HL Deb 12 November 1959 vol 219 cc581-8

3.14 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of the Population (Statistics) Bill. The main purposes of this Bill are two: to render permanent the application of the Population Statistics Act of 1938, as amended, and to provide for obtaining information on causes of still-births for the whole of Britain and not simply for Scotland as at present, by means of a certificate from a doctor or, failing a doctor, a midwife stating the cause of death and the estimated duration of pregnancy. The Bill also provides small alterations in detail in the particulars which may be required on the registration of birth or of death. I think that I can say that the purposes of the Bill are supported by the Medical Research Council, for which I am responsible in Parliament.

To deal with these purposes in order, the Population (Statistics) Act of 1938 introduced a new source of information upon which the authorities are able to draw for population statistics. Amongst the more important other sources are the censuses of population taken every ten years, the routine statistics derived from information recorded in the registers of births, still-births, marriages and deaths and information on population movement derived from emigration and immigration returns. The information under the original Act is obtained at registration of a birth, still-birth or death. But in order to preserve the confidential character of the information it is not recorded in the registers, and this will still apply to the information to be obtained under the schedule to the present Bill.

Some discussion of the principles involved took place in Parliament at the time of the passing of the 1938 Act and resulted in a considerable modification of its terms and also in its temporary character. As some of your Lordships may remember, it was the occasion in another place of a speech in verse by Sir Alan Herbert, which caused considerable amusement. I remember that after a number of stanzas every stanza ended with words something like these: And the Minister still wondered why the population fell. I am hopeful that the Muse will not descend on any of your Lordships this afternoon in a similar way. At any rate, it was partly the effect of this historic speech which at that time caused the Act to be limited in its duration to ten years.

That brought it up to 1948. In those ten years no complaints had been made about the working of the Act; and since it has been prolonged year by year for a further period of ten years by the operation of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act. I think it is relevant to say that in each of the last two years, when use has been made of the Expiring Laws Continuance Act there has been criticism in another place. It was said that this was not a proper use of that Act and that after twenty years' experience of the working of the Population (Statistics) Act it was time for Parliament to make up its mind to put it permanently on the Statute Book. I am bound to say that there was a good deal of substance in that criticism. And that is what it is proposed to do by the first subsection of the first clause of the Bill before your Lordships to-day The second subsection of the first clause substitutes a new Schedule for the old Schedule which gives effect to some detailed changes in the information which may be required under the earlier Act. There are one or two additional items now thought, in the light of experience, or in changes of emphasis and genetical studies, to be required, and there are some smaller modifications.

I do not know that in a Second Reading speech it is necessary for me to deal in detail with any of the items so as to require separate analysis. There are changes in both directions, and perhaps I should not be wrong to say that, on balance, the new Schedule is perhaps a littler simpler and less onerous than the old one. It is really no more than a reproduction of the 1938 Schedule brought up to date in the light of our experience and in the light of modern requirements and modern studies. The most important novelties, if that is what they can be called, are the requirement that the age of the father should be stated, in addition to the age of the mother, in the case of a registration of birth, and that a separate category of divorced is added to the three existing categories on the registration of death.

As regards Clauses 2 and 3, the general effect of these is to apply to England and Wales a practice which has been the law of Scotland since 1939 under the Registration of Still Births (Scotland) Act, and which I understand has again given rise to very little complaint. A large number of medical organisations have been consulted, and I am told that they are in general agreement with these proposals. They include the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynæcologists, the Society of Medical Officers of Health, the Royal College of Midwives and the Central Midwives' Board. At present, both in Scotland and in England doctors and midwives provide certificates of still-birth, but in England and Wales these certificates certify only that the child has not been born live, whereas in Scotland, under the Act which I have mentioned, they give what is considered to be by the certifying doctor or midwife the cause of the birth not having been a live birth. The additional burden on the professions in England and Wales will therefore be relatively small. Information from this register upon which the registers of stillbirths are made is not open to the public and is available only at the discretion of the Registrar-General. The information is required because it is considered desirable to obtain more statistical data which could shed more light on the causes of still-births.


