HC Deb 20 November 1936 vol 317 cc2079-131

Order for Second Reading read.

11.10 a.m.

Mr. De la BERE

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The Bill is a non-party one, and contains the names of hon. Members who are representative of all shades of opinion. It seems strange that it should fall to my lot to introduce this Bill, because I am a married man, have been married for 18 years, and am very happily married. I say this because I have had so many letters from my constituents, some in a jocular vein and others quite serious, who seem to think that I have some personal interest in backing the Bill of the junior Member for Oxford University (Mr. Herbert). I hasten to assure them that I have none, and that my married life is very happy indeed, and I support the Bill in the hope that it may be possible to bring happiness to those who have been crushed by the severity of our present system of marriage law. That is the real purpose for which I support it. I support it also because I am acutely conscious of the misery and distress which have been caused in so many homes, and because the Statute law of England fails to act along the lines traced by the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857, an Act establishing divorce, with the support of the then Archbishop of Canterbury and the then Bishop of London, with the result that, as many judges have asserted, the existing law is ineffective and farcical. I also support the Bill because the marriage law of England falls far behind the marriage laws of Scotland, the British Dominions and nearly every civilised country, and is itself the direct cause of many virtuous couples living in sin, and because, although the House of Lords have passed an excellent Bill, drafted by the late Lord Buckmaster, to codify the marriage laws, the House of Commons, misled by current ignorance, has failed to recognise the gravity of the evil which is the direct consequence of unenlightened public opinion.

May I quote a question which was addressed to the Prime Minister a few months ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University. He asked whether, as it was nearly 25 years since the Royal Commission on Divorce reported, the Government would prepare a Measure for the consideration of the House of Commons in the next Session. The Prime Minister replied: If my hon. Friend will give me an undertaking that the Measure will be non-controversial, I shall be happy to consider the matter. [OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th May, 1936; col. 1191, Vol. 312.] I need hardly say that it is quite impossible for any Measure of this sort to be non-controversial. However right-minded people may be, there must be different points of view which may not completely harmonise on this question. The question is one which requires a great deal of thought, and it is obvious that this is a very serious problem.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chief Justice have expressed the opinion that reform must come, and the Modern Churchmen's Union have promised their general support of the Bill. Reformers agree with their enemies that our purpose must be to maintain the highest ideal of marriage as a life-long monogamous union. They also recognise, as the Bishops in every modern civilised State have recognised, that there may be occasions on which this ideal breaks down and that in proper cases there should be relief. It is recognised that desertion and prolonged cruelty ought to be a cause for divorce, and even in England we recognise that they should be cause for judicial separation. But in England adultery alone is recognised as a ground for the complete dissolution of marriage. We should all agree, I think, that adultery is not the only element in matrimony, and that an act of infidelity is very far from being the only or the most important breach of marriage obligations. It is a single act as opposed to desertion; but that is our law, and many persons whose marriage has, in fact, broken down from other causes are compelled either to commit, or to pretend to commit, adultery in order to obtain release. Those who are prepared to face that are either forced to commit adultery on the one hand, or collusion and perjury on the other, and those who will not face it are driven to illicit unions or unnatural and life-long chastity. No one can persuade me that it is in the interests of the State that this condition of affairs should continue.

There is, of course, another alternative for those who suffer from cruelty or have been deserted. They may obtain judicial separation, but that as a life-long status has been condemned by every thinking person from the Royal Commission downwards. Therefore this Bill proposes, on the recommendation of the Royal Commission, that new grounds for divorce should be permitted—first, and most important, desertion for three years. In Scotland divorce for desertion for four years, under rather strict conditions, has been obtainable for 400 years. Desertion is a ground for divorce in Australia, and in other Dominions, and in many other countries of the world.

I assume, and I think I am entitled to do so, that there will be many to-day who will stay away not because they are really against the Bill or because they are really for it, but because they feel that it might do them some personal harm in their constituency. I have no quarrel with those who, on conscientious or religious grounds, oppose the Bill, but I do quarrel very much with those who through apathy or, worse still, through cowardice, stay away. What is really wanted in this country to-day is honesty and courage, but these are two things which seem to be very difficult to find. I say in all sincerity that the many points arising out of this Marriage Bill should be considered and debated. I have cut out a great deal of what I might have said. I was going to refer to the correspondence I have had on this matter—about 100 letters a day—but I do not think this is the right moment to do so. The hon. Member for Oxford University, who is to second the Motion, and whose brilliance in debate is well known to all of us, will go into the many points in some detail. His sincerity and singleness of purpose are well known, and, therefore, in order to allow a full opportunity for discussion by those who are opposed to the Bill and by those who support it, I will content myself with what I have said, and allow the Debate to continue.

11.17 a.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

I am sure the House would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bere) on the able and reasonable manner in which he has moved the Second Reading of the Bill. Personally I should like to thank him heartily for his boldness and public spirit in using his good fortune in the ballot for the purpose of espousing this difficult and sometimes dangerous cause. I thank him warmly on behalf of many people outside. He mentioned with justifiable pride that he has been happily married 18 years and has four children. That gives me the opportunity of going one better. I have been happily married, not without the usual ups and downs, for 22 years, and I have four children and one grandchild. This is relevant for one other reason. In discussing this matter in the precincts of this House I find that many gentlemen who are particularly hot against any Bill of this kind, and who are particularly concerned about the interests of children and the sanctity of marriage, turn out in the end to be lifelong bachelors. I want to make it plain that I do not espouse this cause as a longhaired Bohemian anxious for sexual licence or even only as a hard-luck story, but because I believe it will bring new strength to the institutions which we all value, the Church, the relations between Church and State, the law, marriage and the family. I do not want to add much to the able general summary which the hon. Member for Evesham has given. Quite apart from the hardships we have a very shocking state of affairs. It was well described by the Archdeacon of Coventry at a Diocesan Conference in these words, as reported in "The Times": The limitation of the grounds of divorce to the one ground of adultery had resulted in a state of affairs which was disastrously prejudicial to public morality. As the law stands at present those who wish to bring an end to the marriage were forced to take one of two alternatives—either one must commit adultery or one must commit perjury. The law as it stands is a definite incitement to immorality. It was the duty of the Church to press for and not merely to acquience in reform of the existing marriage law; reform could be found in an extension of the grounds of divorce which did not necessarily mean making divorce more easy. The Archdeacon is right. At the moment the law is mocked not only in words but in deeds. There is collusion and perjury, and it is sufficient to say that the wrong people get what they want and the right people cannot. As for adultery, we are rapidly reaching a situation in which no stigma whatever will attach to a public confession of adultery. I ask my religious friends to consider the matter seriously. Not so long ago a man was ashamed of confessing in court, if only by default, or being condemned by a court of having committed adultery, but now in an ever widening circle there is no man so scrupulous as to bother about it, not because the country is becoming more immoral, but because the country is becoming more rebellious against out-of-date laws. He may be a hero; he may, in the strange phrase, be "behaving like a gentleman"—no one knows the truth. I ask my Roman Catholic friends, are they happy about this state of affairs? Are they so content with the present situation that they are really going to oppose any and every proposal for reform? To do the leaders of the Church of England justice, they do recognise the danger and the duty to which the Archdeacon of Coventry referred. The Archbishop of Canterbury a year ago said: The time has come when Parliament can no longer resist the growing public demand for some extension of the grounds for divorce. The Anglo-Catholic body, the Church Union, emphasise that it is essential to distinguish between the moral standards which the Church of England must impose on its own members and those which a largely secularised State can force upon its citizens as such. Take my own personal position. I represent more clergymen of the Church of England than any hon. Member of the House. Have I had a single protest?—I have made no secret of my intentions—Not a single one. There is not the slightest doubt—and I ask the pardon of the House for emphasising this point—that there has been a great change in the attitude of the Church during the last few years. There is no doubt that most reasonable Churchmen are not only ready but eager for some reasonable reform of the law. A resolution, passed last June by the Bishops in the Upper House of Convocation of Canterbury, which in plain language means the Bishops of 25 out of 35 dioceses, states: The Church should be prepared to give consideration to proposals for such amendment, provided that any proposed amendment does not tend to make marriage a temporary alliance or to undermine the foundations of family life. It is in that spirit and with that proviso that we approach the problem in this Bill.

Let me now deal with the proposals in the Bill. The Preamble to the Bill has been composed by me, and I can assure the House that I have composed it, not with my tongue in my cheek, as I may have been suspected of doing, but in absolute and genuine sincerity and conviction. Under Clause 1 there would be no dissolution of the marriage tie within five years of the date of marriage. During that period, of course, there could be decrees or orders for separation, for maintenance and nullity, but no dissolution in the full sense of the marriage tie. A good deal has been said about this, and I have been teased and even censured by my own supporters and by unthinking people everywhere who look at that new proposal in the Bill without having read the remainder of it; but I still unrepentantly stake a great deal on the assertion that this is one of the soundest Clauses in the whole Bill.

If I may say so, as a practical married man, I know very well that the first few years are often the most difficult. We all know that young people rush into marriage and rush out again, and it is not in the interests of the State or of individuals that marriage should be recklessly entered or abandoned. People may say, "But what a hardship! A poor young girl may marry a man who deserts her in the second year, who knocks her about, or whom she finds to be an habitual drunkard—what a hardship that she should have to be with him for five years!" But I would point out that she would not have to be with him in any physical sense, because she could get a judicial separation, maintenance and all the rest of it. What is the alternative? At the moment the young woman would be tied to the man for life; the alternative is five years or a lifetime. Even if there were a few hard cases of that sort, I set against them the many thousands who would be released from suffering by this Bill. Hon. Members may take this Clause out of the Bill if they like, but if that were done I should feel very sorry, because in thinking circles the Clause has attracted a good deal of support. I ask those who dislike Clause 2 to consider it always in the light of Clause 1, and those who dislike Clause 1 to consider the benefits we expect would flow from Clause 2.

Clause 2, which is, of course, the most controversial and one of the fundamental Clauses of the Bill, deals with the grounds upon which divorce shall be granted. The first, under (a), is the ground of adultery, which is the only one that exists at the present time in this country. I pass to (b), desertion. Divorce for desertion has existed in Scotland for 400 years, and it exists in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa—I am not sure about Canada—Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, France (a Catholic country), Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal (another Catholic country), Rumania, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States of America, with the exception of the States of South Carolina and New York. Not long ago a divorce judge said that it would be incredible to future generations that divorce should be granted for a single act of adultery while it is denied when the whole purpose of marriage has been frustrated by deliberate and permanent desertion.

