I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In doing so I count myself fortunate in that the luck of the Ballot has enabled me to bring in what I believe to be a useful and beneficial Measure. But my satisfaction is tinged with regret that the good fortune which has been mine did not fall to one or other of those hon. Members who with regard to this question have borne the heat and burden of the Parliamentary day. All those who have considered this question carefully must have come to the conclusion that this matter is now ripe for decision by this House. So long ago as 1920 the then Secretary of State for Home Affairs (Mr. Shortt) appointed a Committee, which was presided over by Sir Alfred Hopkinson to consider whether it was desirable to make legal provision for the adoption of children in this country and, if so, what form such provision should take. That Committee held numerous sittings, and examined a large number of witnesses, and in the year 1921 it issued a Report, in which it expressed the opinion very clearly that it was desirable that provision should be made for legalising the adoption of children in this country. The Committee stated that in their opinion the question was an urgent one, and they proceeded to give many reasons for coming to that conclusion. As a result and in consequence of that Report no less than six private Members' Bills were from time to time presented containing differing provisions in regard to this matter, and I think several of those Bills proceeded to a Second Reading. Having regard to the variance of opinion expressed, in April, 1924, the Labour Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman now the Member for Burnley (Mr. A. Henderson), as it seems to me very wisely, desired to have the matter further considered, and in April, 1924, be appointed another Committee presided over by a distinguished judge, Mr. Justice Tomlin, and the reference to that Committee was:
To examine the problem of child adoption from the point of view of possible legis-
lation, and to report upon the main provisions which, in their view should be included in any Bill on the subject.
Shortly before that Committee made their first Report early in April, 1925, this matter again came before the House. Two private Members' Bills had been presented in that year dealing with the matter, and one of them, that presented by the hon. Member, now the senior Member for Cambridge University (Sir. G. Butler) was discussed on the 3rd April, 1925, and on that occasion the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department took part in the discussion, and pointed out that although in the opinion of His Majesty's Government the matter was almost ripe for legislation, yet having regard to the fact that a Committee was still sitting dealing with this question, it was undesirable that legislation should be brought in until that Committee had reported, but the Government gave a very definite and clear pledge that as soon as that Committee had reported they would have the matter dealt with.
The Tomlin Committee made two reports the first on the 6th April, 1925 in which they expressed the view that a case had been made for giving legal effect to the adoption in this country of children, subject to proper safeguards, and the second in July, 1925, in which the Committee recommended a draft Bill dealing this question. It is that Bill which I now have the honour to submit to the House. I think that everyone who has studied this question must come to the conclusion that the opinion expressed by the Hopkinson Committee that the matter is an urgent one is the right and correct view. When I tell the House that since September, 1917, no less than 2,050 cases of adoption have been arranged and carried out by one society only, namely, the National Children Adoption Association, and when I also tell the House that I am informed by the secretary of that Association that there are no less than 12 of these adoption cases arranged by this society every week, the House will see that the matter is a substantial one, and also an urgent one. Let me also remind the House of one other fact. The Hopkinson Committee stated—and I believe it is the fact—that this country has rather lagged behind other countries in dealing with this important problem. In practically every other country in the world, including our own Dominions and the United States of America, legislation has been passed in recent years for the purpose of dealing with this matter.
May I now ask hon. Members to consider in a little detail the provisions of this Bill. I will, as I go through the Clauses, call attention to the most important differences—because there have been differences of opinion on this subject—which exist in the respective recommendations of the Hopkinson and of the Tomlin Committees. Clause 1 of the Bill strikes the key-note of the whole Measure. This Clause states that upon an application in the prescribed manner made by a person who is desirous of adopting an unmarried infant, the Court may make an order authorising the applicant to adopt that infant. I think I am right in saying that this Clause is the keynote of the whole Measure, because it makes adoption possible, provided and provided only, that the Court, after a judicial determination of the question, after hearing all the facts, and after considering whether the matter is for the welfare of the infant, comes to the conclusion that the adoption ought to be sanctioned. Every hon. Member will agree that, having regard to the importance of this question, having regard to the very serious effect of severing the tie between the mother and the child, it is only right that adoption should not be legalised until there has been a judicial determination, and after the whole of the facts have been ascertained. Clause 1 also provides that except in the case of an application made by two spouses jointly, no adoption order shall be made authorising more than one person to adopt an infant.
Clause 2 deals with the restrictions on making adoption orders. In the first place, no order can be made unless the applicant is at least of the age of 25 years. I observe that the Bill does not in terms provide for the case of a joint application by two spouses, but I assume it is the intention, and, I think, it would be the fair reading of the Measure—that, in a case where two spouses are applying for an adoption order, it is not intended that an order should be made unless the younger of those two spouses is at least of the age of 25 years. There is a little ambiguity about that, but it can be put right in Committee. Clause 2 also
provides that no order for adoption shall be made unless the applicant is at least 21 years older than the child who is to be adopted. I think the House, for obvious reasons, will consider that is a wise provision. Then, again, this Clause provides that only under very exceptional circumstnaces—those are practically the words of the Measure—where the sole applicant is a male, shall he be allowed to adopt a female. This, again, is, I submit, a wise provision. Then the Clause also provides that no adoption order shall be made
except with the consent of every person who is a parent or guardian of the infant … or has the actual custody of the infant, or who is liable to contribute to the support of the infant.
The House will observe that in a subsequent Clause of the Measure very careful steps are taken to see that that consent is given only after full knowledge of the effect of an adoption order. Then also the Clause provides that in the case of an application by one of two spouses, no adoption order shall be made unless the other spouse consents. It has occurred to me in reading through the Measure that it might be desirable to insert a provision which was recommended by the Hopkinson Committee, that it might be possible for one spouse to have on adoption order made in his or her favour in a case where the two spouses are lawfully separated.
Clause 3 is an important Clause and deals with the matters as regards which the Courts must be satisfied before it makes an Order. In the first place, it provides that every person whose consent is necessary under this Act, and whose consent is not for sufficient reasons dispensed with, must understand the full effect of the adoption order, and, in particular, in the case of any parent, must understand that the adoption order is going to be a permanent order. That, I think, is of grave importance. The Hopkinson Committee recommended that for good reasons it might be desirable to provide that an adoption order should be subject to revocation. The Tomlin Committee recommended the other way. In my opinion the view expressed by the Tomlin Committee is the better view. Provided that proper safeguards are taken, provided that the parent who is giving up the child fully and clearly understands that the separation is going to be permanent, it appears to me to be much better in the interests of the child that the adoption should be permanent. It will have this effect. People who take upon themselves the custody and maintenance of a child are not so likely to do so lightly if they understand that the order is being made for better or for worse. This Clause also provides—and this is an essential condition before an order can be made—that the Court must be satisfied—and this is a paramount consideration—that the order is for the welfare of the child.
Clauses 4 and 5, I think, ought to be read together, and I will explain to the House why I come to that conclusion. The earlier part of Clause 5 provides what is to be the effect of an adoption order. It is to be that, as soon as an order is made, all rights with regard to the custody, maintenance and education of the child are to pass from the natural parent, and all those rights, duties and liabilities are to pass to and be exercisable by the adopting parent. The second part provides what is to be the position of the adopted child with regard to succession. There was a clear difference of opinion on this point between the recommendations of the Hopkinson Committee and of the Tomlin Committee. The Hopkinson Committee came to the conclusion that, with regard to the free property of the adopting parent, or any property over which the adopting parent had a full power of disposition, the adopted child should be put in exactly the same position as one of the children of the adopting parent; but that the adopted child should not be in the same position as one of the children of the adopting parent with regard to property coming from any other branch of the family. In addition to that, the Hopkinson Committee recommended that the adopting parent should have the same right of succession to any property of the adopted child as if the adopted child were his or her natural child. The Tomlin Committee, on the other hand, recommended that the adopted child shall have no right of succession to the property of the adopting parent on an intestacy, but, in order to meet to some extent that difficulty, Clause 4 provides that the Court can, as a term of making an adopting order, require the adopter, by bond or otherwise, to make for the adopted child such provision, if any, as in the opinion of the Court is just and expedient. There are, with regard to that, two different opinions. On the whole, I have come to the conclusion, speaking for myself, that the view of the Tomlin Committee is right, and, after all, if any person has gone to the trouble of adopting a child, the probability is that that person will take steps to make proper provision for the child.
Clause 6 is also an important Clause, and should be borne in mind with regard to the observations I made in reference to revocation. As I have already pointed out to the House, the Hopkinson Committee recommended that revocation should be possible under an Order of the Court in certain cases. The Tomlin Committee has come to the conclusion that it is better, assuming that proper safeguards are provided for before an adoption order is made, that there should be no revocation, and that an Order once made, should be permanent. But, in order to provide that no order shall be made except upon full knowledge of the facts, and after, so far as possible, it can be seen whether the Order is likely to work satisfactorily or not, Clause 6 provides for the making of interim orders. By Clause 6 it is provided, that upon any application for an adoption order, the Court may postpone the determination of the application, and may make an interim order, to take effect for not less than two years, which will not have the effect of an adoption order; and, during that period of two years, the Court can make such provision for the maintenance, education and supervision of the child as the Court thinks fit.
Clause 7 deals with a matter for which, obviously, provision must be made. It gives power to make a further adoption order with regard to an adopted child. This Clause is inserted to meet a case of this kind: Supposing that two spouses adopt a child and that they both die, it might well be that other relatives in that family might desire to have an adoption order made in their favour with regard to the child who has, owing to circumstances, really become a member of their family. I now come to Clause 8, as regards which, again, there has been considerable difference of opinion between the recommendations of the Tomlin and the Hopkinson Committees. That is with regard to the Court which is to have the power to make these adoption orders. In the first place, both Committees agree, and I think that those who have experience of these matters will come to the same conclusion, that the ideal tribunal to deal with these matters is the Chancery Division, and for this reason, that the Chancery Division for many years past has had peculiar and sole jurisdiction with regard to questions relating to infants. There are proper officers attached to the Chancery Division, who can make the necessary inquiries, and the various officials of the Chancery Division have special experience with regard to questions of this kind.
It is obvious, however, that in many cases it may be desirable, for reasons of expense or otherwise, that the order should be made locally, and that the Chancery Division cannot deal with all applications of this kind; and there has been a difference of opinion between the two Committees as to whether the alternative tribunal should be the County Court or the Magistrates. The Hopkinson Committee, which deals with this matter with great elaboration and in great detail, made a recommendation that in their opinion the County Court was the proper Court to deal with these matters as an alternative to the Court of Chancery, and the reasons which the Hopkinson Committee gave for that decision were, shortly, these: In the first place, they came to the conclusion that it was desirable that the same class of court should deal with these cases all over the country, and that, since in some cases the Chancery Division would be dealing with these matters, it was also desirable that an analogous tribunal like the County Court should deal with cases which could not be dealt with by the Chancery Division.
In the second place, the Hopkinson Committee was influenced by the fact that in their opinion it was desirable that orders of this kind should be made by a civil court, and not by a court which is associated with criminal matters. Again, the Hopkinson Committee pointed out that questions of a similar kind—for example, questions relating to the guardianship of infants under the Act of 1886—have been referred by Parliament to the County Court as an alternative tribunal to the Chancery Courts, and, further, the Hopkinson Committee pointed out that the County Courts had considerable experience with regard to the administration of funds arising under the Workmen's Compensation Act, in which infants are interested.
I think I have substantially stated the grounds on which the Hopkinson Committee came to a clear conclusion and recommended that the County Court should be the alternative tribunal. The Tomlin Committee came to a contrary conclusion, pointing that of recent years more and more civil jurisdiction has been exercised by magistrates. They pointed to the existence of juvenile courts, which might properly deal with applications of this kind, and they came to the conclusion that the magistrates were the better alternative tribunal, to deal with this question. It will be seen that the Bill, in Subsection (1) of Clause 8, provides that an alternative to the High Court shall be a court of summary jurisdiction. I hope I have fairly put the alternative arguments before the House. For myself, I say quite frankly that in my view the County Court is the better of the two as an alternative, but that is obviously a matter upon which the opinion of members of the House will be of great importance and value when this matter comes to be considered in Committee.
