I beg to move,
That this House recognises the pain and suffering that the historical practice of forced adoption caused many women and children; and calls on the Government to issue an apology to women and children affected by that practice.
This is a year of feminism. It is 100 years since the demands for women’s votes were finally heard in this place. What progress we have made in those 100 years! We should be in no doubt, however, that the pace of progress is never constant, and in those 100 years women have needed to fight and fight again to see their rights respected. That is the true story of our past. There is a sadly long list of deeply shameful practices against women that were hidden and tolerated in the past and which colour the treatment of women today. While our past never determines our country’s next steps, it is always the backdrop for our future; the past always sets the scene. That is why historical injustices must be uncovered, understood and acknowledged. Honesty allows us to learn, honesty helps us to change and honesty gives people back the dignity of the truth about what happened to them.
The debate today covers one such practice. Most people in this place will be aware of the way in which young mums were treated in the past. Long before the last Labour Government were successful in their teenage pregnancy strategy to halve teenage pregnancy rates, or before we had the proactive strategies to help young mums that we do today, many young women who had become unexpectedly pregnant were hidden away and told that their child was to be adopted. They were told by representatives of the Church and state that it would be for the best; the aim was to maintain some idea of so-called respectability. This process has long been shrouded in mystery. We know that several Churches were involved, including the Church of England and the Catholic Church, and that this process was not limited to the UK; it happened around the globe—Australia and Ireland have already acknowledged the role their Governments played.
Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I explain briefly how I came to think about this matter. The story involves two former Members of this House: Gordon Brown and Ann Keen. I had the honour of serving as Gordon’s last Parliamentary Private Secretary. One of the many benefits I have felt from that time has been the pleasure and honour of getting to know Ann Keen, who represented the people of Brentford and Isleworth between 1997 and 2010 and was Gordon’s PPS during his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Before she came to the House, Ann served our country as an NHS nurse, and she became one of our Health Ministers in government. I was also lucky to know Ann’s husband, Alan Keen, who represented Feltham and Heston in this place and who was a great friend to many here. I am very pleased that Ann is here today, along with others who experienced historical forced adoption.
Given the events surrounding the Hillsborough disaster, I have some understanding of historical injustices and how they burn. When, some time ago, Ann told me her story, I became very interested in how the historical practice of forced adoption could be brought to light and, what is more, how it came to happen at all.
Since that time, my constituent Sara, an adult whose mum was also treated in this way, has been in touch with me. Sara now runs a small charity that helps people to trace family members. She has explained to me how long-standing distress caused by the practices we will discuss today can cloud a person’s whole life. Sara has suggested to me that the Government might want to consider a small specialised service dedicated to the group affected. I will say more later, but the idea has merit.
It is estimated that about half a million British women were treated in this fashion, all of whom have families who are affected and all of whom must have been profoundly changed by the experience. I have come to see that Ann’s story is typical of many. Ann’s dad was a steelworker at Shotton, which is quite near my constituency, and the family were not at all wealthy. Ann became unexpectedly pregnant in 1966, when an older man with whom she worked forced himself upon her. Her family were horrified and the decision was taken that she would move away, where she would meet a local moral welfare worker—that is what social workers used to be called—and it was just assumed that the baby would be adopted. This moral welfare worker told Ann that the baby would cause her family hardship. She was told that, if she loved the baby, she would give it away. She was told it was for the best.
Ann ended up in what we think was a home run by the Swansea and Brecon moral welfare association. The home was draconian, and women were forced to clean and undertake menial tasks. From speaking to lots of others who have gone through this, I understand that that was very common. From the many stories of women who were treated just like Ann, there is one consistent impression: it seems obvious that those in positions of power with whom the women came into contact felt that the women ought to be punished. It is almost as if there was an unwritten policy that women ought to be treated badly. We owe it to that generation of women to ask ourselves who decided that they should be treated in that way. Why were the homes run like that? Whose policy was it?
A further crucial fact is that most of the people to whom I have spoken who have experienced forced adoption gave birth in the NHS. The national health service, which we rightly venerate, is part of this story. The midwifes gave the impression to the mums that they knew the babies would be adopted. The women to whom I have spoken have a consistent history of treatment during labour, in that pain relief was withheld. If stitches were required after the birth, as they often are, it was done in the most uncomfortable way possible.
