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Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 16, 2021


Historical Forced Adoption

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. Members should take care to observe the measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber, and they should use the aisles and walkways only to access seats and when moving around the chamber.

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-00138, in the name of Monica Lennon, on historical forced adoption. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak button.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament condemns the historical practice of forced adoption, where up to 250,000 mothers were unfairly coerced, resulting in their new-born babies being taken away from unmarried mothers; notes that, in the UK, it is estimated 60,000 of the women resided in Scotland; acknowledges that the babies were taken away against their mother’s will and placed for adoption; understands that lawyers examining the birth mothers’ cases have focused on the period between 1945 and 1975, before a change in the UK adoption law, when around 500,000 babies were adopted, mostly from mothers who were under 24, denying them the right to care for their children; notes the view that the UK and Scottish governments should follow the lead of the Australian Government in 2013, by taking responsibility for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, and further notes calls for the Scottish Government to initiate an inquiry regarding the practice in Scotland, acknowledge to the public through a formal apology that there had been wrongdoings and ensure that support is available to women and families in Central Scotland and across the country who have had to live with the consequences of the actions of government in the past.


Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I am grateful to members for supporting the motion and for taking part in the debate.

Historical forced adoption was most common from the 1950s to the 1970s, but the pain of the victims continues to this day. What happened was beyond cruel. Women were shamed for being pregnant outside marriage. State-sanctioned abuse made them believe that they were unfit to be mothers. That can never be justified.

The practice of separating unmarried mothers from their babies and removing those babies for adoption was not unique to Scotland and the United Kingdom. In other countries—notably Australia, Canada and Ireland—Governments have apologised on behalf of the state for the injustice that changed the course of the victims’ lives for ever. There has been no inquiry and no apology for the 60,000 women in Scotland who were the victims of forced adoption. Many women have already gone to their graves believing that they were bad mothers.

Dr Cynthia McVey, who has spent decades supporting the victims of forced adoption, says that many of those women will never be able to forgive themselves without an apology from the Scottish Government. I cannot think of one single good reason to delay or deny them a formal apology.

Evelyn Robinson was a victim of forced adoption in Edinburgh when she was 19. Her journey took her to Australia, where she became part of the Australian apology, which was issued by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard on behalf of the Australian Government in 2013. That landmark apology shows us what is possible and continues to give hope to women in Scotland. In Gillard’s opening words, she said:

“Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering.”

If Australia can acknowledge the profound effects of such policies, why can Scotland not do so? Campaigners in Scotland have been waiting for eight years to hear those words from the Scottish Government. The act of forced adoption is the historical injustice that we are debating tonight, but the lack of an apology is today’s injustice.

Award-winning journalist Marion Scott has supported campaigners for more than a decade, giving them a platform and forcing us, the politicians, to listen. Marion is a fierce advocate for women and I hope that her persistence pays off. Time is running out for the women Marion supports.

Two weeks ago, my colleague Neil Bibby spoke powerfully at First Minister’s question time on behalf of his constituent Marion McMillan, a victim of forced adoption who continues to campaign for an apology despite being terminally ill. I have a statement from Marion, whose son was taken for adoption from a mother and baby home in 1967. Marion said:

“I sincerely hope that Scotland will finally take the opportunity to make an official apology to the 60,000 vulnerable mothers who had their babies taken from them simply because they were not married.

What happened to all of us was a dreadful abuse of our human rights, and set in motion lifelong pain and psychological damage to the women and the children.

Mothers spent their lives searching for the babies they were forced to hand over.

I remember crying and telling the authorities that my baby already had a mummy. But they simply took my son from my arms, and left me weeping.

Our children suffered too. They also had no choice in what happened to them.

Many were left deeply scarred, told their mother did not want them, or their mother was dead. Those policies condemned many to a lifetime searching for who they really are, looking for their parents within a system which put many barriers in the way of any reunion.

In 2015, I met with government ministers to ask if Scotland would take the step taken by Australia, an official apology is something which would acknowledge the wrong that was done to all of us.

It saddened me greatly the opportunity was not taken then.

However, I hope the government will listen carefully now to the personal stories of those affected, and finally take the step of apologising for what was done.

Those simple three words ‘we are sorry’ seem to have been the hardest of all, and we cannot understand why?

