HL Deb 04 May 1939 vol 112 cc957-62

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

5.26 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of the Adoption of Children (Regulation) Bill and in doing so I most respectfully seek your generous indulgence as I am afraid it may take a few minutes to explain it. I can assure the House, however, that I will be as brief as possible. The Bill is founded on the recommendations made in the Report of a Departmental Committee on Adoption Societies and Agencies. The Report was made in 1937. The Committee was presided over by a distinguished member of the other House, Miss Florence Horsbrugh, and its Report was unanimous. I think it makes rather painful reading because of the hard cases to which it refers. At the same time it does emphasize the great need for some legislation to deal with this matter.

The main object and purpose of the Bill is to regulate the activities of adoption societies and agencies, and the importance of the question, I think, is shown by a reference to the number of adoption orders which have to be dealt with annually in the country. In 1927 the Report shows that 2,943 orders were dealt with, but in 1936, after the lapse of only a decade, those 2,943 orders had swollen to 5,102. I venture to think that those figures speak for themselves, and that they indicate and emphasize the importance of this question of adoption. The need of regulation and the danger of permitting private persons to receive payment for negotiating adoption are also shown by the many unsatisfactory cases that are referred to in the Report. For proof of that statement I would refer your Lordships to pages 38 and 39 of the Report. The object of the Bill is to regulate the activities of these agencies. When the Bill was being considered in another place it was regarded as a non-Party measure, and in fact was non-contentious and received Government support. I am not unhopeful that it may do so again this afternoon.

Having thus stated the position broadly I propose, with the indulgence of the House, to explain the main provisions of the Bill. I greatly hope that your Lordships will be so good as to adopt the Bill in the same way as the best adopting parents adopt children. Now the term "adoption" is commonly used to cover first of all legal adoption under the Adoption of Children Act, 1926, by which all parental rights and parental duties are transferred to another person. The Bill also endeavours to deal with de facto adoptions which are unrecognised in law but which are generally accepted in life as a whole. It is not surprising, I venture to think, that many intermediaries busily engage themselves in the matter of adoptions and arranging adoptions. On the one hand, you have parents who for some reason or other wish to adopt children, and on the other hand you have the unmarried mother who desires to be relieved of the responsibility of bringing up an unwanted child, owing to the difficulties and cost of so doing. You also have societies working for the welfare of children, and mothers and private persons working in that way. Midwives, friends, acquaintances and even local authorities do a great deal of useful work.

It must be said that in most cases agencies and intermediaries are performing a very useful function, and I hope it will not be thought that this Bill casts any general reflection on those bodies. Persons anxious to help children somehow or other get into touch with mothers anxious and ready to dispose of their offspring, and adoption, of course, provides a happy solution of many social difficulties. The unsatisfactory features of the present day and the defects of the present system are due to the fact that it is impossible to control undesirable characters setting up as adoption agents and even starting adoption societies. There are cases in which there is no machinery for making proper inquiries regarding the children to be placed, and children are, therefore, sometimes sent to quite unsuitable families or handed over to quite unsuitable persons. The result is that children grow up unhappily and lose the great and very valuable experience of a happy home. With adopted children it is also necessary that the greatest care should be taken to investigate the status, health and conditions relating to the children. Is there any taint of mental trouble? What is their physical condition? It is of much importance that there should be a probationary or trial period to try out the child as well as to try out the home. Therefore it will be seen that very real service may be discharged by properly constituted agencies or societies if adoption is to be carried out to the advantage of all parties concerned.

Then comes the question of payment. The mother and the adopter are sometimes required to pay a society certain sums of money for the services the society performs. It is easy for abuses to arise in that direction. The mother may be required, perhaps, to pay money to the society prior to the disposal of the child, and she may be required even to continue payment in the case of certain organisations. In any event, the mother, if an unmarried mother, may find herself in a very weak bargaining position. She is anxious almost at any cost to get rid of the child. Any payment by the adopter to the society seems equally objectionable because it rather resembles the sale of children—a sort of baby-farming enterprise. We all appreciate the fact, of course, that genuine societies need funds, but those who support this Bill take the view that payment should only be made after adoption and then only with the permission of the Court. Another abuse arises from the fact that a mother sometimes fails to realise that, although she has parted with the child, she is still legally in a position to claim that child.