If a man goes to America or to Australia and carelessly omits to commit adultery or keeps quiet about it if he does, who can say it is in the interests of the State, the children, marriage or anything else that the woman shall permanently be tied to nothing at all, and unable to build up a new home with someone who would protect her and her children? At the present moment we do not know how many people are in that situation, but from the number of separation orders we know that they must run into hundreds of thousands. I am told that there are many cases of men and women who have deserted their spouses turning up and asking for relief from the public assistance committees, and the public assistance committees causing their old spouses—the deserters—to be discovered and compelled to pay for the deserters. That is a shocking situation. I may be told that this hard-case stuff and so on is all very well, but the question may be asked, Will not divorce for desertion in fact come to mean divorce by consent? There are two answers to that question. First of all, there are safeguards in this Bill and in the definition—into which I will not go in detail now—and there are safeguards at the present moment operat- ing in Scotland and other countries. As far as I know, there is no scandal about divorce for desertion being turned into divorce by consent in those countries. But let me be frank. I would not be at all surprised if in some cases it were; because, after all, it is very difficult to frame any law governing the lives of the citizens which will be absolutely watertight. I would not be at all surprised if in a case here and there under this Bill there might be couples who would get a divorce for desertion which was in fact more or less a divorce by consent. I do not think there would be many cases—there might be: but before we raise our hands in pious horror at that possibility—for it is only a possibility—let us remember that at this moment we have divorce by consent, and divorce by consent in the most shameful and degrading form, by means of arranged adultery, whether bogus or genuine; a method of divorce by consent which is shameful and degrading not only to every individual who takes part in it, but to every institution it touches. That can be done at a month's notice within a year of marriage. Let hon. Members contrast that with the proposal in the Bill—divorce for desertion after three years with all the opportunities for conciliation which that means, and five years after marriage. After contrasting that with this disgusting and immediate course which is now open to everybody, I am quite prepared to take the risk that ecclesiastics may regard this as divorce by consent.

In (c) and (e), the grounds are cruelty and habitual drunkenness, plus a period of three years' separation upon that ground. I do not think I need dwell upon this very much. It has been said that in both cases there is the difficulty of definition, but I must remind hon. Members that magistrates all the year round are solving the problem as to what is cruelty and what is habitual drunkenness, and there are many judicial separations on those grounds. In (d) there is the ground of incurable insanity. That is taken from the Report of the Royal Commission, and from the old Bill which was drafted by very eminent men in the past, and the wording may be rather out of date. I understand that the word "certified" is out of date. The general intention is that where an unfortunate person becomes incurably insane and has been continuously insane—however you define it—for a period of five years, the spouse of that person shall be able to form a new home. I wonder how many hon. Members know that in 1930, the last year for which figures are available, there were 40,000 married lunatics in this country and 20,000 of these had been certified for more than five years, the period mentioned in the Clause.

I may be asked "What about the hard case of the man who recovers his sanity and who wishes to return to his home?" The Royal Commission went into that question and they had figures before them relating to it. There may be quite different figures now, but the evidence before the Commission showed that of the number of lunatics who recovered, 88 per cent. recovered in two years; 9 per cent. in three to five years; 1.6 per cent. between 5 and 10 years and a negligible .5 per cent. between 11 and 20 years. Those, I would emphasise, are the proportions of the number who recovered and not of the entire number of lunatics. I may be referred to that ingenious and entertaining, and no doubt sincere, piece of work "A Bill of Divorcement" by Miss Clemence Dane, but I would remark that, in that case, the unfortunate man came back after 15 years, and therefore that is a piece of very special pleading. I imagine that the chances of such a happening are about one in a thousand, or even less. However, whether that proposal is right or not, is for the Committee to say if we get there.

Lieut.-Commander AGNEW

Can the hon. Member give the House any information, after the very interesting statistics he has given, as to how the proportion of married lunatics compares with the number of those who are married and are not certified as lunatics? Only by considering those figures can we get a true idea of how the one hard case compares with the other hard case.


I am much indebted to my hon. and gallant Friend for his suggestion. I am afraid that if I were to go into that question I might be accused of flippancy, but I recognise his point. I can only say that I have not here the figures for which he asks, and I think we ought to look for them. The last ground mentioned is that the respondent is undergoing imprisonment under a commuted death penalty. I do not think I need dwell upon that. At the moment there are 74 people, not necessarily married people, serving such sentences. These, then, are the new grounds for divorce, but they follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission and there is nothing in them about divorce by consent. It is proposed, as was said this morning in "The Times" in a letter from various women's societies: to add to the grounds of divorce any conditions which show that a continuation of the marriage relationship has in fact become impossible. That reminds me of an admirable passage in the laws of Norway to the effect that divorce is a release from misfortune, and not a crime. Clause 3 deals with technical safeguards against collusion and connivance, and while some may think that it ought to be stronger, others will probably regard it as too strong. Clause 4 deals with the judicial separation which, as my hon. Friend the Mover of the Motion said, as a permanent state of life has been condemned by the Royal Commission and by any thinking person who has studied the question. Lord Birkenhead described it as a hotbed of vice. The Modern Churchmen's Union says in regard to it that these unfortunate people are compelled to form illicit unions and to bring illegitimate children into the world—a condition of affairs that is not in the interests of public morality.

In fairness I ought to say that Subsection (2) of this Clause raises a very debatable point. In view of the condemnation of these judicial separations we have suggested that after two years of such a separation, it shall be possible for the court to turn the separation into a divorce upon the application—and this is a controversial point—of either party. I do not dwell upon that point now. It is a proposal which will not commend itself to many, I know, although both the Swiss and the Swedes, neither of them very riotous nations, have similar legislation. Clause 5, dealing with new grounds for nullity, follows the recommendation of the Royal Commission, and Clause 6, which is intended to clear up the tangle created when a man disappears for seven years and then turns up again, is one upon which we need not dwell at this stage. Clause 7 is a debatable one. It deals with the abolition of the decree nisi. This is one of the points on which the Modern Churchmen's Union does not agree with me. I feel strongly about it, but I shall be prepared to be borne down by weight of argument in the Committee on it.

I pass now to what is very important, very new and very difficult, and I hope the House will give me their indulgence while I deal with these two Clauses 9 and 10. In the past it has been charged against divorce law reformers—and there is something in it—that they seemed to think only of those who were able to afford the cost of solicitors and barristers. On the other hand, as my hon. Friend said, it was considered that divorce was a luxury or vice of the rich, and did not really concern the poor. There is a little truth in both statements. It is certainly true that for the poor, an ounce of conciliation is worth a ton of divorce, because any separation of any kind nearly always ends in somebody having to pay for two households or two persons, and that is not a luxury which everybody can afford.

When a wife in poor circumstances has to complain of the cruelty, desertion or drunkenness of her husband, she goes to what is called the police court, although in these days that is really a misnomer. Hon. Members who know the work of the magistrates in our courts, and especially this department of it, will know that the words "police court" are inapplicable, and that they are really "domestic courts". Many of these courts are now equipped with social services. They have probation officers, medical advisers, religious advisers and all the rest of it. By the way, those services have been the subject of an inquiry by a recent Departmental Committee, a Committee on Social Services in Courts of Summary Jurisdiction, and my hon. Friend the Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Petherick) is bringing in a Bill on 5th February to improve and regularise those services. A little bird tells me that that Bill may have the support of Ms Majesty's Government. That is the background.

Now, when the wife goes to the police court she at once, and automatically, comes within the machinery of conciliation, and if it turns out on inquiry that the trouble is something which can be settled, means are taken to do so. It may be that some medical question arises which can be dealt with by medical advice, and in that case the services of a doctor are called in. I should like to mention the name of Mr. Claud Mullins, the magistrate of the South Western Court, who has done much good work of this kind. I have here a letter from him in which he states that in seven months 220 summonses were issued in the South Western court and 89 final orders were made. He says that he is confident that not one of the 131 women who did not obtain orders had any complaint about being denied legal rights. He says that 23 women had their cases dismissed after formal trial but the other 108 were convinced that they were better off without orders. He adds: With this experience in the matter of orders for separation or maintenance, how can we tolerate a system that leaves applicants for divorce with only legal assistance? All that procedure goes on when the application is for separation, but take the other case, where a party wants or thinks she wants a divorce. At once she passes out of the realm of the kindly, human, domestic atmosphere of these courts, and she can only go to the Assizes or the High Court. God forbid that I should belittle the admirable work of the lawyers who give their services under the Poor Persons' Rules in the High Court, but it is a different thing and the whole atmosphere is different. It is a question of legal rights there, and not one of adjustment and conciliation. In addition, the parties have to leave their homes and go up to unfriendly places, to London or Assize towns, and that is another very important point. The proposal in these Clauses is to give the first hearing, not to every magistrate, but to selected magistrates, magistrates selected by the Lord Chancellor, who would probably be in most cases a stipendiary, perhaps another magistrate, and a woman magistrate. The proposal is that they should automatically hear in the first instance all applications for divorce. I will not go into the machinery proposed, but all the cases would be considered by the High Court, at least on paper. As to the machinery, I am sure that any member of that great trade union to which I belong, the legal profession, will be able to pick a great many holes in it, and I cannot complain of that, but it may be that it can be amended.

Only last year the Lord Chief Justice of England wrote an article in which he said that it may not be very long before 19 out of 20 cases of divorce are heard in the first instance by those industrious and excellent gentlemen the stipendiary magistrates, so that we are not exactly talking lunacy when we make these proposals, and these Clauses have been drafted by someone who knows what he is talking about. Whatever happens to the substance of this Clause, I shall be extremely sorry to see the spirit of it thrown out of the Bill. The intention is, as I have said, not that there should be more divorce, but easier divorce in the right cases and for the right people, and, wherever possible, more conciliation. It is not true that divorce reform need always mean more divorces.

I pass to Clause 11. The present situation is that a clergyman of the Church of England is bound by law to marry, not the guilty party, but the innocent party, in a divorce suit, on demand, or to lend his Church for the purpose, if he refuses. In these days, when it seems to be rather difficult to know which party is really the guilty party, the clergy resent that, and I do not blame them for taking that view. As a result of all that, at the moment a great many clergy and bishops, I am afraid, defy the law, though I do not think many people would call them to task for it. I do not blame them myself, but it is an undesirable state of affairs. I think in these matters the Church ought to be master in its own household, and if anybody objects to these proposals on the other side, I found myself on the grounds of incongruity, and I say that anybody who has been married in a church and has said they will love, cherish, and so on "till death us do part," and then proposes to do it again in a church with somebody else, while the former spouse is still alive, has not very much to complain about if the clergy object to such a proposal. This is the kind of question, by the way—and I say it with respect to the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary—which makes it really wrong for a private Member to be left to push this kind of thing forward, because it will be the duty of His Majesty's Ministers, if we get it through to Committee, to enter into negotiations between the Churches, the law, and so forth. I commend that course to the right hon. Gentleman.