Scotland still has the opportunity to lead the way in the UK by doing this, and I hope the support from all political parties will show that the time is right for us to do the right thing.”

It is clear that Marion McMillan is not giving up, despite the bombshell revelation reported in The Ferret today that, ahead of that ministerial meeting in 2015, Scottish Government officials warned ministers not to apologise, and to avoid the issue when meeting Marion and other campaigners. Documents that have been released to The Ferret confirm that. I have the briefing to SNP ministers in my hand. It warns:

“A commitment to replicate the public apology made by Australia on forced adoptions should be resisted.”

Officials also contacted the UK Government to ask for a steer on the issue, and the Department for Education confirmed:

“our lines also resist calls for a public apology.”

Although it is welcome that the Joint Committee on Human Rights in Westminster, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, will be investigating historical forced adoption, we simply cannot wait for the UK Government to act. I know that the minister is due to meet her UK Government counterpart, but it is time for the Scottish Government to act.

In 2015, a University of Edinburgh report warned the Scottish ministers that as many as one in three mothers with experience of forced adoption might suffer from severe mental health issues. Researchers concluded that

“tens of thousands of birth mothers in Scotland would benefit from acknowledgement of their experiences and an offer of help in dealing with the life-long consequences of adoption.”

I appeal to the minister and to Nicola Sturgeon not to wait for the UK Government to act, to ditch the bad advice and to find the compassion and courage to do the right thing. They should deliver this long overdue apology and finally give the women and the families that were affected the recognition and support that they deserve.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in this very important debate, and I thank Monica Lennon for lodging the motion and bringing the debate to the chamber.

This is a story that has to be told. It is a terrible indictment of our society that, not so long ago, in my lifetime, an estimated 60,000 women had their child forcibly removed after birth simply because they were not married. The cruelty and inhumanity of that beggars belief. As a mother, I cannot imagine the horror of it.

I am aware of women who have suffered that trauma—women who were told that their grandmother was their mother and whose mum was the woman whom they had thought of all their life as their sister. Despite that being utterly wrong and against all the rights of the biological mother, at least those women grew up with the child in their life.

Many women, such as Marion McMillan, whom we heard Monica Lennon speak about and who featured in the excellent report by Marion Scott in the Sunday Post, did not even have that. I am talking about women not just in Scotland or the United Kingdom but throughout the world. In 1967, Marion McMillan was a single teenage mum from Stranraer who was forced to hand over her baby at a Salvation Army mother and baby home. She begged to keep him, but he was given to a married couple, and Marion did not see him again for almost 40 years. Ironically, she was unaware that, while she was searching for him, he spent years searching for her.

Speaking to the Sunday Post, Marion said:

“We were vulnerable young women who were bullied and told if we really loved our babies, we’d give them up so they could have a mummy and a daddy.

I remember crying and telling them ‘but I’m his mummy’, and begging them not to take my son. I was told not to be silly. I’d get over it and I could always have other babies when I was married.”

Incredibly, despite her lifelong trauma, Marion found the strength to reunite hundreds of mums and their children, and she gave testimony to Australia to secure an official apology there in 2013. She is also spearheading a campaign to get an official apology for mothers across Scotland, which Monica Lennon calls for in her motion. I whole-heartedly support that, and I am pleased that, in the chamber just a few weeks ago, the First Minister expressed her support for it, too.

Marion said:

“I can’t express how important an official apology is. It’s unimaginable something like this could happen in Scotland. But it did and the legacy of pain devastated many lives, especially those who never found each other.”

There are thousands of silent, traumatised women in Scotland who will relate to that—whose pain and anguish has been held within them for years. An apology will not right the wrongs that have been done to them but, if it gives them some comfort, it should happen.

What happened to those women was unforgivable. Thankfully, it would not happen today, but it serves as a reminder that we must always be aware that equality and women’s rights must never be rolled back. I am talking about women’s health; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex equality; misogyny; violence against women; reproduction rights; pension rights; and much more. We must never allow those who would push their own agenda of judgment and moral high ground to impede the advances that we have made in equality.

What has happened to 60,000 women in Scotland should serve as a reminder that human rights and democracy can be fragile. I want the women who have suffered that inhumanity to achieve not just an apology but a promise from us as legislators in the Parliament that we will protect future generations, including their children and grandchildren, from ever having to face the horror that they have had to endure throughout their lives.


Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

I commend Monica Lennon for securing the debate and bringing an important issue to the Parliament.

Every member in the chamber recognises the pain and suffering that the historical practice of forced adoption has caused to many women and children throughout Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. I add my voice to those of my colleagues and express my deepest sympathy to every person who has been impacted by those events for the anguish that they have felt.

Behind each figure that is mentioned in the motion is a young woman who found herself unexpectedly pregnant and was hidden away from society and told to give up her child because she was unmarried. The women behind those figures were told that by organisations that they trusted. Some were told that it was for the best, some were berated and it was even suggested to some that they were unsuitable mothers. Others were told that it was for their own self-respect that they should hand over their newborn baby to a married couple who could look after the child better, as they had stability. There was no support, and there was very little sympathy. It was a matter of having the child adopted or finding a way to fend for themselves.

In preparation for the debate, I read stories about women who had had their child taken from them. I could not believe the stories that I read. Women pretended to be married to keep their child, and women tried to hide their babies. Others sought refuge with a charity before their child was taken from them. The policy was horrific, and I can only imagine how those women must have felt losing the child whom they loved.

Since 1975, many brave women have put their head above the parapet to talk about their experience and how they lost a child, not due to an illness or sad circumstance but simply because they had fallen pregnant at a young age. One of the many stories that I read was that of Marion McMillan, who is rightly campaigning for the Government to investigate historical forced adoption in Scotland and issue a formal apology. It is disappointing that, after six years of hard work and effort, Marion and others are still waiting for their apology. Although we all accept that society has come a long way since then and that attitudes towards younger parents have changed, for the women who were told to give up their child, the pain and suffering live on.

Many women who were affected are now in their 70s or 80s, and time is of the essence. As Monica Lennon said, some women have sadly passed away without hearing the apology. We know that an apology will not rectify the life-changing events that young mothers experienced, but it could go some way to acknowledging the wrongdoing and how they were failed by organisations, Governments and society.

The devastating consequences for the mothers and their adopted children are clear. The mothers often talk about how they feel guilty, how they are ashamed and how they grieve, as many do not know whether their child is still alive. The adopted children have also suffered. Those who are reunited with their mothers can feel rejected and can struggle to reconnect and bond, as they spent the majority of their life living with an adopted family and not their biological parent. In truth, those people were severely let down by society. That is why the Scottish Conservatives agree that an inquiry should take place regarding the practice of adoption in Scotland, and that a formal apology should be issued as soon as possible to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

I also strongly agree with the wording of Monica Lennon’s motion in relation to the support that must be offered to families who were impacted by historical forced adoption. As I mentioned, women have been campaigning for an apology for more than six years. In 2013, Australia became the first country in the world to apologise for its history of forced adoptions. We can no longer drag our heels on this important issue. We need to follow Australia’s example and ensure that we provide the women and children who have been impacted with a heartfelt and appropriate apology.

I support the motion that has been brought before the Parliament. MSPs have a duty to start an inquiry soon and to ensure that those who were impacted receive the outcome and the justice that they deserve.


Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Forced adoptions, in which women were coerced by those more powerful than them to give up their babies—as happened to many young Scottish women in the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s—are perhaps among the most heinous of injustices that our society has inflicted on women. They were a tragedy for all involved: for the babies taken from their mother’s arms and forced to live with no knowledge of their birth parents or wider family; for the families whose relationships were often broken beyond repair; and for the women, who were shamed and shunned by society. We should never forget or ignore the appalling cruelties that were inflicted on those young women—some of whom we would now perceive as being children themselves at the time—or the lack of power and agency that they had.

I therefore congratulate my colleague Monica Lennon on facilitating the debate. Forced adoption is one of the greatest hidden and untold scandals of the 20th century. As Monica Lennon and others have outlined, the scale is truly staggering. It is nearly five years since STV screened a documentary on the subject that exposed the injustice of forced adoption on national television, yet the women and their children are still waiting for the Scottish Government to issue an apology on behalf of the entire nation. The Sunday Post has drawn attention to the tragedy and to the hurt that was inflicted on my constituent Marion McMillan and her son, as well as to Marion’s long campaign for Scottish ministers to say sorry.

