HL Deb 24 June 1915 vol 19 cc143-8

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the Local Government Board can furnish any statistics relating to the alleged probability of an increase of illegitimate births in this country owing to war conditions.

The most rev. Primate said: My Lords, in asking the Question which stands in my name I desire to be allowed to preface it by a few words of explanation as to the circumstances which have rendered it, in my judgment, desirable that we should have an official answer to this particular inquiry. Most of your Lordships are familiar with the facts. Some few months ago there was considerable circulation of representations and reports to the effect that the war conditions, as they are called, in England to-day—alluding especially to the billeting of soldiers in towns and villages—would have undoubtedly the consequence, before many months were over, of a particular increase in the number of illegitimate births in all parts of the country. The reports took a very substantial form, and specific statements about particular places in which even the numbers, amounting in some instances to many hundreds of cases about which definite knowledge was supposed to be already available, were current. In those circumstances the attention of those who, like myself, have some central responsibility with regard to moral as well as social questions was constantly called to the topic.

We entertained from the first, some of us, a good deal of doubt as to whether the reports which were so widely current had a substantial basis in fact, but it was impossible to speak in general terms about it with any degree of knowledge, and we were naturally most cautious as to expressing an opinion on the matter. We could only say that, familiar as we were with that kind of subject and with the moral problems which arise in town and country places—and I was in communication with all the Bishops in England on the subject—we were unable to find sufficient ground for giving credence to the allegations which were made. Further, I felt that it was unsatisfactory that such a matter should be in the hands simply of an ecclesiastical authority in the way of inquiry. I therefore ventured to ask for the co-operation of certain ladies and gentlemen, not all members of the Church of England, and we agreed that it was desirable to invite that great organisation known as the National Union of Women Workers, which is neither politically nor denominationally restricted, to appoint a few ladies to look into the subject in different parts of the country.

The President of the National Union of Women Workers, though it is a completely undenominational body, happens to be Mrs. Creighton, widow of the late Bishop of London, a most capable and efficient worker and a student of all social problems. She, with those whom that society associated with her, looked into the question in all parts of England. They appointed a lady who went from place to place to make investigation; and they themselves have branches of their organisation in almost every part of England, and received reports from them. In the result they drew up and sent to the two Archbishops a full report of such information as they were able to obtain. But we felt that their report would be very much weightier if it were submitted to a larger committee of men and women conversant with these subjects who should weigh the report, test what seemed to them to be its value, and then themselves make a report to the public upon what the outcome was of the consideration they had given to the work of those investigators. That committee was a large one, presided over by the Archbishop of York, and to it was submitted the report drawn up by the investigators of the National Union of Women Workers. The result has been in the hands of the public for some little time in an abbreviated form. I am not aware that it has had any wide circulation in its full form, but those of your Lordships who have looked into the matter at all will have seen what the outcome was

We were abundantly justified in the scepticism we had entertained as to the nature of the allegations made, and as to the basis on which they rested. We found that not only were those statements incapable of being verified, but some were of a kind of which it was impossible to understand the origin. Statements, for example, were made to the effect that in particular Poor Law unions the number of unmarried expectant mothers was so large that it would he necessary to build new wards in addition to those existing in the infirmaries or workhouses. There were other allegations of the same kind. In one of these eases, in which we were told that the number of apprehended births was so largo that new wards had been already acquired, we found there was not only no requirement of new wards but not one case in the existing wards. There were others cases in which the numbers of expectant mothers were put at 600, 700, and 800: these were reduced to 11, 8, and 3 respectively, or something of that kind. I do not profess to know and do not offer any explanation as to how the original figures had seen the light. But the matter was obviously one of supreme importance, and and others with me felt that the report of the Archbishop's Committee, based upon the investigations of the ladies I have mentioned, would of itself be no doubt important, but that it would be immensely increased in value wore we able to ascertain front the Local Government Board whether any inquiry which they had made substantiated or refuted the kind of conclusions to which the committee had arrived. I therefore venture to ask tonight whether the Local Government Board can give us any information supplementary to what we have obtained by voluntary investigation—most careful and most thorough-going, but of course quite inferior to the kind of inquiry which can be conducted by a Government authority.

