Orders of the Day — Population (Statistics) Bill.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 29th November 1937.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir A.P. Herbert Sir A.P. Herbert , Oxford University

I am quite sure that the Noble Lady who has just delightfully delivered herself of her maiden speech will not misunderstand me if I say that I am sure she feels, appropriately, as if she had just had a baby. I know that I did. As one who on that occasion did everything that was wrong and disgraced myself in every possible way, I most heartily offer the Noble Lady congratulations, which I know will be shared by the entire House, on the modest, charming, and witty way in which—not for the last time I hope—she has spoken. This is a most important subject, and I, for one, do not approach it in any flippant manner. It is not a Bill or subject on which misrepresentation is permissible on either side. In fact, I do not think there has been, but, if anything, my present feeling is that the misrepresentation has been on the side of the Bill rather than against it. If there has been, as I think there has, a misunderstanding, I respectfully say to the right hon. Gentleman that he, or rather his advisers, are entirely responsible. This is an important and vital objection to the Bill, because, in spite of all his talk about precedents, if he had followed precedent and placed upon page 6 of this Bill not this incomprehensible Schedule, but a clear indication of the questions he proposes to ask, as was done in the Birth Registration Acts of 1812 and 1837 and all the Acts of the States of Australia, with the exception of two, and of New Zealand, there would have been no misunderstanding whatever.

My main objection to this Bill is the fundamental one that it puts the wrong questions to the wrong people. What is the main question to which we are addressing ourselves? It is "Why are there not more babies?" To whom is this question going to be addressed? (A) To people who have just had a baby, and (B) to those who have just passed away. [Laughter]. This is not a joke. It is the fundamental objection to the whole of this Bill. By every canon of practicality and common sense, this question should be addressed to those who have not had a baby, and are still alive. Somebody the other day—I think it was Father Woodlock: I do not know what was his evidence for it—announced in the public Press that there are now 1,000,000 married couples without children. If that is true, those are the people to whom the right hon. Gentleman should address his questions.

I do not know—it would be indelicate of me to inquire; it is not recorded in the works of Whitaker or Burke, or even Dod or Vacher—whether the right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench have, if I may use the expression, ceased to breed. We should all agree, I think, that it would be a deplorable fact if it were so, but one thing that is certain under this Bill is that nobody is going to ask them why, and nobody is going to the Parliamentary Secretary to ask him why he has not even begun. If the right hon. Gentlemen think, as they may well do, that these questions are too personally directed, I am prepared to put them to myself. I am a grandfather. I have four children. I think I have ceased to breed. I am not as young as I was, but I am lusty, and I hope I maintain my powers, and, indeed, I am prepared on certain considerations to increase the population, but nobody is going to ask me about that until I die. That is really a serious point.

The Government are taking a small, fortuitous cross-section of the race, a very small one, amounting to about 1,000,000 every year, and trying to ascertain these facts. If they are going to take a cross-section, why not take a larger one? Why not go to those who apply for wireless licences—there are 7,000,000 of them, instead of 1,000,000, as here—or those who desire to license motor cars, of whom there are about 2,000,000? I shall not object if the Government line up the whole nation and put almost any question you like to them—if they say, "This is a great national crisis, and you must submit to it": in other words, why not have a census, and have a census now?

We live and learn, and we are accustomed to surprises. But I was surprised to read this morning in the "Daily Express" an article, placed appropriately enough adjacent to one by my old friend Beachcomber, by the Minister of Health, in which he said: Practically all these questions were asked at the 1911 census"— With great respect, that is not quite true— and they could perfectly well be asked in the course of the next census, but we shall have to wait until 1941 for that to be taken. Why in the world have we to wait until 1941? I have here the Census Act, 1920, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that five years after the last census, which was in 1931, the Government may at any moment arrange for an Order in Council, and we can have another census. We can have a census next February or, indeed, to-morrow. I seriously put this fundamental point to the House: that if the situation is so grave that we have to ask questions of anybody, let us do the thing thoroughly and take a census next year.

