Nadhim Zahawi responds, on behalf of the Government, to a debate on the historical practice of forced adoption in the UK and the legacy of pain and suffering that remains.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)
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.