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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Apr 1934

Vol. 18 No. 14

Registration of Maternity Homes Bill, 1934—Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The purpose of this Bill is to make provision for the registration and inspection of maternity homes. Hitherto there has been no official control over maternity homes. It was quite open to any person to carry on a maternity home, and there was no machinery in existence to ensure that it was efficiently managed or that the premises in which it was carried on were suitable or in a good sanitary condition. Local authorities had power under Section 17 of the Midwives (Ireland) Act, 1918, to enter maternity homes, but that section related merely to the supervision of midwives and not to the home itself or to the persons other than midwives employed therein. It may be contended that there is no more necessity to supervise maternity homes than there is in the case of the voluntary hospitals that are very successfully conducted in different parts of the country. Doubtless there are maternity homes under suitable control and efficient management, but against that it is a well-known fact that in some of our large cities there are maternity homes of a very poor class which are availed of largely by unmarried mothers. We are not at all satisfied that those homes are properly managed. As a matter of fact, we have information to the contrary in the report published in 1927 on the relief of the sick and destitute poor. The Commission drew attention to different evils which they traced to the poor-class maternity homes, or to the not too scrupulous management of those homes, particularly the connivance of the management at the secret disposal of children to unsuitable foster parents, and the consequent high death rate amongst the children.

In the Bill we propose to take steps as far as we can, to remedy those evils. The scope of the Bill is extended as widely as possible. Its provisions will apply to any premises wholly or partly used or intended to be used for the reception of pregnant women or of women immediately after childbirth. The administration of this measure will be entrusted locally to the local authorities who now exercise supervision under the Midwives (Ireland) Act, 1918. These are the county borough councils in the county boroughs and elsewhere the boards of health for the joint county districts. Each local authority will be bound under clause 3 of the Bill to keep a register of the maternity homes in its administrative area. Any person who proposes to carry on a maternity home in the functional area of the local authority may apply to have the home registered in the register kept by the local authority. The local authority will have power to refuse registration but if they do not refuse registration, they must enter the prescribed particulars of the home in the register.

The local authority may refuse registration if satisfied that the applicant is not a fit and proper person to carry on the home, or that the premises are unsuitable, or, in the case of a home which did not exist before the passing of the Act, the superintendent nurse is not a qualified nurse or a certified midwife. The local authority may also cancel registration for similar reasons or if the person registered has been convicted of an offence under the Act. There will be provision for an appeal to the Minister against the decision of the local authority refusing to register a maternity home or cancelling registration. The Minister may, as he thinks proper, uphold or reverse the decision of the local authority. The Minister may, if he so thinks fit, grant exemption from registration to any hospital or institution which is a maternity home but is not carried on for private profit. Any such exemption may, at any time, be withdrawn by the Minister. I might also draw attention to the provision made for the records to be kept in the maternity homes. These records will show particulars of receptions, discharges, confinements, miscarriages, births, deaths, the removal of children and the addresses to which they are removed. The records should contain full details of the work done in the home.

The Bill provides for the inspection of maternity homes and the records kept therein by the Minister's inspectors and by authorised officials of the local authority. When this Bill comes into force it shall not be lawful for any person to carry on a maternity home either registered by the local authority or exempted from registration by the Minister and the penalty for failure to observe this requirement may be a very salutary one, namely, a fine not exceeding £50 and, in case of a continuing offence, a fine not exceeding £10 for every day during which the offence is continued. In the interests of both mothers and children the Minister considers that the provisions proposed by this Bill are essential and he hopes that he may soon be in a position to bring the measure into operation.

I shall only say that this Bill has been spoken of for many years. The problem was considered so urgent during the sitting of the Poor Law Commission in 1927 that the Commission recommended that all private maternity homes should be licensed annually by the local authority and that no licence should be granted unless the home was properly and suitably equipped for the purpose and that it was in charge of a respectable person trained in maternity care and nursing. I think that backs the Bill better than any speech of mine could.