Ann, who later became a nurse, as I said, told me that in hospital she realised she was absolutely powerless. After the birth, mothers were often told, “Your baby is going to be adopted. Don’t get too attached.” Contact with the baby was controlled and restricted in many cases I have read about and, even by the standards of the time, these mothers were treated very differently from other women giving birth. These women were made to feel ashamed of their bodies and of their pregnancies, and that culture of shame was perpetrated by officialdom in one guise or another.
It is a complex history but I, for one, would like to know how it happened. Babies were adopted and, from the accounts I have read and listened to, it is hard to see that any meaningful consent was given. Many adoptive parents, who were dedicated and wonderful people, gave the babies loving homes, and mums were constantly told that it was simply for the best. But even where children were in loving homes, how could it be for the best if it was not really the mother’s decision? That cannot be right. These women seemed to be denied their most basic right, the right to hold their own opinion.
This is my question to the Minister: has anybody checked the historical records to discover what we know about how women were treated and why? Has anyone in government ever looked back over the records that are held about the NHS to find out what the process was for assisting young mums from moral welfare association homes? What is more, who paid for those homes and why? Much may not have been written down, but I find it hard to believe that nothing was written down and that there are no records.
From their accounts, it appears that many of these women were unable to make an informed decision about their pregnancy and adoption because they were told that their family would not get any state support for their child, yet Beveridge’s welfare state existed from 1948 onwards. By the 1960s, though imperfect, it was well developed. I have asked the House of Commons Library what the rules were for supporting children from 1948 onwards, and I am told that there were family benefits available, especially after the creation of child benefit in 1975. Even before that, there was family allowance, which was worth about £800 per year in today’s money in the late 1960s. That information seems to have been hidden from these young mums—why? Who decided that it would be?
We can never re-legislate the past—we can’t—but we must try to understand it. These policies were designed to make a so-called “problem” go away. Society had decided that something that is entirely natural was shameful. Women and children were hidden away to protect the fragile sensibilities of others, and it was a great injustice, and then that culture of shame and terror has made them keep quiet. For far too long, we have been told about this generation of mums, “She gave the baby up”, a phrase that undoubtedly implies consent, but that was never true. It has been a hurtful lie. Women were told that it would be for the best, and then the world was told that that was what they wanted.
Clearly, there has also been a huge impact on the generation of children who were adopted. As I have said, many of the adoptive families will have provided loving and brilliant homes, but the cultural story that these children were “given up for adoption” may well have meant that those adult children still live with the idea that they were not wanted by their birth parents, which in many cases was just not true at all. The long shadow of all this has huge implications for the mental health of the mothers, children and families that these policies affected. For some it has been utterly devastating, and has had the most significant consequences for their lives.
The Government today could assist in setting the story straight and helping people to understand what happened to them. That brings me to my final point—the need for an apology. As I have said several times, it is not for this House to legislate over the past, nor is it for us to decide that there ought to be one blanket approach for every family. Many will wish to simply turn a page in their history and move on, but for those living with desperate grief or furious anger there is a course of action that will help: in addition to looking for all government sources of information on this process and publishing them in an appropriate manner, the Prime Minister, on behalf of our nation, should apologise. Julia Gillard, the then Prime Minister of Australia, did so on behalf of her country in 2013 and Leo Varadkar did so on behalf of Ireland this year. There is no reason not to do it and every reason to do it.
As a woman who has experienced the culture of shame that stops women feeling proud and confident in their own skin, I would like to understand this history a little better. Women collectively live in the shadow of these events and hear from their teenage years that their body is something to be embarrassed about. Undoing that cultural attitude requires, for all of us, an acknowledgment of how wrong this course of action was. So here is my request to the Minister: let us collectively tell the truth; acknowledge that the history of women in this country is not just the heroism of the suffrage movement and then the presence of a female Prime Minister, with zero struggles in between; show that the origin of the shame that stops young women standing up for themselves, even now, today, is these dark roots that we are talking about this afternoon; and bring those roots out into the open and say that it was wrong.
In summary, the Government could do three things: First, they could check all official records and documentation for evidence that related to this practice, and publish it. Secondly, they could work with organisations who support people who experienced the consequences of historical forced adoption and do something to help with tracing, counselling and emotional support. We are talking about a relatively discreet group of people and it would not be an investment from government that was needed forever, though it is very much needed now. Lastly, and most crucially, they can say sorry and apologise on behalf of the nation. Simply by doing so, the Prime Minister would make a great difference to all those who were told that the natural function of their body was a shameful thing. Simply by apologising, she would send a message to anyone unexpectedly pregnant today that they ought to expect help and support, and never approbation. Most of all, she would send a message to every woman in this country that our past, where women were blamed and robbed of their power, is finally the past.
