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War Pensions (Adopted Children)

Volume 446: debated on Tuesday 27 January 1948

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Popplewell.]

10.45 p.m.

I apologise for detaining the House at this late hour, but I have been trying to raise the question of non-payment of allowances by the Ministry of Pensions in respect of adopted children of war disabled pensioners for some considerable time, and I must not allow this opportunity to pass without raising it now.

Before I come to specific points concerning this non-payment of allowances in respect of the adopted children of war-disabled pensioners, I want to make it quite clear that in my view much progress has been made in the past two and a half years towards removing the outstanding grievances of our ex-Service men and women. One of the most valuable changes that this Government has made has been to enable the wives and children's allowances to be paid irrespective of the date of marriage. In the past, it is well known, allowances were paid only if the pensioner had the children. or was married before he was disabled. Now this restriction has been abolished except in the case of adopted children. I understand that these new arrangements have considerably benefited something like 200,000 pensioners.

I can see no logical reason why the few thousand concerned with adopted children are still to be debarred from this concession. I recognise that the Ministry have also acted generously with regard to war orphans and have increased the payments to those unfortunate children who have lost both mother and father as the result of the war. Indeed, it is the Minister's duty to make special provision for orphan children: to have regard for their welfare and so on. It is all the more reasonable, therefore, that I fail to understand why he closes his eyes, or has done in the past, to the position of the adopted child. After all, he is responsible for the child that he has boarded out, so I cannot understand why that child, who is given a proper home in a proper legal manner, should not receive the allowance.

I think it is generally agreed by all parts of the House, in view of the Curtis Report and the proposed legislation in the Children's Bill, that the best place for a child without parents is not in an institution but is in a family where it can be brought up properly along with other children in a proper family life. Thus, I can see no reason on humanitarian grounds, or on grounds of justice why the disabled ex-Service man should be at a disadvantage in this regard. If he wishes to adopt a child, if he wishes to give a child a proper home and see that it is educated and given all the advantages of a normal child, it seems ridiculous to me that he should not get the proper allowance for so doing.

Now, I come to specific cases. I do not know how many cases there are where disabled pensioners have adopted children and when they have applied in the proper way for an allowance have been told by the Ministry of Pensions, as one of my constituents was told on 31st December, 1947, as follows:
"Dear Sir,
In reply to your further letter regarding your adopted child, I am to state that your disability pension is granted under the terms of the Royal Warrant, 1919, and allowances can only be authorised according to the provisions of that warrant.
Article 24, para. 3 of this Warrant requires that an adopted child should have been regularly maintained by the pensioner before the commencement of the 1914–18 war, or before enlistment, if later.
In the circumstances, I am to express regret that it is not possible to grant an allowance in conjunction with your disablement pension."
No wonder my constituent writes to me:
"My wife and I have no family of our own so in October, 1942, we adopted a baby girl. The child was only ten days old when we took her into our care and custody. I am entirely supporting and maintaining the child and I am, therefore, in precisely the same position as a married man with a child born of the marriage. I therefore think the refusal of the Minister in my case is a rank injustice,"
Then I took up another case with the Parliamentary Secretary. In July, 1947, he wrote to me as follows:
"I should explain, however, that the removal of the marriage bar means no change in the regulation for grant of allowances in respect of adopted children, nor is any such change contemplated."
It seems to me to be a harsh, reactionary view upon this small problem concerning adopted children, and the constituent who raised the matter expressed his surprise, saying that he could not understand the reason for refusing an allowance for a child merely because the child is adopted when in all other respects he is eligible. It seems a cheese-paring and unjustifiable policy on behalf of the Ministry that this should be so when for all other purposes, for Inland Revenue purposes, for family allowances, for unemployment pay, and the rest of it, no distinction is drawn between an adopted child and the ordinary children of the marriage. One other letter I had from a disabled pensioner roundly condemns the attitude of the Ministry of Pensions on this point. He says:
"I have repeatedly fought this case with the Ministry of Pensions but I have not had any success."
Still, I hope tonight that we are going to give him a very good present and that we are going to be successful.

It seems to me that the only case that the Ministry have put in the past for opposing this grant has been this very harsh one that as the man knew he was disabled he ought not to have undertaken the responsibility of adopting a. child. That seems to me in these modern, enlightened days to be a harsh and unnatural view which ought not to exist in any civilised society.

