HC Deb 16 May 1930 vol 238 cc2223-34

I beg to move, in page 1, line 10, to leave out the word "sixteen", and to insert instead thereof the word "fourteen".

Under the law of Scotland, until comparatively recently, the age at which parties were liable for aliment in the case of an illegitimate child was seven years, and in some cases 10 years. I suggest that the sudden raising of the age to 16 years which is now proposed is really oppressive. People who have not been familiarly acquainted professionally with these cases do not realise the extraordinary hardship that may be inflicted. They all take the natural view that one acquires from literary stories, that it is a case of a young and innocent female misled by some designing evil man. I have had a considerable number of these cases to deal with in the course of my professional career. In Glasgow I was for a couple of years what is known as poor's agent, and I had a very considerable number of them while I was doing the work of six counsel in the Scottish Courts in Edinburgh. In the vast majority of these cases, the popular idea which is naturally present in the minds of innocent, respectable people, who have never come across them professionally and only know of one or two cases, is that there is always an evil man and a comparatively innocent female. In a great number of these cases, however, that is not so. Very often it is a case of a mere youth and a woman very much his senior. I remember one case of a boy of 18 being pursued by a woman of over 30, but he was able to prove certain facts and circumstances that led the Supreme Court to discredit the evidence that was given.

There are snore cases of that kind, I should say from my professional experience, than there are of others, and to suggest that this burden should be imposed for this long period of years, and that the law should be so fundamentally altered as to more than double the period, is to inflict a wrong. It was said by the judges as far back as 1692 that these iliegitimate children are undesirable products and should not be encouraged, and I submit that to impose this burden for so long a period is to do a substantial injustice. I do not say that you can go back to the very short period of seven years, but I think that the age of 14 is quite long enough. Both parents are bound to sustain the child, and I think that the age of 14, when the child ought to be able to go and do something for itself, is quite long enough, and that to raise the age of 16 would be something in the nature of persecution move accordingly.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I do so in order that we may have a proper explanation as to why the age of 16 is put in here. I am given to understand that, as the law stands at present, the age is seven, and that up to that age the two people concerned, in varying proportions in different cases, have to make themselves responsible for the finance in this matter. It is now proposed to raise the age from seven to 16—a very considerable jump. I can see certain reasons why 16 should be considered a proper age, and I can see other reasons why 14 should be considered a proper age. The age of 16, in the matter of education and looking after the child, does, of course, enable that to go on for a longer period, and I think that, particularly in the case of Scotland, it is most essential that we should endeavour to develop that education as far as we possibly can. It is of great interest and is naturally necessary in the case of Scotland that we should encourage that development as far as we can. I think that that is probably the reason for putting the age at 16. I imagine that someone who was an enthusiast for education got hold of the noble lady and persuaded her that there really is, at any rate in this case, some good in the matter of education. I am glad to see that she is turning towards the educational side, and is beginning to realise how valuable it is in life. There are, I believe, other reasons, and I had hoped that my hon. and learned Friend would have given us some more.

I now come back to the age of 14, which is the age proposed in my hon. and learned Friend's Amendment, which I am seconding. That age, of course, does add enormously to the burdens which are incurred in this particular respect. In legislation of this kind, if you have too big a jump, you are apt to have a reaction which in itself defeats the purpose. There are people—I do not say that I agree with them—who think that after the age of 14 a child should be able in some cases—not in all—to be a help to itself. I do not agree with that, but it was put forward by my hon. and learned Friend, and I have no doubt that there are others who would follow him in that idea. As I understand the Bill, the fixing of the amount that is to be paid depends on certain people. I will not go into the proportions of the amount, but, as we are dealing with the length of time for which it has to be paid, I would point out that that length of time must have some effect on their minds in fixing the amount and the proportions. It is quite conceivable that by fixing the age at 16 instead of 14, you may not be doing a real act of benefit either to the child or to the mother. That is a point that we ought to take into very careful consideration. Many of us who do not represent Scottish constituencies find ourselves in a very difficult position, because we have not the knowledge as to which of the two figures is better from the point of view of the Departments concerned.