I thank and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who set out the case for this motion incredibly powerfully. Hers will be a tough speech for me to follow.
I thank the campaigners from the Movement for an Adoption Apology—known colloquially, as MAA—for their ongoing efforts, with others, to push this Government and previous Governments for many years on the important demand for an apology. In particular, I thank my step-mum, Jean Robertson-Molloy, who is present today. Jean is one of the founding members of the MAA campaign. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South in thanking our good friend and former colleague, Ann Keen, who is also present. The MAA campaigners have experienced first hand many of the issues that my hon. Friend set out so powerfully in her opening speech and have provided testimony that reflects the pain and suffering that they have experienced. I am also thinking today of the thousands of women and, indeed, their children who still find the situation too painful to discuss openly. As my hon. Friend set out, they all deserve an apology for the ordeal that they were put through.
As has already been said, forced adoption is not just part of our hidden past as a country, but part of the hidden pasts of many other countries around the world. Many women who suffered in Australia or Ireland have now had some form of inquiry or apology from their Government. In New Zealand, the new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is currently considering asking a New Zealand select committee to investigate how previous Governments in that country handled forced adoption, yet we still await any inquiry or apology here. We have an opportunity to learn from these close allies of the United Kingdom—Australia, New Zealand and Ireland—and, crucially, to develop a process that learns from what happened in those three countries and really engages with the voices and experiences of the women and children affected at the time.
At heart this is a human rights issue. Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 outlines
“the right to respect for…family and private life”.
In the case of forced adoptions, it is surely absolutely clear that the parents and children have been denied that most basic of human rights. If the Government accept that that is the case, surely we have a responsibility as a country and they have a responsibility as a Government to address the matter urgently.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South said, five years ago the then Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, apologised on behalf of the Australian Government to people who had been affected by forced adoption or removal policies. A Senate inquiry, which had been the impetus for Julia Gillard’s apology, found that babies were taken illegally by doctors, nurses, social workers and religious figures and adopted by married couples. The mothers were often coerced—sometimes even drugged—and their children were taken away from them without their consent. Original birth certificates were then sealed away and a new one was issued that left no mention of the birth parents. This story is all too familiar to the women and girls in this country who were caught in similar circumstances from the 1950s onwards.
As my hon. Friend said, only last month the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, recognised the issues surrounding the forced adoption of children in Ireland. He apologised to 126 people who had been adopted illegally between 1946 and 1969, saying the apology was part of
“another chapter from the very dark history of our country”.
His Government committed to an independent investigation to review the records of adoption services, which will almost certainly lead to the discovery that more births were illegally registered in Ireland.
Apologising for the actions of past Governments is not straightforward. The fact that both Ireland and Australia have been able to do so, and that they have not simply apologised but have held thorough and in-depth investigations, shows that it is possible to achieve some justice—delayed justice—for people who have been caught up in this scandal. I urge the Minister and the Prime Minister to follow the example of those close allies and devise a way to apologise. An apology is one aspect of justice. When I spoke to the campaigners, they made it very clear to me that they want not only an apology, but a process in which their voices are heard and in which their experiences are taken into full account. Their voices are, of course, those that we need to listen to.
I want to spend a moment or two now recalling the testimony of some of them. Helen Jeffreys gave birth to a son in Leeds in 1965. When her son was two months old, her social worker refused them any more help and said that they had to leave the mother and baby home in which they were staying. Eventually, Helen had to give up her son for adoption. At the time, this meant that she would never get to see him again, as the legislation that is now in place to request a birth certificate on an 18th birthday did not exist at that time. Helen said:
“I was 18 and a perfectly competent mother. I wanted to keep him.”
Sadly, as we have heard from my hon. Friend and as I am sure we will hear from other accounts during the debate this afternoon, Helen was coerced into giving her son up for adoption.
Although much of the testimony that I have read and have heard about at first hand does involve children being forcibly removed from their parents, this scandal forces us to engage with some of the wider social attitudes that prevailed in the 1950s and the 1960s. Young, single mothers were often ostracised from their communities and their families simply because of their pregnancies. They might have been referred to as “trouble makers”, “deviants”, or morally or mentally at fault. In a society where that narrative was widely shared by families, by communities, by Churches and by the Government and Parliament at the time, it was no wonder that many women felt pressured and that they had no other choice but to give up their children.