Marion, who was originally from Stranraer and now lives in Paisley, was 17 when she was sent to a Salvation Army mother and baby home. There, her son was taken from her, even though she begged for him to stay. Marion speaks movingly about hearing her baby crying in a nearby room and having to sneak in to cover him because contact was forbidden and was punished with extra chores. Newspapers have printed one of the only photographs of a young Marion with her baby son, which was taken with a camera that the mothers had to hide so that they could have a permanent reminder of the short precious time that they would have together with their babies.

Marion’s baby was eventually adopted and she was told that she could be jailed if she ever attempted to find him. Despite the fact that they both searched for each other, it was 40 years before Marion and her son would meet again. To its credit, the Salvation Army has apologised to Marion, but many other organisations that were involved in the cruelty of forced adoption have yet to apologise.

For years, Marion worked to support women from around the world who experienced such injustice. She helped to reunite families. Alongside Evelyn Robinson and many others, she gave evidence in support of a national apology in Australia. Australia went on to become the first country in the world to issue a formal apology for what happened.

As Monica Lennon said, Marion now has terminal cancer and her dying wish is that the Scottish Government will follow where Australia led and issue a formal apology to the women and children here who suffered as she did for so many years.

The women affected are largely now in their 70s and 80s. As others have said, sadly, many are no longer with us. However, it is vitally important that what they went through is acknowledged and remembered for generations to come, so let there be a permanent record in the Parliament of Marion’s words:

“We were told we were unfit and inadequate and that our babies would suffer if we denied them the chance to have two parents to love and look after them. We were told if we really loved them, we’d let them go to a good home, that we’d be selfish not to sign the papers. Our only sin was to fall in love in a different era.”

She said:

“an official apology ... would mend some of our pain.”

This has been a shameful chapter in Scotland’s history. It is time for the Scottish Government to acknowledge that and issue the apology that Marion and many others have waited for for so long. Marion deserves to have her dying wish granted.


Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I congratulate Monica Lennon on securing this evening’s debate on an extremely important, sensitive and, indeed, heartbreaking issue.

I want to contribute to the debate as one of the few female members of the Parliament who was around as a teenager and a young woman in the 1960s and 1970s. I want to put the issue in the context of the time. Contraception was top secret. Young men would go to the barber’s to be offered “something for the weekend”. Contraception for women was not publicised or available except in the context of marriage and, even then, it was difficult to access. Parents—mine, at least—told their children nothing about sex. Indeed, it was almost a taboo subject. In my day at school, there was no sex education. We had to pick up bits of information from magazines, science textbooks and friends, and much of what friends said was often simply wrong.

“Good girls” did not have sex out of wedlock but, for boys, it could be put down to “sowing their wild oats”. Those terms were much in currency then, but how odd they sound now. The consequences of becoming pregnant for an unmarried girl were drastic, particularly for those for whom there was adoption under duress, of which I knew nothing then. The girl was labelled cruelly as “a slag” and her child as “a bastard”. Those are not terms that I endorse, but they were common and accepted parlance at the time.

In most cases, the girl’s options—the boy was not usually held to blame—were limited. If the family was supportive—some were—there could be a shotgun wedding to the father, who was usually young, too. Alternatively, as others have said, the child, once born, could be presented as the child of the grandmother and the child’s mother as a sibling. The other options were adoption, often under family pressure or what later became known as institutional duress, and, of course, illegal abortion and all the ensuing dangers.

That was the culture of the day, to which I, like my peers, subscribed. The contraception that was used by most girls and young women then was fear of pregnancy and that alone. It was only with the introduction of the contraceptive pill that women were able to take control of their sex lives and relationships, and when and if they had children. That had a huge liberating impact on them. As I look back on those days through the prism of retrospect, I say now that it was so wrong and so unfair to women, who often paid a huge price: entering too young into marriages that were unhappy for both parties; masquerading as a sister of the baby; abortion; or forced adoption.

This is more controversial. Do I think that current Governments should apologise? The wrongs that were committed were not wrongs against the pervading culture but wrongs that were in tune with it. In general terms, the question is whether it is relevant to ask those who are in power today to apologise for historical actions that society willingly accepted at the time. That is why I hesitate to support what are known as official apologies. I recognise why women seek them, but I sometimes wonder what their value is in real terms.

Monica Lennon

We in Parliament were all proud when the First Minister gave an apology to men who had sex with men who were criminalised because of who they loved. That was the right thing to do and it had huge value. Do these women not deserve the same?