It must have some effect on the Departments and, for that reason, we ought to have a clear explanation from those who have real knowledge, not only from the lawyers but from the outside point of view, those who can tell us absolutely what effect it is going to have on the upbringing of these children. For that reason, I felt that it was my duty, so as to enable the House to get a wide knowledge of the matter before they vote on it, to support the Amendment, not because I feel that I am qualified to say that one is very much better than the other, but I could see many objections which ought to be explained clearly, and I think the House is entitled, before we pass over this very difficult point, to have a full explanation as to precisely what we really ought to do in the best interests of these people themselves.


The hon. Member is under a misapprehension. The law of Scotland is not so unreasonable as to say that the age of seven is the time when liability for the child ceases. Indeed there is no time when it ceases.


My right hon. Friend a little misrepresents me. I said I had been given to understand that it was seven, and I wanted to know whether it, was the law or whether it was the common practice. That is where I am a little wanting in knowledge.


The Clause says "without prejudice to any obligations attaching at common law." The law before the Bill was to this effect. The courts were in the habit of saying when a child was able to support itself, and at one time they used to say that a child could support itself at a much earlier age than they do now. Many years ago they thought a child should support itself at seven, at least primâ facie, and they would award aliment up to that age with power, of course, for the parties to come back when that age was reached and ask for a further award. But the practice has completely changed in more recent years and now aliment is allowed running up to 14 in many cases, but then the courts keep control and, if the person having custody of the child is able to show that it is not able to support itself, the award of aliment continues and may continue all the life of the child. We wish to make it clear that, primâ facie, the child is entitled to aliment up to 16, and we do not interfere at all with the common law, which says it may last for a longer period than 16. We think 16 is quite a fair age. You have to look at this question not from the point of view of the parents. We are not concerned with them. We are looking at it from the point of view of the child. Is anyone going to say that a girl of 15 is able to support herself? Those who are backing the Bill think that is unreasonable. Taking everything into consideration, we think that 16 is a fair age to say that those who bring into the world an illegitimate child shall have responsibility up to that time at least, and it may be for a longer time if the child is not able to maintain itself. Having satisfied my hon. Friend that the age is not seven, and that we are not jumping from seven to 16, which I agree would have been too big a jump, I hope the Amendment will not be pressed.


The right hon. Gentleman's speech is a conclusive answer to the speeches that have been made. It seems to me that this change in the age is quite in keeping with the modern trend of public opinion. As Minister of Pensions, I had a great many cases of this kind to consider, and in every case it was regarded as a proper practice, indeed the Royal Warrant enjoined that I should consider that the State ought to look after a child until he or she reached the age of 16. I understand the proposal was originally made by the supporters of the Bill that the age should be 18, and I think this is a fair compromise. I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman will not press the Amendment to a division.


It is somewhat embarrassing for an English Member who is not a lawyer to intervene in this Debate because it obviously concerns Scotland first of all, and to a very great extent the legal profession. But the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Renfrew (Mr. MacRobert) and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr Macpherson) both overlook the recent change in the law which has a very material bearing on this question of how long alimony may be legally enforcible. We have just passed an Unemployment Insurance Act which provides that children of 15 should be regarded as insured persons and should be entitled to unemployment benefit if they are out of employment, and it would seem to me, whether the age of 14 is right or not, there is no justification in the existing state of the law for saying that a child cannot support itself after it has joined the ranks of the employed people of the country and is entitled to benefit in case of unemployment. That is one argument.

I should also like to put this, in reference especially to what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty said. He says that when he was at the Pensions Ministry the Royal Warrant definitely indicated that the child should be supported until the age of 16. There, again, he is speaking of a period antecedent to this recent legislation. I would point out to the House that, whatever the position may be in Scotland, there is a great demand in this country for the services of even the young girls to whom my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Renfrew referred in domestic service, and, if you are going to insist by law that every child in the unfortunate position indicated in this Bill of being illegitimate is entitled to aliment until the age of 16, you practically close the door to children of the female sex, at any rate, commencing what may be a perfectly honourable and very lucrative career. There would be no inducement to anybody in receipt of adequate aliment to look about for themselves and see how they were going to make a start in life.