I am glad that Senator Mrs. Wyse Power has spoken on this measure but I think probably there is a point or two in the Bill which is open to discussion. I quite agree that it is desirable that wherever children are born, especially children of unmarried mothers, the place should be registered and that registration should be granted only in the case of a person who is qualified and to premises which are suitable. I think the Parliamentary Secretary is wise in giving relief from these restrictions in cases where maternity homes are already in existence but where I would, I think, differ from the Minister is here. In Section 4 he makes provision for cases of disobedience to his orders. Here is the provision he makes:

If any person acts in contravention of this section (that is, in relation to carrying on a maternity home in the case of a person who is unsuitable or of premises that are not suitable), such person shall be guilty of an offence under this section and shall be liable on summary conviction thereof to a fine not exceeding £50 and in the case of a continuing offence under this section to a further fine not exceeding £10 for every day during which the offence is committed.

I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary knows much more than I do about matters of this kind, which are medical matters, but it seems to me, as an ordinary man, that that penalty is not sufficient because the maternity home that would be likely to come under the lash of an Act like this would be a maternity home that would not be well conducted and that would probably be in the hands of a person to whom a fine of £10 would be the same as a fine of £1,000,000 or a fine of 6d. Therefore, subject to what the Seanad may consider wise, I think that this case can only be met in the last resort by having a penalty which is not a monetary penalty but a penalty of imprisonment. No doubt the Minister has considered that.

The next matter in the Bill to which I would like to draw attention is this. There is provision here for exemption. There is exemption in the case of an institution which is a maternity home that is not carried on for private profit. Why should there be any exemption? If an hospital or maternity home is carried on on any such extensive and efficient scale, why should they not go to the trouble of registering, so that we may have all maternity homes registered and so that they may set a good example to others? I admit that the main object of the measure is to prevent the possibility of children of unmarried mothers and others from being born in places that are not suitable and cared for by people who are not qualified. In that respect I think it is a most useful measure and I am greatly surprised that this matter has not been legislated for long ago. I think it is a most useful measure and urgently needed, but I do think that all homes should be registered where children are born and that for failure to register or for carrying on a maternity home in contravention of the statute, the ultimate penalty should be imprisonment.

I think that the Bill, as introduced by the Parliamentary Secretary, is quite sufficient to deal with the problem with which the Minister wants to deal. It is, unfortunately, true that there is a problem that requires urgently to be dealt with and the Minister has introduced the Bill to deal with that problem. There is no use in talking about the semipublic maternity homes that are not run for profit and that everybody knows are carried on quite correctly. Unfortunately there are certain homes carried on for profit, where a trade almost is done in children. It is regrettable to have to say these things but, unfortunately, it is true. There are deals made by people who carry on these alleged homes with regard to how much they will take to get people to take charge of the children. That is the problem that has to be dealt with. Of course there are other maternity homes that might require supervision, but I think on the whole the Minister is dealing very adequately with the problem. I think we ought to pass the Bill as speedily as possible to allow him to get on with the work of registration of these homes.

In regard to the point raised by Senator Comyn and Senator Farren, the definition of maternity homes sets out:—

The expression "maternity home" means any premises which are wholly or partly used or intended to be used for the reception of pregnant women or of women immediately after childbirth.

All such institutions come under the scope of the Bill, but then under Section 7 the Minister has power to exempt. That means that there must be positive exemption before any institution can get outside the scope of the Bill. All these institutions will come under review. It is very desirable to leave that discretionary power with the Minister, having in mind mainly the charitable institutions that the Minister might consider could be very well left out of the scope of the Bill. I think that is the only point. On the question as to whether imprisonment is a better deterrent than a fine. I will look into that. I think, if all that we hear about the economic conditions be true, there are people who would prefer to go to gaol for a considerable period rather than pay a fine of £50.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 18th April.