Lorna gave birth to a girl in 1969. Her boyfriend had thrown her out of the house while she was pregnant and she had ended up squatting in London. As with many women at the time, her family were strict, so she did not feel that she had the option to go back to the family home. She was placed in the care of a religious social worker who forced her to read the Bible regularly simply to account for the dreadful sin of being a single mother-to-be. The Church told her, with no empathy and no compassion, that she had no choice but to give up her daughter for adoption. A few months after the baby was born, Lorna gave her up for adoption and they did not see each other for another 36 years.
Those are just two examples. There are hundreds of Helens and Lornas who have been caught up in this national scandal. They have been waiting patiently for years—in fact, for decades—for some kind of explanation why they were forced to give up their children and for some kind of justice. Lorna says:
“Although an apology cannot heal the pain of separation that thousands of women like myself have had to deal with, I would like to hear someone in authority say that simple word ‘Sorry’. We have a right to it.”
These women, these mothers, absolutely have the right to an apology. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us this opportunity today to amplify support in this Chamber for that call. In her 2013 apology, Julia Gillard said:
“As a nation, we’ve got to be prepared to look in an unflinching way at our past and when we see a wrong, we have got to be prepared to recognise it, name it and act to redress it.”
This is surely something from which all Governments can learn. I hope that it is something that this Government will take note of and act on. The women caught up in this scandal have been trying for too long to achieve justice. Now, the Government have an opportunity to act.
Today is the first anniversary of my maiden speech and this is my 100th contribution in this place. Giving a voice to the voiceless is a central cause that my Labour colleagues and I seek to deliver. Speaking in this debate is a most apt way for me to pursue my purpose in Parliament. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for their touching contributions and for securing this important debate. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I was delighted to support the allocation of the debate.
I would like to share directly the story of a woman from my home city of Leeds, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby. Helen Jeffreys was 17 when she gave birth to her baby son, with no support available, no access to advice and certainly no access to any housing or social benefits. Her son was forcibly taken from Helen and placed for adoption. She said:
“We weren’t given a choice—no offer of support at all, I held out until the last possible moment and it was obvious to everyone that I wanted to keep him but he was quite literally dragged out of my arms.”
Helen’s son was born in Leeds, but placed by the Church of England adoption society in York. He was allowed no contact with his birth mother or father. In a world without fertility treatment, there were many would-be parents desperate to adopt children. As Helen puts it, the culture was
“to get the mothers out of the way as quickly as possible.”
Her son was given no information about his birth mother and father. When Helen requested his adoption file years later, she found a one-page document with many factual inaccuracies. The paper, for example, noted the occupation of the birth mother and father as “art students”, when they were not art students.
Since then, Helen has been reunited with the son she lost many years ago, but we must remember that this is not the end of the story. Television programmes can lead us to believe that a reunion is equivalent to the happy endings that exist in fairy tales. It is, of course, nothing of the sort, and it can bring up all sorts of new issues and challenges that must be dealt with by the families—both adopted and biological.
What happened to Helen and many, many other mothers like her is a national disgrace. It is not history. It is real life pain, grief and suffering that lives on today in the lives of those who have to carry those memories and those histories. I thank Helen for sharing her story with us, but it is time that we gave something back to her and all the other mothers in that situation. We must learn the lessons and understand properly the pain that still exists today. I am sure that this House would agree that Helen deserves an apology, at the very least. Now is surely the time for the Prime Minister to step up to the plate and give Helen and all the other mothers the apology that they deserve.
One can only imagine the stress and heartache that many women face when giving a child up for adoption. For virtually all women, there is an everlasting sense of loss that remains with them throughout their lives and guilt about giving up their child to an unknown future because they are unable to look after their baby. Thankfully, there are support agencies and charities that people can turn to for advice about parenting and adoption. We are also fortunate enough to live in a country where raising a child as a single parent is not taboo and is generally accepted by society. Unfortunately, this was not always the case.
In post-world war two society, there was a moral backlash against women who were pregnant, with some women being thrown out of their parents’ homes for bringing so-called shame and disgrace on them. Social workers and others in authority were not necessarily helpful in counteracting those attitudes, and adoption was pushed on young pregnant women as the only sensible option for them. Pregnant women were then sent to mother and baby homes run by religious or state organisations that made the pain and suffering worse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) so eloquently described, this is where the suffering took place and where the forced adoption happened. They were not advised about things like the National Assistance Act 1948, which was introduced by the Government to help those who were destitute and thus could have helped them. Nor were they advised of any other benefits they could have sought to help them to find a way through the difficult situation they were in.
