HC Deb 17 July 1925 vol 186 cc1769-77

"Amongst the provisions which may be contained in an order under the principal Act, there may be included a provision for the apportionment as between the husband and wife of any furniture belonging to the husband or the wife (being furniture in the home in which the husband and wife have cohabited), and for the delivering up of any furniture so apportioned, and in making such apportionment the court shall have regard to the respective interests of the husband and wife in the furniture, and generally to the equities of the case; and a husband or wife to whom any furniture not belonging to him or her is so apportioned shall be entitled to the possession thereof so long as the order remains in force:

Provided that the order shall not apply to any furniture subject to a charge in favour of a third party or in which a third party is otherwise interested without the consent of such third party."


I beg to move, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

When this subject was previously debated in this House, an Amendment was moved with the object of enabling a court to apportion furniture between husband and wife. It was considered so controversial that this House agreed to drop the Amendment. The hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence), who moved the Amendment, agreed not to press it on account of the controversial character of the issue raised, and I think I. said that if that Amendment were pressed we could not go on with the Bill. The Measure went to another place, where this Amendment was inserted by a majority of one vote in a very thin House, there being I understand only about 26 Members present at the time. I am rather sorry that this was done because we in the Home Office cannot accept the Amendment for two reasons. First it is introducing an entirely new principle into the law. The Courts at the present moment do not say whether they think some property ought to belong to one person and some to another, but they decide on the question of fact as to whom the property really belongs. The Amendment would therefore introduce a new principle. Secondly, from the administrative point of view we believe the Amendment to be quite impracticable. In order to settle what furniture should go to the wife, and what to the husband the Court would have to see the furniture, and you cannot bring furniture into Court and exhibit it for the purpose of having a decision given upon it. There are many other reasons against the Amendment from the administrative point of view. Therefore we cannot accept it, and I hope the House will take the view which it took on the last occasion, and that this very controversial Amendment will be rejected, as we all want the remainder of the Bill.


The House is aware of the great difference of opinion which prevails on this very important-issue. Women's organisations throughout the country are very keen that this Amendment should be included in the Bill. Of course, the difficulties of administration are very great. There is no doubt upon that at all, and I agree that the proposal introduces an important and fundamental issue. But although as a rule I disagree with what is done in another place, for once I think they have been very wise in this Amendment. Where a man and a wife come before the Court and a separation order is made, the man returns to the home and the woman is left without anything with which to start a new home of her own. That is the essence of the plea for this Amendment. I am not without appreciation of the difficulties, but the point made by the Under-Secretary is not a strong one, when he said there was only a majority of one in another place in favour of the Amendment. Many important decisions have been reached in this House with as small a majority. I do not know sufficient of procedure to say how it can be done, but I should like the Home Office to accept an Amendment in some form which would enable the woman to take something in order to establish her new home. I dislike the idea that the man should return to the home where all the furniture is waiting for him, while the woamn separated from him has to seek a home somewhere else, and there is nothing for her. In equity, justice and fairness between the two parties, something ought to be done for the woman. It may be argued that the Court will not know exactly what to do. I do not think any magistrate or Court would desire to send a representative to the house to decide what articles should go to the husband and what articles should go to the wife, but there is a claim that could be made on behalf of the wife that she should take something with her. I trust the hon. Gentleman will see his way to give us stronger reasons for objecting to the Amendment.


The hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary said those who supported this Amendment on the previous occasion withdrew it because of its controversial character and he rather indicated that we had a full Debate on the question. The actual facts were that we had I think 20 minutes in which to deal with the Summary Jurisdiction Bill and the Guardianship of Infants Bill, and it was pointed out if these Bills did not go through within that time they probably would not go through at all in this Session. It was because of the limitation of time almost more than anything else that we acceded to the request to withdraw this Amendment and did not debate it. Had we debated it at any length we might have put a case forward which would have been supported in all parts of the House and which might have influenced the Government to accept the Amendment. However, rather than jeopardise the fortunes of the Bill we agreed to withdraw. It is true this Amendment was only carried by a single vote in another place and only a very small number were present, but we know quite well the number of Bills which are carried in the other House by quite small attendances. Those Members of the other House who are particularly interested in these questions however do attend on such occasions as this and the fact that a small number voted does not prove that there was not substantial support among those interested in the Bill in favour of the Amendment.