Sub-section 3 of Clause 8 also raises a most important question. It is obviously of extreme importance in dealing with matters of this kind that the Court should not merely register the views of the parties, but should be satisfied not only that the parties on each side are consenting, but that the order is for the benefit and welfare of the infant, and in order to secure that the infant's interest shall be adequately protected, and in order to enable the Court to be satisfied that the infant's welfare will be promoted by any such order, the Sub-section provides that
For the purpose of any application under this Act the Court shall appoint some person or body to act as guardian ad litem of the infant upon the hearing of the application with the duty of safeguarding the interests of the infant before the Court.
Clause 9, which everyone, I think, will agree is a perfectly proper provision, prevents any payment of any sort or kind
being made either to the person who is adopting a child in connection with the adoption. That is obviously a provision which will tend to safeguard the interests of the infant, and to bring about the result that Orders of this kind will only be applied for by persons who are adopting the child with a sincere desire to benefit and promote the welfare of the infant itself.
Clause 10 enables the Court to authorise and to sanction de facto adoptions, and in effect it comes to this, that in any case where a child has in fact been adopted and kept and maintained by any person for two years, the Court can authorise and ratify that adoption without obtaining the consent of the person who has given up the child in a case where the Court is satisfied that it is unnecessary or desirable that the consent of that person should be obtained. I believe, so far as my experience is concerned, this is a most desirable provision. I have received, since I put down the Bill, a considerable number of letters from persons who have in years past adopted children, who speak of the way in which they have come to feel great affection for the children, and the children have begun to feel great affection for them, and they have pointed out the haunting fear they have had lest the natural parents, who have taken no interest in the children, may interfere and attempt to take the children away, and I believe the Clause which enables de facto adoption to be sanctioned is a good and desirable provision. As regards Clause 11 there is a great difference of opinion between the reports of the two Committees. In effect it provides that when an adoption order is made it shall be communicated to the Registrar-General, who shall enter upon his register against the birth of the child the word "adopted." In addition to that, he is to keep a register of adopted children. The Schedule states what particulars are to be entered. Among them is the name and surname of the adopted child, and in Clause 5 the name and surname, address, and occupation of the adopter or adopters.
The practice of adoption societies up to now has been this. They have taken every step to prevent the natural parents knowing where the child has gone. Their practice has been shortly as follows: Before the child is adopted they have, quits properly of course, given to the person who proposes to adopt the child the fullest information they can procure with regard to its parentage, its surroundings and, so far as they can ascertain, its hereditary tendencies. But all that the person who is giving up the child is told it that it is going to a home where the society is satisfied, as the result of its inquiries, that it will be adequately and properly and carefully maintained and looked after. That programme of secrecy was, I believe, essential so long as there was no legal ratification or sanction of the adoption, because as the law now stands these arrangements do not prevent, subject always to the overriding welfare of the infant, the natural parent reclaiming the child after he has parted with it for many years. The two Committees have come to different conclusions. The Hopkinson Committee recommended that, when the adoption order is made, notice should be given to the Registrar-General that such an order had been made, but that no notice should be given to him which would enable the identification of the adopting parent to be ascertained. On the other hand the Tomlin Committee has come to the conclusion that the necessity of secrecy is done away with once legal effect and force is given to adoption, and although this is a matter obviously as regards which there may be considerable difference of opinion, I have come to the conclusion that that is the right view, and that once you give legal effect to adoption in the way proposed, the necessity and the desirability of secrecy goes too. Those shortly are the provisions of the Bill. This is in no sense, as far as party politics are concerned, a controversial or party Measure. It is a matter in which Members of all parties have taken a great interest and to the solution of which Members of all parties have contributed a great deal. I believe this Bill will do much to promote the welfare and serve the interests of a class of children in which Members in all parts of the House have a particular interest, and in that spirit I commend it to the sympathetic consideration of the House.
I beg to second the Motion.
If we are to judge by previous Debates that have taken place on this subject, it is one in regard to which the vast majority of Members are in fundamental agreement, however wide may be the divergence existing with regard to this or that detail in its application. What the Bill proposes to do is, for the first time in the legal history of the country, to afford definite sanction and recognition to that status of adoption which in actual practice, and in spite of the difficulties under which it has hitherto laboured, has proved of incalculable benefit to thousands upon thousands of children, and has undoubtedly been a consolation and a solace in many bereaved or childless homes. It proposes to remedy a wholly anomalous state of affairs and to bring our legal system, which one is glad to think in most other respects is a model and a pattern to other countries, into conformity with what I believe is the practice in practically every civilised country in the world, and every other part of the British Empire. It proposes further to remove from those who have adopted children the unceasing dread that at some time or other the actual parents will turn up and claim the child, and unfortunately the danger of his doing so is almost automatically increased in proportion to the devotion and attention which has been showered on the child by the adopted parents. The marketable value has been thereby increased, and if the natural parent can claim the child with the entire weight of the law on his side, all the love and devotion and sacrifice of the adopted parent may count for naught. I feel sure that is a state of affairs which no one would be prepared to justify. It represents an injustice and an anomaly which ought to have been removed long ago and which I hope will be removed as a consequence of this Bill passing into law.
There have been many and exhaustive inquiries into this question of adoption, and there has been a good deal of difference of opinion. There are certain important divergencies in the two Reports of Sir Alfred Hopkinson and Mr. Justice Tomlin, but one is glad to find that, fundamentally, there is a very large basis of agreement. I think everyone will admit that the guiding principle in all these matters must be the welfare of the child. That is common to both Reports. All investigations so far, I believe, both of a public and of a private nature are in substantial agreement in regard to the following matters, (1) as to the absolute and urgent necessity of providing some legal recognition for the status of adoption; (2) as to the necessity in many cases of preserving a certain amount of secrecy, for obvious reasons; (3) that adoption when entered into ought to be regarded as final and irrevocable and (4) that where there is adoption by married couples, and that is most frequently the case, there should be agreement between both spouses.
Obviously, there must be a reasonable difference of age between the adopter and the adopted. That is a matter upon which opinions may differ. In France, where they have had a legal system of adoption for many years, no one can adopt a child unless they are over fifty years of age and the adopted child is of sufficient maturity to understand and consent to the adoption. Then, the consent of the natural parents must be fully and freely obtained, after the whole matter has been explained to them, and, finally, the wishes of the child, if of sufficient age, should be reasonably considered.
These, I think, are all fundamental points, and they are points to which the Bill proposes to give effect. Nevertheless, I quite appreciate, as anyone must do who has studied this subject, that there are certain matters which give scope for legitimate criticism. There is the very difficult question of marriage. With regard to that, Mr. Justice Tomlin's Report emphasises the difficulty of introducing anything in the nature of artificial prohibition. They point out that the blood tie cannot, after all, be severed, and that on the anology of the present state of the law existing between the guardian and the ward they say the law should not be interfered with in that respect, and that as far as legalised adoption is concerned it should have no effect in regard to the question of marriage.
Another important point is with regard to the matter of secrecy. When we talk about secrecy in relation to adoption, we do not mean that the actual transaction should be carried through in the judge's private room or in camera, or in some way of that kind. We mean more than that. We mean that the actual parties to the transaction should be unknown to each other and that the identity of the natural parent should not be disclosed to the adopters, and vice versa. That is a point on which I think most adoption societies have up to now attached considerable importance, for two reasons, because of possible interference by the natural parent, and also because of the definite advantage to the child itself. One has to remember that over 75 per cent. of the children adopted are illegitimate and it has been thought that if you are giving them a start in life, as it were, it is better to veil from them the facts of their origin. These points may be largely obviated if we have a definite, legal definition of adoption. The Report of Mr. Justice Tomlin leaves the matter somewhat vague in this regard. Apart altogether from the question of whether it is just or even desirable to destroy all trace of the natural parent, it does occur to me that some practical difficulty may arise, because this Bill does not interfere with the child's right of succession to the property of the natural parent on intestacy. Therefore, I am inclined to wonder how we can carry out that provision to safeguard the right of the child to succeed on intestacy to the property if its natural parent, if we are destroying all traces of the child's origin, and identity. A method of solving the difficulty might be found by the compilation of a register, at some central point, which could be referred to on an order of the court; a register to which people would not have free access as of right, but which could be referred to when necessary and when it was desired to trace the whereabouts of a particular child.
Another point is whether the tribunal, because, admittedly, there must be a tribunal to deal with these matters, should be the county court or a court of summary jurisdiction, that is, a court of magistrates. Here, again, there is a wide divergence between the Hopkinson and Tomlin Reports. This Bill, as it stands at present, suggests that the more suitable tribunal is the magistrates' court. Speaking for myself, and after weighing as carefully as I have been able to do the reasons set out in the two Reports which led to their different conclusions, I cannot help agreeing with my hon. and learned Friend that, broadly speaking, the county court is the more suitable tribunal for dealing with these cases. I have come to that conclusion for a number of reasons. In the first place, it does seem to me essential that we should preserve, in regard to adoption, the civil atmosphere as opposed to anything in the nature of criminal jurisdiction.
This is the registration and the recognition of a civil contract, and I think it might impede in some way the adoption of children if people felt that they had to go to what is a criminal court in order to obtain approval for what they were doing. The County Court Judges are well accustomed to carrying out social work of this nature, as has been amply proved by the way they have dealt with cases under the Workmen's Compensation Act, and in similar directions, which raise issues somewhat analogous to these. They have already been given jurisdiction under various Acts of Parliament dealing with children, such as the Guardianship of Infants Act. Finally, the machinery of the County Court appears to me eminently suitable for carrying out and approving these transactions, inasmuch as there is a qualified registrar in each County Court to assist the Judge and, also, the County Court Judge is accustomed to making orders in regard to property as well as to personal rights. Further, there are ample facilities in the County Court—this is a small but, nevertheless, important matter—for keeping permanent records to which reference could be made whenever required.
Another difficulty that arises is with regard to the right of succession. Of course, that only applies in intestacy, because no child has the right of succession to any of the property of his parent except on intestacy. The old laws under which a child had a right to a certain proportion of its parent's property before the parent could indulge his preferences and eccentricities in other directions, have been swept away long ago. This Bill does not touch the question of succession rights. But I think there is a good deal to be said for giving an adopted child certain rights in this regard. It is a matter to which, perhaps, further consideration might be given when this Bill goes before a Standing Committee. In many respects the law of France with regard to adoption may be taken as guidance when we are framing our own system In France the adopted child has exactly the same rights as the legitimate child. That may possibly be going a little too far, but I do feel that some definite right of succession ought to be given. It is quite true that the Court can make it a condition of the adoption that the adopting parent should make some provision for the child, but I feel that that is hardly as satisfactory as if the child were given some definite rights under the law.
These, no doubt, are all points that can be suitably dealt with in Committee. I assume that on this occasion the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and that the Bill will go to a Committee. I understand that the Home Secretary intends to take part in the discussion and to give his blessing to the Bill on behalf of the Government. I hope that is so. I hope, too, that the House will not be deterred from giving the Bill a Second Reading and placing it on the Statute Book at the earliest possible moment, simply because minor defects and minor divergencies of opinion might arise. In some countries where they have had a system of adoption in force for some time, I am told that it is a very fruitful source of litigation. Whether that is an evil depends of course on the point of view from which you look at it. Speaking as a practising member of the Bar I cherish my own views. However that may be, because and if we cannot at one blow hammer out a perfect scheme, I do trust that that will not be used, as I fear it has been on occasions in the past, as an excuse for not passing this Bill into law at the earliest possible moment, dealing as it does with a very much needed reform of our legal system and one that in justice and equity is long overdue.