Whatever may be said for the age of 14 indicated in the Amendment, there is absolutely no justification for the age of 16 which is proposed in the Bill. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Renfrew as a distinguished member of the legal profession was very disinterested in the advice he gave to the House, because it was clear from what he told us of the present law in Scotland that every case stands on its own merits and there is an opportunity for the intervention of the legal profession at every stage in the child's life from the age of seven upwards. At any time arguments, which, no doubt, would need the assistance of members of the legal profession, may be put forward, that in a particular case a child shall have aliment up to any age, even far beyond the age of 16. If this provision were passed, there would be no opportunity for a legal job under the age of 16, and therefore to that extent the right hon. and learned Gentleman's support of the Bill is very disinterested from the point of view of the legal profession.

I should like to hear from the Secretary of State for Scotland what he has to say about the bearing of the recent legislation to which I have referred upon the age provided in this Bill. I am not speaking of what happened before the Bill which his party has recently put before the House, but under the present circumstances I can see no justification for this overlapping and the possibility of a double support—support from the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the State contribution, and also support from the father of the child. In those circumstances, I shall undoubtedly support my hon. and learned Friend who has moved this Amendment, and I hope that in the absence of better arguments than we have had yet for the age of 16, which is at present in the Bill, he will press his Amendment.


I desire to oppose the Amendment which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) has put before the House and which was also supported, with not very perfect knowledge, I am afraid, by my hon. Friend the Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams). My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Renfrew (Mr. MacRobert) pointed the law out. A child is entitled to aliment until able to support itself, and, if through a physical or mental infirmity, it is not able to support itself, that obligation continues to rest on the parent throughout its life. Apart from special circumstances, the obligation for aliment to a legitimate child falls at the age of puberty, in a boy at 14 and in a girl at 12. The obligation only continues to exist if the child is not capable either mentally or physically, of doing anything for itself. I have been looking up cases, and I see that in one case a father was held to be liable for the support of a boy up to the age of 13, and in another case a father was liable until the boy reached the age of 12. I think that it is entirely reasonable, in the altered circumstances of modern days, that this liability should continue to the age of 16.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyllshire alluded to the old practice under which aliment was given up to the age of seven in the case of a boy and ten in the case of a girl, but I think that there was always a right to come to court for renewal for a further period. That dates from old times when it was thought that at the age of seven a boy might begin to do something to support himself. That was before the days of mining legislation, Factory Acts, and Education Acts, when an entirely different state of things obtained from those which prevail to-day. Many children are continuing their education beyond the age of 14. A large number of children in Scotland are attending school at this age, and at 16 years of age a child who is in an insured occupation passes into the insurance schemes. On the whole, 16 is a reasonable age, and I ask hon. Members to join with the promoters of the Bill in opposing the Amendment.


There appears to be hardly any reason for the Bill from what the right hon. and learned Member for East Renfrew (Mr. MacRobert) has said. As I understood him, the Bill is going to be without pre judice to any existing obligations of common law, and from what the hon. and learned Member for South Aberdeen (Sir F. Thomson) has said the obligation exists, apparently, to support the child throughout its life.


Only in exceptional cases of mental or physical infirmity; otherwise, it ceases at the age of puberty.


I was going to say in cases of mental or physical in firmity. If that is so, I should like a further explanation as to what is the point of the Bill. Almost every case today must be covered, except the period between 14 and 16. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) says that to raise the age from 14 to 16 years is consonant with the modern trend of public opinion. He did not say why he thought so. I should have thought that the modern trend of public opinion was that there should be fewer illegitimate children. I am sorry that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) should have moved the Amendment in its present form. I should have thought it would have been better to link up this proposal with the school age; then there would have been some reason for it. If you are going to compel children to stay at school until 15 years of age it would have been better from the point of view my hon. and learned Friend has in mind if the age in this case had been the same.

