– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd March 2023.
The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on historical adoption practices. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.
The issuing of a formal apology is an action reserved by Governments as a response to the worst injustices in our history. Without doubt, the adoption practices that prevailed in this country for decades during the twentieth century fit that description. For the people affected by those practices, I appreciate that an apology has been a very long time coming.
One of the most ardent campaigners for it has been Marion McMillan. In the mid-1960s, Marion was a teenager living in Stranraer. When she became pregnant, she was sent to a mother and baby home in the north of England. Marion has described the horror of having her son taken away from her.
“I remember crying and telling them, ‘but I’m his mummy’, and begging them not to take my son. I was told not to be silly. I’d get over it—and I could always have other babies when I was married.”
Elspeth Ross faced her own ordeal. In 1962, she gave birth to her son in a mother and baby home in Glasgow.
“After I had my son, I was in the nursery for six weeks looking after him but nobody told me they were taking him away.
I was upstairs the very last day and told to pack my bags and go, not knowing that I was never seeing my son again”.
In 1979, Jeannot Farmer gave birth at the age of 22. She has recounted the moment in the hospital when she was told that her baby was being adopted.
“I was treated in quite humiliating ways from the outset ... I didn’t understand at that time that I had lost the decision—that the decision had been made for me. I didn't understand that until the social worker appeared after the birth.”
The horror of what happened to those women is almost impossible to comprehend. It is the stuff of nightmares, yet those were not isolated cases—far from it.
Until the late 1970s, forced adoption was a relatively common practice in Scotland. Many thousands of children were subject to it. In most cases, their mothers were young or unmarried. They were stigmatised as a result, and they were forced or coerced into the adoption process by charities, churches, health professionals, or social services.
Some mothers suffered physical mistreatment or abuse. Some were denied appropriate healthcare. Up until the early 1970s, mothers in some cases were given stilbestrol—a drug that dried up their breast milk and that is potentially carcinogenic.
Virtually all of the mothers were made to feel worthless. Among many falsehoods, they were told that they had nothing to offer their child except state benefits. They were told that, without adoption, their child would grow up a delinquent, and that they were selfish for wanting to keep their baby, because they would be denying them a so-called better life.
Consistently, mothers were lied to about the adoption process. They were given no information about what was happening. When they did object, they were bullied or ignored. Some women were never even allowed to hold their babies. Most never got the chance to say a proper goodbye, and many were threatened with terrible consequences if they ever tried to make contact with their child.
For those mothers, it was a living nightmare—a nightmare from which they have never truly been able to wake. The grief, heartbreak and shame of what happened have been a constant throughout their lives, and many have had to bear that trauma in silence, for fear of other people’s judgment or pity. It has affected their relationships with subsequent children, with partners and with family and friends. For many, it has created serious mental health impacts that persist to this very day.
For the sons and daughters who were taken, of course, the impacts have also been profound. It is important to say—and to say very clearly—that many of them went to loving homes. Acknowledging the injustices should never be seen as a rejection of the deep bonds that people share with their adopted families. Nothing can ever invalidate the love that these families have for one another.
However, it is also clear that many of those affected—far too many—had a very, very different experience. We know that some will always have lacked a sense of belonging; some may even have suffered mistreatment or abuse; and all of them will have grown up believing that their mothers chose to put them up for adoption of their own free will. Understandably, that has affected them—and yet it was never true.
As adults, the practical difficulties of accessing adoption records have been a further torment. Even when families have been able to reconnect, that in itself has brought huge emotional challenges. Sometimes, the search has ended in further heartache, when the person being looked for is already deceased.
For the fathers affected, there has also been great suffering. They, too, lost a child. They, too, had their rights denied by a system that ignored and dehumanised them. There is good reason to believe that some mothers were not even allowed to put the father’s name on the birth certificate—a permanent obstacle to them reuniting with their son or daughter.
Of course, the impact of what happened has been felt more widely, by the loved ones of everyone involved. The legacy of those practices continues to affect generations of families, in this country and beyond. It is a level of injustice that is hard now for us to comprehend. So, today, how do we even begin to explain how such appalling acts could take place?
