duties on local authorities merely means a cut in some other service. To insist on compulsory counselling can only damage the service. In my view the clause and Amendment No. 151 are unnecessary and the Government would be well advised withdraw them.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)

I agree almost entirely with what has been said by the hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson). There is no advantage in adding a requirement for counselling. Voluntary counselling can only be helpful, but to add an obligagation to receive counselling will be time wasting and may cut across the purpose which lies behind the Scots law in its present form of which I approve.

Being a matrimonial lawyer of many years standing I have considered this matter a great deal. The law is based on inherent respect for all the parties involved and the complex relationships which occur when a child is adopted. It is based on a great respect for all, including the natural parent or parents who may have to make a painful decision, the child who may have a curiosity about his parents and be left with the feeling that there is something disgraceful in a decision being made to give him away to someone else, and the adoptive parents.

To take, first, the child's attitude if the child is happy, although he has the right in Scotland to inquire about his parents, he generally will not inquire. Some do, but there are always exceptions. An unhappy child often does inquire. He may want to check on his roots and, perhaps, to find someone somewhere. He may feel an obligation towards his natural parents. He may not be able to rest if he thinks that perhaps somewhere his mother is existing below the poverty line. Nothing should be done to discourage such a genuine attitude.

I come next to the mother's attitude. I was interested in the example given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), but should not the lady to whom she referred have disclosed the facts to her husband? If she did not, should not she take the consequences? Why, because she chose to make that decision, should her child be deprived of his rights?

Many of the decisions made by mothers who give their children away are made, and with finality, in an agony of self-sacrifice against, until now in our society, a background of extreme economic difficulty. Perhaps society will improve, and enable a woman always to be in a position in which she can make such a decision without regard to economic worries, but that day has not yet come, and for those women who made their decision in the past it was not there. Many of these women in my experience made the decision feeling genuinely full of self-sacrifice, wanting their children to have the best possible life and worried about the sort of life that they themselves could give them, bearing in mind the difficulties that society was enforcing on them.

Mrs. Knight

I think the hon. Lady is unnecessarily censorious of the women concerned. Will she recognise that it is often a desperately difficult decision to make but that it is at least made easier by the knowledge that it will not drag on, that there is an end to it, that the child is adopted and that is that? I think that it is a great shame to be censorious of the women concerned.

Mrs. Ewing

I am not being in any sense censorious. This is a moral decision for the woman herself, but, in my view, in making her decision, there is another party—the child. I do not think that, whatever her attitude or decision, she has any right to take a right from another human being. This has worked well in Scotland. It has not been abused; nor has it given rise to many cases such as that we have heard about. I certainly do not mean to be censorious. I have the utmost sympathy with any woman in this position. I am not concerned about moral grounds but with the point that I have made.

On the question of finality, I ask whether anyone should have the right to close a door when she has actually brought a child into the world. That is another question, but I would say that the woman does not have such a right, that there must always be the possibility that the child will feel an obligation to a parent; for example, living a good life the child may feel it necessary to satisfy an obligation should it arise.

Quite a number of children who take up the right to find out only want to satisfy themselves that the reason was a reasonable one for putting them into care of other people so that they could live happily. That in itself makes them happier in the family of their adoptive parents. Very often, a child, having found out these things, does not follow up. Very often, those who inquire find that the mothers are not in need and leave the matter there.

In my experience, adoptive parents are quite happy to take this position in Scotland. They know that there will come a day when the child can find out. I have never had an adoptive parent complaining to me about it. They all have taken the view that if they bring up a happy child they have nothing to fear in that child seeking out the maximum information about his background.

I join those who urge that counselling be purely voluntary and that we should not have any additional impediment to the present system, which does work well and has worked well in Scotland, and which I commend to England and Wales.

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

Following four Scottish Members it is, perhaps, appropriate for an English intervention to inject a note of compromise into the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson). I was one of those who in Committee advocated the old Clause 25, later to become Clause 26, without, perhaps, seeing quite the force of the argument from many quarters saying that we should have a counselling procedure. It is incumbent on us to realise not only how far the Government have moved in these discussions but not to offer again on Report a kind of paperback version of the speeches in Committee.