One such woman was my constituent, Jean Robertson-Molloy, who is present here today and was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). Jean reluctantly had to give up her baby in the 1950s, having been pressured to do so, and her daughter was sent to be adopted in New Zealand. Jean spent years of anguish and guilt wondering what had happened to her daughter and what sort of a person she was developing into. It is hard to know whether this is what inspired Jean to become a social worker, but she dedicated her life to helping others. She was eventually reunited with her daughter, so that story had a happy ending. However, the adoption seriously affected her life and that of her daughter, who felt the same as many children who have been adopted, wondering why they were given up for adoption and why they were rejected.
Jean, realising that her experience was not unique, decided to help found a group called the Movement for an Adoption Apology. This movement has been actively campaigning over the years. It is seeking an acknowledgement and an apology from the Government in recognition of the fact that the state turned a blind eye to the false adoption scandal, causing a great deal of distress and mental anguish to those affected. On 21 March 2013, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave a full apology, on behalf of the Australian Government, for false adoption. Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach of Ireland has also given such an apology recently.
The Movement for an Adoption Apology is asking the Government to do the same. The harm done over the years by forced adoption cannot be undone by an apology, but an apology would go a long way to comforting those affected. Will the Minister therefore ask the Prime Minister please to make such an apology to the mothers and children affected by false adoption, to tell the full story of the false adoption practice that happened all those decades ago but is still very much an issue for those affected and to provide the support that is so desperately needed, still to this day, by everyone who has been affected by this scandal?
The narrative we have heard today, particularly from the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), has expressed all the concerns and high emotions involved in this awful, unjust practice. We have enormous sympathy for mothers who went through this. It is right that our social attitudes have moved on and we now have robust safeguards in place with regard to adoption. I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate.
These mothers were, as we have heard, forced to make extremely upsetting choices simply because of the prevailing moral standard of the time. I know that Scottish Ministers have a great deal of sympathy for those women, whose accumulated experiences clearly show them to be the victims of the prevailing moral and social behaviour of the time. Nowadays, it is only right and just that we have more robust safeguards in place when mothers and other people consider adoption.
It is widely accepted that in the years after world war two until the 1970s, many single mothers were reluctant to part with their babies but, in reality, they were faced with little choice. Public opinion and private moral standards at the time placed enormous pressure on single mothers, making it impossible for many to retain care of their babies. Since the 1970s, there have been major shifts in the way we see the family, single mothers, and the rearing of children. Our society has rightly moved on, and we know that there is nothing wrong with single or unmarried women bringing up children.
The Scottish Government provide funding to Birthlink, which, in turn, provides services to individuals and families separated by adoption. This includes maintaining the adoption contract register for Scotland, whereby the agency helps children, parents and relatives who have been affected by adoption, either by looking for somebody, getting information, or just providing someone to talk to. The notable Scottish author Irvine Welsh is the patron of Birthlink, and he summed up its great work when he said:
“Birthlink is an organisation which brings people together, when often cruel circumstance has parted them. Ultimately, all we have in life is each other, so I’m proud and honoured to be a patron of this wonderful charity.”
I echo his sentiments.
The Scottish Government provide and maintain the adoption contact register for Scotland, as well as services to individual families separated by adoption. They develop partnerships with local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to share expertise and highlight the importance of post-adoption services, with a view to exploring additional sources of income and, importantly, raising the public profile of the adoption contact register for Scotland, increasing the number of service users and improving the current website.
It is right that we have robust safeguards nowadays when people consider adoption in Scotland. For example, should a birth mother want to place her child for adoption, the following will happen. Before the birth, the birth mother and any relative whom the mother has chosen to involve will be offered advice and information about adoption by social work services. If any member of the child’s biological family might be willing to adopt the child and that is something the birth parents wish to consider, information and details of the legal process will be offered. Information will also be offered on the type of families available; what issues can arise for adopted people and birth parents across the life span; and what opportunities birth relatives have to meet prospective adopters. Every effort is made to establish whether the decision is being made freely by the mother and that she is not being pressured by anyone. If wanted, there could be an offer of a referral to counselling services, with ongoing support from social workers.
