HC Deb 15 October 1941 vol 374 cc1387-97

Order for Second Reading read.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty (Sir Victor Warrender)

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

During the last war, in 1915, Parliament placed upon the Statute Book an Act, which was limited to the period of the war, which made provision to remove some difficulties which faced naval officers and ratings who desired to get married but who, owing to the exigencies of service, could not obtain sufficient leave to travel to the place appointed for the ceremony. This Bill is intended to achieve a similar object, but it has been drafted so as to include within its scope the Army and the Royal Air Force as well as the Royal Navy. In the Great War there were virtually no operational troops stationed in this country. Such units as were at home were for the most part trainees. Leave was more readily obtainable for them than is the case to-day. They were not liable to be moved about from one place to another at very short notice. Consequently, it was unnecessary to extend to the other two Services the facilities granted to the Navy in the Act of 1915. To-day, conditions are very different. There are large numbers of operational men, both in the Army and in the Royal Air Force, stationed at home; and they are faced with the same problems as have faced the Navy both in the last war and in this war.

The House will appreciate that members of the Forces, so far as marriage laws are concerned, are on the same footing as civilians. Once their marriage has been arranged for a particular place, there are generally considerable formalities to be gone through, or additional expense to be incurred, if arrangements have to be made for the wedding to take place somewhere else. If the bridegroom is unable to obtain leave, the couple are faced with a serious difficulty. They may be willing to defer their wedding a few days in the hope of leave being granted, but there is always the risk of this hope not materialising, and even if leave is obtainable shortly, it is undesirable that the young couple should be compelled to delay their wedding, if delay can be avoided. In cases where a man is ordered overseas the objection to delay becomes very much greater. The next case is that of marriage by bann. When banns have been called in the parishes where the two parties live they can be married in either of those parishes within three months. The bride's parish church is often chosen, because the bridegroom, being a member of the Forces, is most likely to be stationed away from home. Indeed, if he is a sailor in a sea-going ship, he has no alternative, for the banns will have to be called in that ship. In some cases it may be possible for the wedding to take place in the parish church where the bridegroom happens to be stationed, and where his banns are called, but this becomes impracticable if he is suddenly moved to another station. The only possible alternative then is to arrange a marriage by licence, a course which is not only expensive but troublesome to those not familiar with the procedure.

So much for marriages by bann in England. There are similar difficulties in respect of weddings arranged in other ways: for instance, those which take place at a registry office. This Bill is designed to reduce the difficulties as far as possible, so that where a person in the Forces has arranged to get married and, owing to the exigencies of service, cannot get to the place arranged, every possible facility will be given him or her to be married elsewhere. I say "her," because it will be noticed that, for the purposes of the Bill, the term "His Majesty's Forces" includes women employed in the categories specified in the First Schedule to the Bill. To these categories additions can be made by Order in Council. In many cases both parties to the marriage will be members of His Majesty's Forces. In such cases, when these difficulties arise they become doubly serious.

The machinery of the Bill is contained in the first three Clauses. Sub-section (1) of Clause 1 provides that once the necessary formalities to enable the ceremony to be performed in a particular building in England—that is, either in a church or in a registry office—have been complied with, provided a person in the Services produces a certificate signed by his or her commanding officer, stating that he or she cannot go to that building, the ceremony can be performed elsewhere in England or in Scotland. Sub-section (2) of Clause 1 similarly provides for the marriage to take place in England in cases where it was originally intended that it should take place in Scotland. Now that I am dealing with the commanding officer's certificate, I would draw the attention of hon. Members to an Amendment which was moved in another place and inserted in the Bill, by which the commanding officer, or the authority issuing the certificate, has to satisfy himself before doing so that he has no reason to believe that the party to whom he is issuing the certificate is already married.

Clause 2 extends the validity of banns, of a diocesan marriage licence, or of a registrar's certificate in England or Scotland from three months to 12 months where a member of the Forces is concerned. Clause 3 empowers the Registrar-General for England and Wales to authorise a superintendent registrar to issue a marriage licence immediately where at least one of the parties is a member of the Forces. At present a superintendent registrar can issue a marriage licence only after the lapse of one clear day. Similar provisions have already been made in the Marriage (Scotland) Act, by which a sheriff can grant a licence for immediate marriage in unforeseen and exceptional cases. Hon. Members will realise that in the event of a man being ordered overseas at very short notice, that might be the only means by which he could marry before he sailed. Clause 4 is drafted so as to qualify a woman employed with the Navy, the Army or the Air Force in any of the capacities stated in the First Schedule to marry in a naval, military or Air Force Chapel. Clause 5 explains itself.