I think the House will have appreciated the extremely lucid way in which the Second Reading of this Bill has been moved and seconded The Mover and Seconder have set out very clearly the points of difference on details of the Bill, but I do not think that there is any serious difference in the House on the general principle of the Bill. I rise only for the purpose of associating myself and my colleagues with support of the general principles of the Bill. It is a reform that is long overdue. I was amazed, when I first went down to East London, to find the extent to which adoption existed. We have had a good deal of reference to property and the idea of childless couples adopting children, but what we find in East London is that, where some misfortune befalls a family, there is nothing so common as the adoption of the children by neighbours—adoption frequently by a couple who already, one would think, had quite a heavy enough burden in looking after their own children. That point is one which I hope the Committee will bear in mind.
It is essential that, whatever provisions are made, whether this or that tribunal is selected to have jurisdiction in the matter, the procedure should be cheap. It has to be brought within the reach of people who are not only on the poverty line but under it. I believe that the adoption of a child into a family, although that family's circumstances may be very bad, is infinitely better than the child going into an institution. We want to encourage such adoption. I have known of many cases of hardship where, after years of care, some parent, possibly an undesirable parent, has stepped in to take the child away, probably at the age of fourteen. I am not stressing the financial aspect, but the extraordinary hardship on the family that has adopted the child and has learned to love it, to have it taken away from them. There is every reason for pressing forward with this Bill and, without discussing any Committee points, I would strongly support the Second Reading.
It is desirable that I should state at this early stage the views of the Government in regard to the Bill. Before I sit down my hon. Friend who seconded the Motion for the Second Reading will find my blessing a little more complete than was his own. The Mover and Seconder, although they gave us—and I congratulate them—a very lucid explanation of the Bill, both found fault with certain Clauses. I am a whole-hearted supporter of the Bill. I would like to associate myself also with what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for Lime-house (Major Attlee) as to the very great value of adoption in the poorer classes of society, where the parent or parents of a child are cut off by accident or disease. I know how admirably the neighbours come forward and take care of the unfortunate children who are left without parents. I shall deal with that subject further a little later. I entirely agree with the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member that there must be the cheapest possible provision made, so that adopting parents are not put to any very great expense. I must say also that, while I admit to the fullest extent the wonderful work that has been done and is being done throughout the country by the numerous orphanages and institutions for taking charge of children, yet I believe that if a suitable home can be found, the best interests of the child are served by adoption in that home rather than in the very best institution in the world.
It is very remarkable that all through the history of the country there has never been provision made for the adoption of children. It is remarkable, because we are almost the only civilised country that has never done it. One remembers as a schoolboy reading of the laws in regard to adoption in Greece and Rome—in those great early communities whose laws were the forerunners of a great deal of the law which exists in civilised countries to-day. In our great dependency of India from time immemorial there has been adoption. In India to-day adoption is quite common. Nearly all civilised countries of Europe have brought in measures during the last forty or fifty years to enable adoption to take place and to provide the necessary restrictions, and yet during all that time this country has never introduced a Bill.
It is not necessary to go through the list of all the other countries, but we may deal for a moment with the case of our own Dominions and Colonies, and the United States, where this matter has been carefully considered in the last 30 or 40 years. In fact adoption in America goes back to 1851, when the first legislation was passed in the State of Massachusets, and since that time 48 other States of America have their own laws dealing with this subject. It is not necessary to go into details, but hon Members will find notes on the subject in the Report of the Hopkinson Committee. In New York State, one of the biggest and most populous, adoption has been tried and is
working well. Coming to our own Dominions we find that in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, legal systems of adoption are working admirably. Without entering into particulars I would draw the attention of the House to some points in this connection, because although private Members may be anxious to bring forward Bills of this kind, and although there may be adoption societies keenly interested in pushing forward their views, the Government of the day, before it gives its imprimatur to a Bill of this kind, with such far-reaching effects on the lives of the people, must be satisfied that the Bill is a desirable one. I call the attention therefore to the position of affairs in New Zealand. There they have had adoption in practice, and Mr. Riddell, the senior magistrate in the City of Wellington, made a statement a year ago which is of vast importance in relation to the whole system of adoption, and one upon which the Government may well found themselves in giving their support to this Bill. He said:
Speaking from my experience as a magistrate, exercising jurisdiction in the capital city of New Zealand, I can say with confidence that the system of adoption practised in New Zealand has been a success from every point of view. There is no doubt about its benefits both to the infant adopted and to the adopting parents, while the State gains in this way, that the burden of maintaining destitute persons is lightened, and its liability to care for and educate the unfortunate child is lessened, through the aid of private persons. It is agreed by all associated with the maintenance, care and guidance of destitute children that the conditions and training found in receiving homes, although excellent in many ways, fall short of those found in decent family life.
I strongly hold the view that if the system is well-managed and with proper care the position of the child is better in a home than in the best institution in the world. The figures in regard to New Zealand are remarkable. The number of applications for judicial sanction to adoption has risen from 272 in 1915 to 385 in 1919; and the yearly average of applications granted for the last quinquennium was 281, and there was a yearly average of only 18 cases refused by the Court which has jurisdiction in the matter or withdrawn. That shows that in the civilised countries of to-day the system has been fully and frankly adopted, and particularly in the English-speaking countries.
I have not full details from the European countries, but I think I have said enough to show that in America and in our own Dominions, the system works admirably in the interests of the child. I was struck by a remark of the Seconder to the effect that the child should be given a reasonable opportunity of expressing an opinion before adoption. I should like to see every possible opportunity of that kind given, because the real object of this Bill is first, second and last the interest of the defenceless and orphan child. If a child for any reason takes a dislike to the father or mother proposed as its adopting parent, that child's view may be an instinctive one which we older people cannot understand, and it should weigh heavily and paramountly with the Court which has to deal with the question.
The Bill is really the Bill of Mr. Justice Tomlin's Committee. I told the House some time ago that the Government would produce a Bill on the lines of the Measure drafted by Mr. Justice Tomlin and his Committee. Therefore, the whole purpose of this Bill is one which has the approval of the Government, and I congratulate my hon. Friends on having introduced a Bill which is so much needed at the present time. It may have to be amended after a few years' experience, because this is the first time England in all these centuries has tried adoption. The Bill has been very carefully drawn, and it has not dealt with the question of property. We have tried to leave the question of property as it is to-day. We are not imposing on the adopting parent who has perhaps his or her own children the necessity of sharing property with the adopted child. We are not going to take away from the adopted child the right which he or she may have to share in the property, if there is any, of their natural parents. The natural parent, after having given up the child, might "make" good in the world from a financial point of view. In a case of intestacy the child of such a parent, who had become an adopted child, might reasonably expect to share in the property. As the House knows, however, cases of intestacy are rare, and the parents of the adopted children it may be assumed, will exercise their rights by will, and dispose of their property in favour of a natural child, while the adopting parent probably in almost all oases would give the adopted child some interest in his or her will.
There are two great questions which have to be considered in regard to this Measure. The first is the question of the court which is to deal with applications. I agree that the Chancery Court is preeminently the one which I should wish to see dealing with such questions, but he knows, as I know, that the Chancery Court is a somewhat expensive amusement, and that there will be thousands of cases under the provisions of this Bill where the parties would never be able to afford the luxury of the Chancery Court.
I am going to consider which is the people's Court. The Chancery Court will have jurisdiction in the cases of those who desire to apply to it, but, as I have said, there will be thousands of cases which cannot go to the Chancery Court. Where then ©an they go—to the County Court or the Magistrates' Court? Mr. Justice Tomlin's Committee, which was a very good Committee, after having had an opportunity of studying the Report of Sir Alfred Hopkinson's Committee, quite definitely came to the conclusion that for these smaller cases the Magistrates' Court was the proper Court. That is my view. I practised in all these Courts in my earlier days, and I think the Magistrates' Court is the one which may be known as the people's Court. To it the people go with their troubles. It is not so formal as the County Court. There is not so much issuing of processes. There are now, I would also remind the House, children's Courts attached to all our great Police Courts. The Magistrates' Court is not so much an offenders' Court now as a Court for helping people in their troubles. The children's Court is a very great institution.
I am indebted to my Noble Friend. I think we do really agree in principle perhaps more than we sometimes appear to agree on the surface. My Noble Friend perhaps desires to go a little more rapidly than I do, but we are both going on the same road, and I am sure we shall both get to our destination in due course. I want to see these children's courts made more of, for I believe that, as the years roll on, they will be an even greater help to young people in the metropolis and other parts of the country, and they are doing to-day, and they will do, a great deal to prevent children from being sent to prison and punished for what are really childish offences without any criminal intent. In addition to that, in the children's courts and magistrates' courts outside London, in the country, you get local knowledge, you get magistrates of all classes now sitting on the bench, you get a magistrates' clerk who lives in the town, and they know and are pretty well likely to know the people whose children are going to be adopted, and the people who are going to adopt the children, and it really will be a kind of parental jurisdiction which the courts will exercise rather than any purely legal one, such as the Chancery Court or even the county court would be likely to exercise. I do not wish to say that the Government would stand out in this matter against anything approaching a unanimous decision of the Committee upstairs in favour of the county court, but the advice which I shall give to the Committee, on behalf of the Government, will be to. try at all events the proposal contained in Mr. Justice Tomlin's Report, namely, that the court in the poor cases should be the police court.
Then there is one other question of principal difficulty, and that is the question of secrecy. My hon. and learned Friend who seconded the Bill spoke rather as if secrecy was to be maintained, but that is not the case at all. Until you get legal adoption, until you have legal rights given to the adopting parents over a child as against the actual parents, quite obviously those societies which have been conducting, with so much success, the arrangements for adop-
tion have kept one party from any knowledge of what the other party was going to do, so that any case of blackmail would not be possible. I do not quite understand that, if an adopting parent had no right as against the natural parent, it would not be quite open for the natural parent to go and say: "If you do not give me my child back, I shall do this, that, or the other," or, "If you do not pay me so much money, I will take the child back." That, of course, would be a very cruel thing in a case where the adopted child had become part of the family of the adopting parents and was treated and loved as their child, but when you come to the legal position and have given the adopting parent's the legal right to say: "This is now my child by law, and you cannot take it back," there is no question of blackmail, and then, I think, you must take the responsibilities of acting in the open, as the law does. I hope my hon. and learned Friend will look at Clause 28 of the Report of Mr. Justice Tomlin's Committee, and I may mention that, if hon. Members have not got the Report, it is a Committee appointed by my predecessor, the late Home Secretary, which consisted of one or two Members of this House, including Miss Jewson, who used to sit on the other side, and the present Under-Secretary to the Board of Education, whose place was subsequently taken by Mrs. Wilson-Fox. That Committee considered the whole question of secrecy, and if hon. Members will look at paragraph 28 of its Report, they will find these words:
Apart from the question whether it is desirable or even admissible deliberately to eliminate or obscure the traces of a child's origin so that it shall be difficult or impossible thereafter for such origin to be ascertained, we think that this system of secrecy would be wholly unnecessary and objectionable in connection with a legalised system of adoption, and we should deprecate any attempt to introduce it.
My hon. and learned Friends who Moved and Seconded the Bill, have Moved and Seconded a Bill which does not establish secrecy.