I do not appreciate the great difficulties which the Home Office finds in the matter. It was suggested that the articles would themselves have to be brought into Court, but I imagine the procedure would be quite simple. In fact, this Amendment does not emanate from some irresponsible people, but, in the first instance, from magistrates who have realised their difficulty and impotence under the existing law, and the procedure which they visualise is that the Court missionary would be empowered to draw up a schedule of the articles and to make a proposed selection, and that the Court should decide in view of the missionary's report. Where the husband is willing that this should be done, that is the procedure that is actually followed, and I do not think there would be anything like the difficulty in this regard which the Home Office imagine. But if the Home Office do feel this so strongly, I would urgently press the proposal of the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies), that some effort should be made to see what can be done in the matter, because undoubtedly this is a very crushing burden that is inflicted upon a woman under these circumstances. She gets a separation order, and we all know that it is only given under very special circumstances, and she finds herself absolutely unable to live in the circumstances, because she may not, out of the 10s. a week that she gets, obtain the means to stock a new home. Therefore, to a large extent the Order is ineffective for that reason, and I hope that, if the Home Secretary cannot give us the whole of this Amendment, he will be able to make some suggestion of a compromise along the lines proposed here, so that there may be some means by which a woman can start in life in her new home.


I should like to express the hope that this House will disagree with the Lords in this Amendment, which introduces a very extraordinary principle into our law. Within living memory we have got rid of the law which decided that a wife's individual property became the husband's property by reason of marriage, and here we are gravely proposing to enact that, by the fact of marriage, there shall pass to the spouse the property in such portion of the furniture as a Police Court missionary shall decide. Anything more hopeless it is quite impossible to imagine. The husband may or may not own the furniture, but if he owns it, and there is a separation. I can see no reason at all why he should be deprived of his property, any more than that, if the wife owns the furniture, she should be deprived of it, merely by reason of the fact that there is a separation between the parties.

The provision is apparently made in order that the wife should be able to make a home at the immediate moment of leaving her husband, but under these circumstances she probably has no home to go to and no house in which to put the furniture. Is she to move it then and there, and put it out into the street? Is she to take it into storage, where she probably would be put to the additional expense of paying for its storage? If she takes it, is she to be under a covenant to keep that furniture during such time as her husband shall remain alive, or what is to be the position in regard to it? Is it to be an apportionment for all time, or if, at some time or other, the spouses come together again, is it going to be a bone of contention, and is the husband to be able to say: "When you went away from me, you got a magistrate's order apportioning the furniture, and now you have got rid of some of it, and there is only half of it-left "? All sorts of things of that kind are bound to arise in administration, and make a Clause of this kind perfectly hopeless to administer, but, apart from anything else, I think there is no ground whatever for altering the ordinary laws of ownership as between husband and wife.

We are trying to come to a time—and all the women's organisations are impelling us to a time—when husband and wife shall each stand upon an individual basis, and here we are trying in this Bill to bring about something which would destroy the individual basis altogether. While recognising all the difficulties that there may be, matters of this kind, I think, are far more likely to impede reasonable freedom than they are to advance the chances of the wife receiving proper protection from the Courts of this country. Under these circumstances, I think we shall do far better to leave the law as it stands. The hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) spoke as if the only amount to be awarded to a wife was 10s. a week. I know he did not intend to do so. but he used the phrase "10s. a week." Everybody knows very well that within a limit which is certainly larger than 10s. a week—I think it is 40s.—the magistrate has absolute discretion as to the amount which he shall award to the wife, and surely one of the very things that he will take into consideration in making his award is the fact that the wife is going out without any furniture. In those circumstances the matter can be compensated in that way, but if you introduce into a separation order any such complication as dealing with the furniture, then you are not merely going to make separation orders difficult to administer, but you may make them extremely difficult to obtain. I hope we shall disagree with the Lords Amendment.