I am particularly anxious that I should not be supposed, as spokesman in this matter, to be saying that we are satisfied that all is perfectly right, or that we are able to prove that there is no ground whatever for such apprehensions as were entertained. That they were immensely exaggerated is absolutely certain, because the statistics given were capable of being tested and, being tested, are found to break down entirely. But do not let it be supposed that we are therefore saying that there is no apprehension justifiable of the kind that there will be some more ille- gitimate births, or that we are the least professing to say there has been no wrong doing of the sort which would lead to such births. All we say is that the statements made have broken down on investigation, and as far as the knowledge now in our possession extends we have not the slightest reason to believe there will be any material increase during the coming months to the ordinary number of illegitimate births that take place throughout the country. It is possible that something may come to light of which we have no knowledge. It is possible even that there may have been some misapprehension on the part of some of those who have made inquiry, or that mistaken information may have been given to them. All that we state is that the inquiries we have made fail to substantiate the statements which were published, and we are particularly anxious to know whether the reassuring report which we have received from voluntary sources can be supplemented from official sources in a way that the Government alone can do.


My Lords, the Local Government Board have no statistics in their possession at the moment which would justify them in saying that the proportion of illegitimate to legitimate births in the current year will be affected by what are called war conditions. The Board have instituted special inquiries in various directions with a view to answering the most rev. Primate's inquiry, and the results of all the inquiries converge to one conclusion—namely, that the allegations which have been made and to which the Archbishop referred are grossly exaggerated. The General Inspectors of the Board were asked to make inquiries in their districts; Miss Wamsley, one of the woman Inspectors, was directed to make full investigation in six selected towns; and further inquiries have been made front medical officers of health, from the Salvation Army, and from other sources. The reports of the General Inspectors with one accord indicate that, so far as present evidence goes, there is not likely to be any alarming increase in the number of illegitimate births, and the replies received from the local medical officers of health are to the same effect. Of the information obtained from societies particular reference may be made to that from the Salvation Army, the Charity Organisation Society, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The Charity Organisation Society circulated a letter to the Press as a result of their inquiries, in which they state— The replies from forty-four centres are unanimous in describing the common report as a great exaggeration. They give some instances, and add— Furthermore many inquirers are doubtful whether even this very small increase in the illegitimate birth rate can fairly be attributed to soldiers, as in many places large numbers of strangers have come into the district for the building of hats, etc. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children state— Out of 202 inspectors, we have received replies from 161, and almost every one says that, after making most careful inquiries, there is little or no likelihood of there being an increase in illegitimate births. The information from all sources, in so far as it is definite, indicates that there is not likely to be a very large increase of illegitimate births.

From more than one quarter it has been stated that the allegations which have been made have done harm, and since they appear to be without foundation it is important that they should be rebutted. I venture to think the House will agree that the fact that the most rev. Primate has put this Question and made the remarks he did on the subject will have a valuable effect in the country in this direction. In dealing with this question people are apt to overlook the fact that normally the number of illegitimate births in this country is considerable. In England and Wales the number in 1913 was nearly 38,000; in Scotland in 1912 the number was nearly 9,000; and in Ireland, in 1913, nearly 3,000.

I may, I hope, be allowed to quote one or two extracts from the reports received on this subject from medical officers of health. The medical officer for West Kent states that the number of expected births was exaggerated, and the medical officer for Bromley says that the statement that 800 were expected was characterised as an "impudent scandal." The Luton medical officer of health could find no cases reported or expected. In Portsmouth the statement that 400 extra births were expected was found to be quite untrue. The reports received from the Salvation Army and from the Charity Organisation Society are to the same effect. I hope that the statement I have made of the result of the inquiries conducted by the Local Government Board will satisfy the most rev. Primate that the official information, so far as it has been received, entirely corroborates the conclusions arrived at by his own committee.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.