Christine Grahame

This is a personal view and nothing to do with the Government. Even in that case, I thought, “What is this about an official apology?” What we need to do is right the wrongs of today. In my view, if we go back through history, where do we stop? What things do we apologise officially for, and what do we not apologise for?

Do not think for one minute that I am diminishing the position of the women. I knew that it would be a difficult point, but I felt that it is necessary to say it. Sometimes we use an official apology as a solution when it is not.

I will come to Monica Lennon’s point about homosexuals. Just as homosexuals were once pilloried, even criminalised, the blame does not lie on those today or even on those in the past—not if society willingly accepted those moral rules, wrong and cruel as we now correctly say they are. We cannot apologise for everything in the past that is rightly seen as wrong today, even though it was very wrong. Each generation must be responsible for the mores by which it lives and regulates its citizens, if it is done by the consent of the citizens.

However, when historical actions breach the laws and morals of that society, there must be accountability. Forced adoption, by its very terms, was morally and legally wrong. That is why I support a UK-wide inquiry into which institutions are responsible for those actions. It is they who should be held to account and from whom apologies, at the very least, are due. I am talking about continuing institutions.

Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

That is a very considered point about individual responsibility for the issue. However, Parliament does something to embody the nation, the spirit of the nation, and the population as a whole. If we as a community can apologise to people who have been so grievously wronged, our Parliament will perform that higher role in our country. Do we consider that to be a worthwhile thing to do?

Christine Grahame

That is an interesting debating point, but we would then have to decide how far back to go and what particular wrongs that we now recognise as wrongs should be apologised for. Do we rank them? There is a big philosophical debate to be had here and I had to say what I have said because I have always had issues with us taking this route without proper consideration.

If an apology gives the women comfort, should that not be why we do it? If it gives them comfort, surely it is the right thing to do.

Christine Grahame

As I said, I want us to examine how far back we should go and who else will come along, but by no means am I diminishing what happened to those women. I want to separate the pain and anguish caused by institutions and individuals from the general question of official apologies, where we are going with them, what they mean, how far back we have to go, which cases we take up, and so on. This is an important matter to explore, and I have threaded it into this debate because I feel a certain discomfort when we say that we will just badge everything with an official apology. I think that that is worth discussing.

We should seek apologies from those individuals and institutions that were to blame. Thankfully, today we have different values. Women and their rights have come a long way, although there is still much to do. Adoption laws have moved on; I remember it happening when I was a lawyer. The biological parents in an adoption can retain rights to contact with their child. They used just to be wiped away, and that was bad.

We must recognise the awful pain and guilt that these mothers, who were often young, endured then and endure to this day. As a mother of two, I cannot begin to understand how awful it must feel for them. We need to help them to reconnect—if they wish, and if it is appropriate, to do so—through the various agencies with their children, who are now grown-ups. That is what Governments today should do, while recognising so much that was wrong all those decades ago by initiating an inquiry, supporting and helping those mothers when such support and help are needed and requested, and calling to account those who are to blame.

Thank you. I notice that Ms Grahame herself is impervious to the waving of “the Christine Grahame pen”. [Laughter.] I call Miles Briggs.


Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I welcome you to your position in Parliament and congratulate Monica Lennon on lodging this important motion for debate—I was pleased to give it my full support. I also congratulate my friend and colleague Meghan Gallacher on her excellent speech, and I welcome her to the Parliament.

In her contribution, Christine Grahame set out an important historical context. I do not necessarily agree with the conclusion that she reached regarding a national apology, but the first part of her speech set the context, which many of us find completely alien and shocking.

Debates such as this make me desperately want to see the day when Parliament can open its doors and let the public back in. I think that we would have seen a full public gallery for tonight’s members’ business debate, and I have no doubt that the people who are watching want their voices to be heard in the Parliament.

The forced adoption scandal has clearly directly affected mothers, and this evening we have heard from many members, in harrowing terms, about the unimaginable impact that the scandal continues to have—every waking moment of their lives—on the mothers who are still alive. However, we must also consider the impact that it has had on children and fathers.

