Orders of the Day — Registration of Still-Births (Scotland) Bill.

– in the House of Commons on 13th May 1938.

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As amended (in the Standing Committee) considered.

CLAUSE 1.—(Registration of still-births.)

12.20 p.m.

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

I beg to move, in page 2, line 9, to leave out from "fee" to "a", in line 11.

This Amendment and one which immediately follows it have been put on the Paper as a result of an undertaking given in Committee to meet an objection. It was pointed out that Sub-section (3) of Clause I as drafted was not as clear as it might be and that the poor and ignorant person might misunderstand that Clause. The poor and ignorant are not the only people who have difficulty sometimes in understanding clause or sub-section or proviso in our Statutes; but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agreed with me that the objection was a substantial one in so far as it was conceivable that a child might be still-born, say on a Saturday, and that the registrar's office would be shut on that day, shut again on Sunday, and Monday might be a public holiday, with the result that the body of the child would have to lie in the house from the Saturday till Tuesday, which is highly undesirable. Therefore, on the recommendation of my right hon. Friend the Lord Advocate these two Amendments have been put down.

The effect of the Amendments is to substitute for Sub-section (3) of Clause 1, two Sub-sections. Sub-section (3) as it stands imposes a duty on three persons: firstly, on the registrar to provide a cer tificate without fee if asked for by the person giving information about the birth; secondly, on the undertaker or other person having charge of the burial to deliver that certificate to the keeper of the burial ground before interment; and thirdly, it provides that if the body of the stillborn child for which no certificate has been delivered is buried it shall be the duty of the burial ground keeper to give notice to the registrar. The amended Sub-section (3) will, as before, impose a duty on the registrar to provide a certificate without fee if asked for; and the new Sub-section, which I shall presently ask the House to insert, will impose a duty on the keeper of the burial ground to give notice to the registrar within three days of the burial, unless he has had delivered to him the certificate of registration. These Amendments do away with the duty on the undertaker or other person having charge of the burial to deliver a certificate to the keeper of the burial ground. I hope the Amendments will remove any fear on the part of parents of a stillborn child that they cannot get the child buried until they have obtained a certificate of registration.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 2, line 12, leave out from "still-birth" to "in," in line 22, and insert: (4) The keeper or other person having charge of a burial ground in which the body of a stillborn child shall have been buried shall, unless a certificate given under the last foregoing subsection in respect of the stillbirth has been delivered to him, give, within three days after such burial, notice thereof."—[Major Neven-Spence.]

CLAUSE 5.—(Short title, commencement and extent.)

Amendment made: In page 3, line 23, at the end, insert: (2) This Act shall be included among the Acts referred to in paragraph (b) of section six of the Population (Statistics) Act, 1938."—[Major Neven-Spence.]

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

I beg to move, in page 3, line 25, to leave out "July, nineteen hundred and thirty-eight," and to insert "January, nineteen hundred and thirty-nine."

This Amendment is necessary in order to give the Registrar-General time to make the necessary arrangements.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

12.26 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

I do not want to delay the passage of the Bill, but I would not like it to be given a Third Reading without entering a dissent. The Bill is presented by its promoters as a contribution to the solution of the problems of maternal mortality, maternal morbidity and infantile mortality. I do not think it is a contribution to any of those problems. It adds to the already huge mass of statistics that accumulate in various offices throughout the country, it adds to the complications of life, which is already sufficiently complicated, and in certain cases it may add very seriously to the worries and troubles of, admittedly, a very few people. It can very easily be a serious annoyance and hurt to a few women who may be affected by this registration. While adding to the complications, adding to the statistics and adding to the worries of some, it seems to me to make absolutely no contribution to the very serious problems of infantile mortality, maternal mortality and maternal morbidity. I want these three problems to be tackled seriously and scientifically. I want to see a public effort directed towards their solution. This Bill is presented as being an attempt to deal with them, but it is nothing of the sort.

The registrars of Scotland are an estimable body of men who keep their books in wonderfully beautiful handwriting and are always prepared to hand out certificates, on payment of the appropriate fees. They know nothing about infantile mortality or maternal morbidity. They are not expected to know anything about them. The fact that they write down in books in various parishes in Scotland the fact that on a certain day in a certain house a child was still-born gives no knowledge to any person who may be interested in saving the lives of children. The principal argument for keeping these statistics in Scotland is that they have been kept in England for 7o years and, therefore, it is said, we ought now to do the same thing in Scotland. During that time there has been no greater improvement in the infantile mortality or maternal mortality figures in England with statistics than in Scotland without statistics.

The other person brought under the Bill is the undertaker. Does anybody imagine that undertakers will make a contribution to the solution of these problems? Again, I pay a tribute to the undertakers of Scotland. They do their job well, solemnly and efficiently, and garbed in the robes that are considered appropriate for such occasions in Scotland. Noone could pass criticism on the undertaker within his own sphere. I have heard the view expressed that his charges are sometimes excessive for the function he performs, but that is a minor criticism on a matter that is not dealt with in this Bill. Having paid that tribute to the undertakers, I assert as I did with regard to registrars, that they have not the necessary training or qualifications to make an intensive, scientific study of the problem of infantile mortality or maternity morbidity. There is then the person who goes to the registrar to inform him of the facts and to tell him how the child happened to be still-born. Under the Bill, it may be anybody who does that, a neighbour or the father of the still-born child. One cannot demand scientific knowledge on the part of the person reporting to the registrar, and he can tell the registrar any story as to why the child is still-born. A charwoman who is in washing the floor can go to tell the registrar why the child was still-born. This does not represent any contribution to the problem.