I do not think there is any other point of principle upon which I need dwell, though, of course, there are many very interesting and debatable points. The definitions are very important indeed, and they are all, with the exception of a few words, taken from the Royal Commission and from the Bill of Lord Buck-master, and I do not think the House will wish me to dwell upon them now. There is this Bill. It is not merely what is called the old hash. We have taken, wherever possible, the labours of our illustrious predecessors, Lord Buckmaster, Lord Birkenhead, Mr. Holford Knight, the Royal Commissioners, and the rest, but we have endeavoured to add, as I hope and think, these improvements which are more in keeping with the spirit and conditions of the present time. My hon. Friend and I are both new and inexperienced Members, and we acknowledge our obvious deficiencies in face of the magnitude of our task. But we are not afraid. And we do not apologise for bringing forward, as private Members, on a Friday, this great and difficult subject. On the contrary, believing so strongly as I do in the value of these Fridays and the value of the powers which we have on these Fridays, as I timidly hinted on the first occasion on which I had the honour of addressing this House, believing that, I hope that on this occasion the private Members will not be intimidated by any talk about the subject being too big or blocking up the Committee and all the rest of it.

Let it be said that on this day, the 20th November, the private Members of this House rose up and took hold of the great problem which Government after Government had neglected for 24 years and said, "We will lead the way." To His Majesty's Ministers I would say too, "We do not come to you hat in hand, asking you to pardon us for bringing up another Friday, fiddle-faddle trifle. We bring you, as it were on a charger, this great social reform, which we believe that any Government would be proud to bear upon the records of its achievement." I look forward to reading, in the Gracious Speech which concludes this Session, that, His Majesty's Government are taking unto themselves great credit for the foresight and strength which led them to tackle and settle this problem. I shall not begrudge them that.

These laws of ours are unique in Protestant countries, always excepting the States of South Carolina and New York. They cannot be defended by reference to divine sanction, nor on the grounds of human reason. They are based in the main on historical accident, on antique prejudice, and upon the strange and almost bestial notion that the one thing which matters in married life is the sexual act and that the only breach of the marriage obligation which really matters is a breach of sexual fidelity. They are like some architectural monstrosity which stands upon a hill and offends the eye of all beholders year after year, and yet, because it is so familiar, if anybody tries to pull it down, there arises a great outcry. These laws are the cause of great, unnecessary and unjustifiable unhappiness, and, apart from that, they are a danger to our institutions. Twenty-four years ago a Royal Commission worked for three years and condemned them, but nothing has been done. Since then the Press has never ceased to support the demand for reform. I am sure we have the bulk of the people behind us, and now, I believe, we have the churches as well. It remains for this House at last to rise up and tackle and settle this problem. I have only one more word to say, and that will be addressed to my Roman Catholic friends. I could indulge in a great deal of interesting and, as I might think, effective verbal play with the Roman Catholics, but I do not propose to do that, because I hope this discussion will be maintained upon a kindly and tolerant level. The House will do me the credit of admitting that I have not bombarded it with hard-luck letters, but I wish to read one letter, which is a good-luck letter, from a Roman Catholic lady whom I do not know. She writes to me out of the blue: Please God, your Bill will pass un-mutilated. I am a Roman Catholic, a happy wife and mother, but there are others in this world of ours who most grievously are wronged. With what anxiety must they be awaiting the result of this truly great reform. We pray for you. I hope—indeed I pray—that the spirit of that letter may be moving in this House to-day.

11.56 a.m.


All of us will be grateful that this subject has been brought up in the House to-day. In his able speech the mover of the Second Reading put on all of us the obligation to make a definite decision, either aye or no, for this Bill. It is important the House should realise that this is not a general Motion suggesting that there are desirable reforms to be made in our divorce laws. With that all of us are in agreement. This is a specific Bill containing specific Clauses, and it must be judged as a whole. Judging it in that way, there is much in it with which I am sure all of us sympathise, but I am bound to come to the conclusion, from such experience as I have had, that the Bill is likely to do far more harm than good to the country, even if it is passed with such Amendments as are possible. The House should realise the increase in divorces in our recent history. Up to the Matrimonial Clauses Act, 1857, there had been under 300 divorces in this country since the Reformation. That is because they had to proceed by private Bill in this and the other House. Since the introduction of that Act the number of divorces has grown very rapidly. In 1871 there were 166, which meant one divorce each year for every 1,145 marriages. By 1900 there were 512 divorces, which meant one for every 503 marriages. By 1928 there were 4,018 divorces, which meant one for every 75 marriages.


Could the hon. and learned Member also give us the comparable figures of judicial separations and maintenance orders, as there can be no true picture of broken marriages by merely studying divorce figures?


I entirely agree, but I have not the figures. This Bill is not meant only to increase the grounds of divorce, but, in my view, it is meant to facilitate very much the machinery by which divorce will be able to be secured. We must, therefore, anticipate that during the years to come, if this Measure were to find its way on to the Statute Book we should have a figure far in excess of those I have quoted. I have little or no experience in that division of the High Court which deals with divorces and the causes of divorce, but I practise regularly in the division which deals with the aftermath of divorce cases.

It is very important that the House and the country should realise what is the real problem which arises from the increase of divorce, namely, the difficulties for the children of divorced couples. Anybody who has any imagination must realise that if children have grown to an age where they can appreciate a home in which both parents are living, if that home is broken up for any reason so that they are left with one parent, if they are bandied about for part of the year from parent to parent, if, as often happens, some other relative on account of economic difficulties takes charge of the children, their fate as they grow up during the most difficult years of their lives is intolerably different from that of children who live in a home in which both parents are residing.


Would the hon. Member agree that that is so even where the parents living together hate each other?


The hon. Member has anticipated me. My experience shows me that the affection between parents and children in innumerable cases make the parents try to keep their mutual hatred or dislike of each other away from their children. That, to my mind, is one of the general grounds from which we ought to view the future, and I submit to the House, and through the House to others, that every extension of divorce, however much it eases and helps the unhappiest of the parent generation, always sacrifices the coming generation without exception. It is impossible in this country to have one law for those who have no children, and another law for parents who have. Otherwise there might be an easy division drawn in the development of the divorce laws. With modern knowledge and invention one knows that that must necessarily result in a decrease in the birth-rate, and on national grounds such a solution is impossible. The underlying question of the so-called changes in the divorce laws is whether we are to assist the parent generation, in which all of us know that there are hundreds of the hardest possible cases, at the expense of the coming generation. This Bill does far too much to assist the parent generation and to act detrimentally towards the coming generation, and for that reason I have to vote against it.

Starting with those premises and one's own experience, I want to criticise one or two Clauses in the Bill. Take Clause 1, which deals with the five-year period. At first sight that is frightfully attractive, because it would appear to put upon young persons a great deal of responsibility before they enter into marriage, but what does it mean when read with the rest of the Bill? We all know that in normal cases the first five years of marriage are the years in which the family starts to come into existence, and if there is to be no divorce on any grounds until the expiration of five years, we shall have children to deal with in every divorce case in the country, save, exceptionally, where either on purpose or otherwise there happen to be no children.


Surely the hon. and learned Member is assuming that this couple who want divorce will continue cohabitation, but we should not be likely to have both those situations at the same time.


What I say is that you may or you may not. I agree that cohabitation may cease during those first five years, but I am suggesting that if there is to be divorce it is most desirable that it should take place at the earliest possible moment, so that you should not get what will happen, I am perfectly certain, in a case like that: Divorce not available during the five years and the parties—after infidelity, if you like—living together and more children coming into the world, and the problem of the children becoming an increasing one.

Coming to Clause 2, I do not suggest that the supporters of the Bill have not put in reasonable additional grounds for divorce, and in so far as those grounds already presuppose a separation of the spouses I am all in favour of it—in cases of desertion, habitual lunacy or anything of that sort where the parents are already living apart for some reason or other. In such circumstances I am all in favour of those being made grounds for divorce. But Clause 2 must not be read without looking at Clauses 3 and 7, and when the Mover says that they are tightening up the divorce law and making collusion more difficult, I come to my next point of attack on the scheme of the Bill. If we abolish the King's Proctor and abolish the interval between the decree nisi and the decree absolute, how in the world are we ever going to prove that any divorce is collusive; how can the court, in an undefended divorce case, possibly ascertain that there is collusion? What happens in the ordinary case? The husband and wife agree that they want divorce. The husband, taking advantage of this Bill, agrees that he will, in form at least, desert his wife for a period of three years, and on that his wife asks for the divorce. It is pure hypocrisy to say that collusion shall be an absolute defence, because if we abolish the interval between the decree nisi and the decree absolute we abolish the King's Proctor, and there is nobody in the world who is going to bring this matter to the notice of the court. If the decree is to become absolute on the day on which it is pronounced, so that the spouses can marry again next day, we shall encourage collusive divorce in a way which many of those who support the Bill have not appreciated.

The provisions in favour of conciliation have my wholehearted support, because they are trying to cure an evil which, I believe, is the greatest social and inherent difficulty about any extension of the divorce law. I should like to have seen them in a separate Bill and they would have had my support. I think it is noticeable from the speeches of the Mover and the Seconder that the problem which I have raised has not, with great respect to them, been fully thought out. They do not realise what it is going to mean to us who find by far the most difficult part of our work that of dealing with the children of separated parents. Judicial separation creates exactly the same trouble so far as children are concerned. If hon. Members think it desirable that judicial separation should be turned into divorce that is for them, but the problem remains the same, whether by encouraging judicial separation or encouraging divorce, we are breaking up the home and creating the problem of the children and how they are to be looked after. In this general feeling throughout the country, which I agree is widespread and strong in favour of reform, it has not been sufficiently realized that at bottom we are being tempted to try to improve the interests and the happiness of the present generation, but are, in fact, sacrificing the interests of the rising generation. It is for that reason that I think the extension of the grounds of divorce ought to be most carefully watched and safeguarded, and that wherever possible you should, by extension of the ground of nullity—of which I am all in favour—or divorce at an early stage of married life, try to prevent the problem of the children becoming an ever growing problem. For these reasons, if I am compelled to vote one way or the other this afternoon, I propose to record my vote against the Bill.

12.13 p.m.


I listened very carefully to the weighty remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Ashford (Mr. Spens), and I must confess that I was rather surprised, having in mind the previous history of this question, that an hon. Member who said so candidly that he was in favour—or so it seems to me—of the central principle of this Bill, that which it is proposed to enact by Clause 2, following the recommendations of the Majority Report of the Royal Commission, and who said also that he was in favour of the principle of the new Clause about conciliation and in favour of the proposals with regard to nullity, should nevertheless have thought it necessary to say that he might have to vote against the Bill. I cannot follow his main point that under the Bill there would be far more difficulty over the problem of the children. Is it not of the essence of the problem that though the Bill says there shall not be divorce until after five years—or whatever other period may be agreed upon—there can still be judicial separation during those five years and, if necessary, from the beginning of the five years? That being so, I do not see how the problem of the children will be made very much greater under the Bill than it is now. The Mover and Seconder of the Bill made it perfectly clear, in what seemed to me very admirable statements, that in asking the House to give the Bill a Second Reading they were asking us to affirm the principle that the time has come (after nearly 80 years, to consider an extension of the grounds of divorce, which are most carefully safeguarded and defined in the Bill, to consider whether divorce, but not judicial separation or nullity, should be obtainable only after a period of years from the date of marriage, and to consider whether the machinery of concilia- tion might not well be introduced. Those seem to be the main principles.