The Bill accepts the principle of public control of these societies and the need of registration in regard to the society. Any society which deals with the adoption of children should be registered with the county council or county borough council. The Bill also empowers the Home Secretary to make such regulations as may be deemed desirable, and it does what legislation can do to deal with the sad and often helpless and defenceless position of a certain section of the community. There is nothing whatever in the Bill which need alarm or cause any concern to the well-managed society which conforms to an adequate standard of competent management and care. In Clause 2 the terms and conditions of registration of societies are closely linked up and must be read in connection with Clause 1. A registration authority may, if it is thought fit, refuse to register or may cancel the registration of a society which it is thought is not run on satisfactory lines. Under Clause 3 provision is made for appeal to Quarter Sessions against the decision of a local authority.

I desire, if I may, to direct your Lordships' attention to Clause 4 (1) (a), which really one might call an A1 provision. It is provided that the Secretary of State may make regulations for securing that, where the parent or guardian of a child proposes to place the child at the disposition of the society with a view to the child being adopted, he shall be furnished with a memorandum in the prescribed form explaining, in ordinary language, the effect, in relation to his rights as a parent or guardian, of the making of an adoption order.… In other words, the parent is to be furnished with a clear statement of his rights, of what will be the effect of adoption and, generally, of the law relating to the consent of the parent to an adoption order. Every detail is to be made abundantly clear to the parent. I must say it seems a little strange to see the words "in ordinary language" in such a provision, and I think it must be the first time that they have ever appeared in an Act of Parliament

Clause 5 deals with the inspection of books and accounts, which is obviously necessary and desirable. Clause 7 deals with the protection of adopted children, and provides for certain information being given to welfare authorities. It is desirable that information should be made available as to the condition of the home to which a child is sent, in regard to overcrowding or insanitary conditions and in regard to the age of the people in the home. I would call special attention to subsection (9) of this clause and also to Clause 9. There it is made an offence for any person to receive remuneration or reward who acts as a middleman for transferring a child to other persons—someone who is, perhaps, making a business out of it, or at any rate making money out of it. It will be an offence, if this Bill becomes an Act, for an intermediary in that position to receive payment unless such payment is sanctioned by a Court.

I do not wish to weary your Lordships, and I am afraid I have already taken up a good deal of time. The Bill applies restrictions on advertising children for adoption, and it forbids the sending of British children out of Great Britain for adoption by aliens. It also makes certain amendments to the Adoption of Children Act, 1926. I hope that this brief explanation—brief having regard to the great field covered by the Bill—will convince your Lordships that the Bill is wanted. I hope also that I have managed to convey that it is non-political. Happily, in regard to the welfare of children, political questions do not arise. The Bill aims at only one thing, the protection of children who are peculiarly in need of protection, and on the grounds which I have put forward—there are many others which might be urged—I respectfully ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Eltisley.)

5.39 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill seems to be a useful measure dealing with a difficult and very important subject and we should like to give it general support with the right to look at the clauses in detail during the Committee stage.


My Lords, as I have had to do with legislation relating to children in bygone days, I should like to join in expressing approval of the general purpose and terms of this Bill. Thirty years ago I was responsible for the passing of the Children Act, which dealt with the abuses of baby-farming among other matters, and I think it was efficient in stopping those abuses. Now other abuses seem to have arisen in respect of the adoption of children, and it is right that Parliament should take cognisance of them and introduce provisions to cure them. Adoption in itself is often a good thing and should be encouraged, as was done by the Act that was passed a few years ago. There are, as we all know, many persons who feel themselves unable to do justice to their children on account of their economic condition or other reasons; and on the other hand there are many married couples the greatest grief of whose life is that they have no children of their own, and who are only too eager to take charge of some other person's child from infancy, to bring it up in their own household and do their full duty by its future. It is right that arrangements should be encouraged by the law to enable such cases to be made—advantageous to both of the parties and especially advantageous ultimately to the child. I think the House will probably be ready to give a cordial welcome to this Bill and to thank the noble Lord who has spoken for his speech and for the duty that he has accomplished in bringing this measure before your Lordships' attention.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, my task this afternoon is simple and agreeable. It is to say that the Government approve generally the contents of this Bill and hope that it will be passed into law. Its main purpose is to ensure that when children, generally children of tender months or years, are transferred from the care and possession of their own parents to the care of others who shall have adopted them to treat them as members of their own families, the utmost consideration shall be taken to secure that the interests of the children are adequately protected. Your Lordships will already have heard an account of the contents of the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Eltisley, and it is therefore not necessary for me to cover the same ground. Much attention has been given in recent years to the welfare of the children of this country, and this measure takes its place among the series of enactments of which the general purpose is to secure that the children of to-day are well cared for and freed from any handicap likely to prevent them from becoming useful citizens to-morrow. I feel sure that your Lordships' House will give a Second Reading to this beneficial measure.

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