That, of course, will always be the case in these children's courts now. There is only one other point that affects the question of secrecy that I ought to mention here. I have been in communication, through my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health, with the Registrar-General. Of course, provision has been made in Clause 11 of the Bill for notification of all these adoptions in the Registrar-General's Department, but arrangements are being made that in the ordinary register of births in the case of a child who is subsequently adopted, when the adoption order goes to the Registrar-General he will print or write against the first entry the word "adopted" without anything further, but that he will himself keep a private register which will connect the entry in the birth register with the entry in the adoptive register, but that the private register will not be open, except under special circumstances, to persons who want to go there without proper cause to find out anything. That, of course, will involve that in future when an adopted child has to prove its birth certificate the Registrar-General's adoption certificate will be sufficient, giving the date of its birth, but not referring back, unless there is really legal cause for doing so, to the birth certificate. I think that will go far to meet the views of my hon. and learned Friend on the question of secrecy. I will only say that the Government are fully satisfied that this Bill is an experiment well worth making, an experiment giving a new form to legislation which might well have been made, I think, many years before in this country. However, it is not too late—
—to mend, as my noble Friend says, but I think it only right to inform the House that it may, in the course of a year or two, need amendment when we find out how it works. I shall be very glad if the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and refer it to a Committee upstairs, and both my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who will per- haps attend the Committee, and myself will be only too pleased to consider any Amendments which, in the opinion of the Committee, are desirable. As this is a Private Member's Bill, we do not want to force our views so far as the main lines of the Bill are concerned. We approve them, and we shall be very glad for the House of Commons to do that work, which it can do so effectively in Committee upstairs, of seeing that the Bill is a thoroughly practical Measure and studying any points which may arise in connection with it.
I do not rise to oppose the Measure. On the contrary, I welcome it, but I hope the spirit in which it has been received will not prevent it having a thorough examination in Committee upstairs. I was struck by the very great research which the Mover and Seconder must have undertaken into the law of property and into the question of how a child would be affected in that regard, and I am sure they are to be congratulated upon the amount of information with which they have favoured us in moving and seconding the Bill, but I feel that there are a great many human interests that have to be considered as well as legal interests in a Measure of this description. I want to support the Bill, because, in the first place, I want to take the opportunity of saying that the party with which I am associated are not guilty of the charges that have been so frequently made against us at election times, that we want to nationalise women and children and put them all into institutions. [Laughter.] The Noble Lady the Member for the Sutton Division (Viscountess Astor) laughs, but it is no laughing matter for us who are fathers of families to be charged with such an atrocious desire.
As a matter of fact, our experience leads us in the opposite direction, and while it has been necessary for boards of guardians and councils to establish schools and homes for orphan children, our experience, extending over quite a number of years, has proved to us that institution life is not a good thing. I feel—and I believe my views are shared very largely by all Members of the House—that the English character has been built up on home life. God knows, some of the homes are not worthy of the name; but, nevertheless, there is a spirit even in the meanest tenement that has developed the British character, which has made the British nation what it is. I find, too, that institution life tends very largely to a return to institution, life, either in the form of prison, workhouse, or homes of that description. It saps the independence of character. It tends to make men, at any rate, with less moral fibre than we associate with the average Britisher. To a person who has been brought up in an institution—even a good institution—prison has not the same horror that it has to the average man or woman, and we complete the vicious circle very often, as magistrates well know, with people who have been brought up to appreciate institution life. Therefore, I welcome the Bill, because I think it will assist us to enable orphan children to be brought back into the normal life of the nation, and to become normal citizens.
But when I have said that, I feel that we have got to be very careful in looking to safeguards, in the first place to prevent the exploitation of children. People do not always adopt children because they love children, and the older a child becomes before adoption takes place, the greater care someone has got to take to see that these children are not adopted in order to become slaves, because members of boards of guardians who have had any experience well know that very great care has had to be taken in the past, and a very strict oversight kept in regard to children adopted, in order to prevent their being exploited in this way. Particularly is this the case with girls. We very often meet with mean people going to boards of guardians or orphan societies to get girls of 10 or 11 years of age, and make them into domestic drudges. All the arguments used up to now in support of the Bill have been dealing with very young and infant children, and while there would be less difficulty in their adoption, even here, I think, we have got to provide safeguards. Most of these children are illegitimate children, and, unfortunately, they are the children of working girls, very often.
Consequently, I feel there ought to be some safeguard to prevent orphan societies or boards of guardians recommending children for adoption without the mother having an opportunity of appear- ing in Court and presenting her case. I do not think the mother should be deprived of all rights and all say as to whether her child should be adopted or not. I think the Home Secretary fell into an error with regard to there being no precedent for adoption in this country. As a matter of fact, it has been done by boards of guardians for a great number of years, because the law has given them the right to adopt in cases where parents have been cruel to their children, or where young children have been living in immoral surroundings, and these rights have been pretty freely exercised. But I do feel that where children are properly adopted, the foster parents should be safeguarded to the utmost possible extent by the law, to prevent them from being blackmailed, or the parents turning up when children get to the working age. At the same time, I do feel with regard to this register, which it is proposed should be kept by the Registrar-General, that a copy should be deposited with the medical officer of health where the foster parents live, because I think these children should be subject to the same oversight on the part of the medical officer of health and his lady inspectors as in. the case of all working-class children, or of children being cared for in poor neighbourhoods. An orphan child so adopted should not be deprived of medical skill and assistance, and so on, which any child in a poor neighbourhood has, and it would also be an additional safeguard to prevent children being cruelly treated by their foster parents.
Then, again, I feel an injustice is being done to maiden ladies and bachelors. I do not see why two maiden ladies should not adopt a child, and probably prove the very best foster parents. I have seen cases where such women have adopted a little waif of this description, and very good results have followed both to the foster parents and to the child. In the same way, I do not see why two bachelors should be debarred from taking the responsibility of training up a boy. They may have been unfortunate in the matrimonial mart, and I think they should have some compensation given them. Of course, all these are Committee points, and I only mention them now for fear the Committee should not take them into consideration. Further, there seems to to be no pro- vision for the order to be revoked in the event of the foster parents committing an offence against the child. In the case of ordinary parents who have been convicted in a Court of Summary Jurisdiction for cruelty, the Board of Guardians can take the custody of the child away from the parents. In the same way, if a child be living in a brothel or immoral surroundings of some other nature, the board of guardians can take the child away from its natural parents I feel that an order for adoption should also be revoked where the foster parents are convicted, in the same way as it applies to the natural parents. With these remarks on Committee points, I welcome the Bill, and trust it will mark a step in showing greater wisdom on the part of the nation towards children, which are the greatest asset to the nation.
I welcome the introduction of this Bill on two grounds, personal and public—personal because I have myself adopted a child, and therefore am more or less familiar with the difficulties which have been mentioned to-day, and on public grounds because I am convinced that this Bill is absolutely in the interests of the people of this country. It has been far too long deferred, and I welcome, therefore, the assurance of the Home Secretary that he is going to give it his best assistance, and I hope profoundly, before the end of this Session it will be on the Statute Book. I cannot say that I myself am entirely satisfied with this Bill. I should have liked it to go very much further. I want the adopted child to be placed in exactly the same position that it would be as the natural legal born child of its parents. I approve entirely of the Roman system of adoption. I believe that the child who is adopted into a family should be for all purposes a complete child of that family. But although a Bill on these lines was introduced into another place a session or two ago, I quite realise that you cannot expect to get everything you want at first. You certainly cannot run before you walk. And the last person to be expected to do such a thing is a Judge of the High Court of Chancery. Therefore, I am satisfied that this is the best Measure that we can get for the time being.
I do not propose to go into the details of this Measure. They have been already treated at great length by previous speakers, and a great many points, which seem to me to be entirely Committee points, have already been argued across the floor of the House. What I should just like to draw attention to, however, are two points. The first one relates to the question of secrecy. I think that the real reason for secrecy has been somewhat missed: it is that in many cases a child will never be legally adopted unless there is a large measure of secrecy. There are children who, for obvious reasons, their parents do not wish openly to recognise, that is, the mother will not wish it to be known that she is the mother of the particular child. It is quite clear that the practice that has been adopted by the adoption societies has not been adopted without reason. It is for children of this class that secrecy is so absolutely essential, for these are the children who are most in need of adoption. Therefore, I would suggest to the House, that when this Bill comes up in Committee, it will be quite desirable that this question of secrecy should be gone more closely into than by the Committee presided over by Mr. Justice Tomlin.
The other question of great importance to the adopted child is the matter of the birth certificate. These children are generally illegitimate, and an illegitimate child starts with a grave disadvantage. If the Committee have discovered a method of overcoming that disadvantage it should be adopted. To the adopted parents it would also be much more satisfactory that when their child was called upon to show his birth certificate their names were the only names appearing upon the certificate.
I am glad to hear it. I think it is a real advantage that you have come to that decision. I did not quite understand it so, but I, perhaps, was not in the House when it was mentioned. I do not propose to say anything further on the subject to-day. I honestly welcome this Bill, and I hope before the end of this Session we shall have passed this Measure, which has been far too long delayed.
The Home Secretary has given his blessing to this Bill, and I gather from what he said, and subsequent remarks of hon. Gentlemen, that the Government were going to do their very best to allow time later, when the Bill emerges from Committee, to push it into law. I think we are glad to say, at least I certainly am, that on the general principles of the Bill we are in hearty sympathy. It does meet a difficulty which has long been felt in this country. It is doing an act of justice which has long been overdue. The Bill is to put right a state of affairs in which this country has been a long way behind many of the other civilised countries of the world. This Bill is a conservative Bill. I do not use that word in a party sense, but the Bill is one which takes one step, though it may be a long step, forward. There are, however, other steps that ought to have been taken. But it is our habit in this country to go slowly, and perhaps that is, after all, not a bad thing, provided that, as the Home Secretary suggested, this may be subjected to an amending Bill in a few years' time.
There is one matter—the matter of property—which may need attention. I am not acquainted with the details of the forms of adoption in other countries, but I should imagine that in the proposal which is here for treating the child, so far as property is concerned, entirely as if it remained the child of its natural parents, we are proceeding less far than most, if not all, adoption schemes prevailing in other countries. Though it may be desirable to exclude that point from the purview of the Bill I hope at a later date that some progressive action will be taken in the matter. The next point to which I would refer is this matter of secrecy. And there is a matter which seems to me not dealt with in this Bill which requires some consideration. It was referred to by the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Rentoul). It refers to the question of consanguinity in marriage. It seems to be perfectly possible, if the complete identity of the child is lost, that in the course of years he may meet and fall in love, it may be, with a person of his own family. There seems to be some little risk in that direc- tion, judging from days gone by. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that a record adequate for the purpose shall be kept of the connections of the child. I should like to know what means it has been thought desirable to take so that in the event of a marriage between an adopted child, and some other person, the registrar, or whoever it may be who may celebrate that marriage, shall be able to check and correct the proposed marriage if it should be found that the adopted child is akin—within sanguinary limits—with the person he proposes to marry?
Before I sit down I should like to support enthusiastically the remarks of the Home Secretary with regard to the life of the child itself. I do feel that this is a matter of very extreme importance. I remember very well Olive Schreiner once telling me a story in regard to a negro. The wife of this negro died, and on the evening of her death he went to his club, and met his fellows in a very cheerful mood. A dialogue took place between him and one of his comrades, who said to him: "You lost your wife this morning?" "Yes, I did." "I suppose she was not a good housekeeper?" "She was an excellent housekeeper." "I suppose she was not economical with your things?" "There was no one Who could make a pound go further." "She was not a good mother to your children?" "On the contrary, there was never a better mother." "Then," observed the friend, "you do not seem to be very much upset about it?" "No," was the reply, "I did not like her."
Now it may very well be that the Court, looking at all the facts, may come to the conclusion that it is essential for the welfare of the child that he should be adopted by a certain man and wife. But the child might object to becoming an adopted child and that ought to be a paramount objection to adoption being ratified. The actual words in the Bill are not nearly as strong as the words used by the Home Secretary with regard to this matter. He spoke of the "reasonable wishes of the child" and said that the "wishes of the child should be paramount." The actual words of the Bill are
the order if made will be for the welfare of the infant, due consideration being for this purpose given to the wishes of the
infant, having regard to the age and understanding of the infant.
The words "that the wishes of the child should be paramount" are much stronger, and if it is not possible to use the word "paramount" in the Bill I hope some stronger words will be found than those which are actually in the Bill at the present time.