Once the child is born, arrangements will usually have been made for the child to be placed with foster carers and prospective adopters, but the mother is encouraged to see and hold the child and meet the foster carers or prospective adopters before the child is moved from the hospital. Legally, a mother’s consent is ineffective if it is given fewer than six weeks after the child is born. That is simply to give the mother a chance to bond with the child and an opportunity to change her mind, regardless of any previous discussions. It is not unknown for birth mothers to change their mind following the birth of the child. Should that happen, every encouragement and support is given for her to assume care of her child, unless there are serious child protection concerns.
Once the child is placed with adopters, plans are usually drawn up about what information will be shared between adopters and the birth mother. The mother will be offered a number of follow-up sessions with a social worker, but many choose to get on with their lives at this point. That is a great progression. Facilitating information exchange creates opportunities for the birth mother to link up with the adoption agency and seek additional support if she requires it. The birth parents are eligible for adoption support services. Some agencies offer support groups. Others might refer the mother to mental health services, and birth mothers might contact informal groups via the internet.
In the case of contested adoptions, while social work services within local authorities and other adoption agencies may recommend that a child be placed for adoption, it is ultimately the decision of a court whether to grant an adoption order or not. If one or both of a child’s parents oppose the granting of an adoption, the relevant court must decide whether the parents are unable satisfactorily to discharge their parental responsibilities and exercise their parental rights and are likely to continue to be unable to do so. The welfare of the child is the paramount consideration in the granting of an adoption order. Contested adoptions do not affect discussions about possible information exchange and the support offered to birth parents. However, as birth parents are likely to reject discussions about potential adopters and meeting them and be resistant to adoption plans, they will be unlikely to accept any offers of support available.
To conclude, it is so important to provide lots of TLC and understanding to mothers at this extremely difficult time. We all appreciate the work that Birthlink and other organisations provide to mothers and families at this most sensitive time. We agree that the Government should issue an apology to women and children affected by this practice, and we support the Movement for an Adoption Apology.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing today’s debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I also thank the Movement for an Adoption Apology for its tireless campaigning work.
The pain and suffering that the historical practice of forced adoption caused has largely been expunged from the history books and has received limited attention, yet the physical and emotional scars left behind are very real, very current and have an enduring daily impact on the women, children and families involved. Their suffering is made more painful by the fact that, as each day passes and no formal inquiries of any shape take place, the full truth may never be known. They may never be able to reunite with their children or share with them their story. Worse still, many adopted adults do not seek out their birth parents, as they and their adopters are under the false impression that they were freely, not forcibly, adopted.
At the heart of today’s debate are harrowing human stories, such as those we have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), about thousands of women and the babies that were taken from them after intensive coercion, at times force, and deceit carried out by the very institutions of the state that were supposed to help and support them. There were no choices. Ann Keen, our friend and former colleague—her story was told characteristically eloquently and passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South—very clearly showed that this was not about choices.
This was a cultural attitude fostered by institutions and parts of the state that, instead of acting in the best interests of women and their babies, did the exact opposite. Culturally, the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, when the majority of these forced adoptions took place, was a very different time. That point was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby. Today, adoption orders are largely made as a last resort to keep children safe from harm, but in the post-war years, many women who were pregnant out of wedlock were chastised and deemed unfit for motherhood. Birth control was less reliable, while the contraceptive pill was available to women only from 1967, and even then only to those who were married. Welfare benefits were not as easily accessible, and sex education was non-existent. It was also a time when people held institutions of the state—teachers, welfare and social workers, benefits advisers, NHS staff, the Church and GPs—in much higher regard than they do now. Particularly in working-class communities, anyone who held such a role was respected and listened to by the community, and their advice was acted on, even when the advice was wrong.
This debate has only been made possible by women coming forward and sharing their painful stories. It is my honour, although with a heavy heart, to share a few of them today. Diana Defries, initially out of abject fear, concealed her pregnancy. When she eventually saw her GP, she was shipped off miles away from her home in London to a strict mother and baby home in Southampton. She was made to undertake physical work until she was admitted to hospital to give birth. In the hospital, she was treated like she did not matter. She was separated from her baby, given Valium daily—she refused to take it—and injected with a drug, which is not recommended now, to stop her lactating. After 15 days with her baby, she was taken on a train to Waterloo station. When she arrived, she was taken to the Crusade of Rescue Offices in Ladbroke Grove, and her baby was forcibly taken from her.
