The fires that burn

October 16, 2002 ,

OCTOBER 16 is a conspicuous date in parliamentary history. On that day in 1834 the Houses of Parliament burnt down when a fire of wooden exchequer tallies from the Middle Ages raged out of control.

All efforts were concentrated on saving Westminster Hall, where the Great lie in State, and its magnificent medieval hammer beam ceiling. The House of Commons and the Lords were abandoned to the flames. Today's Parliament was built in the aftermath of the great conflagration.

I know this date by heart, because 125 years later, on the same day, I was born.
It's strange to be away from home and family on your birthday, and odd to find that as an MP your birthday is printed in the national newspapers.

I now know that I share mine with Davina McCall, Max Bygraves and Angela Lansbury.
It was a working day for me, and I took a pledge that not a drop would pass my lips before 11pm, even though I caught some of the big match. I had to speak in the House at 10.45pm on the ASW pension issue.

But despite that, it was a very happy birthday for me, because it brought about a change which I have fought for since I came into the House of Commons last year.
Across the country there are thousands of women whose children were adopted long ago, when having a child out of wedlock carried a heavy social stigma. In many cases young women were effectively coerced into giving up their babies.

It is an issue which has been somewhat over-shadowed in the Adoption Bill by the debate on allowing unmarried couples to adopt.

Many of these women are now in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Many of them wake up every morning and wonder what happened to their child.

I met one lady in her 80s, Irene, who had wondered throughout her adult life what happened to her daughter. Each year she wrote a card on her child's birthday which could never be sent.

Finally she plucked up the courage to try to search through records to find out. At every turn she was frustrated by officialdom.

She had no legal right to any information, not even to pass a message on through a go-between to say that she would like to make contact if her daughter agreed.

In other cases, brothers and sisters, separated by adoption, had no right in adulthood to contact their sibling. They knew they had a brother or sister. They knew their birthdays. But the secrecy surrounding adoption prevented even the passing of a message.

The law rightly gives the adopted adult the right to reject any request for contact, but will now allow birth parents and relatives the right to try and make contact via an intermediary, to see if the adopted adult would like to meet.

All the research shows that the vast majority of adopted people welcome contact, and that it makes no difference to their love of the parents who adopted and brought them up.

For Irene, this change came too late. After ten years of searching. A kindly official bent the rules to tell her the sad truth, which had been sitting in the files all along.

Her daughter had died when she was still a little girl. A law which stopped an old lady from finding this out for ten cruel years was inhumane; and the decision of government to change the law was the best birthday present I could have had.
Along, of course, with the magnificent win by Wales.