HL Deb 01 March 1938 vol 107 cc959-68

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the last Bill I presented to your Lordships was a Bill dealing with the evolution of administration from something which had existed in the past. The Bill I now have the honour to put before you deals with an entirely new subject. It is common knowledge that of recent years the decline in the birth-rate has caused a great deal of concern in various scientific circles, and books and articles in some variety have appeared which, although they do not always arrive at the same conclusion, nevertheless combine to produce a somewhat gloomy picture. Visions have been put forward of a world largely inhabited by the black and yellow races, and of this country populated by a small, diminishing, and elderly population containing an undue number of mental defectives. It is not unknown that experts occasionally overstate their case, but it nevertheless remains true that the standing of these experts, and the unanimity of the main theme of their unhappy prophecies, certainly merit the attention of the Government. Indeed, the Government's expert advisers confirm many of the conclusions that have been arrived at independently, and one in particular—namely, that if anything is to be done to check this tendency, it is essential to do it now rather than to wait until it has gathered so much momentum that action would he largely useless.

In this matter the Government are confronted by certain difficulties. It is true to say that the people of this country are peculiarly sensitive to any official intrusions in their private lives, and doubtless your Lordships share that prejudice, if it is a prejudice. But it is also true that we are, on the whole, open to reason, and particularly when appeals to reason are combined with appeals to patriotism. Therefore we perhaps might imagine that if the Government could demonstrate quite clearly that a certain line of action is necessary in the national interest, there would be a probability of a national response which would surmount any instinctive prejudices there might be. There is another difficulty. I suppose every reformer in this country has at some time or other chafed against Treasury control, and indeed I have occasionally heard that certain other Departments of Government sometimes do the same; but there is hardly any one who in his less impatient moments would not agree that the principle of Treasury control was fundamentally sound, if for no other reason than to ensure that, if money is going to be spent, it should at least be spent in such a way as to bring about the results aimed at. It seems to follow that if appeals are to be made to the people, and if new Government money is to be spent and new measures introduced, the Government must fortify themselves with information as accurate and comprehensive as they can get to enable them to make out a good case for this new action which they may have to take. It really is very little use relying on statistics from foreign countries where the forms of government and national sentiment are quite different to those we have here. In this matter every nation must work out its own salvation.

I will now turn to the facts of the situation so far as we know them. In 1875, the birth-rate stood at 35 per 1,000. It has since more than halved itself, and reached its lowest point, 14.4, in 1933. The present birth-rate will not suffice to maintain the population at its present size. It is true that since 1933 there has been a slight check of this decline, but no great reliance can be placed on this small tendency for reasons into which I need not go. The point I wish to emphasize is that even if the birth-rate is maintained at its present level, a reduction in our population will nevertheless probably take place. It also means, as I have said, that once this decline in population takes place and is under way there will be a tendency for the curve to go down rapidly, and then it would be difficult, if not impossible, to stop it at any given point. So much is known. What is not known is why this tendency is taking place. There are many theories advanced for it, most of them contradictory and none of them supported by incontestable evidence.

It has been said that poverty is the cause, but that is ruled out because of the fact that the birth-rate among the poor is higher than it is among the more affluent. The fear of war, rising standards of material comfort, the increasing tendency for women to enter business, the absence of housing, and lack of vitamins in modern foods are all put forward as being primarily responsible by different exponents of these theories. A new view has recently been advanced that because of the new decrowding standard parents will hesitate to increase their families if there is any likelihood of that standard being exceeded. From another and less material point of view, the decline has been attributed to the decay of religion. From a purely objective point of view, the Government cannot honestly say that there are any statistics available by which these different conclusions can be either proved or disproved, and for that reason it would be of little use setting up a Royal Commission of investigation. It is with the object of obtaining the statistics that this Bill is introduced. I may say that a similar course of action has already been taken in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Italy and Greece. In Germany, through Government action, they have had some success in checking the decline, and there the statistics have been taken since 1934.

Our first object is to find out what kinds of parents are producing the larger families and what kinds of parents are producing the smaller families. By this means we may get some light on the question of what conditions are encouraging and what conditions are discouraging the larger families. Up to a certain point this information can be obtained from the decennial census. Birth-rate statistics were obtained in the 1911 census, but if we wait till the next census in 1941—I must remind your Lordships that the classified results of the census are not available until three or four years after the census is taken—we believe it would be leaving things too late. Moreover, we require information taken over a continuous period and not merely investigations at intervals of ten years. I am quite aware that the original proposals for collecting this information were subjected to a good deal of hostile criticism in another place; but I do not think that necessarily implies arty hostile criticism of the general object of the Bill. My right honourable friend, it will be remembered, had taken the line that it was a new subject, and he had definitely invited Parliamentary criticism. The warmth with which his invitation was accepted was more a testimony to the activities of Parliament than any reflection on the Government. But whether that be so or not, the important fact remains that there was no criticism of the main principles of the Bill. My right honourable friend fully accepted that unnecessary questions on these very intimate matters would be repugnant to the people, and he has reduced his questions to the minimum that are required for the important purposes of this Bill.