Diana was 16 years old when she gave birth to her daughter, Stephanie. She had not long turned 17 when Stephanie was taken from her in October 1974. She received no post-natal care, and she was lied to by social services. She was told she had no other options, and that adoption was the best option. She was told she was too young to receive any help, and a week later she was sent back to school and sworn to secrecy. She has not had any more children, but, thankfully, she is reunited with her daughter. In her words, they have
“had to navigate a lot of challenges”,
and she rightly states that any apology should be for both of them. Attachment is a two-way process: children separated from their birth mothers will, to varying degrees, feel a sense of trauma and loss, no matter how young they are or how long they have spent in their mum’s care.
In 1964 Veronica Smith was 24 years old. She was sent to a private maternity hospital and isolated from everyone she knew, right at the time when she needed them more than ever. She was with her baby for one week until an advert was placed in a local paper, and her baby was fostered and then adopted by strangers. Veronica’s story, like so many others we have heard today, is a story of powerlessness, and of things being done to women, not with them, on the false assertion that they and their babies would be better off that way, and that if they really loved their babies, they would not resist adoption.
Another woman told me that she was raped behind a local pub by her then boyfriend’s brother. Her baby was placed into foster care and adopted at four months old. She described to me her treatment by officials as being characterised by submission and deep shame, but the only shame here should be firmly on the shoulders of those who harmed her and the state institutions that failed her and her baby.
Others have told me of being abused when they were sent away, or being ostracised and subjected to degrading and vicious verbal abuse from professionals. The common thread running through all those stories is one of lies, control, coercion, force, abuse and cruelty, which has led to a lifetime of mental health difficulties, physical harm and emotional distress. For someone not to know where their child is, or whether that child knows that they were forced into giving them up, is a deep and pervasive pain.
Today we are asking for a simple and straightforward act by the Government: an apology to the women, children and families for their enduring pain and undue suffering. As Diana said, such an apology would
“allow us to show the lifelong impact of unexpressed grief for unacknowledged loss.”
In his response, I would like the Minister to explain briefly his Government’s grounds for rejecting a public inquiry, and say whether he is considering other ways of shedding light on these travesties, such as conducting an initial scoping exercise in his Department, or appointing a small team to review the issues raised today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South suggested, he could set up some support groups and make documents available. The Minister does have options available, and I say politely to him that he should use them.
We now live in different times, and although the likelihood of what happened to Ann, Diana, Veronica and thousands more women happening today has diminished, their pain endures every moment of every day. The very least they deserve is an apology, and I sincerely hope that the Minister will confirm that they will get one.
I commend the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this important debate. No one can fail to be moved by the plight of the young mothers and their children whose lives have been blighted by the unacceptable practices of the past, and it is only right that this House acknowledges their unnecessary pain and suffering.
Many of my colleagues have spoken movingly about their constituents. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) spoke about Helen, and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) spoke about Jean Robertson-Molloy, who happens to be the step-mum of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. The hon. Member for Wirral South spoke emotionally and movingly about our former colleague, Ann Keen, and about Helen Jeffreys, and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) outlined the excellent work done by Birthlink.
I wish to add my voice to those of my colleagues, and express my deepest sympathy to all those affected. These women were let down, in many cases by their families who would not support them, but also by professionals and organisations in the sector who allowed society’s moral attitude towards unmarried mothers at that time to influence their practice. As Members have described so eloquently in bringing to life those tragic stories, women were put under enormous pressure, and often faced the stark choice of returning home without their babies or fending for themselves. The devastating consequences for these mothers, and for their sons and daughters, are clear to see. Mothers talk of their feelings of loss, guilt and shame, of their unbearable grief for a lost relationship, and of not knowing whether their child is still alive. We know that many adopted children have suffered too, with overwhelming feelings of rejection, struggling with their identity and difficulties in bonding and forming attachments.
The hon. Member for Wirral South spoke movingly about the experiences of her constituent Sara and Sara’s mother, and the impact on their lives. It is truly shocking to hear how single mothers were treated at that time in our country. Adoptions during that period were generally handled through agencies run by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Salvation Army—they have quite rightly apologised for their involvement in past poor practice.
It is important to recognise and accept that the legislation at the time was not robust enough to prevent what happened. I deeply regret that that was the case. Successive Governments have since taken action to strengthen the legislative framework so that it cannot happen again.