Let me tell the House the story of the happiness that a certain adopted child has brought to one family that has been brought to my notice. I am sure that this case alone should convince my right hon. Friend of the justice of giving way in this case. Five years ago a child called Ann was left an orphan. Twenty-five years before that the man who is now her daddy was disabled in the first world war. For twenty years he and his wife longed for a child. It was impossible for them to have a child of their own, but one day in this war this orphan child entered their home and refused to leave. The child was legally adopted and brought up as their own and the father says:
"The house rang with laughter and for five years we have been just three happy people; how happy words cannot tell."
I have seen a poem that this father has written about this girl and it is a most moving poem. Only this man's pension book reveals the fact that this child is not his own and he says:
"A duke will get an allowance for his second child, but the disabled man who snatches an orphan from the gutter for love and saves the Government the cost of her upbringing gets nothing."
I think that it is time we ended that situation and gave a measure of justice and charity to these people who are undertaking such valuable work and who are bringing up these orphans as their own children. The official attitude is that it is proper to make an allowance for a commitment entered into before disability, but that it is an entirely different matter to pay out towards adoption undertaken when a man knows his changed circumstances. When we realise the hardship that is being caused because of these children not having proper care and attention, I think it is an unreasonable attitude to take that because a man knew he was disabled, and could not support a child, therefore he is not entitled to the family allowance.

I feel very strongly on this point. I do not know how many cases are involved. I think that it is something over a thousand. I am convinced of the rightness of their claim to an allowance, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will he able to give way tonight and be able to treat the adopted children of these pensioners in exactly the same way as he treats children born in the normal way. I hope my right hon. Friend will be able to be a kind, benevolent uncle to thousands of these children, and that he will further enhance the reputation of his Ministry for the humane treatment of all pensioners who have suffered in their country's cause.

10.55 p.m.

We are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) for having raised this matter tonight, because there is no doubt that this is a most inhuman method of treating a man who out of the goodness and kindness of his heart tried to perform an ordinary human service for a child. I feel that this question covers something wider than adopted children. It seems to me that, when considering this question of granting pensions in respect of adopted children, the Minister should also consider the question of paying pensions in respect of stepchildren and illegitimate children.

In the case of a man marrying a woman who already has one or two children, there is no doubt that the responsibility for those children becomes the responsibility of the pensioner. I should have thought that the Minister would at least recognise that and accept responsibility. If a woman is in receipt of any payments in regard to children dependent on her which she has had by a former marriage, she loses those pensions. There is no doubt that those children should be recognised by the Ministry and the man and woman should be granted a pension for them.

Then we have the other case which seems to be rather more difficult. There must be a number of pensioners living with women to whom they are not legally married, whom we in Scotland would look upon as being man and wife by habit and repute. There are often perfectly good reasons why a man and woman should not get married, but there are frequently children as a result of that state of affairs. I should like to ask the Minister whether he will not also consider paying the pension in respect of those children. I ask for rather more than my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees, because I think these things are well worth asking for. I do not know whether to give the pensions in respect of those three categories of children would require an alteration of the Royal Warrant, but even if it did, it would be worth while. The Minister has approached his new job in a humane spirit. This is one way in which he ran give us practical proof of his desire to treat people as human beings and not as mere numbers in the files of the Ministry.

11.0 p.m.

This Debate was very courteously opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd). May I preface my remarks by saying that it was my intention to give this issue to the Parliamentary Secretary to handle. I decided on that course for two reasons. One was that I think that in these matters the Parliamentary Secretary should always play a part in the House of Commons. It is wrong for a Minister to monopolise constantly all the work of his Department. Secondly, if the young men in the House of Commons are to acquire stature, it can only be done by intimate work here. Unfortunately, however, the Parliamentary Secretary has got the mumps, and has been sent north by his doctor. I am sure I speak for all of us when I say that I hope he will soon be back at his work. If I may add a personal word, I have found him a kindly and very helpful Parliamentary Secretary.

I want, first, to say to the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees—and I had better confess it now—that I do not know everything about my Department. I think the Minister who claims that he does is making a very high claim indeed. When this question was raised, I made inquiries —first at the time of the by-election in East Edinburgh and then on behalf of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees, and I confess that for the first time I understood what this thing really was, and so I applied my mind, as did the Under-Secretary, to the problem.

On this problem of the adopted child, the hon. Member for North Edinburgh (Mr. Willis) is on the Advisory Committee in connection with pensions and allowances, and has done first-class work. Though not Scottish by birth, I think he acquired the status of our nation. He now wishes to go a step further. He says "These English are decent people, but when we are taking something from them, let us make it worth while—do not let us be small." So he carries this matter two stages further, to deal with step-children and illegitimate children.

Let me deal with the first and main case, that of the adopted child. This is the main case because it involves by far the largest number. I am an enthusiastic adoptionist. I believe in adoption. It is true that there are one or two weaknesses—and if anyone happens to ill-treat an adopted child, the whole Press seems to know about it—but, taking the country as a whole, I take the view that people who adopt children treat them extremely well, and nothing but the highest compliments can be paid them. It is already the position that when a pensioner enters for treatment with us, we pay for the adopted child. We pay for the adopted child when the pensioner has an unemployability allowance and we would pay for the adopted child if the disabled man had adopted the child before the actual disability took place.