As I see it, the Bill is based mainly on the recommendations of the majority of the Royal Commission of 24 years ago. I believe that those recommendations were then sound, and are still, and I should be unwilling greatly to modify them unless to introduce greater safeguards and more exact definitions. But the other suggestions are, of course, new. I have the authority of the Mover and Seconder, of all the other promoters of the Bill, to say this: All they desire today is to ask the House to affirm its willingness to consider the very simple general central provisions and proposals of the Bill, and that should any of the new matter which the Report of the Royal Commission has not made very familiar in this controversy be found on careful examination in Committee to be misconceived or too difficult to work, they would not consider that the general principles of the Bill were bound up with maintaining matter of that kind; on the contrary they would most particularly desire that it should be most carefully and impartially examined, and we should hope to get, and should get, all the assistance that the Home Office, with its great experience, could bring us in the final shaping of the Bill.

As we know, the opposition to this Bill in the country and as we shall see it in the House to-day is mainly from those who have strong religious convictions. I have always admired the devotion with which their faith inspires those who express their convictions from that point of view. If the holding of a certain faith entails taking up a certain attitude to political questions we must respect that point of view, and we must also hope that it will be fully expressed in discussions such as are now taking place. But I hope that those who feel bound to criticise and oppose the Bill from that point of view will recognise also what seem to me to be very important words in the majority Report of the Royal Commission, when they recommended the Legislature: That in their action they should be unfettered by any other considerations than the interests of the State, society, morality, the parties and the children. In previous controversies there has been what I consider to be rather a heresy, namely, an inclination to set one against another as opposites—the idea of the sanctity of marriage and the idea of divorce law reform. If those who want to uphold the position as it now is talked about the indissolubility of marriage or indissolubility except for adultery, that would be another thing, but to try to uphold the sanctity of marriage as a reason against this Bill is a thing which I feel bound to challenge, and it is on that point that I want to speak briefly. I have a personal reason. My wife, with whom I enjoyed 28 years of most perfect married life, was unable to have her name put on the panel of speakers for the Mothers' Union in the county in which we lived because she could not genuinely promise not to advocate divorce law reform, not on the Union's platforms but on any other platform in the county. That, of course, goes rather deep and makes one feel that if one can say anything to get rid of the idea which may still be in the minds of some hon. Members, that we are trying to do anything to attack the sanctity of marriage, it is right to say it.

I think the sanctity of marriage is rather better upheld by those who wish to reform the divorce laws than by many, I do not say all, of the representatives of the Christian churches. I would like to ask a question in regard to desertion. During the War there were cases of women married to Belgians, who afterwards left the women and returned to their own country. The wife in such cases often disappeared and was known to have gone with a man to America, and naturally could not be traced in that rather large continent. Then there are the ordinary cases of which we read in the letters we receive, in which some such phrase as this occurs, "I have not heard of him (or her) for the last 10 or 12 years." Those cases are rather common.

I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the reasons for which marriage was ordained, as contained in the Prayer Book of the Church of England. The reasons are three: The procreation of children, a remedy against sin in order to avoid the temptation to form connections outside the marriage bond, and so that husband and wife may be a help and comfort one to the other. I ask hon. Members to notice that it is not until each and all of these purposes has been made impossible of fulfilment that the terms of the Bill ask that divorce shall be given on grounds of desertion. Which party is caring most for the sanctity of marriage? My second instance is a quotation from the evidence given before the Royal Commission Bishop Gore, one of the most respected Bishops that the Church of England has ever had, had been illustrating and explaining the principles of Christian marriage, and he was asked these questions: LADY FRANCES BALFOUR: Take the case of a husband who has compelled his wife to submit herself to prostitution. Must that marriage be maintained? BISHOP GORE: Yes, I am afraid so. LADY FRANCES BALFOUR: Is the woman to stick to her husband and do as he bids her? BISHOP GORE: Yes, I am afraid so. Does that sort of thing uphold the sanctity of marriage? Does it typify the mystical union between Christ and his Church? Are not the divorce law reformers better upholding the sanctity of marriage when they say that in that case it may be dissolved? I really think they are.

Considering objections to the Bill from the point of view of religion more broadly, there is another thing that I do not want to comment on, though it is curious—that people should not only accept for themselves as reasonable hut should desire to enforce on the State teachings which they find in the Gospels concerning divorce, when they make no attempt to accept and no profession of accepting themselves or enforcing on the State the equally clear teaching of the Gospels as to non-resistance to robbery or violence. The opinions of many who hold those views are quite illogical if they oppose divorce law reform here and afterwards go to a recruiting meeting. I try to look at this Bill from the point of view of the man who feels hound to act on religious convictions.

Nearly all of us agree that the Founder of the Christian religion at the least was the greatest moral teacher of all time. Let us think of His teaching in relation to the place and time in which He taught. The Bill recommends that divorce should be granted for desertion, incurable insanity or drunkenness and lifelong imprisonment; how must those matters have appeared in the villages of Galilee, 1,900 years ago? There was no possibility of long-distance desertion then, because strangers of another race and religion were not welcomed in those distant countries. Desertion, if it took place, would be to a near-by village, and adultery, which generally took place in those cases, would be proved and the marriage would dissolve, according to the doctrine and teachings of the time. Were there then mental hospitals for the insane, and places in which habitual drunkards and drug-takers would be looked after? There were not. Were people kept for scores of years in prison until they came to old age, as they are now? They were not. Imprisonment in those days resulted in a fairly early death, and the marriage tie was automatically dissolved. Is it not natural, I ask with complete reverence, that the great Teacher, who watched the life He knew so well with His all-seeing and all pitying-eyes, was bound to teach, in cases where there now are great State services for the custody and treatment of the mentally deranged, of the inebriates or of the prisoners, and was bound to feel that, for the Galilean villager, there was no alternative but continuance of life in the home and therefore the maintenance of the marriage bond.

There must be, and I am sure there is, evidence in the House to-day, that the fires of religious feeling on this subject are not burning so strongly as they did 20, or even 10 years ago. I remember taking part in the Debate in 1920 on a Motion of the same sort of character as the Measure we are discussing today, and describing how the bond of marriage was tending to be brought into disrespect because of the well known existence of cases, say of desertion, in which the guiltless party belonged to the vary large clam for whom marriage is practically an economic necessity, and formed other unions in which they were entirely faithful. These unions, though not recognised by the State, were regarded by public opinion not disrespectfully. A most respected Member of this House, Colonel Sir Robert Williams, commented upon that and said words to this effect: "These people are living in sin. I should expect them to prefer to go to the workhouse than to live in sin, and I should expect the public opinion of the villages to honour those people for going to the workhouse rather than form unions of that kind." That reflected the opinion of the majority of the Members of the House at that time, but I hardly think it does so now. A great deal of the best re ligious opinion is better represented by the views of the Modern Churchmen's Union which, as the hon. Member said who seconded the Bill, are remarkably in line with the proposals of the Bill.

I have tried to deal with a very difficult question without provocation and, I hope, without wounding anyone's religious conviction. It is right that such convictions should be sincerely held and fully expressed, but is it not right also that they should not be the deciding factor in a matter which vitally affects the State and so many thousands of lives? I therefore plead, with the Majority of the Commission, that the Legislature, in their action, should be unfettered by any other considerations than the interests of the State, society, morality, the parties and the children. To this I may also add that they should consider the true sanctity of the marriage bond.

12.30 p.m.


I hope very earnestly that we shall succeed in passing the Bill through the House to-day. Like previous speakers, I wish to see marriage, in the true sense of the word, an institution that will continue for long in this country and elsewhere, but I am convinced that one of the greatest menaces to that institution is the existence of a number of unions which, although legally termed marriages, are nevertheless the very reverse of that. They are unions from which at present there is no escape. I am certain that all of us, in our personal experience, know numbers of people who, though living together and outwardly bearing the semblance of unity, are living, behind the scenes, lives which can be described only as a degradation to themselves and their offspring. I am surprised to hear what hon. Members opposite say, when they speak on behalf of the children. They seem to forget the suffering caused by the operation of our present economic system upon those who are, in particular, victims of the means test and of similar vicious processes to-day.

I am naturally anxious to place the interest of the children before everything else, but children that are begotten of parents who detest or despise each other live in an atmosphere, which, despite the attempts of their parents to screen the real facts from them, is quite apparent. They suffer from the filtering down to them of the strains and tensions of the slumbering fires of that kind of life, and they cannot benefit from a home of that description. I have seen children who have lived for many years in homes which bear the semblance of unity but underneath are full of poison and canker, and of all that which destroys the best interests of the children themselves. Though indefinable, such an atmosphere is a definite factor in their lives. Children come to know subconsciously, if they do not know consciously, when there is no real union between their parents. They observe, and they know by the tones of the voices which their parents use; they read between the lines, and they draw deductions in their own way. It is not long before children of average intelligence know whether the atmosphere in which they live is one which they can call a home or precisely the reverse. For that reason I plead most earnestly that those of us who are happily married, should, for the sake of the children, not condone homes which are not in the best interests of those children, morally and spiritually.

I know there are many hon. Members who approach this matter from the religious standpoint, and I respect their convictions when they feel that divorce cannot be sanctioned in any circumstances. As with the previous speaker, whose very wise, grave and sensitive words have been appreciated by us all, I can understand to the full the point of view of those who feel that they must do all they can to prevent the spread of facilities for divorce, but I assure hon. Members who take that view that some of us also approach this question from a religious standpoint. I do myself. I am convinced that the only durable interpretation of life is a religious one. I cannot understand such tribulation and trial in life unless from the standpoint of one who believes in an ultimate Divine purpose. It is because of that that we wish to do something to-day to release the souls of men and women from that which is otherwise a burden which distorts and frustrates them, and leaves them at the end of their days without a sense of reasonable fulfilment. They have the feeling that life has been bitter to them and has poisoned their souls, and instead of being that fine splendid adventure that it should be, has become a morbid scrambling in the gutters of life.