A good deal has happened since Committee. Although I can accept the force of Scottish Members' feelings in what they have said about the possibly otiose nature of these proceedings as applied to Scotland, and one's researches indicate that there has not been the kind of difficulty to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) referred. I would feel now that nevertheless, Scotland must bear that burden. Those who wish to see this right of access, available as it is by counselling, made available to the children should meet the Government half way about the procedure proposed. I am prepared to do so.

6.45 p.m.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston has again raised the question of what will happen to the mother who has given her child for adoption and then might live in fear of what might happen if the child were to return at some later date. But this is the Children Bill. It is not the "Protection from the Return of Stigma Bill", or the "Concealment of One's Past Bill". It is designed to give children, as far as we can, that right to access which we know that they have exercised under the more sensible Scottish law of 1930 perfectly adequately.

I do not believe that even in the present situation we have the total protection for the natural mother which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston supposes to exist under the law as it stands. Many adoptive children find their natural parents. They do so without benefit of counselling. I found my mother without any recourse to social workers or representatives of local authorities or any representative of an adoption agency. Had I been a homicidal lunatic, my mother might have been at risk as a result. Perhaps the hon. Lady thinks that I am, and that my mother was at risk. However, I do not wish to pursue that.

Mrs. Knight

The hon. Gentleman must not trail his coat tails to that extent, because it is too tempting. But I beg even him to recognise that while in the past it was possible to find the mother—I described such a case of an adopted child—I am saying that any woman knew with almost complete certainty that she would not be found, often being told by the adoption agency how she could avoid being found. She followed that guidance and was henceforth not found. The difference in Scotland was that she always knew that she could be found. In England, whereas formerly she was protected, now she will not be. I beg the hon. Gentleman not to think this funny, because it is not.

Mr. Whitehead

As I said in Committee to the hon. Lady, by having recourse to counselling we make it much more likely that the person who may be at risk, or who may put that contact with the original biological mother into a dangerous situation of some kind, will be discovered and given proper advice. I think that the counselling procedure is eminently sensible on that point.

The hon. Lady said that the mothers giving their children for adoption in Scotland always knew that there was the possibility of discovery of this kind, and that is correct. They did—in so far as they thought about it. My guess is that very few mothers in such circumstances make that a prime consideration. My guess is that they are thinking of quite different matters when they put their child forward for adoption.

The hon. Lady was reminded in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) that every time one changes the law relating to personal relations one is saying that some people whose relations were governed by the law as it was may find themselves in a new situation. My hon. Friend gave the example of the divorce law. We did not say then that only those people who married after the reform of the divorce law could have easier divorces. That is the situation when one changes the law as it touches on personal relations.

After all the discussions which have gone on about this controversial matter I and many other people believe that the proposals of Amendment No. 21 are quite unacceptable. The Association of British Adoption Agencies, in its submission, has again said that to restrict access to birth certificates to those adopting in future would be to undercut the whole point of the clause. That, indeed, is the case. We are dealing with what I regard as a basic civil right for the children. There must be protection of the other parties concerned. This is what the counselling procedure does.

I hope that in the suggested form of counselling which my hon. Friend circulated to those who were members of the Standing Committee it will be made clear to those nationally and locally who will be looking at this scheme that there is no legal barrier, as is said in paragraph 5, to the handing over of information after counselling. Later in the consultation paper, in paragraph 7, the wording is not suggested to mean that only if an adopted person further pressed for the details of his birth certificate after counselling should he be told how to get it and how much it will cost, but that where any adopted person has recourse to counselling locally or nationally, and is seeking that information, his right to have it, subject to counselling, should be explained and safeguarded throughout.

This is becoming much more widely understood and accepted. During the Committee proceedings I had letters from women who many years ago gave their own children for adoption, and they have praised the merits of this scheme and acknowledged what the counselling will do. Even the gentleman whose case I raised in Committee has now heard from the foundling hospital that it is prepared to trace his mother, though it will not give him any details about her, unless she is dead, since that would break the conditions of the Thomas Coram Foundation.

This is not only a basic right for the adopted child but will actually strengthen the bonds of the adopted child with his adoptive parents, making it possible for a real source of loss and anguish to be relieved in the minds of many women who years ago, when the stigma of bastardy was much greater than it is today, gave up their children for adoption.

Dr. Vaughan

We support what the Minister is proposing, and people working in the field share our view that this is a reasonable compromise. It is a very difficult question, and I think that a good balance has been struck.