I rise to support this Bill, because I regard it as a distinct and important advance, but at the same time I feel that its effect will be very limited. Perhaps its limited nature is calculated to ensure general acceptance. Adoption may be, and often is, a noble act; it often is very emotional, but I am not sure that the provisions of this Bill are not calculated to chill the ardour and freeze the emotions of a would-be adopter. The Bill does not touch the great problem connected with the adoption of children. It does not effect and cannot diminish the traffic in adoption which all those who are earnestly engaged in social work realise to be a very important and pressing problem. It is not unfair to say that this Bill, which I cordially support, does not really do more than encourage what may be called the best class of adoption; adoption arising from childlessness, adoption arising from affection, and adoption arising from the activity of the spirit of service, a desire on the part of people to fulfil some function in life to the greatest advantage of their fellow-creatures. To the people who desire to take children on any of these grounds the Bill affords a great advantage because it gives them a security which at the present time is sorely lacking.
Apart from that there are problems lying outside the measure of this Bill which ought to be faced and which I should like to see faced as early as possible. Before I mention one or two of them I should like to offer a few criticisms on the Bill itself. I am not at all sure that the age as laid down is not too low. The adopter by this Bill must not be less than 25 years of age, and I am not at all sure that this is an age of such discretion, when views may be determined for life and habits are fixed, as would justify the handing over of an infant for adoption. It is a matter of argument, however, and very serious argument. It has been said that in Germany and France the adopter is to be not less than 50 years of age, and it must be observed that in the previous Bills which were introduced in 1924 and 1925 the age fixed was not less than 30 years.
Now I come to a matter which I regard as of considerable importance. Under the provisions of this Bill the consent of the parent to adoption is required, and the Bill provides that in certain cases the tribunal that is to determine whether adoption is to take place or not can waive this requirement of consent. The grounds upon which the Court may dispense with any consent are set out categorically in the following terms—I am referring to the proviso of Sub-section (3) of Clause 2. It says that consent may be dispensed with where
The person whose consent is to be dispensed with has abandoned or deserted the infant or cannot be found or is incapable of giving such consent or being a person liable to contribute to the support of the minor has persistently neglected or refused to contribute to such support.
It may be a good thing, but in my view there is a serious lack here of provisions for circumstances which may arise, and which do arise. There is no provision that consent may be dispensed with where the parent, the man or woman, objects to the child being adopted, but where the child is being brought up in circumstances highly and obviously injurious to its physical and moral welfare. In the earlier Bills on this subject there was a provision that consent may be dispensed with by the Court where the person in charge of the child is bringing up the child in such conditions as are likely to result in serious detriment to its moral or physical welfare, and that provision is one which I should like the Committee to consider with a view to its incorporation in the present Measure.
With regard to the tribunal I was glad to hear the Home Secretary come down heavily on the side of the magisterial Courts in this matter. The County Courts are seriously overburdened with work. Students of history will probably remember that the historian Stubbs described the Justices of the Peace in the 16th century as carrying stacks of statutes on their shoulders. At the present moment the magisterial Courts are burdened with work but the County Court Judges are much more overworked. If any more legislation is passed and given to the County Court to do it will mean great congestion. Besides, the County Court is not qualified to do this kind of work in the best possible manner; the County Court is not a suitable tribunal for this purpose. The magisterial Courts nave an experience of juvenile work already; they are cheaper, less formal and much more accessible, and, in addition to that, they sit more frequently. If I wanted further support for this contention I should find it in the Act passed last year, called the Guardianship of Infants Act, which provided deliberately for an extension of the magisterial jurisdiction to cases affecting the custody of children. That in itself shows that there was confidence in leaving magistrates to deal with these matters.
I have only one or two other points to mention, but though they are rather points of detail, it strikes me they are not unimportant. I am not sure whether I would give to the courts the power to require of the adopter that he should make testamentary provision for the adopted child. At the present moment—it may be a defect in the law, and I sometimes think it is—there is nothing to prevent a parent depriving his natural children of all benefit from his estate, and leaving his property to a person unallied to him by relationship. I do not see why a person who takes upon himself the unnecessary burden, even though it may be a great pleasure, of adopting a child, should have fastened upon him an obligation to make testamentary provision for it long in advance of the likelihood of his death. That matter requires some consideration. With regard to secrecy, I am all in favour of secrecy provided it can be, obtained concurrently with the maintenance of accurate records of adoptions.
Repeating what I said at the beginning may I say now that this limited Measure, deserving as it is of support, leaves untouched the real problems which exist in our crowded areas—the problems arising from the traffic in the adoption of children, from the presence of unwanted children who are conveniently turned over to people who will keep them for reward, and problems which arise from the fact that the State has no complete powers of inspecting and requiring alterations to be made in institutions and homes which take in children. I would like to see a complete register kept of all children adopted, whether the adopters chose to take advantage of the provisions of this Bill or not. I would like to see all institutions which take in children which their parents do not want, children, as it is said, begotten of love, but not themselves begetting love, open to inspection by the State, and required to make any necessary alterations. Many do not need inspection or alteration, but some do. Finally, I would like to see all children who are put out for reward who are over seven years of age brought under the care of the local authority or the State. It seems to me that it is a serious defect in the Children's Act, 1908, that notification of the taking in for reward of children is limited to children up to the age of seven years, and not over. Finally, I do not want to leave this subject without expressing the view that in dealing with it we are merely on the fringe of a greater one.
I am sorry not to be able to contribute to the chorus of praise with which this Bill has been received. There are certain dangers which ought to be pointed out. There are, for instance, cases in which rather empty-headed women, without children of their own, but feeling they would like a child, and being casually attracted by some fluffy-haired, blue-eyed little thing, will adopt that child while it is young and pretty in the rather casual and haphazard way that they do. When the child grows older, gets to the gawky stage of childhood, needs a good deal more attention, and is not a pet to play with, then the woman wants to get rid of her responsibility, and the child is probably finally sent to the workhouse, or got rid of in some other way, perhaps by being boarded out. It is thrown about the world as a little waif, not wanted, and it is nobody's duty to bring home to that woman the responsibility which she took upon herself when she adopted that child. That is an evil, and any action that can be taken which will bring home to that woman her responsibility, and make her responsible for the child beyond the stage of its childhood, would be all to the good.
There are dangers about final adoption which the House ought to consider before giving approval to a Bill of this kind. There is the case of the girl in desperate circumstances who wants some temporary provision for her child and who, if offered the chance of having it adopted under the terms of this Bill, would probably seize on the offer as a means of getting the child cared for. Afterwards, she would find that the child has gone from her for ever, and that there are no means of getting it back. That is one difficulty. Another serious difficulty arises from the case of married people in poor circumstances who may be induced to allow one of their children to be adopted in this final fashion. Their circumstances may afterwards improve. At the time the man was, perhaps, unemployed, but later he gets work, and the family income becomes sufficient to enable him to keep the child; but the parents find, though they did not realise it at the time, that the child has gone from them for ever. I hope when this Bill goes to Committee it will be laid down that a most serious investigation is to be undertaken before the step of final adoption is embarked on; the people who give over a child for adoption ought to have explained to them how completely irrevocable is the step they are taking.
That brings me to a third point. I want to ask the Home Secretary whether under this Bill adoption would be completely irrevocable in cases which turned out to be extremely unsatisfactory? Suppose a working-class family had allowed a child to be adopted and then found that its new environment was completely unsympathetic; that, though there might not be any active ill-treatment, the child was unhappy and was suffering in health in consequence. Would it be possible, under the Bill as at present drawn—or could we have provisions inserted to secure it—for the parents to bring the case before a tribunal and regain possession of the child? A previous speaker said this was a Bill for the best class of adoptions, and that no one should stand in the way of it, but when we are considering an Act of Parliament we ought to remember that there are other kinds of adoption which must not be overlooked.
I am afraid I am not in agreement with hon. Members who have urged the necessity for secrecy under this Bill. I have doubts as to how far it is wise to cut away from a child all memory and knowledge of its natural parents and their surroundings. Even if those surroundings were bad, even if the people were immoral, even if it were an illegitimate child, nothing but trouble would ensure from an attempt to keep the facts from the child when it is old enough to understand. A great deal of misery might be avoided if the child were told the truth and knew the whole circumstances of its case. If we are to have legal adoption it ought to be made as open as possible; it should be an honourable act and not something which the child should be made to feel had cast a stigma upon it, so that when it went to school it should be told, "You have not got any real parents; they are not your own." In the public mind there ought to be a feeling that it is a perfectly honourable relationship between the child and the adopted parents. If you had that, there is not only no question of blackmail, but the child could be told the truth about its parents. That would be very much better for the child and its adopted parents.
I want to press the point about the necessity for the inspection of children over 17. I know this is a very difficult question. On the one hand, you say that you want to have an honourable relationship between the parent and the child, and, on the other hand, you say that if you have inspection you are dragging the children back into their old ways and not allowing them to grow up as part of the family. You are not dealing with a blood tie here, but with an artificial relationship, therefore it seems to me important that the child should be safeguarded by inspection. Of course, I do not think the inspection should be fussy, or in any way interfering with the child's relationship with the adopted parents, nevertheless I think there should be a safeguard against children being adopted for the purpose of domestic slavery or other things which may cause unhappiness. I am sorry that I am only able to give a qualified support to what seems to me to be otherwise a valuable Bill, but if the House agrees to adopt the Second Reading, I hope the points with which I have dealt will be considered and put right in the Committee stage.
As one who introduced a similar Bill in 1923, I should, like to congratulate my hon. and learned Friend who moved the Second Reading upon having seized this opportunity to bring forward this Bill. I do not want to deal with general principles, because they have already been well thrashed out, but I wish to draw attention to a few important questions of detail. I think there will be general rejoicing that the Home Secretary has chosen to adopt this Bill and give it the blessing of the Government. It is high time that the adoption of children was legalised in English law, because it will be a great blessing to a very large number of children, to many childless homes, and to the country generally, inasmuch as children who are well looked after in this way are more likely to become good citizens in the future. In the past, one of the great deterrents in the way of the adoption of children has been the haunting sense of its insecurity. Under this Bill anybody who adopts a child will feel safe from all interference. I was going to say that the adopted parents would feel as safe as the Bank of England, but, having regard to the Second Order on the Paper, I do not think I had better use that phrase.
First of all, I wish to say that I support what the hon. and learned Member for Preston (Mr. A. R. Kennedy) said about the age of 25 being decidedly too young; and I support the age of 30. I cannot conceive any unmarried man or woman under 30 years of age wishing to adopt a child, because under that age they may marry and they may regret having adopted a child, and this might also stand in the way of happy marriages. Take the case also, of a married couple under the age of 30. As long as there is a possibility of issue, it does seem unwise to adopt a child before you have had any natural children of your own. I think that under the age of 30 there is a strong probability that it might be a source of great prejudice to the family to adopt a child. Therefore I suggest to the promoters that the age of 30 should be substituted for 25.
With regard to Clause 2, Sub-section (3), I do not quite understand why Mr. Justice Tomlin's Committee have cut out a Clause which was in the Bill founded on the Report of Sir Alfred Hopkinson's Committee, dealing with persistent cruelty. I think a Clause of that kind might very well be inserted.
Sub-section (5) of Clause 2 raises a very important point, because it provides that the only adoptions which can be sanctioned are adoptions in favour of applicants living in England or Wales. It ignores the chance of any adoptions by the relatives of a child living in English Colonies or in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In such countries as recognise adoption, there does not seem to be any great objection, in my view, to sanctioning adoption in proper cases. Take the case of an orphan child left in England, or a child whose future may be extraordinarily precarious. In a case like that some relatives may be living in Canada and may be able to offer every security for a happy home. To me that fact alone does not seem sufficient ground to exclude the Court from widening the area of adoption. Although normal applications might be confined to England or Wales, I think some provision should be made for exceptional cases of that kind.