Your Lordships will remember that the original Bill had no time limitation and, therefore, it provided for the collection of information that might conceivably have been used for subsequent periods of investigation. Now there is a time limit, and I have been personally assured by the secretary of the Eugenics Society that the questions in the Schedule represent everything that could be reasonably required for present purposes. As your Lordships are aware, they have been unanimously approved in another place. Your Lordships will also be aware that it is proposed that this information should be obtained by a registrar on the registration of a birth or death, in addition to the particulars required to be given purely for ordinary registration purposes. The reason why particulars are to be obtained on the registration of death as well as of birth is that it is thought desirable to obtain particulars about wholly childless marriages. It has been noticed that the information might conceivably be introduced into legal and other cases, and that accordingly it might be withheld. That position has been safeguarded. It will now be impossible to use it for any purpose other than the investigation which we are making. Under Clause 4 of the Bill it is prohibited to disclose any information except in the form of purely impersonal statistics derived from it; and "privilege" is accorded to the personal information as against a subpoena in a Court of Law, except, of course, for any prosecution for an offence under this Bill itself.

I would like to make one further reference to the ten years' limitation, and to explain that it is not our belief that we hope to dispose of the whole problem in that time. It is not certain, in our view, that the proposed system by which we will collect data will not have to have some modification made to it before that time expires. The problem is new, and we hope, without committing ourselves, that the information we ask for now will materially help us, though it will not be absolutely extraordinary if after some years we feel that a better Schedule could be devised. Your Lordships will also remember that the Minister has already powers under the existing law to collect certain information with regard to the registration of births and deaths, and he has promised to use these powers so that information about occupation may be co-ordinated with that obtained under the new powers for which he asks now. In this way, by adapting existing powers and using them in combination with the new powers asked for in the Bill, we hope to get at the information that we want, and, having got it, we shall be in a much better position than we are at present to devise legislation if that is found to be necessary. Meanwhile, we shall continue to try to arrest maternal and infant mortality by every means in our power, and we hope that Acts such as the Midwives Act may be of material assistance to us in that task.

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


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I will make a few observations on the subject of this Bill, but I offer them in no spirit of captious criticism and, indeed, inspired with no sort of Party or partisan animosity. It seems to me that if any Bill could ever be declared to be a non-Party measure it is the Bill that your Lordships are considering this afternoon. The views that I shall express are views that I hold myself and that I believe are shared by many individuals, adherents of different political Parties and adherents of none, and certainly by many experts who have studied the population problem in this country and have made a comparative study of population movements in this country and elsewhere. I do not say for a moment that they will conflict with any views that may be held officially by the Party to which I have the honour to belong, because, so far as I am aware, neither my own Party nor any other political Party in the State has any definite or declared policy as regards population, and where there is no creed for the orthodox to confess there can be no heresy.

I think the noble Viscount opposite stated very fairly the population problem as it stands, and my only criticism of his exposition of the case would be that he erred on the side of myosis. After all, when we recollect that the decline began before the end of the last century, and that the disproportion between the death-rate and the birth-rate which is the index of a declining population began soon after the beginning of the present century, it becomes apparent that action has certainly been delayed, and in its present form seems really inadequate to meet the situation. I do believe very sincerely that this social problem is just as important as any of the major issues of the present day such as the problems of unemployment, or bad housing conditions, or poverty. The only reason it does not occupy so much of the attention of His Majesty's Government or the Press or the general public is that it is a process the evil effects of which will only be apparent after the lapse of many decades, whereas the other evils are apparent to all those who travel about the country every day of the year. I think His Majesty's Government should be congratulated in this matter, because it is always difficult for a Government in a democratic country to act at all unless it is urged forward by public opinion. It is, of course, difficult to take important and far-reaching steps when public opinion has not been carefully prepared beforehand. This measure, small as it is, does at any rate indicate that, for the first time I think in the history of our country, the problem of population has reached a point where His Majesty's Government have felt obliged to record their attempt to cope with it on the Statute Book.

I should like, as I say, to amplify the case made by the noble Viscount rather than to disagree with it, and I should like to amplify it on these grounds. If population continues declining, as most of the experts imagine, so far as you can predict anything that may be altered by future events, it will involve an immense drop in our present standards of living, and, as I think the noble Viscount himself indicated, an immensely serious problem from the point of view of national defence. It is all very well to provide the machinery, but you have also to provide men who can work the machine. In fifty or sixty or seventy years time, after the tremendous rearmament programme has been completed, we may find that much of the material produced is useless for lack of those who have the knowledge or capacity to work it. It is a case for providing for the future of the national family in the same way that we feel obliged to provide for the future of members of our own families. I cannot help feeling that this measure, when compared with what is happening in other parts of the world, is very tentative and unambitious. It is not a positive measure to prevent or to slow down the decrease in the birth-rate, or to encourage reproduction, but simply a measure to provide for the data required by those who hereafter will frame legislation to promote those ends.