My hon. Friend, the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto), has referred to the Unemployment Insurance Acts, and this strengthens my argument, because when we were discussing that legislation the House was trying to link up the time at which the child came into the unemployment insurance scheme with the age at which he will leave school. If instead of putting in either 16 or 14 we had put down a form of words regarding the school age similar to that in respect of the last Unemployment Insurance Act we should have been on better ground and the difficulties of everybody would have been met, particularly, if we take into account the fact that the Government are pledged—whether they do it or not is a very different matter—to produce a maintenance allowance for the last year at school. It seems to me that you are going to give an undue endowment for some of these illegitimate children in comparison with some who happened to have been born in wedlock. We desire to see fair play all round. Surely there is no wish to make it a good thing to have illegitimate children, but it would appear that these children are going to be better off between the ages of 14 and 16 than other children. If we are going to have maintenance allowances for the period of years which we are discussing in this Amendment, it would be much better from the point of view of the promoters if, when this Bill reaches its further stages, some Amendment of that kind might be discussed. The Noble Lady withdrew her first Amendments on the Order Paper because she said that there would be an opportunity elsewhere of raising those points. Now, it is suggested that she might apply her mind and the minds of those who would be concerned on this question as to whether it would not be better to link up the maximum age under this Bill with the age at which the children have to leave school.

Can the Secretary of State give us any statistics of the number of children who are likely to be involved at the present time? I do not imagine that he can give any actuarial figure for a period of years, but can he say at this moment what is supposed to be the number of illegitimate children in Scotland? I am not sure whether I shall support the Amendment, but I think I will, because if we put 14 into the Bill it would be easier at a later stage, in another place, to raise the matter. I think we had better put the lower age in. It is hard to say that children are going to get employment as soon as they leave school—that point has been debated again and again—but we must bear in mind that there is a curve in the child population of this country which will result in the next few years in a great shortage of juvenile labour. Therefore, is this the right time to make this proposed change in the law? I should like the Secretary of State to give us the official estimate of the number of children involved, and the view of the Government as to whether they think we had better link up this particular obligation of the parents, with the State's obligation in regard to maintenance allowances in education, and with the obligation that exists in regard to unemployment insurance.


I cannot quite make up my mind whether to vote in favour of this Amendment or against it. I see the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is present. Perhaps he could inform the House what is the law in this particular matter in England? What is the age which is fixed in the English law? In this matter we do not want to have special advantages given to this type of children in Scotland. In the old days we heard much about Gretna Green and other places on the border, but I think it is a great mistake to have different legislation on this matter in Scotland from what we have for the rest of the country.

The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Mr. William Adamson)

I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) will not press the Amendment to a Division. The existing law in regard to the liability of the parent to provide aliment, for the illegitimate child until the child is 14 or until the child is able to support itself, has been clearly stated. One or two points have been put to me but I do not think that they have much relevance to the subject of discussion. The hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) asked me if I could tell him the number of children likely to be involved in this proposal? He wanted to know if I could state the number of illegitimate children in Scotland. Even if I could give the number of illegitimate children in Scotland that would not give the number of children that would be involved. A much smaller number of children would be involved. The hon. Member for Torquay (Mr. C. Williams) suggested that in resisting this Amendment the Noble Lady was possibly influenced by her regard for the education of the child. If there was no other reason than the education of the child, surely, that is a very important matter. Other hon. Members have referred to juvenile labour and have expressed the opinion that there will be a great demand in the future for juvenile labour. We do not see much sign of that at the moment. Of course, I could speculate with my fellow members as to what the future will be in that respect, but we do not see very much demand for juvenile labour at the present time. Under modern conditions the chance of a child between 14 and 16 years of age being able to support itself is very unlikely. I suggest that the hon. and learned Member should not press the Amendment.


Can I have a reply with regard to the conditon of the law in England?


If the hon. and gallant Member will look to the Act of 1870 and the Act of 1923, he will find that the age indicated is 16.

Question, "That the word 'sixteen' stand part of the Bill", put, and agreed to.