Perhaps I ought to make it quite clear that Clauses 1, 2 and 3 are to have effect for the period of the war only, but that Clause 4 is to be permanent legislation. This Bill was shown in draft to the various Church authorities in the country, and I am glad to say that it now meets with their approval, and has their blessing. I ought to say that the Bill is badly needed and that the Chaplain of the Fleet and the Chaplains-General of the two other Services are anxious to see it quickly passed into law. I only wish that it had been possible to do so earlier. Having given that brief explanation to the House, I hope hon. Members will find that the Bill commends itself to them and will see fit to speed its passage into law.'

Major Milner (Leeds, South-East)

This is an obviously helpful and desirable Bill, designed to facilitate the marriage of members of His Majesty's Forces in cases in which there would otherwise be difficulty in bringing the parties together owing to the exigencies of service. It is rather interesting to note that the Government are, apparently, taking an interest in the question of facilitating marriage between members of His Majesty's Forces. I do not know how far the right hon. Gentleman the Lord President of the Council is responsible for this Bill. We all hope that he will not have to take advantage of it, and I think we might take this opportunity to tender him our good wishes, wherever he gets married.

I am sure that all parties will support the Bill, and there are only one or two questions concerning it which I would like to put to the hon. Gentleman. First, I am not altogether clear as to how the vicar or officiating authority, whoever he may be, of a church in one part of the country is to know that the conditions of the law have been complied with by the parties in another part of the country. Perhaps I have not made myself clear. Assume that banns have been published in Yorkshire but that owing to the exigencies of the Service the parties, or one of them, cannot get to the church in which the banns have been published and the pair desire to be married in a church in Cornwall. The appropriate certifying authority—the commanding officer or some other officer—will give a certificate that, owing to the exigencies of the Service, the particular member of the Forces who is concerned cannot proceed to Yorkshire in order to go through the ceremony in the church in which the banns have been published. But how is the vicar of the church in Cornwall to know that the necessary conditions have been complied with in Yorkshire?

Secondly, my hon. Friend referred to an Amendment moved in another place, the effect of which seems to be to place a duty on the appropriate certifying authority not only to certify that the exigencies of the Service prevent a particular member of the Forces from being married in the place originally desired, but also to certify that he has no reason to believe that the serving man or woman as the case may be is already married. That, it seems to me, places some responsibility on the appropriate certifying authority. It will be up to him to look up the pay-sheets of the unit concerned and presumably to question a man and obtain assurances from him and to take, it may be, other steps. I am not wholly satisfied with the form of this Amendment. I am not sure that it is strong enough. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give some assurance that instructions will be issued to appropriate certifying authorities not to certify too much as a matter of course but to make some inquiries.

Many of us know that during the late war there was a number of unsatisfactory and, in some cases, bigamous marriages, resulting often in great hardship to the women concerned. It was not always possible to satisfy oneself that either party to a proposed marriage had not been married before. My point is that Naval, Air Force, and Army authorities should place some duty on and issue some instructions to the appropriate certifying authority in this connection. I do not know whether it has appeared yet in any other Bill which has come before the House, but it is interesting to note in this Measure that women of certain categories now take their places as members of His Majesty's Forces in legislation. On that point, however, I am not clear whether the categories set out in the Schedule are complete, but apparently it is permissible, at any time, by Order in Council to add additional categories of women's Services. Having raised these points, it only remains for me to express the hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading.

Mr. Goldie (Warrington)

I am sure that the House generally will welcome this Bill as one which is greatly needed and will be of great advantage to many of those who are at present serving their country. My only criticism is that the Bill does not go far enough. I observe in Clause 1 the words: Where the parties to an intended marriage have duly fulfilled all the conditions required by law I desire to bring to the attention of the House the extraordinary difficulty, if conditions on active service at present are anything like what they were in the last war, of fulfilling "all the conditions required by law." I remember in the last war among my duties as an officer was that of doing all I could to assist men who were going home on leave to get married when they returned home, and there is no doubt that the difficulties of getting the banns put up while a man was on active service in France were extraordinarily great. I do respectfully suggest that when this Bill is; being dealt with in Committee this point should be considered and we should know exactly what meaning is to be attached to these words: "fulfilled all the conditions required by law." We ought to make absolutely certain that it is made as easy as possible for men who are on active service in this country to carry out the natural wish to get married and to fulfil all the necessary requirements.