On examination, I felt I could hardly defend myself against the attack of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees. I have given way—and so, from the first day in February, the Royal Warrant is to be altered, and we propose to give effect to the following change. As from that date, the Ministry will recognise, for pension purposes, a legally adopted child irrespective of the date of adoption by the disabled man.

In the case of the stepchild, we had to proceed to the length asked for by the hon. Member for North Edinburgh. We cannot pay for the adopted child and leave the stepchild unprovided for. There is a strong case. There might be a case of a pensioner who is a widower receiving allowances for the children of his first marriage. Then he remarries and gets allowances for his children by his second wife. But if she was previously a widow with children he would get nothing for these stepchildren and they would be isolated between the children of his first marriage and those of his second marriage both getting allowances. So, when one looks at the problem, one finds it should be carried a stage farther, and haling given in to the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees, I will give in to the hon. Member for North Edinburgh.

The problem of the illegitimate child is the most difficult one. Let me be quite fair about this. Ever since I have been a Member of this House, I have felt great sympathy for these illegitimate children. I have never taken the view that parents of illegitimate children are bad people, or dishonest people. But in most of the cases —indeed, in every case which is raised with us—the parents of the children, without getting married, will be told that they can adopt the child. If they will adopt the child, even without marriage, they will under the proposals I am making, find that we shall pay them. There may be a very small residue of cases in which religious grounds make adoption difficult, but it is probably something which will arise in very few cases. There may be some other particular reason why adoption may be difficult, but in cases where a person can prove that he or she has maintained a child decently over a period of years, I will, for this class, seek special sanction to pay in any such cases.

In this class of work, I have gone almost as far as I have been asked to go. All adopted children will now come into the same category as the ordinary child. There is something more. We shall still look after these children with a kindly interest, and may I say, we take a very kindly interest in our orphan children? One of the things which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary could have done so much better than I, would have been to pay credit to the War Pensions Committee, and the Children's Office of the Ministry who have done fine work. I would like to say a word in praise of the work of my predecessor in this office for his very fine efforts in connection with the orphan children. He did better than I could have done. He saw that they were properly looked after. While we pay for the adopted child, we shall continue to take a kindly interest in these children. In the case of the illegitimate children, we will use all the powers of persuasion to get them adopted properly; but, if there is an overwhelmingly heavy case against this, we will view any case with full understanding. In the days of war these children make their contribution with the rest of us, and we will help them.

While expressing my deep appreciation of what the Minister has said, and of his action tonight, may I ask whether the people concerned have to apply to his Ministry, or will they get payment in the ordinary course?

I think that in special cases they must apply. Some cases we shall find out, hut we hope that this Debate will help to popularise the scheme. If we are going to have this scheme, we should do it well, and I hope it will be well known that we are trying to do our best. I think, perhaps, the best way is for the person who has adopted a child, or children, to make application for payment.

11.9 p.m.

There are only one or two minutes left, but I would like to say that, in the period of rather more than two-and-a-half years in which I have had the honour of being a Member of this House, I cannot remember a time which has given me more satisfaction than this last half-hour. A fact which I deplore is that we have had a considerable attendance during the whole of the day when we have been discussing compensation to property-owners, and such a sparse attendance now when we are dealing with a matter of this sort, which deeply affects the lives of perhaps only one or two thousand families. Great political arguments about the Constitution, about the nationalisation of this, that, or the other, may come and go, but I have the feeling sometimes that what really stands to the credit or debit of any Government is their behaviour in small matters, and to small classes of people, who are often largely inarticulate and defenceless.

It ought to be said that among the things for which the present Government deserve the thanks of the country is the fact that in the office of Minister of Pensions—the one office perhaps which brings the Minister more into contact with the subject than any other—which in the past has often been operated mechanically and thoughtlessly, we have had under this Government a succession of Ministers who have brought qualities of tolerance, kindness, sympathy and human understanding to these intricate and sometimes delicate problems which come to their notice. Not least among those Ministers, nobody will deny, is the present holder of the office, who showed this evening not only his humanity and kindliness as far as these persons are concerned, but his kindness towards his fellow Members of the House, because he has been willing to say, "I think this is a good idea, even though I did not think of it." There are not many Ministers who are willing to say of a less exalted Member of the House just what my right hon. Friend has said. I feel sure there are many in this land who will praise his name, and among them many children; and what better reward could any Minister, back-bencher, or any other man, ask of his fellow-men?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Thirteen Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.