Obviously, they were the product of a society where women were regarded as second class citizens, where unmarried mothers were stigmatised, and where people in authority had too much power. We also know that similar practices happened in other countries, but that does not for a moment excuse the appalling mistreatment that people suffered, nor does it absolve the individuals and institutions involved.
After all, it is not just in hindsight that such practices are wrong. Mistreating women and forcing them to part with their babies was never right; it was always cruel, unjust and profoundly wrong.
There is a line of argument that says that, because the Government of the time did not support those practices, there is nothing to apologise for, and that, anyway, the events in question took place long ago, before the Scottish Parliament reconvened and before anyone in this chamber held public office, but those are not reasons to stay silent. Ultimately, it is the state that is morally responsible for setting standards and protecting people.
Therefore, as modern representatives of the state, I believe that we—among others—have a special responsibility to the people affected. First, we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to support them in dealing with the legacy of what happened. That is why, last year, the Scottish Government established specialist support and counselling services for people affected by historical adoption practices. At the same time, we launched a consultation, in which we asked people affected to share their experiences. I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who responded.
We have since commissioned a study, which will report later this summer, on how we can improve the support that people can access, from psychological support to help in reuniting with family members. We will continue to explore with the people affected the key challenges that they face with regard to adoption records and the lasting health impacts that are faced by mothers who were given stilbestrol. On that final point, I emphasise again today the importance of women attending routine breast and cervical screening appointments.
Another responsibility that we have to those people is to provide an assurance that the lessons of the period in question have been learned. There is no doubt that adoption practices, and our society in general, have come a long way in the decades since, but we can never allow ourselves to be complacent.
At all times, we must ensure that the services that are meant to protect families fulfil that role as effectively and compassionately as possible. That is why the Government is so focused on delivering the conclusions of the independent care review—the Promise—which emphasised the importance, where possible, of keeping families together.
More generally, we need to continue to build a society where women and girls are treated equally, and where everyone’s human rights are respected. That has always been a central mission of this Government, and it is how we ensure that such injustices never happen again.
The final way in which we can keep faith with those affected is more symbolic, but it is no less meaningful for that. It is something that has been campaigned for tirelessly, over many years, by many of the people who are seated in our gallery today. It is a cause that I know has been championed by members across the chamber.
As a Government and a Parliament, we can set the record straight; we can acknowledge the terrible wrongs that were done; and we can say, with one voice, that we are sorry. So, today, as First Minister, on behalf of the Scottish Government, I say directly to the mothers who had their babies taken away from them, to the sons and the daughters who were separated from their parents, to the fathers who were denied their rights and to the families who have lived with the legacy: for the decades of pain that you have suffered, I offer a sincere, heartfelt and unreserved apology. We are sorry.
No words can ever make up for what has happened to you, but I hope that that apology will bring you some measure of solace. It is the very least that you deserve, and it is long overdue. [
The Presiding Officer:
The First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move on.
I thank the First Minister for providing advance sight of her statement. I begin by associating the Scottish Conservatives with that statement.
We are joined in the gallery by the courageous campaigners on historical forced adoption. Today’s events would not have been possible without them and their determination to seek a sincere national apology for the fact that 60,000 women were forced to give up their babies for adoption simply because they were young or unmarried. A national apology cannot right the wrongs of the past, but for those suffering lifelong trauma, it will be the start of a healing process. My only regret is that, sadly, many campaigners have died before this apology was made.
We need to make sure that this part of history will never repeat itself and that we protect the rights of women and children in Scotland. Will the commissioned study be trauma informed, and will the support that is offered be meaningful and needs based?
I thank Meghan Gallacher for her question and for associating her party with the apology that has been offered today. Let me give an assurance that, although I recognise and understand completely the importance of offering an apology today, it is in many respects not the end of the process. There is much work still to do to understand the impact of these horrendous practices and to ensure that, in the months and years to come, we offer as much appropriate support as we can to those who are still dealing with the impact of that trauma.
I give a commitment today that any work that is done by the Scottish Government will always be trauma informed and that we will work together with those in the gallery, the campaigners and everyone across the country who has been affected by these tragedies to ensure that the support that they need, now and in the future, is provided. I know that the person who succeeds me as First Minister will give as much importance to that as I and my Government have done.