I quite admit that there are many Clauses in the Bill which, after due consideration, might be improved, but surely no Bill was ever introduced in the House of Commons that was not capable of being improved in some way. What we are anxious to do is to get the principle accepted, and I would ask hon. Members not to be finicky and say that, because some particular Clause does not please them, or because they see some weakness here or there, they are going to dismiss the Bill altogether. Let us be honest with ourselves. Do not let us fear the intimidation of any ecclesiastical body. All of us may lose votes over this, but what does that matter? In the long run what we have to do is to try to serve humanity and the best interests of humanity from the standpoint which we think right. I will never be deflected by open or hidden intimidation on the part of any ecclesiastical or other body. We are here to do our duty as we see it, and our duty, as I see it, is to try to do something for those thousands of couples all over the country who to-day are living, not the happy lives which surely God meant them to live, but those distorted, frustrated lives to which I have referred.

I would point out that in other parts of the world there are easier facilities for divorce than there are here in this country. Let us take the case of South Africa. The Union of South Africa, it is true, has not a very large white population; it numbers, I believe, about 2,000,000 all told. Half of these people, approximately, are Boers, and therefore of the Lutheran persuasion. There are very considerable facilities for divorce in South Africa and no one dare challenge them. But do we find that there is looser living in South Africa? Do we find that there is a smaller proportion of happy marriages than there is here? Do we find that, because there are these easier facilities for divorce in South Africa, couples on the least provocation fly asunder? We do not. I venture to suggest that, if the statistics were examined, we should find that, relatively speaking, there are fewer of these irregular unions in South Africa, even with easier facilities for divorce, than there are in this country. The same is true elsewhere. In certain Scandinavian countries easier facilities exist, but we do not find the general level of life, and of matrimony in particular, in those countries, to be lower than it is here. As one who knows people who have come from Scandinavia—my name, obviously, will be an indication of that—I can say with great assurance that the level of domestic life in Scandinavia is quite as high as it is here at home.

To whitewash a sepulchre is not therefore to remove it. The dead bones are still there, and no amount of ecclesiastical or ethical or other whitewash will remove the fact that rottenness is within. I want to see sexual relationship carried on to a far higher plane than it has been, because I know from observation, from what has been told me, and from confessions that have come to me from all sorts of people, the rottenness that is behind the whitewash. I ask Members of this House to do something to see that matrimony is not a whited sepulchre, but, instead, a really honest institution, in which men and women can live together and have their families, not because they are compelled to do so by outside pressure, but because of one reason alone—a desire to dwell together out of sheer affection and respect for each other. There is no other real basis for matrimony. Any institution, any legislation, any tradition or prejudice, that props up matrimony on any other basis and that tries to hide the real difficulties of our existing matrimonial institutions, is doing no real service either to humanity, to matrimony, to religion or to the State. In the end the rottenness eats its way out; like a cancer it grows, and drains away the life and well-being of the body politic.

I again beg hon. Members, for the sake of the principle embodied in this Bill, to realise that, if they are happily married, there is still this great army of men and women who are living, not in a world that is fine, but in a world that they think is black, in a world that they feel is a prison, that is taking the soul out of all that they once called life, and is therefore reducing them to the position of disguised hypocrites. We do not want more hypocrites; we want more men and women whose union is based on honesty, more who are bound together, not because they are afraid of their neighbours, not because they are compelled by law, not because they are afraid of themselves, but because the partnership between them is based upon inherent merit and will last through all the stresses and strains of time. For that deep ethical, religious, patriotic, human reason, because I want to see real marriage saved from the attack which is being made upon it not so much by clamant individuals, but by the inner inconsistencies of life, I beg the House this afternoon to pass this Bill, and in doing so to feel that it is doing something to lift a little of the darkness from the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings.

12.42 p.m.


There is no question that in the country at large there is a very considerable proportion of feeling—and it is not only religious feeling—which believes that marriage should in all circumstances be indissoluble. There is also a certain proportion of feeling which believes that the only true grounds for divorce should be complete incompatibility of temper. I venture to suggest that we are not here to legislate for the one opinion or the other; we are here for the greater good of the greater number. We are also here to see that such laws as are passed by this honourable House are laws which neither press so harshly on the community that they come to be disregarded, nor are such laws as in administration are inequitable between different sections of our people. I am not prepared to say that it might not be for the betterment of the race if marriage were indissoluble. I believe that we are not able to judge that, and that only history in later years may perhaps be able to decide. But that is not the question which we are here to decide.

Marriage has been dissoluble in this country since 1857, but I venture to say that to-day, in the larger number of cases, it is no longer dissoluble for the reasons for which it was then made dissoluble. It was recognised in 1857 that, where adultery had taken place, a marriage must no longer be considered binding; but so strange has the working of the law become that, in cases where adultery has genuinely taken place, it is to-day, in many instances, extremely diff- cult to get divorce, because a large number of people who are getting divorce by what amounts to nothing more or less than mutual consent are using the cloak of adultery under which to get it, with the result that many judges are uncertain as to when adultery has or has not taken place. In many genuine cases people who are almost sure that their marriage partners have committed adultery have no money with which to pay, for instance, for a woman to pretend that she has slept with the husband or with which to find evidence from hotel servants and so on, and they remain bound for ever. I think that, no matter what our religious opinions may be, we can no longer support a system which is leading to these abuses.

The hon. Member who spoke against the Bill—we all sincerely respect his opinions—did so because he said that by extending the grounds for divorce we should be sacrificing the interests of the rising generation to those of the present generation. I think he was very optimistic as to what you can hide from the knowledge of a child. He said many people remain together and keep their mutual hatred hidden for the sake of their affection for the children in the home. I do not think it is possible to hide mutual hatred between parents from any children, no matter how sincerely you may wish to do so. But it is not only the children of unhappy marriages where the parents are living together whom we have to consider. What of the children being brought up to-day with the stigma of illegitimacy because the parents have been able to find no relief in divorce and have taken unto themselves what is known as a lover or a mistress, children who are being brought up in what would be a happy and healthy home life if they were not living under the stigma of illegitimacy? It is our duty to-day, more perhaps than it has ever been in the past, to do everything we can to safeguard the rising generation and see that they grow up in healthy, happy, moral homes, but that is not done where you have wives trying to bring children up with the small sums that they get under maintenance orders unable to marry men who are willing to marry them. Nor is it for the welfare of the race that adults should be prevented from bringing children into the world because they are legally tied to partners who are in prison or in an asylum.

Everyone who has spoken agrees that the grounds for which we extend divorce in the Bill are reasonable, but I should like to say a word on the Clause which brings in insanity. I think we shall have to look into it very carefully in order to safeguard the position of those unhappy people where the marriage is dissolved because of the insanity of one or either partner in order to ensure that someone is responsible for their financial support. No one would wish to see people divorced on the ground of insanity and left without any financial support whatever. That is a point which is not brought into the Bill, but which will undoubtedly need careful examination in Committee.

I very much welcome the Clause that does away with the intervention of the King's Proctor between the decree nisi and the decree absolute. The action of the King's Proctor at present is often neither more nor less than a farce. He often only intervenes in cases in which he has received an overwhelming number of anonymous letters, and I cannot believe it the wish of hon. Members to see the law of the land administered on the basis of anonymous letters. Whatever grounds you have for divorce, I do not believe that you will be able to eliminate a certain amount of collusion but, if you are going to have collusion, it is surely more Christian, more moral, more desirable that you should have collusion where two people agree to live apart for three years than that you should have collusion which necessitates the buying of women's bodies and the buying of evidence from hotel servants, who are in no way to blame for what they are called upon to do.

I think the Bill has found general support. There are Members who will not vote on it and, when they are asked by their constituents why they did not vote, one of their excuses will be that a Measure of such importance should not be brought forward by a private Member but by the Government. I think that is an indefensible point of view. When the Government are dealing with matters of international importance, matters of delicate negotiation with foreign countries, of which they alone have complete knowledge, hon. Members are very ready to criticise foreign Powers and to criticise the policy of the Government of which they have most inadequate and incomplete knowledge. The matter of marriage is one that is brought home to every Member of the House in some way or another and if, when they have all reached years of discretion, they feel unable to cast a vote on a matter on which most of them have personal knowledge, there are very few questions whatever on which they are fit to give any opinion in the form of a vote in this House. The hon. Member who spoke last said we might lose votes by the action we are taking. That may be true, but I believe that in the main our constituents would rather that we stood up and had the courage to do what we thought right, even if they disagree with us, on a subject such as this than that they should have a silent Member who had not the courage to cast a vote. It is 24 years since the Report of the Royal Commission was published. For a far longer period than that the grounds for divorce have been made a farce and a sham. Hon. Members are not right in thinking that the religious bodies are all against us to-day. The Modern Churchmen's Union support the Bill and express their conviction that, if the proposals here made become law, the moral condition of the country would be greatly improved. The marriage tie would be strengthened, reckless marriages would be discouraged, and many present abuses would disappear. That is what we are here to do. If this Measure has not been brought forward by the Government up to date, it is for us to see that the Government are forced to bring it forward. I hope the Bill will receive a Second Reading by an overwhelming majority.

12.53 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander AGNEW

I join with the hon. Lady in deploring the fact that the House is not entirely filled on such an occasion as this. It is true that this is a private Member's Bill, but it is, nevertheless, one seeking to deal with a problem that affects the whole mass of the people of the country. It was the hon. Member for Leyton West (Mr. Sorensen) who first introduced such a strong religious note into the Debate. I entirely agree with him in that. From the earliest times religion has played a very large part in framing the laws which the State has enforced as to marriage. The custom was not, of course, the same in every country. In many, it is true, the rule was monogamous unions, but there were countries where polygamy was approved by the religious authorities and there were, and I believe are to-day, countries where polygamy is the custom that is actually carried on. But we are dealing with our own country which was one of that great block of countries which formed Western Europe, and where to the exclusion of almost all others a great wave of one particular religion swept across from one end of the Continent to the other. That religion, of course, was the Christian religion. There was a time indeed when people did not say, "The League of Nations will not condemn this or that action," or, "The Powers of Europe will not give their approval," but they spoke of it as Christendom. Those conditions are very different to-day. We have left behind that era of Catholicity of faith. Although the Christian religion survives very strongly in all the States where it was set up, so far as civil administration is concerned, it has been very largely dispensed with so far as giving the actual authoritarian direction to our laws is concerned. But it does nevertheless exercise a most profound influence upon the direction of our legislation, and certainly it can be said that it is the Christian tradition which sets the standard in this country, and, indeed, the Church of England is still the official Church of this country. Perhaps the House will excuse me if I read a very short extract from the Report of the Convocations of Canterbury and York which passed through the Upper House. They had to consider the whole question of the indissolubility or otherwise of marriages, and this is the standard which they reaffirmed:

  1. "(1) That this House reaffirms as our law, principle and standard of marriage, a lifelong and indissoluble union, for better or for worse, for one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all other on either side.
  2. (2) That this House also reaffirms its belief that as a consequence, in no circumstances can Christian man or woman remarry during the lifetime of a wife or husband without a breach of the moral principles by which the institution of marriage is governed according to Christ's teaching."
That quite clearly sets forth what, in the opinion of the Church of England, the standard ought to be.