Mr. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)

I do not suppose that there will be any objection to this Bill in any part of the House, but there is one point which may prove to be a point of substance and on which I should like an assurance from the hon. Gentleman. The certificate is to be issued by the appropriate authority, and that appropriate authority in the case of the Army is described in the Bill as "an officer not below the rank of major." That will not necessarily mean the man's own commanding officer. Apparently anyone holding His Majesty's commission, of the rank of major or upwards, can issue a certificate. The point will then arise that an officer who is not the man's own commanding officer may not know sufficient about the man to be able to certify that the man has, or has not been married already. That officer will apparently have to inquire into the circumstances to see whether there is even any opportunity of a bigamous union taking place. At the present time in the case of a marriage in a church the banns are called and it is open to any member of the congregation to say whether any just cause or impediment exists to prevent the marriage taking place. But there is no onus on the marrying authority, the officiating clergyman, to inquire into the antecedents of the man or woman before he performs the ceremony. Therefore I do not think we can throw such a responsibility on the military authorities especially if the officer who has to give the certificate is not the commanding officer of the party concerned. I do not think we should throw any additional onus on the officer to make inquiries into whether a man or a woman is eligible for a legal marriage. Perhaps a warning could be issued to the man or woman concerned of the penalties attending a bigamous marriage.

The next point I want to raise, which, I think, is one of substance, is that it has been brought to my notice that men are being deprived of certain privileges to which they are entitled merely because they have committed some small crime or what is known as crime in the Army. I take it that no officer or appropriate authority can withhold the certificate whatever the circumstances affecting the man's own conduct, providing he is satisfied that the man is eligible to be married. It would be a terrible state of affairs if, now that we are going to place this authority into the hands of certain officers, they should use it as a penalty against a man merely because he has committed some misdemeanour or does not fall in with unit orders. I hope that when he replies the hon. Gentleman will state definitely that the certifying authorities are bound to give the certificate in all circumstances, except in those which would lead them to believe that the man or woman is not entitled to enter into a legal marriage.

Mr. Logan(Liverpool, Scotland Division)

I am entirely averse to the opinion that has been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) in regard to the right and authority to give indiscriminately any such certificate. These are marriages arranged simply and solely for the benefit of the Services and to get rid of difficulties, but it does not get rid of the obligation of Church and State to see that the marriage should be carried out by means of a proper ceremony. A marriage may be one that a man may easily enter into, but the family relationship of any girl who may be thrown into the Services is an obligation for life, and such a marriage may be a great hardship upon such a girl. I am convinced that it is necessary in the Second Schedule to the Bill that proper authority should be set up. If I have a daughter who goes into one of the Services I have the right to see that she is as well protected in this respect as she would be in her own home. That is a right that every woman ought to have given to her. I do not think that it was the idea of those who formulated this Measure that, in order to meet the exigencies of the moment, a person had only to make, an application to some officer not specially designated. I contend that this is a moral obligation. Marriage is a sacrament, and therefore the question of joining young persons together in marriage calls for the exercise of responsibility on the part of parents, with the proper protection of Church and State.

I admit that there are many hardships, but this Bill was not introduced for the purpose of providing merely a convenience for men and women to be married. Marriage as a convenience and as a wartime proposition does not appeal to me at all. The responsible authority should have some knowledge of the character of the individuals and their bona fides in respect of the right to marry. This gets me down at once to the responsible authority. I have nothing to say against men or women who feel called upon to give service to King and country being able to marry as provided by this Bill, but that does not get rid of the responsibility of someone being able to certify as to their reliability. I presume that under the Bill both men and women will have the right to make an application for the special legislation to be applied to them. It has been said that a sailor has a wife in every port. That is a term which has been loosely applied, and I do not think that it is the principle that we wish to have in this special legislation.