May I add to that the very important point that questions which would be quite unobjectionable, or fairly so, in a census may be wholly objectionable in this form of birth, marriage and death registration. I say that for two reasons. A census happens once in a while. You get your Order in Council and ask the questions, and you cannot ask them again until there has been another Order in Council; but if we pass this Bill any questions authorised under it will be part of the law of the land for ever. It is no good point- ing out that under Clause r an Order in Council may be revoked, because we all know what are the chances of that happening. The second point in favour of having the census is that the questions in a census are answered by the householder, the intelligent head of the house, who can do it at his leisure and after he has gathered his household about him; but the questions under this Bill are going to be asked from day to day, and sometimes of poor women lying in hospital beds. I was talking to a registrar the other day, and he said that he did not know what he was going to do if this Bill became law, because as it is he often has to spend an hour and a half at the bedside of patients in a hospital ward, and finds it difficult enough already to get the information.

The machinery of the registration of births was never intended for the collection of collective statistics, although, incidentally, it has produced valuable statistics. It was intended originally for the benefit of individuals, and later for the prevention of abuses. Hon. Members might like to hear the Preamble of the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1812. I think it is a great pity that the practice of having Preambles to Acts of Parliament has fallen out of use, because if there is a Preamble we do know the purpose of the Act. The Preamble of the Act of 1812 was: Whereas the amending of the Manner and Form of keeping and preserving the Register of Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Burials of His Majesty's subjects in the several parishes and places in England will greatly assist the proof of pedigrees of persons claiming to be entitled to Real or Personal Estate and be otherwise of great public benefit and assistance. As in the case of a passport, what was intended originally as a personal privilege gradually becomes an instrument of inquisition and oppression and, eventually, perhaps, of taxation by the State. I most seriously put forward the view that if the situation is so grave as has been suggested we should have a census straightaway and face the thing frankly.

As I said, one objection which I have to all this business is that the answer to the main question is known to all. I suppose I shall be called facetious if I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look around him at the bountiful processes of Nature. There is the rabbit, that paragon of productivity. There is the cat, a model of maternity. If they are frightened they devour their young. Look even at the prize bull, or even at the race horse. The hero of a hundred races, when his competitive days are over, and he is placed on the daily and congenial task of populating the paddock, at a fee of £250 for services which most of us would do for nothing—even he does not approach his duties with the same alacrity if you fire off guns all round him and place a heavy load of taxation on his back.

There is a more serious answer than that, and that is that the statistics we already possess, which we are told are so inadequate that they must be replaced, are, in fact, most valuable and fruitful statistics. I ask the House to refer to a certain letter which was in the papers this morning. There was a great deal of misrepresentation on the side of this Bill in the papers this morning. Professor Carr-Saunders who, I imagine, is a constituent of mine, said: We are ignorant as to the extent to which different groups, occupations and classes vary in their contributions to the next generation. With all due respect to the learned professor, that is not so. In the "Times" too—the "Times" of all papers—there is a leading article which states: We have…no means of finding out whether the birth-rate decline is common to all parts and classes of the nation or not. It simply is not true. Then the Minister, who has butted in to my profession, as if we had not enough competitors in journalism already without his assistance, states in the article to which I have referred that it will be possible if this glorious Bill becomes law. to deduce from these new figures as a result of concrete evidence, and not by rough calculations, what variations from average fertility exist, say, in a particular industrial region. But we have got all that information already. It will be possible to compare the fertility of different age groups and to assess the separate effect of the age of the mother and the age of the father. I agree that we have not got figures to do that now, but Heaven knows what would be the result if we had. It goes on: Again, we shall know from these figures the relative fertility of different professions, trades and occupations. It w ill be possible to observe the effect in areas where female labour is widely employed. I have here the Registrar-General's statistical review of England and Wales for the year 1935. From what I have quoted, the House will observe that two of the important things on which it is desired to have information are the regional fertility and the occupational fertility. If we have not got the figures of occupational fertility, that is entirely due to the laziness of the Registrar-General and his staff, and to the neglect of Governments from time to time, because for a hundred years every man who has registered the birth of a child has given particulars of his occupation, and to that extent nothing new will be produced by this Bill. I admit that what will be new will be the occupation of the mother, and I give that small crumb to the right hon. Gentleman. I have been through this book, and if the Government are really in doubt about the answers to their questions I will tell them what I have found.

The highest birth rate, a great truth which I am sure will astonish my hon. Friends opposite, is in the industrial districts, and especially in the North.