Will my hon. and gallant Friend give the House the date of the resolution?

Lieut.-Commander AGNEW

I am not sure of it as I speak. It is of comparatively recent date—certainly under 10 years old. But to-day we are not the Assembly of the Church of England sitting to discuss these matters; we are the Civil Legislature, or part of it, of this Realm. Therefore, we must rightly consider these matters on a somewhat broader basis, because we have to legislate not only for the sons and daughters of the Church, but for that large number of people—it is unfortunately so—who do not choose to try to follow the precepts of the Church of England, or the precepts of some other religious body or the precepts of any religious body at all. Therefore, while mindful of the standard which we have inherited traditionally, we must adjust our civil law so as to make it one which the whole of our people can follow, will understand and will have no hardship in obeying.

I am of the opinion that the time has come when we should consider some measure of reform of our marriage laws. I deprecate, however, expressions which have come from various quarters of the House in such a term as, "making divorce easier". I do not think that that should be our object. Our object ought to be to make marriage real and permanent—and both these two conditions must go together—and also such as will be for the welfare of the mass of our people.

To pass to some of the details of the actual Bill, many of these deal with new matrimonial causes for divorce. I would mention particularly, cruelty, habitual drunkenness and insanity. When the time comes, if it does, for the Bill to go to Committee, all these three new causes will have to be most carefully examined. I am anxious to hear what arguments can be put forward further in support of them in debate, but I have heard no argument yet which would convince me that there are not very grave and inherent difficulties in having even a wise and practicable administration of them. I was recently in Australia where in one of the States—Victoria—they have a matrimonial cause for divorce in in- sanity, and I heard of some friends of friends of mine where a comparatively poor man happened to have married a rich woman. Within two or three years after the marriage, he had been certified as insane and placed in a proper asylum for such people. Shortly before the end of the statutory period there was extensive and almost unending litigation, on the one hand, to try to prove that he was sane and ought to come out of the asylum—and in the lawsuit which took place that contention was most hotly contested, and indeed the suit was supported on both sides by eminent medical evidence—and, on the other hand, to try to prove that he was still insane and likely to be so until the expiration of the statutory period.

I believe that the insertion of insanity as a matrimonial cause for divorce will have the effect of producing almost unending difficulties and confusion and will not work well. Cruelty, as defined in the Bill, with the exception of the two particular cases in the Interpretation Clause, seem to me to be almost impossible to prove in any court, and I have been assured by medical men that habitual drunkenness is very far from incurable. It can, in fact, be cured. These are all questions that are open to debate and merely illustrate the very great difficulties and complexities of the problem. There is one point I should like to mention in connection with desertion. Under the Bill, subject of course to the initial five-year rule, desertion may be a cause for judicial separation after three years. It may be that the petitioner may apply for and obtain a decree of judicial separation on the ground of such desertion, but the Bill goes on to say that after a further two years that decree of judicial separation may be converted into one of divorce upon the petition of either party. There, I think, is an injustice in the Bill. Once a decree of judicial separation has been granted for desertion, only on the initiative of the original petitioner or aggrieved party ought it to be possible for that decree to be converted into one of absolute divorce.

I welcome strongly the new causes of nullity. Not only are they supported by all religious bodies but they are supported without division by all civil bodies which have to deal with the problem. Certainly there can be no one in this House who would question the desirability, whatever our views may be about the ultimate destiny of the marriage, of starting the marriage on the best, surest and most genuine foundation, and I think that these new nullity causes will ensure that effect. There is one question that I would ask the Minister who is to reply, and that relates to the presumption of death provision in Clause 6. I should like to be assured that if that provision were passed into law in its present form it would be in line with the provision of presumption of death in so far as it applies to the question of probate, to the general Chancery law, and also in so far as it applies administratively to the question of granting widows' pensions, and matters with which the Minister of Health deals.

Those people who happen to be members of the Church of England will welcome the new relief which their clergymen are to get under the Bill. It has been scandalous, and I think members of the Church of England have felt it to be an intolerable ignominy, that clergymen should be forced to permit their churches to be used for the remarriage of divorced persons. The new provision under which clergymen will not be bound to do that, will be welcomed. The church will still have the obligation, as the Estabished Church of this Realm, of performing the marriage service for any two persons who may desire it, against whom there are no disabilities, yet when once the vow has been taken and broken the Church will not have to take one of the two parties who have been joined in that original tie and go through a second occasion of that vow being taken. If the Bill goes to Committee it will need substantial redrafting, excisions and possibly additions, but I believe the time has come when this House and the whole country must face up to the question of the reform of our marriage laws. Therefore, if there is a Division, I shall vote in favour of the Bill being given a Second Reading.

1.9 p.m.


In spite of the restrained enthusiasm with which the hon. Member for Camborne (Lieut.-Commander Agnew has spoken of the Bill, I was glad to hear that he will support the Second Reading and leave to the Committee stage the elucidation of the points of criticism which he raised. I should like to say a few words in support of the Bill and to congratulate the Mover and Seconder on their wisdom and courage in bringing it before the House. This is one of the most trying judicial and social reforms with which we are confronted at the present time. It is a grave reflection on this House that 26 years have past since the recommendations of the very authoritative Royal Commission which went carefully into the question, and that those recommendations have not been carried into effect. I think, too, there is a heavy responsibility—I do not want to indulge in recriminations, and I am happy to find that an atmosphere of agreement exists—on those who opposed reform in the past, and have therefore been responsible for a, great deal of unavoidable human misery and suffering.

The reasons given in the Preamble of the Bill are overwhelming reasons for our support. The reasons are, that we should pass this Measure for the true support of marriage, the protection of children, the removal of hardship, the reduction of illicit unions and unseemly litigation, the relief of conscience among the clergy, and the restoration of due respect for the law. I have no great knowledge of the state of the conscience of the clergy. The hon. Member who has just spoken is apparently better informed on that subject. I am not able to say whether or not their conscience is in urgent need of relief, but all the other reasons given in the Preamble are very sound and urgent reasons, and should commend themselves to the wisdom of the House.

The good repute of Parliament is at stake over this issue. On various occasions when this Measure has been before the House in the past the issue, by various subterfuges, has never been brought to the test. On a number of occasions the House has been counted out. I can only surmise that that situation has arisen because of some sort of moral cowardice on the part of a considerable number of Members of this House. It is a bad thing for the public to get the impression that Members of this House believe a certain thing to be right but are not prepared to do the right thing because of the fear of consequences. I believe that situation has obtained in the past. That fear is the fear that an organised religious minority may take hostile action against those who support this Measure. Such a fear can easily be exaggerated. Those organised minorities do not form a very large proportion of the whole electorate, and I am convinced that the great mass of our citizens want this reform, and want it urgently.

I should like to give an illustration of what, I think, is the exaggerated importance of these organised minorities, by referring to what occurred in the General Election of 1929. At that time the hon. Member for South Kensington (Sir W. Davison) was opposed very strongly by a clerical faction on this very issue of divorce. The contest in that constituency received wide publicity. Great notice of it was taken in the Press, and the general impression one might have formed as that contest proceeded was that this clerical faction in pressing the issue of divorce was going to make it a very near thing for the hon. Member for South Kensington. As a matter of fact he was elected on that occasion, although there was that concentrated clerical barrage against him, by the largest majority he had ever enjoyed in the course of his political life. I am sure that if this issue were put to a referendum—we have not that political institution in this country—it would be carried by an overwhelming majority.

It is time that our marriage laws were made to approximate much more closely to the opinion of the age. As I have said, I do not want to indulge in any recriminations, but it, is true that at the present time our marriage laws are an archaic survival from distant days. They are very largely based on the doctrines of the Church—the Church conception of the state of marriage. Whether we like it or not, it is true that the conception of the state of marriage is not now in conformity with the conception held by the great majority of the citizens of this country. The Church and the State were one and indivisible at the time the conception of marriage was imposed on the State, but at the present time they are no longer one and indivisible; they have separate and clearly defined functions and separate spheres of influence. It would be most improper if Parliament were to intervene in spiritual matters which are the sole and proper concern of the Church, and it would be equally wrong and improper for the State to intervene in an issue of this kind which is very largely a civil issue. The Church should not seek to prevent the State making special legislation for the benefit of all sections of the community irrespective of their religious beliefs, or the lack of any religious belief. What may be called the extreme view of the Church has been put in this House on a number of occasions by the Senior Member for Oxford University (Lord H. Cecil) who is not with us to-day, and who is not likely to be with us again. He was the spokesman of what may be called the extreme Church view, and I want to quote a. passage representing his views, because it shows how utterly divorced they are from current opinion. The only argument for more divorce really is the hardship of indissoluble marriage, but this is not argument for it assumes a right of happiness. There is no such right. The path of virtue may often lead to unspeakable misery. It was hard in the War to stay in the front line places, it was hard to be wounded, mutilated and maimed for life, it was hard to be scourged and crucified. Is any unhappy marriage worse? If not the Christian must endure as his Lord endured". Such a doctrine as that is utterly remote from present day realities. There may be people who are willing to submit to it, and if there are it is their affair and we have no right to interfere with them, but it would be grossly improper and most intolerant to attempt to subject the whole population to such a doctrine. I am specially interested in this issue because of my utilitarian views. As I look at this question the difference between rich and poor in the matter of divorce strikes me most strongly. This is probably best exemplified by the existing law in relation to desertion. When you have a state of desertion the parties concerned are neither married nor unmarried. We all know what happens. A man deserts his wife and almost invariably deserts her because he is going to live with someone else, and a non-legal alliance or an irregular union is formed. There is the possibility of children arising from these irregular unions, and if children do come no one can deny that they are put in a most cruel and unfair position. If the parties to these irregular unions do not want children, or do not want to put their children into such an unhappy position, they take steps to avoid having children. Even that is not desirable. These unions may be happy, the two parties may naturally and properly want to have children, and they may be prevented from having children because of the existing state of the law, which would put such children in a most difficult position. There are thousands of such cases existing at the present time.

Let me emphasise the differentiation as between rich and poor. If desertion takes place in the case of a rich person with the object of associating with another party, it is comparatively easy for such a person to be traced and the necessary evidence obtained for the purposes of divorce, but in the case of poor people nothing of the kind can happen. The husband goes away to another part of London only and the poor deserted wife has no resources with which to institute a search for him. If he goes to another part of the country it is even more hopeless, and so the deserted wife has to endure year after year without any possibility of getting the freedom which her richer sister can easily obtain. I am told that there are clergymen who take up this attitude. A friend of mine was discussing with a clergyman not long ago this matter and drew attention to the pitiable state of a woman who had been deserted for ten years and who had no prospect of getting her freedom. The priest said: This is the poor woman's cross. She must bear it as bravely as she can. There is another aspect of this problem. There are people who become chargeable to public funds. Relieving officers will tell you that there are quite a number of cases of a man who has deserted his wife for 15 or 20 years, becoming destitute and chargeable to public funds. The authorities find out that his wife is living and that her conditions are such that she is able to make a contribution towards his maintenance, and this wife who has been deserted for 15 and 20 years is compelled under our existing law to support a man who deserted her long ago. That is really a monstrous state of affairs.