Our object should be to see that no real grievance exists, and it may be necessary at a time like this that an emergency Bill of this description should be brought into operation. A responsible officer may sign the certificate as a matter of form if a man or woman wants to marry in quick time, but I want to know what procedure he will take to satisfy himself as to the genuineness of the application if it is desired that a marriage should take place at short notice. I want to know what steps can be taken by parents to say that their son or daughter has the right to make application for the sanction of the appropriate officer. There have been many unhappy marriages even after the publication of banns—[Interruption.] It makes a lot of difference. If the hon. Member lived in my home, he would know that it makes a lot of difference. In my home we look upon it as the sanctity of marriage, and in this House of Commons we have the right to see that this Bill shall be in conformity with the moral obligation in which this country believes and which ought to be protected. Therefore, we are justified in asking that authority should not be given as a matter of form but that there should be some procedure to enable such information to be obtained as would justify the giving of authority. I have nothing to say about such a Bill being brought forward in the present emergency, but I am anxious to see that the parents of sons and daughters serving in His Majesty's Forces will feel satisfied that every precaution is taken by commanding officers and others and that loose permission will not be given for these marriages.

Sir V. Warrender

With the permission of the House, I will briefly answer some of the points which have been made. It would be quite a mistake for hon. Members to assume that this Bill in any way relaxes the present formalities with regard to marriage. Indeed, it aids rather than detracts from these formalities. The primary object of the Bill is solely to enable a marriage which is arranged to take place at A to take place at B, and so far as the fears of the hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan) are concerned— that these certificates will be issued in a loose fashion—I think he may rest assured that that will not be the case. Often the commanding officer will know, for instance, whether a man in his unit is unmarried or married, by reason of the allotments which are made, and he will have other means of knowing a man's history. Quite obviously, it will never be possible to devise any system which will completely prevent the committing of bigamy, but there is no intention in this Bill to relax any of the formalities or precautions which have already been laid down by the law.

With regard to the question asked by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for South-East Leeds (Major Milner), as to how a vicar would know whether a man's banns had been properly called in another parish, the man—it may be a woman—would be asked whether his or her banns had been called, and confirmation could be easily obtained from the vicar of the parish in which they had been called. The commanding officer would satisfy himself on that point. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Basset-law (Mr. Bellenger) asked whether it was necessary that a man's own commanding officer should sign the certificate. That is really a question of administration. If a man's own commanding officer is not available, the War Office, Admiralty or the Air Ministry would find a competent authority to issue a certificate if the case was an extremely urgent one. Our chief desire is to prevent a man, who is a fit and proper person to marry, and who has suddenly to go overseas, from leaving his bride-to-be unmarried. We want to enable him to get married. In an extreme case I think that under the Bill another officer of suitable rank, provided that he is satisfied that the provisions of the Bill are being properly carried out, could issue a certificate so that a man would be able to have his marriage performed.

Mr. Bellenger

Is it in order for the War Office, by virtue of the issue of an Army Council instruction, to interpret who is to be the officer not below the rank of major? Once the House of Commons passes this Bill and it becomes an Act, is it in order for the War Office then to issue an Army Council instruction defining who that officer shall be in accordance with the Act?

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

There is no doubt about that. It states that a certificate shall not be given by an officer below the rank of major, and it is fully within the competence of the War Office, who have to administer the Act, to lay down instructions as to who is the proper authority to give a certificate.

Sir V. Warrender

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Bassetlaw also asked whether power to issue this certificate could be used against the man's own interests if he had been in trouble and in the commanding officer's bad books. I imagine that would not happen. Instructions which would be issued when the Bill passed into law would presumably take that into account if it was thought necessary, as under this Bill very often when a certificate was applied for it would be possible for a man to get married on his own station without having to get special leave to go somewhere else. In such a case as that a commanding officer would have more inducement to give a certificate so that a man could get married rather than give him 24 hours' leave to go away. Therefore, I do not think that that point made by the hon. Gentleman has much substance.

Mr. Bellenger

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the point. Once a man or woman has satisfied the appropriate officer that he or she is eligible for marriage, I say that a certificate should automatically be issued and that no commanding officer or certifying officer should be able to withhold that certificate merely because a man has, say, been absent without leave or committed one of the numerous petty crimes that soldiers do commit.

Sir V. Warrender

Instructions to that effect will be included in the orders following on the Bill.

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

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.— [Mr. Boulton.]