I, too, thank the First Minister for her formal apology and, on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party, I echo her remarks.
We believe that an estimated 60,000 Scottish mothers were compelled to give up a baby for adoption simply because they were unmarried in the 1950s and 1960s and even into the 1970s. Those cruelties are among the most appalling of injustices that our society has inflicted on women and their children.
Marion McMillan, from Paisley, is one of those mothers. She is now in her 70s and terminally ill. Her wish is that the victims in Scotland receive the apology that they deserve, and I welcome to the public gallery Marion and all the other women who have bravely campaigned for so long. Marion has, of course, worked with other victims of forced adoption from around the world. She has reunited mothers with children and has given evidence that helped to secure the world’s first Government apology for forced adoption, which was in Australia in 2013. We commend the brave and tireless work of Marion and all the other campaigners.
Let me also pay tribute to Marion Scott at the
Sunday Post for her tenacious support for these women.
MSPs from across parties have lobbied the Scottish Government. It was, of course, Neil Bibby who first raised the issue, way back in 2015, and it has been taken up since by my colleague Monica Lennon and others. It is right and beyond time that there is a formal apology in Scotland for the injustice of forced adoption, and that we confront this shameful chapter in Scotland’s history.
For some, the apology will bring closure. For others, it is the start, not the end. Will the First Minister therefore commit her Government to a firm timetable beyond the study that will give these women and their children access to appropriate health services, including trauma-informed counselling, and easier access to adoption records?
I thank Jackie Baillie for her question and the Scottish Labour Party for associating itself with today’s apology. Members across the chamber have campaigned for the apology that has been offered today. I, too, would make particular mention of Monica Lennon, who has done a great deal to advance the cause.
One of the many tragedies of this situation is that we do not know for certain how many were affected by forced adoption practices. According to National Records of Scotland statistics, from 1930 to 1979, approximately 73,000 adoptions were recorded in Scotland, but there is no data available for that period to tell us how many of those adoptions occurred without the birth mother’s informed consent. Not knowing the precise data is, as I said, one of the many tragedies of the situation.
We also know that there are many mothers who were forced to give up their babies in Scotland and now live in other countries—for example, I know that we have at least one person from Australia with us in the public gallery today. The impact and depth of the tragedy and the suffering that has come from it are impossible for any of us properly to quantify.
That is what makes it so important, first, that we issue the apology, and secondly, that we continue to work with the people who are affected. I again pay tribute to the women who are with us in the gallery and to the many others, some of whom are no longer with us, who, out of their own trauma and suffering, campaigned for justice and to stop this ever happening to others.
It is essential that we work to identify the appropriate support—that part of the process is really important—and then, that the Government implements the support across all the different areas that are necessary, as quickly as possible.
As everyone knows, this time next week there will be a new First Minister here. Whoever that is, I have no doubt that they will give the same commitment as my Government has given. I am sure that all members in the chamber will do everything that we can to hold the Government to account on that.
This is a momentous day for at least 60,000 mothers who were forced to give up their child, not least Marion McMillan and the other brave campaigners who have spent their lives fighting that heartbreaking injustice. Does the First Minister agree that that dark period in our history should never be forgotten and should inspire progressive policies, to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again?
Yes. I whole-heartedly agree with that.
We are talking about a historical practice, but we must never be complacent. We must make sure that, every single day, we guard against such injustices ever, ever happening again.
That is why some of the wider work that the Scottish Government is doing is so important. In my statement, I referenced the independent care review and the Promise that came from that. This Government is committed to keeping the Promise.
We must also continue our work to lift children out of poverty. Sadly, we know that children who are growing up in poverty are more likely to be removed from their families, which is why a package of support—not least the Scottish child payment—is important in that respect.
We must never be complacent. We must ensure that we do all that we can to tackle gender inequality and to protect the human rights of everyone. Only if we do all that can we build the better society that we all want.
Today is important. I pay tribute to all the campaigners, to the cross-party work, especially of Neil Bibby and Monica Lennon, and to Marion Scott, who has been mentioned, who made today happen.
Mothers, fathers and adult adoptees have lived with lifelong trauma. Often, they have been unable to develop and maintain relationships, given their feelings of total rejection.
Today is just the start of the healing process.