Finally, I say that if the Bill passes into law it will not make our marriage laws ideal. I would go very much further than these proposals. I would like to see marriage a free voluntary association which might be terminated by the mutual consent of the parties concerned. I think that with self-respecting human beings that should be possible. I agree that public opinion in this country has not yet reached that point, and I do not propose to argue in favour of that now. Although this Bill would not make the law anything like ideal, it would do something to get rid of the grosser evils and injustices which exist at the present time. The Bill would undoubtedly tend to strengthen the institution of marriage in a very real sense. It would bring to many thousands of men and women a happiness which is now denied them. It would rescue thousands of unfortunate children from a cruel and anomalous position. For those reasons, and in view of the fact that the Bill has the support, I am sure, of the great majority of the people in this country, I hope it will secure a Second Reading and passage into law.

1.26 p.m.


After the excellent speeches that have been made, the task of further supporting this Bill is not a very difficult one. Although a few charges have been made against the promoters of the Bill, there is one charge that cannot be brought against them. As the hon. Member for Shoreditch (Mr. Thurtle) said, they cannot be charged with any undue haste, because after 24 years we are only now putting into this Bill some of the findings of the Royal Commission. I think it is time that we did away with hypocritical platitudes and faced the real issue, making an endeavour to find a logical solution of the difficulties which confront us in connection with the marriage laws of this country. I think nobody will deny three things. The first is that the present laws cause hardship in certain cases; secondly, in other cases they become farcical; and thirdly, in the whole system there is only one ground for securing a divorce, which is illogical.

A point which has been dealt with this morning is whether this Bill, with its extended opportunities for divorce, is likely to weaken the marriage tie. There are some who say that it is an attack on the Christian ideal of matrimony. I would like to say to those people, and especially to devout Roman Catholics and devout members of the Church of England, of which I am myself a member, that the Bill does not interfere in the slightest way with their lofty conception of what matrimony means to them. This Bill will not affect them. When they say that this Bill will make divorce easier, and take their stand on the Church doctrine that marriage is indissoluble, I would remind them that the law already admits the dissolution of marriage.

I am one of those people who believe that marriage was made for man, and not man for marriage. I suppose there was no greater judge of wedlock and the results of wedlock than the novelist Thomas Hardy. It is true that in many of his books he dealt with cases of very ill-assorted couples whose unions resulted in tragedy and chaos. At the conclusion of one chapter, I think he wrote that it was well and truly said in the marriage service that it should begin with the words "Dearly beloved" and end in amazement. That brings us forcibly to the point that, after all, the marriage laws are manmade institutions. We must have some regard to the moral sense of the community and to the question when and how marriages shall be dissolved. I know there are many people who take a very pious attitude with regard to this question. They seem to me to suffer from what Ibsen called "rectitudinal fever." In this practical world we must have some better reason than that for opposing a Bill such as this. I would like to say frankly that I do not agree with every Clause and every sentence in the Bill, but I can see no reason why the Bill should not go to a Committee upstairs, and that we should so make a real advance in the matter of divorce law.

I would like to refer hon. Members to a presidential address to the Law Society given by the late Sir Reginald Poole, in which he spoke of the need for dealing with "persistent and aggravated cruelty." Among other things, he said: A man may physically beat his wife, may abuse her before his children and the servants, may render her life, to use a familiar phrase, 'Hell on earth,' and yet she can obtain only a judicial separation from him, which does not enable her to re-marry, and permits of her obtaining dur- ing joint lives only an unsecured periodical payment of money, so that if her husband dies a week after the decree she and her children may get no financial provision, and find themselves penniless. What is the position of such a woman? During her married life she has experienced infinite misery. After her decree of separation she assumes that wholly unenviable position of a separated woman, and as the result, may be avoided by society, and in the end people are bound to say such charitable things about her as 'No smoke without fire,' and end by saying that her separation was due to her own fault. I ought to add that when, as in so many cases, the husband does everything to torture a wife short of actual physical violence, she cannot even obtain a judicial separation unless she can prove by medical testimony that his conduct has injured or tended to injure her health. He ended by saying: I have sufficient faith in the capacity of our judges to allow them to settle a definition of 'persistent and aggravated cruelty'. The hon. Member who seconded the Motion read a letter which he had received from one of his constituents, whom he did not know, showing the urgent need for many poor people in this country to have easier access to divorce, and to put their case before some recognised authority. I will also read to the House a short note: My husband has been detained in a mental hospital since 1905. I was married at an early age (17 years old), and was left with five children, to bring up the best way I could; four of the same are now married and away. My life is one of loneliness and misery through no fault of mine—I have been bound to this man over 22 long years of incurable insanity. That is one, at least, of the cases which fully justify the action of my hon. Friends in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, and I shall certainly go into the Lobby to give them my support.

1.35 p.m.


This Bill deals not only with marriage but with divorce. Each of those questions has two aspects, first, the civil or secular aspect, and, secondly, the ecclesiastical or religious aspect. I propose to deal first with the Bill purely from the civil point of view, criticising it as one who has had considerable experience in the subject matter with which it deals, and I shall afterwards deal to a certain extent with the ecclesiastical or religious aspect. Clause 1, which provides that there can be no divorce within five years from the date of marriage, is an admirable provision. Nowadays people—and I do not say young people particularly, because I do not think that any such differentiation should be made in this respect—have got it into their heads that divorce is very easy, and that therefore they need not take the same care in choosing a partner for life as was taken in the old days. They are much more inclined to go into marriage recklessly and thoughtlessly than used to be the case. I think this provision will clear the air and make it plain to people that they cannot get divorce so easily or so quickly as they seem at present to imagine. Personally, I think the five-year period is a little too long, and that three years would be ample. If it is a bad case of a girl or man being tied to a spouse who comes within any of the categories set out in the Bill, I think three years is long enough, and I do not think it necessary to fix the period at five years. That, however, is a question of detail, and the idea of the Clause is a good one. It will have the effect of making people think before entering into marriage.

With regard to the extension of the grounds and the facilities for divorce, the proposals follow the majority report of the Royal Commission and I certainly, from the civil point of view, endorse them. I think they would remove a great many hardships which now exist. In the ordinary practice of the law we come across cases such as those described by the last speaker which are very hard, and which ought to come within the scope of the divorce law. The proposals in regard to police court jurisdiction and in regard to trying to bring people together in these cases are extremely good, and there can be no objection to them as far as I can see. Of course, the wording of the Clause will have to be considered carefully and may have to be adjusted. The Clause about changing judicial separation into divorce is one which is liable to discussion. This proposal is, I understand, part of the majority report, and I think it is undoubtedly a wise provision.

Whether it be done at the instance of either party is a question which is open to debate. The question of whether it ought not to be done only at the instance of the innocent party, is one which will have to be threshed out thoroughly in Committee. I do not feel strongly either way, but I agree that it is not in the public interest that people should be tied up indefinitely under judicial separation. As regards the new grounds for nullity, I think Members on all sides will agree that these are reasonable and proper. They were suggested to me, originally, by a well known ecclesiastic and I am sure that the people who follow the advice of their clergymen will accept them unreservedly. Personally, I think this an excellent provision and I shall certainly support it. The proposal as regards presumption of death is, I think, perfectly right. This is something which ought to have been done long ago.

I now come to Clause 7 which proposes the abolition of the decree nisi. I do not think that from a practical point of view, that proposal will do. I speak solely as a person who has practised in the law and who knows what will be the effect of a Clause of this kind. I am sure the Attorney-General will bear me out when I say that the only time when the King's Proctor intervenes to investigate whether a case is bona fide or whether there has been collusion is after the decree nisi has been made. Some time, I think, must be allowed after the trial for the King's Proctor to take action. Things may come out in the trial which will put him on the track of irregularities. I think there should be some interval, but I have always thought the period of six months too long. I think three months would be sufficient, but there ought to be time to enable the authorities to ascertain whether a case is a proper one for intervention, or a case which ought to be allowed to go through. The custody Clause is an excellent one.

I pass to Clause 11, which proposes to remove the present legal compulsion upon a clergyman of the Church of England to solemnise the marriage of any person whose former marriage has been dissolved and whose former husband or wife is still living. We have all great sympathy with people in official positions who are asked in the course of their official duties to do things which they do not like, but very often the fact that they occupy that official position compels them to do such things. The proposal in the Bill in this respect raises, I am afraid, an anomalous and illogical position. The difficulty arises from the status of clergymen of the Church of England. They are agents and representatives of the State in celebrating marriages. That is part of the State machinery and it is illogical that the clergyman, being the agent of the State in this respect, should be able to select those people who are to be married and those who are not. It is very invidious for him and likely to cause tremendous confusion. A parish boundary, for instance, might run along the centre of the Floor of this House and there might be a case in which it would be possible for a divorced person to get married on one side of the House but not on the other side. Surely, one of the great objects of an Established Church is to secure uniformity of practice, and I certainly think that whatever is decided upon as a rule of uniformity must be observed by everybody.

You might make a rule that no divorced person should be married in a church by an established cleryman, or a rule that the innocent person only should be married there, or that all divorced persons should be married there, but it surely must be a uniform rule, so that we may know where we are. No one desires to impose any improper duty on the clergy of the Church, but if the Church cannot agree on some uniform system, it seems to me that the right way out would be to have two marriages, one a civil marriage, as they do abroad, and the other a, religious marriage, The civil marriage would regulate the relations of the parties with regard to their legal liabilities. They would be married according to the law of the land, and the obligations in regard to maintenance and so on would follow. With regard to the religious marriage, that would be binding simply and solely upon the conscience of the parties concerned in accordance with their religious convictions. It is sometimes done now. Some little time ago I attended the marriage of a well known gentleman in a registry office, and then we went on to a chapel in one of the Universities, where we had a religious service. That gentleman was married according to the law, and he was religiously married according to the Church in which he was married, and it seems to me that such a course obviates the difficulties altogether.

If there was any difficulty between the Church and the State, the Church would bind itself to inculcate discipline among its own members, and the civil rights would follow according to the State laws. If the State made a law of divorce which the Church did not like, it would be made according to the State law, but the Church would act as it thought right, and there would be no legal obligation for a Church marriage at all. I doubt whether this reform could be embodied in this Bill, as it is a very large reform, and I do not think it would be wise to incorporate it here, but I think that is really the ultimate solution if there is to be any difficulty between the Church and the State in these matters. Therefore, my own personal attitude will be to support the Bill as a purely civil Measure and to trust that the Clause about remarriage will be altered and amended according to suggestions which I have put forward.