I will use the time that I have this evening to speak about my constituent Marjorie White, who is 70. A former nursery teacher, Marjorie believes that she is one of the oldest forced adoption babies in Scotland today. Marjorie spent 30 years searching for her father, Peter McAllister, only for him to sadly die before they could meet in person. She says that the frustration and sadness of being unable to hug her own dad, and of having only a few short conversations on the phone, was truly devastating and traumatic for them both. Marjorie was deeply affected by the sheer waste of it all. She has spoken out now because she believes that the children of forced adoption were never given a choice and many of them are suffering equally today.

Marjorie believes that Scotland needs to find a way to make records more accessible to individuals who are trying to trace their parentage. We have not really touched on that aspect in the debate. Marjorie spent her whole adult life searching for her father and was able to discover the link; however, for many people, the current systems put up barriers to their being able to find out about their past. It is important to consider that, because, with advances in modern medicine, people want to investigate whether they are at risk from genetic diseases, cancers and other illnesses that might be passed through the generations. That is an important aspect of the debate, because it is only possible for people to investigate if there is a way for them to access family medical records. That is a debate for another day, but it is one that we should have, because people are asking the Parliament to consider the matter.

It is increasingly important—and, arguably, now a basic human right—that individuals know whether they are at risk from a genetic disease. I would welcome a response from the minister, perhaps in writing, about how that aspect of the debate can be considered.

The true extent of the scandal whereby mothers were forced to give up their babies for adoption between the 1950s and 1980s because they were not married is only now being truly understood. As others have done, I thank the Sunday Post and, most important, campaigning journalist Marion Scott, for the relentless campaign that they have led over a number of years to uncover the personal stories, which were difficult for the affected people to tell. For many women, that period of our history destroyed their right to a family life, and they have had to live with their experiences in secret.

Today, many of them will be reading stories about the scandal or watching interviews about it on national television—they might even be watching the debate. That will be retraumatising for them. In many cases, it will also be difficult, if not impossible, to tell their partners, children and grandchildren about that period of their personal history. Therefore, we need to ensure that consideration is given to what support must be made available for the women who come forward. I hope that ministers will start discussions about that as soon as possible.

Like Monica Lennon, I pay particular tribute to Marion McMillan, who is a truly remarkable lady. She has driven forward the campaign and should be incredibly proud of what she has achieved for so many women. Many people owe her a great deal for the strength that she has shown. If it had not been for her bravery in telling her heartbreaking story, many people would never have known about this dreadful human rights scandal in Scotland whereby 60,000 mums had their babies taken away and families were torn apart. The damage done was incalculable. It is only now that we know how many people were impacted, although it might be that we are really only starting to scratch the surface of the scandal.

I welcome the First Minister’s commitment to examining how a national apology can take place. That would give Marion and many other women not closure but the opportunity to know that the nation acknowledges the pain that they have been through. I hope that the Scottish ministers will take care as they consider that and make sure that the Government gets it right.

You need to wind up fairly soon.

Miles Briggs

I will draw my speech to a conclusion.

I am concerned that the matter has sat on ministers’ desks for far too long, as have other scandals such as the mesh scandal. I hope that we will see action. The pressure that has been brought by campaigners has led other countries to act, and it is important that we, as a nation, now act.

No one is pretending that an apology to the women can right the wrongs done to them, but I hope that a national apology will give many some comfort. These people are ageing and, in many cases, suffering ill health. We cannot right the wrongs of the past, but we can say sorry, support everyone as they move forward with their lives and acknowledge how negatively many of our fellow Scots have been impacted.


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

Welcome to your new role, Deputy Presiding Officer.

I thank my colleague Monica Lennon for securing this important debate. Monica’s motion and, indeed, her work on the issue over many years have enabled us all to give voice tonight to the painful experiences of so many in our recent past.

I also highlight the work of my West Scotland colleague Neil Bibby with Paisley resident Marion McMillan, whose story we have heard articulated powerfully once again in the chamber. Neil is to be commended for his work with Marion on the issue over many years.

The emotion that has come through members’ speeches shows how deeply and personally everyone has been affected by people’s stories. We are at this point because of Marion and many like her who have bravely told their stories and argued tenaciously on behalf of the 60,000 women who were unfairly coerced, which resulted in their newborn babies being taken away from them simply because they were unmarried.

Much of what we have heard tonight is hard for us to imagine in today’s context, but it is the heartbreaking truth about a dark moment in our history. That time must be confronted. There must be truth and the opening of doors to closure, reconciliation and on-going support.