Today is also the start of a wider exposure of medical practices that took place in our country during those times. As the First Minister said, the use of diethylstilbestrol—DES—or stilbestrol, has had lasting, negative health impacts. Awareness of the impacts of the drug on mothers and children needs to be raised and those impacts need to be addressed. Will the First Minister say what role the chief medical officer in Scotland will have to investigate and take forward work on the medical practices of that time? What additional advice will be given to mothers and adult adoptees?
I think that all of us have the utmost sympathy for any woman who had their child forcibly taken away. That is added to by the sympathy that we have for the women who were prescribed stilbestrol. It is important that they have access to the support and advice that they need.
The chief medical officer will offer such advice, always on an independent, clinical basis, and I am sure that he will be happy to correspond with members about any advice that he considers appropriate.
The most recent guidance, which the UK Health Security Agency produced, is that routine cervical screening is appropriate for those who believe that they were exposed to the drug. That applies in Scotland. On the lasting health impacts, I emphasise again, as I did in my statement, the importance of women attending routine breast appointments and routine cervical screening appointments.
There is no doubt whatever that the medical practices to which the member referred compounded the injustice that women faced and are one of the reasons why today’s apology is so important and so long overdue.
I also thank the First Minister for her powerful words, which are, crucially, backed up by a range of actions from the Scottish Government to support those who have been affected. I ask the First Minister for an assurance that the Scottish Government will continue to place lived experience at the heart of its approach to helping those who have been impacted by historical adoption practices.
I will give that assurance and I think that I can give that assurance with confidence on behalf of whoever succeeds me as First Minister.
Over my years as First Minister, I have become ever more convinced about the indispensability of lived experience in all of our policy making, but there are probably few areas where lived experience matters more than this one. Although our hearts are filled with sympathy on behalf of the women who suffered this injustice, I do not think that any of us in the chamber can comprehend what it was like, so making sure that we hear directly from those who are still with us and who feel able to contribute that lived experience is essential. Therefore, I give that commitment and I know that whoever comes after me will honour that commitment, because it is so important.
A veil of silence has been lifted today, so I add my voice to those thanking the First Minister for making an apology on behalf of the Scottish Government and indeed on behalf of Scotland. This is a day of mixed emotions. Some people have been name checked already but, as I look round the public gallery, I see that Marion and
Jeannot are here, and that Evelyn Robinson has travelled from Australia with her son, who was born in this city in 1970 and was taken from his mother.
It is a difficult day for other adult adoptees. I know that Esther, Fiona and Marjorie are here, and many more. There will be people who do not even realise that they, too, have been affected. There are so many survivors.
There have been many good questions already but I want to ask the First Minister whether she agrees that, after today, not just as a Government but as a Parliament, we should continue to work together on the issue to educate ourselves, because it was prejudice and complacency, along with a lack of compassion, that made this happen.
This week, we are celebrating single-parent families in Scotland. When I was speaking to some media representatives today, I said that this happened because women did not have a wedding ring on their finger. We cannot be complacent. There are people who will ask why we are not talking about the 1980s and later dates. We heard earlier today from Lisa about her experience, which happened in 1982, the year after I was born. What can we do to continue to educate the people of Scotland about the issue? There has been a call to record some of this history in the Glasgow Women’s Library. What else can we do to make sure that there is no complacency and that never again can something like this happen in Scotland?
I thank Monica Lennon for the question and for all that she has done to bring us to where we are today. Miles Briggs and Neil Bibby have been referenced, too, and I thank them as well.
I very deliberately quoted some women in my statement, because their words can give an understanding of the horror of this much, much more than any words of mine can. However, I am conscious that, in quoting some women, there are many more who have not been quoted. I pay tribute to every woman who suffered this injustice, not only those here in the public gallery today.
Monica Lennon talks about what happened in 1982; we know that this was a routine practice up until the late 1970s, but that does not mean that it did not happen at all after that. It is important to recognise that. It is also important to recognise that, although we describe the practice as historical, it is recent history that we are talking about. Monica Lennon referenced a man who is with us from Australia but who was born here in 1970. I was born in 1970 to a young mother. This is not history that is way in the past—it is in our lifetimes, and that should underline the importance of not being complacent.