My Lords, do I understand that the additional information which is being sought under the Bill is already provided in Scotland, and that the only change will be that in future it will also be provided in England?


This is thy: general position which I was explaining. I should, for complete accuracy, say that under the Bill both in Scotland and England the certificate is now to contain the estimated duration of pregnancy, and that is new to Scotland as well as to England. But, in substance, apart from that, the position is that we are applying to England and Wales something which since 1939 has been the law of Scotland.

It is, I think, generally known that infant mortality has been declining steadily in this country in recent years, but the decline is largely accounted for by a reduction in the mortality of children aged between one week and one year. Mortality of children in the first week of life has not declined as rapidly, nor has the still-birth rate shown much variation. Moreover, the statistics establish what at first sight is a close and significant connection between the causes of early infant deaths in the first week of life and the causes of still-births, which would be made available as a result of this Bill, if it should become law. That I think deals with all the substantial clauses in the Bill, and in those circumstances I now move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Viscount Hailsham.)

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House welcome this Bill for two reasons: first, that it reduces the number of measures which have to be included in the Expiring Laws Continuance Act and makes permanent an Act of Parliament which has become established and is recognised as a permanent measure; and secondly, because we agree that such alterations as are being made in this Bill are an improvement and will add to our knowledge on this subject.

I think that is really all one need say on the matter, but I should like to raise one point which has rather troubled me for some time in connection with Censuses, and possibly this one in particular. We have a population Census every ten years which gives us an immense amount of valuable information. I should say that the report of the Census is one of the most valuable statistical documents that we publish. Unfortunately, it is not available to the public until some five years after the Census is taken, with the result that the information is very much out of date. I have recently been trying to do some research into the population growth since the last Census, and it is very difficult to get this information. I think I can now get information about the 1951 Census, but it is a little late.

I wonder how soon after this information is obtained it is available to the public generally. I can well appreciate that information about still-births can be of great value to the medical profession and to the general public, but if it is not going to be available to the general public for a number of years after the information is obtained it may well be out of date, and even possibly misleading. This is not a controversial subject, and I should be grateful if the noble Viscount would look into this question and see whether it is not possible to ensure that the benefits of these various Censuses are made available to the public at a much earlier date than appears to be the case at the present time.


My Lords, I should like briefly to support the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in his welcome of this Bill, which, if I may say so, seems to be based on common sense and is in no sense controversial. In a sense it is dry, in that it is statistical, but, like the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, I feel that the results of it will be of considerable use, and I am sure that it will be welcomed on all sides of the House.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Silkin I welcome this Bill. I think he will find that there is a thing called the one per cent. sample census which is made available much more quickly. The only way, in fact, that the great volume of data which the Census produces can be dealt with is by sampling, and the one per cent. sample comes out about a year after the Census and gives a fairly accurate guide. I do not think, from my experience of stillbirth certificates, there is usually much delay, and nothing like the delay that occurs over a major Census. One was fascinated, however, by one point in this Bill—namely, why the inquiry as to the age of the father? Is there any a priori evidence of declining fertility in the male, or what led the Registrar General to require this particular piece of information? I am sure there is some good reason, but it would be nice to know why he puts this in, or suggests that it should be put in, for the first time.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, as the House is not very busy today, perhaps I may indulge in a certain amount of reminiscence with regard to this Bill. In a way, I was a midwife of the Bill which was introduced in 1938. As it was brought into the House in its original form that Bill was so full of defects and so repugnant to the good sense of quite a large number of people that I was put up to make certain proposed alterations. The alterations were more considerable than I have ever known in a Bill, because only one-third of the original Bill remained and something like two-thirds was new matter in the place of that which had been taken out.