1.49 p.m.


I wish to support the Bill, though I agree with most of the criticisms which have been offered to it by the last speaker. I once heard a speaker say that if every man was as true to his country as he is to his wife, then God help England. I do not believe that; I believe it to be a slander on the men of the country. I received last week a letter, which was probably received by all other Members, from the Mothers' Union, in which they told me that 100,000 members of the Mothers' Union were opposed to this Bill. I do not believe it. I believe that if anybody said that, it would he a slander on the mothers of England who are members of the Mothers' Union. I know a good few of them, and I do not always agree with them, but I do know that they are not all opposed to this Bill, because I, and no doubt other Members of the House, have been approached by women, some of whom are members of the Mothers' Union and others who are not, and a plea has been made to us to pass legislation in this House such as we are considering to-day.

I cannot say that I approach this Bill with any legal knowledge, because I have none, and I do not approach it with any very strong religious convictions, although I have some, but I approach it as an ordinary member of the public seeking to determine what is right and what is wrong and, as far as lies in my power, to pass legislation that will to some extent alleviate the suffering which I know is going on to-day. I think it must be apparent to everybody that there are cases of women tied to men, and of men tied to women, that are a disgrace to our country and our civilization. I cannot believe that it is right, either from a religious or from a commonsense point of view, that we should continue to inflict sufferings that we know are being inflicted on men and women because of their marriage to each other.

I was surprised and pleased, as one who has been in this House for some years and who remembers other discussions on this Bill or similar Bills, to see the change of opinion among Members of this House. I think the Bill will pass, if not unanimously or without a Division, at least by a very large majority, and I am very glad of it, but I want to appeal to the Government to give some more consideration to it than they have given hitherto. Unless the Bill gets those facilities which the Government alone can give to it, it has not the remotest chance of passing through this House, and, in view of all the speeches which have been made in favour of the Bill to-day and the very strong feeling which the Government must know exists in the country in favour of the general terms of the Bill—although I know it is open to criticism in many details—I want, as a last word, to make an appeal to the Government to find time and to give facilities so as to enable the Bill to become law.

1.53 p.m.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Donald Somervell)

The hon. Member for Oxford University (Mr. A. Herbert), in an appropriate simile, thanked the hon. Member for Evesham (Mr. De la Bèere) for espousing this Bill, and the House, I am sure, is also grateful to the hon. Member for Evesham for having given it the opportunity for this Debate. I should like also, if he will allow me, to express my admiration of the speech which we had from the hon. Member for Oxford University, who has this matter so much at heart and who presented his case to this House in exactly the manner and the temper in which this House would desire it to be presented. If speeches are, as of course they are, an index of the mind of the House, it is quite clear that the House desires this Bill to get a Second Reading. I think there has been only one speech from an hon. Member opposed to the Second Reading, and the other speeches which have dealt with points of detail and criticism have expressed, explicitly or implicitly, the desire that it should get a Second Reading. If it does, it will, of course, go to a Committee upstairs, and I would like to say at the outset that the Government will desire—I say it for what it is worth as regards myself—the assistance either of myself or the Solicitor-General on that Committee. Further than that I cannot go to-day, nor do I think the House would expect me to do so.

Great importance must naturally be attached to the general feeling of the House as indicated in the debate to-day and regard must be had to it in the further stages upstairs when we get to grips with the various features of the Bill. I do not intend to argue one way or the other about the important points which this Bill raises. I would, however, like to emphasise what has been said in a number of speeches, namely, that in approaching this question there are really two different aspects of the matter which have to be considered. Allusion has been made by more than one speaker to the evils and abuses which have existed and which it has been found impossible to eliminate altogether from the administration of the present law. For instance, collusive cases are brought in certain instances, there being no means to check them. I am sure that the proposer and seconder of the Bill realise the importance of keeping that aspect of the matter in mind when we consider the changes which they put forward.

That is a different matter from that which is raised by Clause 2 and other Clauses extending the grounds for divorce in certain cases. This is an area in which a great deal is said from time to time about hard cases. It is said that hard cases make bad law. They are, at any rate, a prima facie reason for seeing whether something cannot be done to amend the law. It would be right to say, what may be obvious, that on the face of it there are a number of considerations in this Bill which will require the most careful examination. There are a certain number of them to which I see objections and which will have to be very carefully considered. Clauses 2 and 5 are, I think, substantially the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Clause 1 is not one of those recommendations and it will obviously require careful consideration. I would like to correct an inaccurate statement made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge University (Sir J. Withers) with regard to Clause 4. The Royal Commission said something about judicial separation, but I do not think made any specific recommendations.


What it actually proposed was that when a claimant went to court and asked for separation on grounds on which he or she could have got a divorce, it should be in the power of the court to say that it should be a divorce and not a judicial separation. That is not in the Bill.


I am obliged to my hon. Friend. The Commission did point out the evils which arose from the present position, and whether this Clause meets those evils is one of the questions that will have to be considered upstairs. I was asked a question about Clause 6. The lines of this Clause are in accordance with the existing law as to presumption of death, and in general it embodies a recommendation of the Royal Commission. Clause 7 is one to which I can see very strong objections being raised. They were put by the hon. Member for Cambridge University who has great experience in these matters. Clause 10, again, will require careful examination. Everybody will agree that conciliation is desirable, but whether the Clause as drafted will attain that end, and whether the double procedure which it involves is really practicable is a question to which I refer at this stage because it is the sort of point which will have to be dealt with in Committee. Clause 11 also raises difficult issues. The existing law is that a clergyman cannot be compelled to marry a guilty party but that his church can be used for the purpose by another clergyman. Clause 12 is a technical Clause extending the right to ask a witness whether or not he has committed adultery. Whether in its present form this Clause will on examination be found to be a wise change I will not express a final view.

Marriage and family life are really the lungs and heart of the body politic, as well as the day to day environment of our lives. Anything which affects the institution of marriage will, and must, be approached with the greatest sense of responsibility and of the importance of the issue involved. It is a question that deeply touches religious views and regard must be had to them by those who do not hold them. It is a question which, more than any other, we should approach in the spirit of understanding and mutual tolerance, and in that attitude I think the House will agree that the Mover and Seconder set a fine example.


Will my right hon. and learned Friend give some of us who have misgivings on this Bill some guidance? Does he think that the passing of this Bill will increase or decrease the number of arranged divorces?


We have had a long discussion on this Bill and, of course, hon. Members must vote according to their convictions. I do not think that at this stage I am called upon to express either approval or disapproval of the principles of the Bill. It appears to me that the speeches of hon. Members have shown that there is a general desire that the Bill should get a Second Reading, and I do not think that I could at this stage go into such a question as the hon. Member has asked.

2.6 p.m.


I very much regret that although I hurried in as soon as the name of the hon. and learned Gentleman was announced I did not arrive in time to hear what he said about Clause 1 and I apologise for putting a question to him. I do not know whether I am at the moment the only Roman Catholic Member in the House, but we have not

as yet had any official guidance with reference to our views on this Bill. Clause 1 is, in our view, a great step forward in that it provides that there should be a period of at least five years after marriage in which a divorce cannot be granted. If that Clause were withdrawn there really can be no doubt that the Bill would have the uncompromising hostility of, I should think, most members of the Church of England as well as Roman Catholics, though if that Clause stands, clearly things might be different. I want to ask the hon. and learned Gentleman whether he can give us something more specific on Clause 1 than I understood he gave us at the beginning of his speech, because the whole fate of the Bill does depend on Clause 1.


I am afraid I cannot say anything more. I am not in charge of this Bill. It is a private Member's Bill. It is in the hands of the Mover and Seconder. Clause 1 is in the Bill, and I should have thought that any hon. Member, whether he desires this Bill to get a Second Reading or not, would know that he was voting for a Bill which contained Clause 1. As to what happens about it afterwards, I think the question had better be addressed to the Mover and Seconder of the Bill.


The Government are not going to oppose Clause 1 upstairs?


I do not think anybody is called on at this stage to state what line will be taken on the Bill.

Question put, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House divided: Ayes, 78; Noes, 12.

Division No. 13.] AYES. [2.9 p.m.
Acland, R. T. D. (Barnstaple) Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.) Groves, T. E.
Adams, D. (Consett) Charleton, H. C. Hall, G. H. (Aberdare)
Adamson, W. M. Clydesdale, Marquess of Hicks, E. G.
Agnew, Lieut.-Comdr. P. G. Cove, W. G. Johnston, Rt. Hon. T.
Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.) Craddock, Sir R. H. Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.
Allen, Lt.-Col. Sir W. J. (Armagh) Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil) Knox, Major-General Sir A. W. F.
Amman, C. G. Davison, Sir W. H. Lamb, Sir J. Q.
Assheton, R. Dorman-Smith, Major R. H. Llewellin, Lieut.-Col. J. J.
Batey, J. Duggan, H. J. McEntee, V. La T.
Baxter, A. Beverley Duncan, J. A. L. McEwen, Capt. J. H. F.
Bellenger, F. Ede, J. C. Markham, S. F.
Bevan, A. Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty) Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.
Bossom, A. C. George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey) Mellor, Sir J. S. P. (Tamworth)
Boyce, H. Leslie Green, W. H. (Deptford) Montague, F.
Broad, F. A. Gridley, Sir A. B. Morgan, R. H.
Campbell, Sir E. T. Griffiths, J. (Llanelly) Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.)
Naylor, T. E. Ridley, G. Watkins, F. C.
Neven-Spence, Maj. B. H. H. Ropner, Colonel L. Wayland, Sir W. A.
Peat, C. U. Samuel, M. R. A. (Putney) Wedgwood, Rt. Hon. J. C.
Pethick-Lawrence, F. W. Somerville, A. A. (Windsor) Whiteley, W.
Ponsonby, Col. C. E. Sorensen, R. W. Williams, C. (Torquay)
Porritt, R. W. Southby, Comdr. A. R. J. Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)
Potts, J. Strauss, G. R. (Lambeth, N.) Wilson, Lt.-Col. Sir A. T. (Hitchin)
Pritt, D. N. Strauss, H. G. (Norwich) Withers, Sir J. J.
Quibell, D. J. K. Tate, Mavis C.
Rathbone, Eleanor (English Univ's.) Thurtle, E. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Rathbone, J. R. (Bodnin) Wakefield, W. W. Mr. De la Bere and Mr. Alan
Brown, Col. D. C. (Hexham) Gardner, B. W. Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Clarke, Lt.-Col. R. S. (E. Grinstead) Grattan-Doyle, Sir N. Waterhouse, Captain C.
Cross, R. H. Hume, Sir G. H.
Crowder, J. F. E. Law, Sir A. J. (High Peak) TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Errington, E, Remer, J. R. Mr. Spens and Mr. Crossley.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.