Unfortunately, across a range of issues, we frequently discover that injustices that we thought were long gone can reoccur if we are not vigilant and do not guard against that. We must continue to learn and to stand together—I hope that, on issues such as this, we can do that.
While trying to bring some closure for those who suffered, we must also find ways to remember. I have heard suggestions of a memorial in the Glasgow Women’s Library, an institution for which I have huge affection and respect. I cannot speak for the library, but we should be open to all suggestions in order to make sure that we deliver as much justice as possible, and that we never forget. We need to allow those horrendous experiences to stand as reminders of what happens if we do not remember the value of our common humanity and we do not protect what matters most in our society.
I gave a commitment today knowing that someone else will take it forward, but with confidence that the chamber will stay united in making sure that we learn the lessons and that we find the most appropriate ways of delivering support and always remembering.
My constituent Fiona Henderson has been in regular contact with my office, and I have been working with her for some months. I believe that she is in the chamber today. I have asked her, and she is happy for me to use her name in my question. Her name pre-adoption was Samantha Jane Penfold. Her adoption has caused her severe trauma and anguish, so I am asking my question on her behalf and on behalf of all other adoptees who are suffering.
The First Minister addressed the difficulties of access to adoption records. Although I recognise the sensitivities that exist in relation to the matter, the adult adoptees have been waiting a very long time for help. What assurance can the First Minister give that the Scottish Government and its agencies are continuing to work with parents and adoptees to understand and overcome the barriers to accessing adoption records?
My statement, deliberately and, I think, rightly, directed an apology to mothers who had their children taken away from them, fathers who lost their children and the children who were adopted as a result of those practices. It is important that, as we move forward, we give support to everyone whose lives were affected. That means that we continue to support those who have had difficulties accessing adoption records.
As we all know, there are unfortunately some complexities involved in that but, nevertheless, it is important that we overcome those. I give an assurance that we will continue to do that. In the meantime, National Records of Scotland will continue to provide access and assistance in line with current legislation. Any changes will need to be carefully considered, but I give an assurance that we are listening, and we will continue to listen, to the important and valid calls that are being made for improvements in that area.
I thank the First Minister for the advance sight of her statement. On behalf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I echo the sentiments in it. Tens of thousands of Scottish women had their children forcibly taken from them and adopted, and I express my sympathy to all those who had to live with that wrong. The First Minister’s formal apology acknowledges that the state was wrong. It will not change what has happened, or the pain, hurt or injustice, but I hope that it brings some comfort. Does the First Minister agree that it is incumbent on all of us to uphold women’s and girls’ human rights, ensuring that such practices never happen again?
I thank Beatrice Wishart for her question and for associating the Scottish Liberal Democrats with the apology that was offered. Her question goes to the heart of the issue. Those practices were able to happen because of the inequality of women in our society. Therefore, part of making sure that injustices such as that never happen again is continuing to progress, advance and secure women’s equality. That is a responsibility for us all, but it is a fundamental part of what we must do to recognise what happened in the past and ensure that it can never happen again in the future.
I thank the First Minister for her statement and for her apology, which is very welcome. What support will be provided for those who have been impacted by forced adoption, in order to allow them some closure?
We have a special responsibility to those affected to do whatever we can to support them in dealing with the legacy of what happened. For example, we are already funding the charity Health in Mind to establish specialist peer support groups to provide support services that will be person centred, trauma informed and, crucially, run by those with lived experience. As has been referenced already today, we have commissioned a scoping study to explore further the support that those affected need to assist them in the recovery process. All of that will help us understand where we need to improve, introduce or enhance services to better meet the needs and expectations of those affected. I give an assurance again today that the Government is committed to that wider work.
I thank the First Minister for her statement and apology and for giving voice to some of the women affected by this abhorrent practice. I associate myself and the Scottish Greens with the Scottish Government’s fulsome apology.
The First Minister has indicated that some of those affected have already left Scotland. Some will have made a positive choice to go; some will have felt that they had no option but to leave a place that caused them so much shame and guilt. Can the First Minister confirm that the study that is currently under way includes a consideration of how best to work internationally across state boundaries to support reuniting families, and that it will include learning from how that has been done successfully elsewhere, as well as a way to share our experiences so that others can learn from us, too?