Instead of trying to support women, society shunned them; instead of trying to understand, communities judged them; and instead of offering the care that they needed, people in positions of trust and in organisations where charity and compassion were supposed to be at the heart of their work took the children away, telling the women that it was for the best.

Many women were told that, if they truly loved their child, they would give them up. It is hard to comprehend that level of emotional abuse and bullying, and the scars run deep. Constituents have contacted me—I am sure that many other members’ constituents will have contacted them, too—to share their stories and make the case for an apology. For example, Jeannot Farmer from Bearsden has told me of the lifelong shame and grief that she has experienced and of the huge impact that the removal of her child has had not only on her life but on the lives of her loved ones.

Given that Australia, Canada and the Republic of Ireland have made apologies at state and national levels, it is time for the UK and Scottish Governments to make an apology. I commend the efforts of campaigners across the UK, and of Labour colleagues such as Harriet Harman, who are working to secure such an apology in the House of Commons. However, as Monica Lennon has said, we should not wait for the UK Government to act; we, in Scotland, should act.

I will now turn to the importance of an apology and the work that is required to underpin it. Trauma that is not transformed is transferred. The lack of closure and of a healing process leaves a huge void in the lives of many people, with pain relived every day. An apology in itself cannot take away the pain, but it can acknowledge it and begin a process of reconciliation that can lead to better long-term support for those who are living with trauma.

An apology must be accompanied by an inquiry that leads to better support, such as access to bespoke therapies and counselling services and sustainable funding for organisations that provide them. It cannot be acceptable, for example, that the only option for many women, when seeking counselling support, is to have it in settings where the walls are covered in posters that promote positive experiences of adoption. Bespoke services are needed and should be designed in line with the experiences and needs of those whom we have spoken about this evening.

I urge the Parliament and the minister to look at the outcome of the Australian Parliament’s apology and inquiry—and, indeed, the Victoria state inquiry, which is due to report in August. That inquiry has already heard strong evidence from organisations that are calling for the provision of free specialist counselling and psychological services and a framework so that the services can be delivered independently. I think that there will be much in that report that we can learn from.

Saying sorry has power. This Parliament has power. In my first speech in the Parliament, I spoke about the power of the Parliament to make things right, and this is the place where an apology should be made. This is the place that Scotland looks to in times of joy and sorrow and in times of crisis and confidence. We have the power to say sorry for the actions of the past, but we also have the power to take action to improve the present and the future. It is well past time for that to happen.

I call Clare Haughey. You have around seven minutes to respond to the debate, minister.


The Minister for Children and Young People (Clare Haughey)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I welcome you to your new position.

I thank Monica Lennon for bringing forward the debate, and I welcome the opportunity to make some closing remarks. In common with other members we have heard from during the debate, I am deeply saddened that, in the past, women felt forced to give up their children for adoption due to the prevailing moral and social norms of the time. The lives of the women, children and wider families who have been affected by the issue have been profoundly changed by the experience, and I offer my sincere sympathies for what they have endured. I thank the women for their commitment, courage and determination to come forward and have their voices heard. I do not for one minute underestimate how harrowing it is for them to revisit their experiences. Sadly, I am sure that doing so will have added to their pain.

The issue is complex and was influenced by many facets of society at the time. Those of us who have heard first-hand accounts or read research will have been moved, if not shocked, by the often heartbreaking experiences, such as mothers being prevented from seeing their baby during birth and birth mothers feeling pressurised into giving up their child.

The accounts that have been shared today have reiterated the terrible harm and long-lasting impact. The practices might well be historical, but the effect that they have had on the women is very real today. Sadly, we know from the numerous accounts of birth mothers’ experiences that they suffered widespread social censure, condemnation, prejudice and stigma. Thankfully, those practices and morals have no place in our society today.

Two weeks ago, the First Minister agreed to look at the matter properly, fully and quickly, and I am equally committed to doing so. Having reached out to the Movement for an Adoption Apology, I am delighted that it has accepted my invitation to meet next week. I am actively working to establish future meetings with others who have been affected by the historical practices. No voice speaks louder on any issue than the voice of lived experience, and the opportunity to have discussions directly with women who have suffered the trauma of separation and its lifelong effects is of paramount importance to me.