With regard to Clause 3, I am inclined to differ from the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). Surely the paramount consideration should be the welfare of the child, and that to give paramount consideration to the wishes of a child of four or five is an absurdity.
I take the view that, if you really mean the adopted child to be absorbed and incorporated in the adopting family, with all the consequences that normally result, one of the consequences ought to be a prohibition of marriage. Under Clause 5, adopted children stand in the same position as a child born to the adopter in lawful wedlock, and I think there ought to be a prohibition of marriage.
I disagree with what has been said in regard to inspection, because the moment you establish a periodical inspection you interfere with the intention of the Bill, which is to absorb a child as soon as possible into its new home. The inclusion of the element of inspection would be a deterrent to adoption, and when you bear in mind that the Court before sanctioning any adoption has to make a most searching inquiry into the whole case I think it will be found that the disadvantages of inspection would far outweigh all its advantages.
Now I come to a point in which I differ very strongly from the Bill as drawn, that is the question of property. I think that the Home Secretary, probably by a slip of the tongue, was in error when he said that intestacy would probably be rare in the case of adopted children. In the great majority of cases, adoption takes place among the very poor, and in such cases intestacy is much more normal than testation, and, if that be so, and if the child has been brought up and has lived as a member of the family it is a source of the very greatest hardship when the parent dies to find that child left in the cold and the other children alone provided for. When you once recognise adoption as conferring the benefits of ordinary family life, the consequences of ordinary family life ought also to ensue. There have been a very large number of cases of hardship in regard to illegitimate children whose parents subsequently marry. At the present time, owing to the ultra conservatism of the English law, our law still does not recognise legitimation by subsequent marriage, although we hope that will also be remedied in the next few months. If an adopted child on the intestacy of the parents is to be left unprovided for, I think that is wrong, and that proprietary rights on intestacy ought to be recognised.
That is a very different point, and my suggestion is that a compromise might be adjusted. So far as intestacy on the part of the adopting parents is concerned, an exception might be made, because the normal parents who die intestate are poor people, and no settlements, as a rule, apply to the family fortunes under those conditions. I think it would be well if, to that narrow extent at any rate, a compromise were arrived at. I personally am in favour of the converse case also being applied. I think where people bring up children and spend money lavishly upon them, and the children attain the age of 21 and die possessed of some means, the proper persons to inherit those means on intestacy are the adopting parents and not the natural parents.
Let me give a case in point within my own knowledge. A very poor family in my own constituency, with the usual incomparable charity of the very poor, adopted, in addition to their own natural children, the abandoned child of neighbours, and brought up this child from the age of a few weeks to maturity. The child became a soldier and died in the Great War leaving a small estate. As a matter of fact, the War Office made a concession and ultimately paid the money which the soldier had left to his adopting parents. But it was only as an act of grace, because the adopting parents had no rights whatever to succeed to the estate of this soldier, although he knew no other parents and although his whole life had been spent under the belief that he was the natural child of the parents who had brought him up. I think therefore, certainly with regard to the case of intestacy, the adopting parents ought to have the right to succeed to the estate of the child whom they have brought up from infancy, and the child ought to have the right to succeed to the estate of the parents who have adopted him.
Just one word on the Courts exercising jurisdiction. I am rather on the side of the County Court, more, perhaps, because occasionally I have been in the County Court, and I have never been in the magisterial Court. I am wondering whether the Home Secretary will consider the advisability of giving concurrent jurisdiction to these Courts as is the case under the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1925. I have looked that Act up and I find, under Section 9, that the Courts which have jurisdiction under it are the Chancery Division, the County Courts and the Magisterial Courts, and, if that has worked well with regard to the Guardianship of Infants Act, I do not see why it should not work equally well with regard to the analogous case of the adoption of infants.
I am on the side of secrecy with regard to adoption, because I think the natural parents, although they may not have the right to reclaim the child after the child has been adopted, may in certain bad cases make themselves a great nuisance. I think if a parent cares so little or has so little hopes of looking after a child properly that he or she is willing to abandon the child at the age of a few weeks or months to adopting parents, that parent ought to forego all his or her rights. If the natural parent knows that the child has been adopted by well-to-do people, the natural parent may make himself or herself a nuisance to the child many years afterwards. I think, therefore, it may be a mistake to make the records too accessible and too publicly available in a manner which may render the after life of the adopted child disagreeable and in some cases might lead to blackmail on the part of the natural parents. These, I agree, are all questions of detail, though questions of important detail. I am afraid that this is one of those non-controversial Bills which excite a great deal of controversy in its details, although its principle will be accepted by all. Be that as it may, we are early in the year, and I have no doubt that these questions of detail will be thrashed out in Committee. With regard to the Bill as a whole, I can only add mine to the many other blessings conferred upon it by Members on all sides of the House.
I am very glad to notice the unanimous feeling in all parties of the House with regard to this Bill, because it is felt very strongly by many women in the country that the Measure is needed. I must say that it has not been my experience to meet many young women who have adopted pretty babies because they have had pretty blue eyes and golden hair, and I cannot agree with the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Miss Wilkinson) in that view. But it has been my experience to meet many women who have adopted children for the love of those children. I have many such women in my own constituency. One woman came to me the other day in great distress. She had adopted a child when it was only a few weeks old, and she lived in daily dread of the parents coming to reclaim that child. All these things can be discussed in Committee, and I am not going to waste time, as I know that many Members want to speak. But I must just say how pleased many women in the country will be that at last this Bill, with the consent of the Government, is going soon upstairs to Committee, and, we hope, is going to be placed on the Statute Book.
I am very glad to be able to join in support of this Bill. I only rise to put in a brief demurrer to the suggestion of hon. Members opposite with regard to the grounds on which the consent of parents may be dispensed with. I think we ought to exercise very great care indeed as to the grounds on which we allow the Court to have that authority. There was a suggestion by the Committee to the effect that serious detriment to moral or physical welfare might properly be incorporated as a ground for dispensing with parental consent, but, if that were adopted, I can see cases of very great hardship arising. You have, amongst poor people, families with five or six children living, probably, in one or two rooms. There may be among such a family a very bright boy who, by some means or other, might come into contact with comparatively wealthy people. Comfort and luxury appeal to children as to everyone else, and that boy might easily be weaned away from his natural parents by the wealth and luxury of those friends.
If those people were to attempt to adopt that child, they would find the child perfectly willing to agree, and, even if the parents objected, they might properly argue that the physical and moral conditions of the home were such as to justify the waiving of the parental consent. If that were so, there would be an extreme hardship upon these poor parents. Certainly, the home might not be such as to conduce to physical or even moral well-being, but it would be the only home that those poor parents could provide, and I certainly think we ought not to extend the grounds upon which parental consent can be dispensed with to cover cases of that sort. That is all I wish to say. I am very glad to be able to give general support to this Bill, and I was very pleased to find that the Home Secretary himself has given a conditional blessing to it. I sometimes think we do the right hon. Gentleman an injustice in thinking that he is a hopeless reactionary. We know he is a very hard case, but we do from time to time see signs that he takes an enlightened and progressive view of certain matters. This is one of those signs. I am very glad to welcome it, and congratulate him on the fact.
So much has been said in favour of this Bill that any criticism one would like to make upon its various Clauses ought, perhaps, to be reserved until the Bill goes to a Committee. I rise to support the Measure, because the necessity for it has been borne in upon me by several of my friends who, as part of their social work, have given time to acting, in the eastern parts of London, as poor persons' lawyers. I am told that a large proportion of their work consists in dealing with applications by people who desire to adopt children, or by people who think they have an opportunity of placing their child with someone willing to adopt it. They want, however, some security with regard to the child. When they are told that no security can be given, that there is no legality about the handing over of a child, that even payment does not sanctify the contract, they do press that something shall be given, and I am told by my friends that what happens is that very frequently they draw up a form of agreement. They tell the people that there is no validity in this agreement at all, but it does set up what was the intention of the parents and of the adopters, and they go away perfectly satisfied—those who are willing to take the risk. But a very large proportion of the people who are anxious to receive these children say that, well as they know the character of the parents of the child, they are not prepared to take the child over if they are to be under the risk in, say, 10 or 15 years, of the parents coming along and demanding to have back the child—which may be a bright child, likely to be an asset to the family—and for that reason they decline to take the child over.
I think we have to consider this Measure, not from the point of view of the abandoned child, not from the point of view of the bad mother or the bad father. When I was thinking over this subject, a story occurred to me which, perhaps, is known to Members of this House. It is the case of the small child who asked her mother if she would sing the favourite hymn about the she-bear. After some search-
ing, the mother turned up the hymn, and found these words—it is the third line of the verse which I think is applicable to the discussion to-day—
Can a woman's tender care
Cease toward the child she bare?
Yes, she may forgetful be.
It is because there are mothers to-day, and even fathers, who are forgetful of their duty to their children that cases of necessity for Bills such as this arise.
Some criticism has been made by one hon. Member on this side, and also by the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Miss Wilkinson), and I think my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. A. R. Kennedy) has said that in spite of this Bill adoption will still go on. I think, however, my hon. and learned Friend omitted to take full notice of the value of Clause 9, where it is provided that it shall not be lawful for either of the parties to receive money in respect of the adoption. What will happen, I think, will be that, if adoption does go on in the illegal way, such system as has existed so far will very soon die away altogether, because people, realising that it is possible to get a legal transfer of a child, will prefer to go to the Courts and get a legal transfer, rather than face the possibility that at some time or other the child may be taken away from the adopter and returned to the parents.
Some question has arisen as to whether it would be better to leave the jurisdiction in these matters to the County Courts or to the magistrates. Speaking as a magistrate in a fairly large district, I am bound to say I think it would, on the whole, be advantageous to place the jurisdiction in the hands of the County Court, and not of the Magistrates' Court. Let me give my reasons for this. In, perhaps, some county boroughs, magistrates may have a comparatively easy time, but, to take a district near to where I live, such as Croydon or Sutton, where the magistrates' time, certainly on Saturdays, and frequently on Wednesdays, is taken up almost entirely by an interminable list of prosecutions under the Motor Car Acts, by the time they have gone through a list of something like 100 prosecutions for rear lights being out, lamps being broken, excessive speed, or failure to heed the call of a policeman, I think that, if they had cases such as these coming at the end of the day's work, they would not get that scrutiny and examination which I think is very desirable in dealing with so serious a matter as the future life of a child.
It is true that at the end of the day's sitting the chairman of the magistrates says: "Are there any other cases to be heard?" and then come those people who have their grievances about their husbands or their children, or about the lady upstairs who gives them unusual trouble when her children get up in the morning; but these are all treated more or less scantily, and I do want, if a Court is set up to consider the interests of children under an Adoption Act, that a real examination shall be made into the bona fides of the adopter and the wishes of the parents to dispose of their child; and I want that careful consideration to be given also even to the wishes of the small child, when it is able to express its own views. It has been said, I think by the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough, that there is a danger, under this Bill, that when a child such as the hon. Member described—a child of the blue-eyed, fluffy haired type—is taken over, after a year or two, when the child has arrived at the gawky stage, there may be a desire on the part of the adopter to dispose of it. I think the hon. Member omitted to notice that, when once the right has been conferred and the transfer has been made, the adopter will stand in the relation of a parent to the child, with all the liabilities of that relation, and there is no greater risk that the adopter would dislike the child at the gawky age than that the parent would dislike it when it has reached the gawky age.