As the noble Viscount so clearly and admirably explained, it is an effort to enable the Government's advisers and those who are experts on the subject of eugenics and population to ascertain the main causes for the decline in the birth-rate. I am perfectly convinced that there is no reasonable individual and certainly no political Party who would consider that such information and knowledge could be anything but beneficial. The Bill has an added merit of omitting those blemishes that were severely criticised in another place. I need not mention them, because they are not before your Lordships for discussion, but the blue pencil of the officers of His Majesty's Government seems to have been through the Schedule with extraordinary vigour and with remarkable deference to the views expressed by members of another place. The Schedule as it stands at the moment is both specific and limited, and surely those are admirable requirements for any Bill that is not to interfere unjustifiably with the intimacies of family life and that is not to threaten the reputation of parents with injury owing to indiscreet publicity.

But when all is said and done, when this Bill has become effective and when the Government are in possession of the new facts that they believe it will bring to light, what are we to expect? It may well be that after all this information has been collated and carefully examined, the experts will declare that they cannot put forward even a plausible hypothesis as to the real reason for the rapid decline in our birth-rate. Experts have a certain scientific conscience which will not permit of their giving a definite view unless they feel that they are justified in doing so. As the noble Viscount pointed out, it is a fact that, in spite of the immense curiosity that both ordinary people and experts have evinced, we do not know the causes. Are we to wait until the causes have been ascertained before action is taken? When we look at other countries, with no greater opportunity than ourselves for access to information of this kind, we observe that they have taken action which, though it may not have been as successful as its promoters anticipated, has at any rate done quite a lot to mitigate the severity of the decline of their populations. That is because we have, after all, a rough, rule-of-thumb idea of the sort of measures that encourage people to have families, and to have large families, and to feel the responsibility that they owe towards their country and the next generation.

We do know, in a rough, inexact sort of way admittedly, what these measures are, and what are the sort of social conditions which prevent people from wishing to bring children into the world. It is on that admittedly broad and general and common sense knowledge that certain other Governments in other European countries have acted, and have acted with some measure of success. I therefore profoundly hope that, whatever the results of the inquiries set on foot by this Bill, the Government will not delay to take action, because the Government may wait, but the population will not wait for the Government. This is a problem that waxes in magnitude with the lapse of every year, and I express the profound hope that whatever the results of the inquiry—and I do not think one should be unduly optimistic—we shall in a very few years be able to welcome any really drastic and far-reaching measure by His Majesty's Government to cope with a problem which, if allowed to run on, will mean the eclipse of this country as an independent nation and an increase in poverty such as one can hardly conceive in one's wildest dreams.


My Lords, I desire to make one point only, and I will be as brief as I can in doing so. I will not refer to the merits of this Bill or attempt to criticise it. The point, which I have made before in regard to other Bills, is a financial point. Nearly every Bill that comes to this House seems to impose a new and additional burden—sometimes very large, generally not very large, and in this case very small, but nevertheless an additional burden—to be placed upon the shoulders of our ratepayers. I know that in financial matters the powers of this House are very limited, possibly limited to the right of protest. But I should like to point out that this Bill seeks to impose upon registrars additional duties, necessitated by census requirements and therefore wholly national in character. Those local authorities who will be affected by this Bill feel that such expenditure as is imposed upon the rates by way of increased fee and salary payments to these officers, or as in any way arises out of their work, should be reimbursed to the local authorities in full. That is the point I wish to make to the House. May I remind your Lordships that this is the second measure which imposes new expenses on local authorities, that we have had before us to-day. The Poor Law (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill will inevitably impose a fresh responsibility, and having disposed of that Bill, we finish up with this one as a sort of night-cap to our work. I wish most respectfully to protest against the cost of a national duty being imposed upon the local authorities to be paid for by local ratepayers.


My Lords, I must thank the House for the reception that has been extended to this Bill, and Lord Listowel for the encouragement he has given the Government. He quoted me as having mentioned defence as one of the purposes for which this Bill was intended. Actually I did not do so, but of course it is a consideration, which I hope will not arise in view of the foreign policy which His Majesty's Government are adopting. I cannot, I am afraid, give him any undertaking about the time of the positive action that will follow, or indeed any particulars about it, because we do not know. The noble Earl referred to rough-and-ready ideas that we might have, but I do not feel quite so confident that we have any ideas, either rough or ready, on which we could base any legislation at present. As I said before, I do not think it is possible to base our policy on statistics derived from foreign countries, because conditions there are entirely different from ours.

As regards what the noble Lord, Lord Eltisley, has said, I am a member of a county council myself and I very much sympathise with his desire to reduce expenditure imposed on local authorities by Act of Parliament. At the same time there are other instances which might perhaps have been considered rather more glaring examples than this one, because I really do not see a likelihood of any large burden being imposed on local authorities under this Bill. It is only, after all, an extension of the present activities of the registrars. No new service is being set up. I think that covers all the points that have been specifically put to me.

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