I thank Maggie Chapman for associating the Scottish Green Party with today’s statement. She raises an important issue: many people who were subject to these historical practices will no longer be here in Scotland, and it is therefore important that we ensure that the work that we are doing is, where possible, brought to their attention. For example, further to delivery of the statement, we will be distributing copies to the networks of campaigners who we have engaged with throughout this work, including those who live abroad, so that they can issue them to their members. I would like to thank all of them again for their engagement today.
It is also important that we continue to learn from other countries, where that is appropriate. It has already been referenced today that an apology was issued in Australia some years ago, so there will be examples of best practice elsewhere that it is important that we identify and learn from, and I hope that we in Scotland can offer some best practice for others to learn from, too.
I align myself with the comments of admiration for campaigners. The First Minister will be aware that I am as passionate as anyone about these issues. As an adoptive parent, I cannot imagine going through that process to find out that the adoption was forced. Having spoken to adult adoptees, I know that they are looking for a comprehensive collection of relevant data and a commitment to develop specific funding mechanisms for bespoke developmental trauma-informed therapies.
I know that assurances have been given, but I will ask this again, as one back bencher to a soon-to-be back bencher. Will the First Minister support and work with me to push the new First Minister to make those fundamental changes, so that all those voices are finally heard through Parliament?
I certainly give a commitment that I will continue to seek to advocate on the issue from the back benches of this chamber. I know that many members across the chamber have been involved in the issue for longer than I have, but I can say that it would not have been possible for me to do the work required leading up to the statement today without the issue finding a place very deep in my heart and developing a determination to continue to do everything possible to deliver as much justice as possible for those affected.
Because adult adoptees were referenced in that question, I repeat that the apology delivered today is directed to all those who suffered as a result of these abhorrent adoption practices, from mothers and fathers to the sons and daughters who grew up without their parents.
Those affected will need a range of support now and in the future. It is important that we go through a proper process of identifying what support is most appropriate and ensuring that we act to deliver it. I have been privileged to be part of that work as First Minister, and I am absolutely determined that I will continue to play my part from the back benches of this chamber.
This is a historic day for the people who have been impacted by the inhumane practice of forced adoption. The First Minister really did speak for the people of Scotland, and her statement was just and made with compassion. My constituent Jeannot Farmer welcomes that apology and raises the point that many people who were impacted now live outwith Scotland. Obviously, the First Minister has outlined the steps, but can she expand on that?
It is important to recognise that many of these people will no longer live in Scotland, so we have a responsibility to make efforts—first, to ensure that today’s apology reaches all those to whom the apology is directed, wherever in the world they now live; and, secondly, to make sure that, as we further develop the necessary support services, access to and knowledge of those services is also extended to people in other parts of the world. I give an assurance that the Scottish Government will take all reasonable and practical steps to make sure that both of those aims are achieved.
The last thing that I will say in response to that question is that I am under no illusion that an apology, however heartfelt—I know that I speak on behalf of all of us in the chamber when I say that it is very heartfelt—cannot undo the harm, damage, trauma and heartbreak that have been suffered, so there is still much work to do to address that in whatever ways that we can. I know that the Government will continue to be very committed to doing exactly that.
The First Minister will be aware that Marion and other campaigners have called for a permanent memorial to be erected in Scotland. Has the Scottish Government thought of erecting such a permanent monument to remember that dark moment of Scottish history? Can that be taken forward on a cross-party basis?
I referenced that briefly in response to Monica Lennon. First and foremost, today is about an apology, and it is important that we focus on that in the chamber today. The apology has been a long time coming and, today, it is vital that we allow the space for that apology to be received and understood.
However, it is also right that we consider further important steps that we can take. This afternoon, we have talked a lot—and I have spoken a lot—about the further support that we must now develop and make available, but part of that is considering proposals for an exhibition or memorial. I think that it would be wrong for me to pre-empt a proper process of consideration by stating anything definitively today, but I am very happy to say that the mind of the Government is open to that, and it is one of the issues on which we will seek to have further discussions with the people who have been impacted by those practices.
The Presiding Officer:
That concludes the First Minister’s statement on historical adoption practices.