I think the hon. Member also suggested, in regard to final adoption, that there is a danger that the mother of the child might perhaps, after a year or two, when the trouble had blown over, desire to have the child back. There is something perhaps to be said for that suggestion, but I think Clause 3, paragraph (a), to some extent provides for that, and in Committee some provision might be made so that there might be interim orders made for the first two years, and if during that time there was any feeling with regard to the custody of the child, either on the part of the parent or of the adopter, where there was a desire that the arrangement should be altered, it is desirable that an opportunity should be given to both parties, and that the confirmation of the Order should not take place until that interim period of two years had passed by. I do not think on the Second Heading one can usefully add more than a blessing to a Bill which has had so unanimous a reception. Matters which apparently are of detail only can very successfully be dealt with in Committee, and I hope, under the guidance of the Home Secretary, and with the good wishes of the House, the Bill, which I believe is wanted, will be of inestimable benefit to many children and a great relief to widows perhaps with a quiver too full, and that the Bill may be put on the Statute Book at an early date.
Like other hon. Members I am very much in favour of the Bill, but there are one or two points which are really rather beyond mere Committee points. One is the question of the consent of the child itself to being adopted into another home. Naturally, a child of five or six is not able to form any opinion as to what would really be for its ultimate benefit, but at the same time I think some provision ought to be put in that at any rate a child over 14 should not be adopted against its own consent. I go so far as to say it ought not, even with the wish of its parents, to be adopted against its own wish. I am not a lawyer but I understand, as the Bill stands, even a young man or woman of 19 might actually be adopted by a family to whom he or she might have the strongest objection. We actually execute people at the age of 20, and if they are held responsible to that extent for breaking the law it seems to me to be really quite inconsistent and improper that they should actually be adopted against their own wishes. When the Bill comes before Committee I hope that will be taken into consideration. I say 14, but I am not particular to any age. That might be decided by the discretion of the Committee, but I hope some provision will be put in to prevent what to my mind would be a really ridiculous thing, for an application to be made for the adoption of anyone of 16 or 18 years of age whether they like it or not.
Then the question of succession is a very difficult point. I think the difficulty might be got over in the question of a settled estate. In my opinion that is a very different position from the ordinary intestate estate where the deceased person has the disposal of his money. I certainly think it would be rather hard if a man left a certain amount of money to go to his son or daughter, and afterwards to go on to their children. That is a very common way of leaving money through a marriage settlement. It would be hard in that case for the parent to be able to adopt one or two children, strangers in blood, who might very much reduce the money to which the natural children would otherwise have succeeded under a form of settlement. But that seems to me to be very different from a case where a man or woman would have a perfect right to leave the money wherever he liked. In that case it is really rather hard that the adopted child should be placed outside the advantage it would have had had it been a child naturally born. I see nothing in the Bill as to the succession duty an adopted child would pay. Would it pay as a stranger in blood or at the same rate as a natural born child? It may be an oversight on my part, but I do not see it in the Bill.
Then I see no mention either of the liabilities of a grandchild. There are certain Clauses dealing with the position of an actual adopted child, but I cannot see how it will affect the offspring of adopted children. We have a great number of Members in the House of great legal understanding, and no doubt a matter of that sort can be dealt with in Committee. I am glad to think we are now likely to have a Bill on the Statute Book which will not only be of great advantage to the children themselves, but will also protect people who have great affection for those children, and prevent them being exploited by people whose character is anything but desirable in the interests of the children themselves.
Both in reading the Bill and listening to the discussion it has struck me that there is one class of child who, perhaps, needs adoption as much as anyone whose interests have not been fully considered. I refer to the child who has the misfortune to be left an orphan at an early age. It is obviously in the interests of that child that it should, if possible, be brought up by one of its own relatives, preferably one already married, with a family of children. I feel this to be a matter of very great importance, because it not infrequently happens that where a child is left an orphan it is not totally destitute of means, and if in the case of intestacy that child were to succeed it might have more than its fair share of the family money, because it may deprive the natural children of the parent of some of their father's money where the adopted child does not necessarily require it.
I hope the Home Secretary will give very careful attention to this point. I also hope he will consider the question of the age of the adopter, and the domicile either of the adopted child or the person who adopts it in a case where the child is an orphan. I can conceive a case where an English girl has married in Scotland, and has had a child who has had the misfortune to be left an orphan at a very early age. The domicile of that child is in Scotland. It is possible that its only near relative is domiciled in England. Under this Bill there will be no power for this relative to adopt the child, however much he may wish to do so, and however much it may be in the interests of the child that he should adopt it. I sincerely hope that these points, which are Committee points, will be very carefully considered, so that we may have special Clauses put into the Bill to deal with the case of orphans. I do not think these cases are dealt with in the Bill.
I find myself in considerable agreement with the hon. Baronet the Member for Exeter (Sir R. Newman) when he says that some of the matters which others have referred to as small Committee points are really matters of substantial principle. I have listened to the Debate this morning, except for a short period, and I have come to the conclusion that this is a desirable Bill, but also that it is a matter of very great importance that the Committee stage shall be a very exhaustive one if the Bill is to pass into law in a satisfactory condition. In the last few days I have been in correspondence with a certain party who will probably be very much affected by this Bill. The case is one of peculiar complication. I have only received all the papers this morning, and have not had an opportunity of studying them exhaustively, but I am inclined to think that in this case there are points which this Bill does not meet adequately. Therefore, I hope that when it passes it3 Second Reading to-day and goes to a Committee upstairs it will be subject to the most exhaustive examination, in order to see that the points raised this morning are covered.
We must realise that adoption de facto is taking place all the time and that it is right that what is de facto should foe made de jure, so that people may know precisely where they are. Many laymen, like myself, who are not learned in the law, feel some difficulty in appreciating some of the points of judicial procedure which have been raised this morning. Nevertheless, as I had the opportunity of saying on another Bill involving legal procedure, it is important that the layman should express his point of view, because he has to represent the man in the street, and it is the average commonsense of the man in the street that we want to have represented in this House. Each of us thinks that he alone represents that point of view, and that the rest are away from the normal point of view.
The Bill is not a Bill to encourage adoption; equally, it is not a Bill to discourage adoption. Its object is to regularise something which is happening and to put it in a form that will protect all concerned. I am not quite certain whether the drafting of the Bill is quite satisfactory in certain respects. Clause 1 (3) deals with a point where the husband with the consent of the wife, or vice versa, seeks an adoption order and gets it. Apparently, in that case it may happen that one has giver the consent and the other has made the application, which is not a joint application, and only one in fact becomes the legal parent or the adopter. In that case, the adopted child will be in a somewhat curious position and the other spouse will be in a somewhat curious position; a position which conflicts, if my reading of the Bill is correct, with the position created by the Guardianship of Infants Act of last Session. Under that Act we gave, clearly and definitely, or we thought we gave, equal authority to both. Clause 1 (3) it seems to me is going to introduce a principle which conflicts with the principle of an Act which we passed only last Session, and I would ask the Home Secretary to make quite sure that Clause 1 (3) is not in fact in conflict with the Guardianship of Infants Act. This point is also partly covered, and that is my difficulty in understanding it, in Clause 2 (4) and again in Clause 5. I am not sufficient of a reader of legal documents to satisfy myself whether the modifications of Clause 1 (3) by the other Sub-sections put the matter right. My impression is that they do not and that we are upsetting in this Bill, or we shall upset it unless we alter it in Committee, something that we unanimously agreed to do last year.
Clause 2 (5) raises a difficult matter, which was mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Moss Side (Mr. Hurst) with regard to adoption where the adopters are not domiciled in England and Wales. It seems to me rather absurd that if they are domiciled in Scotland of Ireland or the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, that they should be ruled out. Apart from that, in many cases it may happen that the children whom it is sought to have adopted have relatives living overseas and that it might be a perfectly proper thing for those relatives to adopt those children. It is unfortunate that Clause 2 (5) should be so framed as to give no opportunity for adoption to take place in that case. The protection of the child, which is the object of the Sub-section, in many cases might be quite illusory, because the adopters may emigrate shortly afterwards, and the presumed protection which is given would not operate in that case at all. I am inclined to think that in schemes of Empire settlement, adoption might with great advantage be arranged with proper people overseas. I hope that point will be carefully considered in Committee.
The hon. baronet the Member for Exeter suggested that a man of 19 would be adopted against his will. I do not think the hon. Member can have read Clause 3 (b), where it says:
due consideration being for this purpose given to the wishes of the infant, having
regard to the age and understanding of the infant.
The age and understanding of the infant in the case of a man of 19 would be approaching 100 per cent., whereas in the case of an infant of five it might only represent 5 per cent. of the wishes of the infant. Therefore I think the point raised by the hon. Member is met. The hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Miss Wilkinson) raised a point which I intended to raise, and which I wish to emphasise. During a time of anxiety, financial anxiety or any kind of difficulty, I can visualise either the unmarried mother of an illegitimate child or, alternatively, a widow left with children, and even in some cases where both parents are both alive, the parent seeking to arrange for the adoption of a child or children. Then, perhaps within a year or no longer period of time, their circumstances might change entirely, and they might desire to resume the full legal possession of their own children. In that case it ought to be within their power—I do not say their absolute power to claim that the children should go back to them—but at least they might have an opportunity of going to some tribunal and of pleading their case, so that if it were a good case they could resume their natural rights in respect of their children. I hope that that point will receive adequate consideration by the Committee.
The question with regard to inheritance seems to me perhaps the most difficult part of the Bill. I think it was the Home Secretary who suggested that everyone who adopts a child would make a will. I only wish that people in this world would be as sensible as the Home Secretary apparently assumes them to be. First of all, no legal luminary is capable of making a will applying to himself, judging from what we see and hear, and the number of people who deliberately put things off is so great that a child might be entirely deprived of the right which it had every reason to expect, and which its casual parents desired it to receive, merely because they were too casual and had omitted to make a will. Whatever may be the case with regard to settlement, I have no doubt that in respect to all property which is at the free disposition of the adopters, if the adopter dies intestate the adopted child should share equally with the remaining children. Otherwise the adoption is unreal. I hope that that proposal will be modified in Committee.
The question of inspection is one of great difficulty. I should resent very much any particular inspection, should I adopt a child. Every decent person who adopted a child would resent any special inspection. I see no particular reason for the inspection, provided that the process before the Court has been sufficiently exhaustive before adoption takes place. There are cases of unkindness and cruelty on the part of parents to their natural children. The protection against that is the activity of neighbours, of relatives and the police, and of a great society like the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I think that the normal means for safeguarding the interests of all children will be adequate to safeguard the interests of adopted children.
The question of secrecy has been raised. Obviously it is a matter of great difficulty. I had a considerable measure of sympathy with the point of view expressed by the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough, who suggested that there should be no secrecy at all, that it should be a perfectly open thing, and that by making it open there would be no misunderstandings. But if there is to be secrecy it obviously cannot be complete secrecy. We are not entitled to deprive a child of any rights that may accrue to it and of which it might be deprived by information never reaching it of benefits that might unexpectedly have accrued to it. If there is to be secrecy, no general publication, there must be some means of communication between the natural parents and the adopting parents, even though it may happen in some cases that the natural parents have no knowledge of the identity of the adopters. We cannot erect a Chinese wall between the natural parents and the adopters.
Another hon. Member dealt with the question of blackmail and other payments which might be made. He said that Clause 9 laid it down that it shall not be lawful for any adopter, except with the sanction of the Court to receive any payment or other reward in connection with the adoption of any infant under the Bill. It is true that that is the Clause. It is equally true that I am not a legal expert. I do not think there is much value in putting into any Act of Parliament that something is not lawful unless you impose a penalty for a breach of the law. I have not discovered in the Bill any penalty for a breach of Clause 9. Therefore, the Clause will in effect be null and void, because if there is a desire to make payment of a kind that the Court may disapprove of, presumably the fact of that would be kept in the background until the order had been made, and the payment would be made secretly, if possible, and if subsequently the improper payment was discovered, there is no penalty, and no one will be any the worse or better off for Clause 9.
I have endeavoured to put before the House those points which seem to me to call for careful and exhaustive consideration upstairs. Though I support the Bill and shall vote for it if there is a division, at the same time I hope that all who serve on the Standing Committee will not fail to take account not merely of the points which I have raised, but of numerous other points of criticism of detail which have been raised to-day.
