Orders of the Day — Expiring Laws Continuance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st November 1957.

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Photo of Mr Benjamin Parkin Mr Benjamin Parkin , Paddington North 12:00 am, 21st November 1957

I beg to move, in page 3, to leave out lines 10 and 11.

I propose the deletion from the Schedule of that part of the Bill which refers to the Population (Statistics) Act, 1938. It will be recollected that in 1938 the Bill was not passed without considerable discussion, and it was thought fit to make it one of those Acts of Parliament which have to be confirmed from time to time by the House.

The opposition to the Bill, during the Second Reading, took the form some- times of the wit and derision which Mr. Alan Herbert, as he then was, poured upon it, and sometimes of passionate opposition by hon. Members who sat on this side of the House. It was at a time of great economic crisis, when there were tremendous economic problems in the world, and the Government of the day thought it would be a good idea if they undertook an inquiry into the reasons for the variation in the birth rate. By way of finding out why 1 million married couples in this country were childless, and discovering why people who did not have babies were not having them, the Government tried by this Act, with its very special powers, to ask very special questions about people who had just had a baby or about people who had just died.

That is the basis, apparently, of the inquiry into reasons for infertility from that day to this. On that ground alone, perhaps one should pause to inquire whether we are to have any result from those inquiries. Is there to be any report on them? What are the Government doing? After all, this began nearly twenty years ago and since then a lot of things have happened in the world, and changes in habits and population have taken place which surely are worth considering.

If that Measure were before us for Second Reading, or even Third Reading, it would be unthinkable that any of us would allow it to pass without making a protest at the humbug of trying to pretend that we can get useful information by that Measure alone about why people do not have babies. I should have to make a protest and say to the Minister of Health, "Why don't you ask, not those who have just had babies, but those who want to have them and are prevented from having them, and you might then learn something about the birth rate."

I should like the Minister to come to my advice bureau in Paddington some time and listen to the heartbreaking stories which show why it is couples cannot have more children when they want to have them—the couple, for instance, who come and say, "What can we do to get a house? If we have a baby, the landlord will turn us out, and if we go to the town hall they cannot put us on the housing list, with any likelihood of our getting a house, unless we have a lot of babies."

There are worse stories than that and more poignant ones. One young couple with a baby said, "Mother-in-law lets us sleep on the bed settee in her room, but we have to take the baby away first thing in the morning to a nursery and bring it back at night; she will not have it in the house in the daytime, and she will not let us stay if we have another." I know of a married woman who has already several children and would like more. She said to me, "We all have to sleep in the same room. I cannot now have marital relations with my husband, because some of the children may wake up."

These are the things that really matter. These are some of the things which ought to be brought out as factors influencing the family life of this country at the present time. I think that it would be humbug formally to allow this Act to continue in force as if it were a serious contribution to sociological study.

There are other matters about which the Minister of Health might be interested to make inquiries. Has he not been stirred by the doubts which arise in people's minds on the subject of fertility and the future of the human race as a result of H-bomb tests? Why ask a woman who has just had a baby about the reasons people do not have babies? Why not introduce powers to investigate what may be the result of a recent accident in this country? Why not ask what is happening to those innocent Japanese fishermen who were overtaken by disaster as the result of an H-bomb test? There is an immense field for inquiry there. Why does not anyone mention it?

The reason is partly, no doubt, that the Conservative Party has a rooted objection to getting information or using it when it is thrust upon them. The Prime Minister himself in the last day or two passionately rejected a suggestion from this side of the Committee that he should take some note of the number of scientists and technologists leaving this country. He replied to the hon. Member who asked the Question as if it were a wicked thing to make a note of occupations. He referred, in sinister terms, to the emergency powers in war of mass registration. Why then do we have the mockery of this Measure which gives special powers to these people to ask these ridiculous questions.

There is, one would have thought, another immensely important field for study in the subject of fertility, and that is what is the effect on the fertility of people whose standard of living rises. Would it not be extremely interesting, for instance, to see what is the effect in the rise of the standard of living of West Indian immigrants who come to this country? Is it not possible that scientific information of this kind would be of immense value in estimating at this time what will be the needs of the world in the future, when we are all considering the problems of raising the standards of living in the under-developed parts of the world and among the under-privileged people?

There are some prophets who tell us that it will be impossible to feed them all, that the increase in the birth rate will be enormous; and there are others who hold a different view. What chance have we of conducting such an inquiry unless we have some very different powers from those set out in the Act?

I could take the Minister to Paddington and show him two houses where, within the last few weeks, twenty of the inhabitants, coloured people, have fled the houses on the approach of the returning officer's representative and refused to be put on the voters' list because the houses are overcrowded. No doubt the landlord is responsible for that, and I hope that the authorities will make some check. People are so afraid of questions being asked that they will not admit that these circumstances exist. Therefore, if we are to make a serious sociological study, we shall have to treat them a little better than we have done and find out where they are living and under what conditions.

On all these grounds, I think that there are ample reasons for moving this Amendment and indeed forcing it to a Division unless we get full and very satisfactory answers.

The main reason we should hesitate at the present time about this Act and these powers is because of the special strain which they put on certain sections of the Civil Service and on the administrative staff of the hospitals and National Health Service. We are in a situation in which there is a crisis between those sets of administrators. The questions asked are, of course, very delicate ones. I am referring to the Schedule of the Act. It is known that the penalties for withholding information or for disclosing information are very severe. Anyone who withholds information is liable to be fined £10 and anyone who discloses it when he should not can be fined £100 and sent to prison. Therefore, people have to walk very warily when they are handling this matter.

Information is collected by co-operation between different sots of administrators who have approximately the same status and who, in 1948, received the same salaries. However, the civil servant who earned £760 a year in 1948 has had a cash increase of £448 since then, whereas his opposite number in the hospital, who has to talk to him on equal terms and to supply him with information—