The hon. Member for Wirral South rightly said that it is important to understand what happened in the past and who was responsible. These issues were looked at closely by the Houghton committee in 1972, which covered the key issues of who arranged adoptions and the problems that brought, evidence about mothers being unable to give proper consent to relinquish their babies, and the lack of access to birth records to allow tracing later in life. It also covered the issue the hon. Lady raised about the role of the NHS and private nursing homes and reported that the British Medical Association had called for changes to how adoptions were made. I think it is unlikely that further research will bring new information. Evidence provided from birth parents suggests that record keeping during the time was poor, absent and often inaccurate.
The Minister is making a really worthwhile speech. He just mentioned a report, I think of a committee of this House. Will he be so good as to ensure that the report is made publicly available? He might ask the Library to do that, because it is very important to point to the work that has already been done. It sounds as though it was done a long time ago, so that is something we will want to discuss as we go forward.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point, and I will certainly endeavour to do so.
Let me move on to why lessons have been learned from the past. We are confident that what happened to these mothers and their children could not be repeated today. Society now takes a very different attitude to single mothers. The legislative framework has been transformed beyond recognition. Today, the key principle is that children are generally best looked after within their family, with their parents playing a full part in their lives. Single mothers are given the support they need so that they can remain as a family. That is as it should be, as I am sure we all agree.
Can the Minister clarify that the report he has referred to was produced in 1972?
Yes—I did say that when I referred to it.
Children can only be removed permanently by a court without the consent of the parents if the court is satisfied that the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to suffer significant harm if they remain with their birth family. Courts must consider all the evidence put before them, including evidence from the parents themselves, who will have legal representation. Adoption agencies and fostering services are now inspected by Ofsted, whose role is to ensure that practice is in line with the legal framework.
For the mothers who are at the heart of this debate, it is essential that they are able to trace their children and that their children can establish their parentage. The hon. Member for Wirral South called on the Government to work with organisations that support people who experienced the consequences of historical forced adoption to create a small service that will help with tracing family and support. Those affected by past adoption practices can already access intermediary services to help them to trace their birth children or birth parents and establish whether contact is possible.
Intermediary services are provided by registered adoption agencies, including local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and registered adoption support agencies. When an intermediary agency finds a person, contact can be arranged if both parties agree. Birth relatives and adopted adults can also add their details to the adoption contact register at the General Register Office to find a birth relative or an adopted person. There is support for birth parents and adult adoptees who have suffered with mental anguish and illness. In addition to the NHS mental health services available for those with conditions such as stress and depression, a number of voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies offer specialist birth family counselling, often under contract to local authorities.
I should like to thank again the hon. Members for Wirral South and for Liverpool, West Derby for today’s debate. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), asked specifically about a public inquiry. None of us disputes that these women were victims of poor adoption practice all those years ago, but I believe that it is unlikely that a public inquiry would uncover new facts. We believe that the lessons of the time have been learned and have led to significant change both to legislation and practice now. No child is removed from their birth family unless they have suffered significant harm or are at risk of such harm, and of course, parents have legal representatives.
The Minister referred to a 1972 inquiry. Does he recognise that a lot of the mothers who have now spoken openly would not have done so at that time, and I imagine would therefore not have had an opportunity to have their voices heard in that inquiry? That is the case for some kind of process, be it a public inquiry or some other process leading to an apology now.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I do take it on board. I am very happy to meet one or both hon. Members—the hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for Wirral South—and if they bring the mothers with them, I can hear directly from them as well.
I hope that all those affected can take some comfort in the knowledge that what happened to them is so public and is on public record for all to see and understand. This House rightly acknowledges that this appalling historical practice has left a legacy of hurt and pain. I hope that where possible, many a mother and a child can be reunited and be given the comfort of building a family relationship.
It has been my pleasure and honour to lead on this debate. I thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who gave an excellent speech, as well as the Minister, who has listened carefully. I will make a couple of brief remarks on what he has just said. His offer to meet us was very welcome and will be taken up. We might then talk in some detail privately about the reasons why local authority services might not always be able to meet the need that there certainly is, and a little more about why it is crucial that the Government consider a public apology, delivered by the Prime Minister. I will look forward to speaking directly with the Minister on that point.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who all participated in an eloquent way. Most of all, I thank the women who are the reason we are here today. I am glad that we have opened the door to their stories, which are now on record. They have been through an awful lot just to get to the House today. I hope that the House’s affirmation for the motion will lead to a broader acknowledgement of our history, of past practices, and of why those practices were so very wrong.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House recognises the pain and suffering that the historical practice of forced adoption caused many women and children; and calls on the Government to issue an apology to women and children affected by that practice.