There are two aspects. One is the ethical and moral aspect, in relation to which great emotional feelings are generated. Much of our time was spent on that. There are people—we all have them in our constituencies—who are deeply involved and who greatly wish to know their origins, to know more about their parents, and to meet them if possible. We share the anxieties of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) about the retrospective considerations. This is a very difficult problem. I find it interesting that both my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and myself have, for example, swung right round during the course of the discussions and are now completely behind what the Minister is doing.

The second aspect concerns the procedure. Here we should have liked to know a little more about how the Minister sees the counselling actually working. As I understand it, he is proposing both a central or a general register service, with presumably at least one or two social workers at the centre, and working through the local authorities. Is that correct?

Dr. Owen


Dr. Vaughan

Therefore there would be, as stated in his circular, the scheme C, with a local service and a central service. This is put quite fairly in the circular.

The disadvantage of the local service, as he saw it, was that it would be a very elaborate procedure, and he queried its likely expense. He also said, very fairly, that it could be a formidable bureaucratic procedure and that it could throw considerable work on to the local authorities.

He further made the point that, because of the spread right across the country, there might be difficulties about ensuring sufficient skilled people for the counselling in each local area. There is the worry, to which hon. Members have already pointed, that it might not be possible to find sufficient counsellors to do this work. I should like to have the Minister's reassurance on these aspects.

There has been the question of the quality of the counsellors who would be prepared to work centrally. The Minister in his paper said that he thought the central cost would work out at about £70,000 a year. He said that he thought that the central procedure might have distinct disadvantages. There would be fewer safeguards for the natural parents. Can the Minister tell us where he thinks this counselling will come from, what kind of counselling he has in mind, the total cost likely to be involved, and to what extent his anxieties about a heavy bureaucratic procedure are likely to be founded in practice?

Dr. Owen

We have had a very interesting debate, and I know that there are strongly held views on this issue. I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman has endorsed the compromise that we have eventually reached. No one has come to this decision lightly or easily, and none of us is absolutely certain what the available funds will be.

In listening to the debate, and particularly to the Scottish Members, who have experience of the system in Scotland, I felt that many of us in England had been helped in making up our minds about the situation by the knowledge that others had lived with the Scottish law for many years.

Counselling will not be mandatory in Scotland at all. It is purely and simply intended to put it on a voluntary basis, and to make it available to Scottish people. It is a matter of tidying up the existing legislation. It is not envisaged as being a very large burden on local authorities. I recognise that their resources are already stretched.

As for the system in England, we hope, first, that the GRO in London will be able perhaps to use retired, and experienced social workers of considerable skill, in that way draining less from the pool of skills. It is the sort of job that is ideally suited to such people. In the first few years I envisage that the load might be rather heavier.

There is within the GRO's office already a system for dealing with applications for information about births. The staffing will have to be increased. It is not exactly certain how many clerical staff will be required. It is difficult for any of us to make an accurate estimation of the increase. In the first year the cost may vary between £20,000 and £50,000. It may be lower; it may be higher. It is likely to be somewhere in the middle. It is very interesting that the directors of local authority social services have all taken the view that it is already to a great extent part of normal social work practice. The extent to which it will put a burden on them is difficult for them to tell.

When I had my discussions with the local authorities—we shall later be discussing the whole rate of implementation—most of them thought that this was a burden, although a small one. At the moment they are resistant to taking almost any burdens, but they felt that it could probably be absorbed in the forthcoming year.

Spread across the country in each local authority it should not be a considerable burden. We have tried to cut the bureacracy to the absolute minimum by giving people the option to decide where to go. I think that this, too, will cut costs.

Much of it can be done on paper. However, the appointment, naturally, has to be a face-to-face meeting with the counsellor. But once directed to the GRO or the local authority, it will be a question of a meeting. Facilities can be arranged easily for interviewing rooms in London in the GRO. There is no problem about that. In the local authorities, it would form a natural part of social work practice and no special buildings would be needed.

The total cost could be £75,000 in a year. I have to admit that it is very difficult to estimate. I tend to think that in the first year there will be considerable interest in England and that we shall find a large number of people making applications. I expect that to die down fairly quickly after the initial period of interest. I accept that in the first year the cost might be higher. As for skilled personnel, I am satisfied that they can be found, and the directors feel that this is not too great a burden.

I hope that the House will feel able to accept the Government's recommendation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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