If there were brought forward some Measure which would make a concerted, serious study as to how many of these still-births were due to malnutrition of the mother, how many were due to the mother being overwrough up to the period of taking to bed; if there were some device for getting information as to how many were due to accidents caused to the mother during the period when bearing the child; if there were some Measure brought forward that would lead us intelligently along the road to a vast diminution in the number of these stillbirths, then I would say it was worth doing. But this Measure seems to me only to add to the annoyances of a small section of the community, while doing nothing to relieve the problem which we all want to see solved. I do not propose to divide against the Bill, but I cannot vote for it. The hon. and gallant Member who presented it did so in the belief that he was doing something that would be of advantage, but I do not believe that to be the case. Therefore, I felt it necessary to say so.

12.33 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frederick Macquisten Mr Frederick Macquisten , Argyll

The remarks of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) very much impressed me. I was not in the Standing Committee which dealt with the Bill, and I cannot see any purpose which it will serve. It seems to me to be very unnecessary that this registration, which has taken place for a long time in England, should take place. There may be cases where people will get an excerpt from the certificate and make a wrongful use of it. I understand that anybody can go to Somerset House or to the Register House in Edinburgh and get somebody else's birth certificate on payment of a certain sum. What security is there that people will not get information in regard to these cases? Suppose it was a case of a poor family where something had happened that ought not to have happened, where the woman was not necessarily married. Nobody was a bit the wiser. Under this Bill, some nasty person could get this information. I may be wrong, and there may be something in the Bill or in the law which makes the suggestion I am making impracticable; but I think some consideration ought to be given to the human side of the Bill and its possible effects. The mere collection of these statistics cannot do any good to anybody.

I observe that two medical men are among the promoters of the Bill. There is nothing more dangerous to human liberty and to common humanity than the trail of the expert. The expert thinks that his little section of human life contains the whole world. He is like a man looking through a microscope. He sees his own little section greatly exaggerated and fails to observe the great world which is round about it. For instance, the provisions in Clause r relating to the registration of these cases may give rise to difficulty in some instances. The father of the child may not be married to the mother. You do not know who he may be. What is to be done in a case of that kind? Is judgment to be given against a man on the strength of this registration, without the ordinary proceedings which might otherwise be taken in the county court? A lot of difficulties are likely to arise out of these proposals and I fear that this Measure might be used, in some cases, as an engine of oppression. This is one of the Bills which got through the House at 11 o'clock at night without proper consideration and discussion of the serious matters involved in it and the implications which it contains. I do not know what would have been the result if the Bill had been fully discussed on its Second Reading; but I think it is a very unhappy Bill, and I wish it had never been presented to the House.

12.37 p.m.

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

The point made by the hon. and learned Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) is one which ought to have been brought forward when the Act for the registration of births was introduced because this Bill if passed will be only a small part of the whole system of the registration of births. There is, I think, a slight misunderstanding on the part of the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton). He would deny to me the means for getting information about the very things in which he is interested. I have lived long enough to have seen a complete revolution in our attitude towards these matters. Where the emphasis was formerly placed on the curative side, it is now placed more on the preventive side. That is the attitude which prevails to-day and the hon. Member knows as well as I do that our whole system of public health to-day is built up on the vital statistics which are so carefully collected.

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

I do not know anything of the kind, and neither does the hon. and gallant Member.

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

No hon. Member has made more effective use of vital statistics in this place than the hon. Member for Bridgeton. I hope the House realises that this Bill, although small, is very important. It may give hon. Members some idea of the magnitude of this problem when I tell them that in the period 1931 to 1933 the number of still- births notified exceeded the combined total of deaths from diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever and measles. They exceeded the total of deaths due to accidents and were five times as great as the number of deaths due to accidents on the roads, and they exceeded the total number of deaths from tuberculosis. If we take together the number of still-births and the number of deaths which occurred within one month after birth, we find that of every no women who pass the 28th week of pregnancy, seven in this country are destined to produce either a still-born child or a child that dies within a month. I think that is an appalling figure.

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

It is a very striking figure but how has the hon. and gallant Member got it?

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

And how did the Registrar-General get this information without registration?

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

Those figures are based on the registration of stillbirths in England.

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

Then they are English figures.

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

Yes, and what I want to point out is that, as a result of the registration of stillbirths in England, valuable information is already being collected. In England, the Act does not provide for ascertaining the cause and I hold that this Bill, if passed, will be much better than the English Act, because it is directed to the essential point which is that of trying to get some investigation into the causes.

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

Where? What Clause says anything about investigation of the circumstances?

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

Where is it in the Schedule?

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

I cannot argue about that, but it is there for the hon. Member to see.

Photo of Mr James Maxton Mr James Maxton , Glasgow Bridgeton

The hon. and gallant Member must not mislead the House. He knows that from beginning to end there is not one word about the investigation of cases of stillbirths in his Bill, either in the Clauses or in the Schedule.

Photo of Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence Major Sir Basil Neven-Spence , Orkney and Shetland

I do not think I said that there was anything about investigation. What we are aiming at is to get the causes registered, and after they are registered they must be investigated by somebody. The English experience has been—and I have this from the Ministry of Health—that registration has enabled maternal mortality rates to be expressed more accurately than had been the case hitherto, and it has also enabled research to be directed to particular districts and particular classes of the population. Articles have been published on this subject already and the figures have already been used in the study of the very important question of the influence of nutrition on infantile mortality. I hope that with this explanation, the House will be able to come to a decision.