If anything were wanted to convince me of the necessity of the proposed new Clause, it is the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Norwood (Mr. Greaves-Lord), who has just sat down. When a home is formed by marriage, the man goes out to earn the money. In return the wife looks after the home and his children, and, therefore, is not in a position, at any rate in the working-class home, the home of the ordinary wage-earner, to contribute any money towards the home. The husband is out working and the woman's place, to use the old phrase, is the home. Naturally the furniture is bought and paid for by the man, and obviously at law the furniture would belong to him. But what is to happen under this Bill? Where a husband can be shown to have been guilty of misconduct sufficient to justify the Court in giving a separation order, it is assumed that the husband is no longer worthy of the respect and affection of the wife, and the wife has to set up a homo of her own. Now, under this Bill, the woman will have no right to the furniture, which she, after all has earned by her contribution of looking after the home of the man, keeping it well, and looking after his children Rut, of course. I can quite appreciate the difficulties that the Under-Secretary has pointed out. The words of the proposed new Clause are: Among the provisions which may be contained in an order under the principal Art there may be included a provision for the apportionment as between the husband and wife of any furniture," etc. It is left to the discretion of the Court, and if the circumstances made it impossible, obviously the magistrate could not make any such apportionment. We must assume that if the magistrate makes such an order, he will provide some simple machinery, so that it can be carried out, but what is most likely to happen is that the wife will be asked to put forward a claim for what furniture she considers necessary, in order to carry on her homo, and look after the family. If she puts forward extravagant demands, if she asks for more furniture than is absolutely necessary to maintain the home and provide the necessary household gods, obviously the magistrate will turn it down. But I do think, if we are to avoid the demand for fresh legislation, and I am sure the Government do not want more Bills a year or two hence, it is a good thing to provide some words of this kind, so as to make the separation really possible, and make women feel that if they make a claim for separation, they will not be turned out into the street with no more than their maintenance allowance, and have to make a new home, look after the children and go out to earn their living, which would make it very difficult for women to make a claim for separation. The constant fear in the mind of a woman is that if family life comes to an end it is a serious thing for her, because I know in the East End of London so many women who have to be both breadwinner and housekeeper. That means they have to go out to work, and they find it very difficult to make two ends meet. I do think those organisations who ask for a provision of this kind are doing it with knowledge that without this kind of provision it will be very difficult for working women to take advantage of the provisions of this Bill.


I am extremely anxious there should not be any real conflict to-day on this Bill. I do not think hon. Members realise how very far the last Bill and this Bill go to increase women's rights. I think these Bills go far further than the women's societies ever expected, and I give full credit to the Labour party for having originally introduced them. I ask hon. Members not to force our hands at this stage, and try to make us put into the Bill things that are really controversial. I think it was the hon. Member who just sat down who said he understood this originated with the magistrates.


I said the Clause originated, I thought, with one of the magistrates. I do not know; I am only expressing an opinion.


I think it originated with the women's societies, but the hon. Gentleman may be right. As a matter of fact, we did canvass the opinion of the various magistrates, and our information was that they were all against it. The Chief Magistrate for London told us that he was certainly very much opposed to it, and that all his colleagues were opposed to it. Still, I do not want to be unnecessarily controversial about that. I think we cannot allow this Amendment to-day, but if hon. Members think there is a case for bringing it up, then, on behalf of the Home Office, I am quite willing to say that we will once more canvass the opinion of magistrates to find out whether there is any grievance, and, certainly, I shall be only too delighted to take part in any inquiry that takes place, and I shall be very happy to inform hon. Members as to the opinion of the magistrates on this question. Beyond that, I do not feel we can go to-day, and I hope the House will disallow this Amendment.


I do not quite know what the hon. Gentleman means by saying that he canvassed the opinion of magistrates. I know perfectly well I could have got one or two magistrates foolish enough to have given the opinion of the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence). I know also that the vast majority of magistrates think that this is contrary to common sense. There seems to be an idea on the part of a section of people that you will improve the position of women by constantly interfering with the most sacred bond, by constantly piling up discordances and differences, and by setting up what are presumed to be the comparative and competing rights of two parties who ought to be united. Are we to introduce this constant element of pecuniary and financial gain on one side or the other? The hon. Gentleman who is answering for the Home Secretary used tones of humble submission, instead of having the courage to express his own view firmly. I would ask him, Has he considered that separation orders are not confined to those who get a few pounds a week? Separation orders may be issued against the richest and the highest in the land. If this financial element is to come in, you can put what penalty the Court thinks fit upon a cruel, an unfaithful or a neglectful husband. Supposing a man is occupying a large mansion in Park Lane. Is the wife to have a separation order, and walk off with all the furniture?

We are told that we must trust to the common sense of magistrates. I know enough of some magistrates to trust very little to them, because there are magistrates and magistrates. The great bulk of magistrates are men of common sense, but there are eccentric and foolish magistrates, from whom, very often, society suffers the greatest danger. Whatever may be the vagaries of another place, let us have the courage of our opinions, and let the hon. Gentleman not beg the House in humble tones, but say he will use his majority to insist on what is, after all, common sense.


I am anxious that we should have this Bill, and I understand that the Home Office will inquire further into this matter. In those circumstances, I have nothing more at the moment to say.

Subsequent Lords Amendments down to page 3, lines 11 and 12, agreed to.

Lords Amendment:

In page 3, after Clause 5, insert—