I would like to join in the cheerful chorus of approval with which the Bill has been received to-day. It is indeed a fortunate thing that on this occasion the proposal meets with apparently no opposition. I think it was in 1922 that a Bill got so far that it was only at the last moment, by the dissolution of Parliament, that it failed to pass into law. The near success of 1922 led to a crop of Bills in 1923. We were hopeful that one at least of those Bills might get to the Committee stage. You, Mr. Speaker, may remember that night after night at 11 o'clock the voices saying "I object" were always raised and that we never got any of the Bills to a Committee. I am very glad that those who objected then do not object now.
The happy position in which the cause now stands must be partly, if not mainly, due to the efforts of the two Home Office Committees which have dealt with the matter. I am sure that the House and the country are very greatly indebted to the members of those Committees, one presided over by Sir Alfred Hopkinson, whom it is possible we may see back in this House ere long, and the other presided over by that eminent Judge, Mr. Justice Tomlin. The services which they have rendered have done much to produce the unanimity in favour of the proposals. If one may read between the lines of their reports, they appear to have approached the subject with somewhat different frames of mind. Whereas the first Committee looked forward with great hope and expectation of good to the passing into law of a proposal for adoption, Mr. Justice Tomlin's Committee seemed to regard the proposal, at first, somewhat askance. They seemed to be doubtful whether it could do any real good, but hopeful that it might possibly succeed in avoiding or alleviating some evils. I confess, for my part, I prefer the spirit of Sir Alfred Hopkinson's Committee to the more gloomy attitude—the caution and the hesitancy—of Mr. Justice Tomlin's Committee.
About one thing both Committees agreed, and there seems now to be unanimity of opinion upon the point, namely, that we cannot have, as some people proposed, a system of adoption by registration. It is agreed that, however excellent the manner in which the Home Office discharged its functions, it would not do merely to have a register where anybody could register the adoption of the child, and that it is necessary to have some judicial proceedings and to obtain judicial sanction for the adoption of a child. Once that question has been decided, the only question which remains is: To what judicial tribunal is one to proceed in order to get sanction for the adoption? Everybody seems to agree that the High Court is the proper Court, containing as it does the Judges of the Chancery Division, the successors of the High Court of Chancery, wielding the jurisdiction of the Royal Prerogative with regard to infants and lunatics and other people who are unable to take care of themselves. It has, from the earliest times always taken care of children and has made them wards of Court—perhaps in former times for the advantage of the Court, but certainly in the last few hundred years solely for the benefit of the child. The Chancery Judge stands in loco parentis to his ward and is able to exercise jurisdiction solely to the advantage of the child, and obviously it is to the Court of Chancery or to its successor, the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice, that application for judicial sanction for the adoption of a child can most properly be made.
It is pointed out, however, that although the law knows no difference between rich and poor, the Court of Chancery is not so available to the poor as it is to the rich. I think there would be a difficulty, if everybody had to go to the High Court to obtain sanction for an adoption, and that it is necessary to provide a cheaper and more accessible Court for cases in which the parties concerned are not blessed with much material wealth. On that point there seems to have been a difference of opinion between the two Committees. One was in favour of the County Court, which is the poor man's Court, and was established as the poor man's Court, and the other was in favour of the magistrates' Court, which is primarily the criminal Court of the country. I regret that the Home Secretary should have expressed an opinion in favour of the Magistrates' Court. There are obvious objections to sending people who desire to adopt a child to the magistrates' Court, and one would have thought there were obvious advantages in sending them to the County Court. The County Court has been entrusted with the powers conferred under the Guardianship of Infants Act and the same problem which presents itself here, presents itself with regard to the guardianship of infants. I speak subject to correction, but I am under the impression that in the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1886, the Courts prescribed for the exercise of the new powers conferred under the Act, are the High Court and the County Court and that the County Court has exercised its jurisdiction under that Act in a most; admirable and satisfactory manner.
The view of the second Committee seems to be that the county court is not equipped with the machinery or the officers which are available in the High Court. I do not, I confess, quite understand that view. Both the High Court and the county court have judges; both have registrars; both have the ordinary officers of the court, such as ushers to keep order therein, and they seem to be equipped, one on a humbler scale than the other, with very much the same sort of officers. Turning over in my own mind what the Committee meant, it occurred to me that possibly when they spoke of machinery they were referring to a gentleman known as the official solicitor. The official solicitor is available to a Judge of the High Court, and if the Judge is not quite sure that the interests of everybody concerned in a case are properly represented before him, or if there is some interest not adequately represented which ought to be represented, he sends for the official solicitor, who undertakes to represent those who would not be represented otherwise. So, too, the official solicitor has to take upon himself the duties of guardianship of those who are too young or too foolish to appear for themselves. If an infant is sued—and the Courts will issue a writ against an infant, but the infant because of its tender years cannot appear—and has to appear by a guardian, the official solicitor is the person who acts in that case.
I do not see why the official solicitor should not in many of these cases act as guardian ad litem both in the County Court and the High Court. Of course, he would act by deputy in many cases, but he would be in a position to know the requirements of the Judges, and to co-ordinate the practice throughout the country. I think there would be great advantages in having the official solicitor as a sort of common guardian ad litem on whom infants could always depend in any difficulties which might arise. As the Home Secretary is not here at the moment, may I respectfully commend my suggestion to the Under-Secretary, and beg of him that the Home Office will take into consideration carefully whether the disadvantages of sending these cases to the Magistrates' Court are not really greater than has been supposed and, on the other hand, whether the advantages of sending them to the County Court are not much greater than Mr. Justice Tomlin's Committee seemed to think. This is rather a Committee point. Indeed, I am afraid that all my observations on the Bill have really been Committee points, but there is one more which I should like to mention.
I think we are all anxious that when a child has been adopted it should really stand, as far as it is possible to do so, in the place of a natural child. There has been considerable discussion as to whether the adopted child should have any rights of inheritance as if it were a natural child. I quite appreciate that where inheritance is claimed under a settlement made by other parties it would perhaps be unwise—and I doubt whether it would be right—to say that an adopted child should, by the act of the adopter, be put into the position, as if he were a natural child, of inheriting under the settlement, but I submit that, in a case of intestacy, it would be well that the adopted child should share the inheritance of the adopter as if he were a natural child. One of the advantages of making that alteration in the Bill would be this, that since, by the law of infants, no child has any right to share in its parents' property, this simple change of giving to the adopted child the right to share, in the case of intestacy, which is the only right that a natural child has, would in this respect put the child in exactly the same position as a natural child. The reasons for doing it are obvious, because, if the adopter does not wish that his adopted child should inherit, all that he has to do is to make a will. It only takes effect in the event of the adopter dying intestate.
Many good things from this country spread abroad, and especially to Scotland, and one result of the crop of Bills dealing with adoption in this country has been to produce a number of Bills providing for the adoption of children in the Kingdom of Scotland. As I understand the law in Scotland—and here I speak even more humbly than usual—it is that if your parents die you are entitled to your share of their property. It may be desirable that we should give a lead for once to the people of Scotland in this respect, by making this very simple change, providing that in the case of an intestacy an adopted child should be entitled to share in the fortune of the adopter in the same way as a natural child. We should, in this way, have given a lead to the people of Scotland which I hope they would gladly accept.
I have not the slightest doubt that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Londonderry (Sir M. Macnaghten) was accurate in his statement of the law up to 1925, but if he looks at last year's Guardian-ship of Infants Act he will find that the Police Court is included with the County Court in the guardianship of infants, and I, with experience of both Courts, am very strongly in favour of the selection of the magistrates' Court. I did not rise for that purpose, but merely to deal with one point. I welcome, like every other hon. Member, the introduction of this Bill, and I doubly welcome the Home Secretary's announcement that the Government are going to take it up. I wish the right hon. Gentleman had said at what point he will take it up, though I anticipate that, after the blessing the Bill has received, he will take it up at once and will probably be responsible for its conduct in Committee. I, therefore, wish to impress upon him this, from my point of view, that he ought not to allow to be extended any further concessions which would do away with the consent of the natural parents being necessary. I agree that in the cases mentioned in the Bill as drafted, for the real working of the Bill that consent should be dispensed with, but I urge upon him not to extend that principle.
The very principle of adoption—and if we wish to make it a success, I think regard must be had to it, and it should be maintained—is that the adoption is a voluntary parting by the natural parents with the child to the new parents, who voluntarily undertake to stand in that position. I totally disagree with the view that the adoption of a child should be forced on unwilling parents because, it may be, of some moral turpitude. That is a totally different principle, which is already provided for in law, and there seems to have been some confusion of thought in several of the speeches which have been made. If there is this moral turpitude or criminality on the part of the parents, under the Guardianship of Infants Acts and under the Children's Acts machinery is provided by which a child could be actually taken out of the care of its parents and looked after in institutions or boarded out, but the law has never totally deprived the parents of the right to their own child against their will. There has always been a locus penitentiœ, and it has provided for those cases where parents, owing to misfortune, have been unable to provide for their child, and where their circumstances or their character are liable to become better they have been able to make a claim and re-obtain possession of the child. I think that is a very right and proper principle. It provides for the welfare of the child and for the rights of the parents, and I think that, if it ever got to be known that this Adoption Act was to be used as a means by which possession of their children should be forced from parents, it would make the administration of the Act much more difficult and its success much less certain.
I am entirely in sympathy with this Bill and delighted to gather that the Government will take it up, but I would draw their attention to one or two points in the Bill which I think require reconsideration. The first is in Clause 7, which gives power to make a subsequent order in respect of infants already subject to an order. As I understand that Clause, it means that a child may have been adopted by one person and subsequently, for some reason, that adoption is to be transferred to another person but that, apparently, is to be done without the consent of the infant, and an infant, according to the Bill, means a person under 21 years of age. I find it very difficult to believe it is right that, without the consent of the real parents, and without the consent of the infant of, say, over 14, that young person should be transferred from one adopter to another. I would suggest to the Government that they should take that case into consideration. The second point I wish to raise is on Clause 9, which says:
It shall not be lawful for any adopter except with the sanction of the Court to receive any payment or other reward in connection with the adoption.
I think that is going rather far. I know many cases among the poor people in my own constituency where, at great sacrifice, they have adopted a child in its early age, and have done everything for it for many years, and then, not unreasonably, when the adopters are old, and the adopted child is growing up and beginning to earn, the adopters quite fairly look to that adopted child to do for them in their old age more or less what they did for him. The words of the Clause are that, "It shall not be lawful to receive any payment." I suggest the spirit of that should be that it should not be lawful for the adopter to demand, or something to that effect.
Another point I want to make is on Clause 10:
Where at the date of the commencement of this Act any infant is in the custody of, and being brought up, maintained, and educated by any person or two spouses jointly as his, her, or their own child under any de facto adoption, and has for a period of not less than two years before such commencement been in such custody, and been so brought up, maintained and educated, the Court may, upon the application of such person or spouses, make an Adoption Order authorising him, her, or them to adopt the minor without requiring the consent of any parent or guardian of the minor to be obtained.
I can envisage many cases in my own experience among the poorer classes where a child has been practically adopted because the parents at the moment were in sore financial straits. I know of one such specific case. Afterwards, in the course of three or four years, the parents have made good, and are ready to take back their child, and do claim it back. I hope the Government will face the real facts of life, and reconsider this Clause. There are many other points I would like to mention, but I will not take up more time, and will merely say again that, broadly speaking, and on general principles, I am strongly in favour of the Bill, and hope the Government will give it facilities.
I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman one point in regard to Clause 7, namely, whether there will be any safeguard put in with regard to the religious persuasion of the adopted child? There is no mention of religion in any part of the Bill, and I should like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman has considered his point, and what he intends to do about it.