The House may be amused to know one of the things that gave rise to discontent. In the original Bill it had been proposed that a father, in putting the facts on the certificate for birth, must put in the numbers of his wife's brothers and sisters and, further than that, he must declare the precise previous childbirth of his wife. Both those proposals gave rise to considerable misgivings among the ordinary population. I took the opportunity of canvassing fellow Members of the House of Commons. I discussed it with quite a large number of them, and I think that only one or two, out of quite a large number of Members, could be perfectly certain how many brothers and sisters their wife had had at some time or other before or after their marriage. The result of these proposals made it perfectly plain to Sir Kingsley Wood, who was at that time Minister of Health, that he had to drop the Bill practically as it stood and substitute almost entirely a new Bill in its place. I thought your Lordships' House might be amused at the early history of the Bill which is now being discussed in its new form.

Apart from those rather amusing reminiscences I regard the principle as of very great importance, and I should have thought that it was of considerable importance for medical knowledge to know the average age of the father of a child, as well as the average age of the mother. I should have thought it would provide quite important statistical information, and would not involve the husband in any very serious consequences. As we all know, it is not the man who minds his age being disclosed; it is the woman who prefers to have her age hidden from the public eye. That is certainly a point which I am glad the Government are introducing into this new Bill.

The other point which was raised by the noble Viscount, and which seems to me of distinct importance, is the amalgamation of the law of England and of Scotland with regard to the question of still-births. There has always been a considerable obstacle to statistics in comparing the Scottish figures of stillbirths with the English figures. The Scottish principle is the better one, in introducing the idea of the particulars of still-births, and I think it is of great advantage that the Government have now decided to amalgamate the two laws of England and of Scotland, and to choose as the pattern the better of the two. I wish, therefore, for my part, both from a reminiscent point of view, and also from the little knowledge of statistics that I possess, to welcome the Bill which the Government are introducing at this time.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank noble Lords who have contributed to our discussion. Of course, the recollections of the noble Lord, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, are of great interest to us. In an age when people pretend—quite wrongly, in my opinion, for various reasons—that the individual Member of Parliament wields but little power, it is as well to remind ourselves of exactly what the noble Lord has told us, namely, that when this Bill was introduced for the first time in 1938 it contained a number of features where the statistician, for quite legitimate reasons, had imposed more than common sense would think desirable upon the individual informant. Immediately there was a considerable outcry from Back Bench Members (I think from both Houses, but certainly from the House of Commons) culminating in Sir Alan Herbert's versification speech. The result was that a very different Bill emerged from the Parliamentary process from what had gone into it, and I think most of us would say a very much better Bill.

As regards the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, I would say that the request for the consideration of the time within which the Census returns should become available will, of course, be considered. I do not think that I am in a position to give him an answer now. As regards the material available on this Bill, the material on the 1938 Act, which is now rendered permanent and modified by the Schedule is, unless I am mistaken, collated and digested with the population statistics, when the Registrar-General puts them out next. The actual detailed information remains confidential.

The position with regard to the stillbirths is slightly different. There is actually a register in existence, which will remain permanently in existence. Once the details are on the register, and given a proper case for the exercise of his discretion by the Registrar-General, I think I am right in saying that there is no time limit before which a proper inquirer would be given a sight of the register. But, of course, they remain confidential as regards the general public. The statistics would come out as and when statistics of this sort were published.

As regards the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, the age of the father is required under this Bill because, of course, medical research is more interested now than previously in the question of human mutations. It is interesting to know whether, or to what extent, the age of the father may affect the rate of mutation in the human being, because it enables one to hazard some kind of opinion as to the effect of radioactivity upon human mutations. Although it is bound to take some time to build up any significant statistics about anything so small as the proportion of mutational births, it is a matter which is now considered sufficiently significant and sufficiently relevant to be included in the questions asked. In that respect, the original form of the 1938 Act has now been reverted to, because it is found to have some scientific value. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rea, for his welcome to the Bill, and to thank your Lordships for the friendly way in which it has been received.

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