As members will know, I am fairly new to my role as the Minister for Children and Young People. However, I understand that the Movement for an Adoption Apology has campaigned for many years on the issue and has called on the UK Government to issue an apology.

I am acutely aware that the group recently reported that the adoption apology that the Republic of Ireland Government made earlier this year has “not been well received” and has?been “described as ‘political waffle’”. That is why it is so important for me to have direct discussion with those who have lived experience of adoption under these circumstances. It is right that we look at the issue properly, and for me that means listening to the voices of women, children and wider families whose lives have been profoundly changed by the experience. By doing that, we can work in partnership on the next steps.

Monica Lennon

I welcome the discussions and meetings that the minister is about to embark on, but women such as Marion McMillan had meetings in 2015 and told their story then, and we are telling it again tonight. Can we get a commitment that the First Minister will attend those meetings, too? As we have heard, the women and their families do not have time. As a mental health professional, the minister knows that it is traumatising for people to have to tell their story over and over again. Can we get a commitment to speed up the process? We have freedom of information requests that show that, in 2015, ministers were told what to say before the women had even opened their mouths. Let us get a commitment from the minister that that will not happen again and that we can move forward towards the meaningful apology and support that the women and families need.

Clare Haughey

I certainly give a commitment that I will speak to everyone who wants to raise their voice. We are looking at ways in which we can ensure that we have the widest range of voices to inform us of what the women and their children need and want.

The Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007 requires local authorities to provide those who have been affected by adoption with the support that they require. Adoption support services are available across the country. In certain areas,? that includes specialist agencies such as the Scottish adoption advice service, which is run by Barnardo’s, and Scottish Adoption. Those specialist agencies run extensive and well-established information, intermediary and counselling services, with provision available to local authorities.

The Scottish Government funds and works closely with the organisation Birthlink, which provides services to individuals and families who have been separated by adoption. That includes maintaining the adoption contact register for Scotland. If any women, adoptees or others who have been affected by the issues need support, their first step should be to contact their local authority adoption agency, which will be ready and willing to support anyone in that position.

Although those supports are in place, I recognise that they might not provide everything that those who are campaigning on the issue feel that they need. That is why it is critical for me to understand what really matters to the women and how they feel that they can best be supported, to ensure that they are treated with the sensitivity and respect that they richly deserve.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I have a question about a point of principle. I accept that neither the minister nor the First Minister, the Government or indeed the Parliament was responsible for the horrific actions and tragic circumstances that we are discussing. However, does the minister accept the principle that the Parliament is representative of the nation and, if the nation is to accept the wrongs that we did as a nation, the Parliament should speak with a united voice, which means that the Government should speak with a united voice to make the public apologies in order to provide closure for the women and should then follow that with adequate support? Does she accept the principle of that role and the role of the Parliament?

Clare Haughey

I will work really hard with the women and their families to find out exactly what they want, because there is no one voice in this. We have one shot at getting this right, so I want to get it right. I give Mr Sarwar a commitment that I will do my level best to assist in making the Parliament’s voice heard. I am mindful that, as Miles Briggs mentioned, the issue has had a huge impact on the children who were separated from their mothers all those years ago, so it is equally important that their voices and experiences are heard, too.?

Given the importance of the issue, I have written to the UK Government to discuss historical adoption practices, as I know that the matter is being discussed south of the border, as members have said.

Major shifts have occurred in adoption practice as well as across society as a whole. However, we are not complacent, and we know that more can be done. That is why, this year, the First Minister committed to implementing the findings of the independent care review’s promise. The promise recommends keeping families together where it is safe to do so, and says that families must be given support so that, together, they can overcome the challenges that are experienced in their lives. Where it is not possible for a child to remain with their birth family, it is crucial that all parties are given the appropriate support, including therapeutic support, as well as support through advocacy and engagement.

I would not want to single out any one of the powerful speeches that we have heard. Members have spoken eloquently about the experience that their constituents have brought to them. I say to every member who has participated that I have certainly heard their words and will take on board their considerations.

I once again reiterate my deepest sympathies to all those who have been affected by historical adoption practices in Scotland. Earlier, I referred to the bravery of the women who have made their voices heard. I am committed to listening to those women, to their children and to others who have been affected, and I am committed to working in partnership with them to explore our next steps.

Meeting closed at 18:41.