HL Deb 03 July 1923 vol 54 cc776-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I am going to ask your Lordships' support for the Bill which stands on the Order Paper in my name. The object of this Bill is to help the children of unmarried parents. During the last generation we have done a great deal in this country to protect and help children. Good work has been done under what is called infant welfare, but there is a large class of babies which has been neglected for practically the last half century. The country's opinion, I venture to say, has changed a great deal as to our duty towards illegitimate children, who are in no way to blame for their misfortune. This Bill is a small but genuine attempt to improve their lot. It is very significant that the mortality among illegitimate children is double that among legitimate children, and if we can do anything to change that and to give them a better chance of living, then I am certain everyone here will assist that object by facilitating the passage of this Bill.

Amendments to the law are long overdue. The main Act under which bastardy is dealt with is one passed in the year 1872. That was slightly amended by an Act passed in the subsequent year, 1873, and by another Act passed in 1914. Under the existing law a mother is responsible for her illegitimate child till it is sixteen years of age. She can be proceeded against by the board of guardians if she neglects the child. A mother can summon the alleged father, and get an order for payment of a sum of 10s. a week—that is the present maximum—until the child is sixteen. Proceedings can be taken at present within twelve months of the birth of the child, or after twelve months if there is proof that the father paid money within a year of the child's birth. The order does not take effect until after the birth of the child. If the father goes abroad within twelve months of the birth of the illegitimate child, he can be summoned within a year of his return. That, broadly speaking, is the law as it now stands.

There have been several recent attempts to amend this law. I think three or four Bills have been introduced—in 1919, 1920 and 1921—but they never got very far, because public opinion had not crystallised, and, perhaps, because the proposals had not been sufficiently thought out. Some of the proposals which were contained in previous Bills have now been incorporated into the somewhat contentious proposal—namely, that dealing with legitimation—which is contained in another Bill that is before your Lordships' House. This Bill is quite a small measure. At present, if a magistrate who has issued a summons but has not completed the affiliation order, dies or leaves the district, the applicant, who will probably be the mother, has to go through the formalities of applying for the issue of another summons. Clause 1 of this Bill makes it possible for another magistrate, provided he belongs to the same petty sessional division, to make himself responsible for the original summons arid complete the affiliation order without a second formal application. It merely simplifies the procedure in cases where the magistrate who granted the original summons has died or left the locality.

The second clause increases the maximum payment which may be made in respect of a child from 10s. to 20s. weekly. Your Lordships, I am sure, will be aware of the fact that it is most important in eases such as this to keep the mother and the child together. It is important for the sake of the child, and it is important for the sake of the mother. It may make the greatest difference to the mother's future if she can be kept in contact with her child and made responsible for its upbringing. In these days that cannot be done on the small sum of 10s. Clause 2 proposes, therefore, to increase the maximum from 10s. to 20s.

Clause 3 makes it possible to transfer an order from a board of guardians to the mother or her representative when a child ceases to be under the custody of the guardians. It also provides for altering the amount of the payment under the order. Very often a young man is the parent of the illegitimate child. He may be earning a very small amount per week when the order is made against him, and the order may be for a comparatively small sum of 2s. 6d., or 5s., or 7s. 6d. per week. Later on he either comes into money or he earns more money, and it is right that the order should then be varied, and that he should be made to pay a larger amount towards the upkeep of his child. Clause 4 compels a father who is under an obligation under an affiliation order to notify any person named in the order when he proposes to change his address. The father already has to give this information to the collecting officer, where that officer is responsible for collecting the weekly sums.

Those are the proposals of the Bill. There are only four operative clauses. It is a short Bill, and it deals with the least contentious of the points connected with bastardy. I understand that something like 4,500 babies die who would have lived if they had been born in the same conditions as legitimate children. If we can do anything to reduce that mortality we ought to do it.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Viscount Astor.)


My Lords, I have only one word to say with regard to this Bill, and that is that as it stands the Government will certainly raise no objection to it. It is possible that I may have to move one or two amendments in Committee, and no doubt the noble Viscount will give due notice as to when he proposes to take the further stages of the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.