HC Deb 01 March 1957 vol 565 cc1629-35

Order for Second Reading read.

3.34 p.m.

Mr. David Gibson-Watt (Hereford)

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

I should like to repeat what has already been said, that today is St. David's day. The Patron Saint of Wales lived in that country at a time of great distress, better known as the Dark Ages. Amidst the conditions of anarchy his Christian teaching made it possible for a few people to enjoy the benefits of Christianity. In this Bill we have an example of a small item of social legislation which I cannot help feeling should receive support from all quarters of the House. I cannot help adding that I think that the great saint to whom I have referred would have given it his blessing too—the blessing of removing the stigma of illegitimacy from children and the stigma of the different birth certificate.

In moving the Second Reading of the Bill, I should point out that its entire object is to clarify and make complete certain provisions of the Legitimacy Act, 1926. Although long before 1926 the common law of this country had recognised certain persons as legitimated by their parents' subsequent marriage, that Act was the first statutory provision in England and Wales for the legitimation of persons born out of wedlock. Until recently it was generally supposed that all classes of persons recognised as legitimated by the subsequent marriage of their parents, whether by statute law or by common law, were covered by the 1926 Act. Indeed, it was generally thought to be so in the General Register Office itself.

It was not until 1952, when the courts decided that there was a distinction between classes of legitimated persons and that those legitimated by common law were not persons to whom the provisions of the Legitimacy Act, 1926 applied, that it began to be realised that some small amendment to the existing law was necessary. That, therefore, is the reason why I introduced this small Private Member's Bill.

The fact that there has been seen by the courts to be a distinction between classes of legitimated persons, as I have just explained, in fact excluded these classes of persons from the benefit of having their births reregistered. May I give an example in order to further clarify this matter. I am not a lawyer and other Members of this House are. They are better able than I am to explain the meaning of this rather complicated law. The example which I give will show the kind of anomaly which might arise as the law now stands.

An unmarried woman might have a child in England or Wales by a man who is legally domiciled, shall we say, in Scotland, although he need not be a Scotsman. If he later marries the mother while still remaining domiciled in Scotland, the legitimation of the child will be governed by the law of Scotland. When the child is legitimated by Scottish law, English common law will automatically recognise that legitimation. In that case, the provisions of the Legitimacy Act do not operate. There is, therefore, no legal authority for the child's birth to be reregistered in legitimate form.

In another case, the circumstances might be exactly comparable, except that at the time of the child's birth the father is domiciled in some country the laws of which do not permit legitimation by the subsequent marriage of the parents, but if, when he married the mother, the father had become domiciled in Scotland, the child might be legitimated by Scottish law, as in the first case, but the legitimation would be recognised in England not by the common law of England but by virtue of Section 8 of the Legitimacy Act, 1926. The birth could then be properly reregistered in legitimate form.

I do not propose to go into the details of the birth certificates and the differences between them. I need not remind hon. Members that there are occasions in the lives of these people who cannot be properly legitimated when it is a very great source of embarrassment and difficulty to them. I say no more than that.

In the examples which I have given, it is quite obviously unreasonable and unfair that, out of two children both recognised in English law as having been legitimated, one should have to go through life with a birth certificate which shows that he or she was born out of wedlock while the other can legally obtain a certificate which shows that he or she is legitimate, I say, and I think that those who know and have to administer the law say also, that it is unthinkable that Parliament intended to discriminate against this group of persons, about 300 of them every year, whose legitimation is recognised by the common law.

The common law recognised them as legitimated even before the 1926 Act, and provided for the legitimation of those whose fathers were domiciled in England and Wales, but it now seems that the need to make specific provision for re-registration of their births was overlooked. This Bill is intended to satisfy that need.

Although the subject is complex, the actual provisions of the Bill are very simple. Clause 1 provides, first, for extending the provision of reregistration of birth in Section 14 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1953, to all persons recognised by the law of England and Wales as having been legitimated by the subsequent marriage of their parents. The existing provision covers only those who have become legitimated persons within the meaning of the Legitimacy Act, 1926.

Secondly, Clause 1 provides for the application of this extension retrospectively to give legal effect to reregistrations which have in fact been made since 1926 without statutory authority. This is an important point. It will make it unnecessary for the births of these persons to be reregistered. Thirdly, the Clause provides for the extension to the parents of persons affected by the Bill the duty to give information for reregistration imposed by paragraph 2 of the Schedule to the Legitimacy Act, 1926. Fourthly, the Clause extends for a period of three months after the Bill passes into law the time within which that duty should be carried out. Fifthly, it extends to those parents the penalty imposed by Section 36 (d) of the Births and Deaths Registration Act, 1953, for failure to give the required information.

I do not want to say any more about this small, simple Bill which I and others of my hon. Friends believe is necessary to put right the Act of 1926 and also, incidentally, the 1953 Act. I hope that although time this afternoon is short, hon. Members on both sides of the House will realise that this matter is not controversial, that the Bill is for the good of the whole country, and that hon. Members will think it possible to give the Bill detailed scrutiny in Committee rather than talk too much about it on Second Reading.

3.46 p.m.

Mr. John Howard (Southampton, Test)

I support the Bill which has been so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt). I am sure that the support which I express will be echoed by the people who will benefit under the Bill. I believe that there are something like 300 births a year for which at present, owing to the anomaly in the existing law, the normal form of birth certificate cannot be issued.

I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the extremely able way in which he expounded the intricacies of the law surrounding this subject. It was my fortune to start the Bill on its way during the last Session, and I sympathise with my hon. Friend as a non-lawyer in the problems he must have faced in wrestling with the various Acts and the common law surrounding the subject.

This is the second Legitimation Bill. I sought earlier to introduce a Bill which would have made a far more fundamental change in the law affecting legitimation. Unfortunately, that Bill foundered, and although the Bill today does not make any detailed alteration in the law, it does at least extend to this worthy body of people the benefit of the right type of birth certificate.

My hon. Friend has given several examples of the classes of people affected. I will content myself by saying that the anomaly exists between the common law and the statute law. A person who is legitimate in every way under common law, and, indeed, under the law of the country in which his father was domiciled, both at the time of the child's birth and at the time that the father married the child's mother, cannot, apparently, receive the normal form of certificate simply because he is not covered by the provisions of the Legitimacy Act, 1926. The Bill remedies that defect. The largest class of persons affected are the children of what are loosely known as G.I. brides, and I am certain that the House will approve the Bill and give it a Second Reading today.

3.49 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. J. K. Vaughan-Morgan)

Perhaps I might rise at this stage to express the attitude of the Government towards the Bill. As hon. Members know, my right hon. Friend the Minister speaks in this House on behalf of the Registrar-General, but his duties are carefully limited in that respect.

I should like, first of all, to congratulate very heartily my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) on his luck in the Ballot and on bringing forward the Bill for its Second Reading on a day which for him and for me has a particular significance. I should like in passing to congratulate him on having found time to be on parade and to acquire the emblem in his buttonhole. I did not have such good fortune.

In passing, I should also like to commiserate with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. J. Howard), in that on this occasion he has to see someone else bring forward what in substance is the Bill which he tried to bring forward once before. Fortunately, on this occasion the Bill has been purged of the contentious element which it formerly contained, and I feel sure therefore not only that the Government will be able to give every possible support in helping it to reach the Statute Book, but that with any good luck it might reach the Statute Book without any contention—and indeed, if possible, unamended.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford guided the House through the very complicated legal side of this Bill, and I must say that I envied him the fluency with which he did so. When I first saw what this Bill involved, I must say that I realised that, as the law at present stands, it looks like a sort of barristers' beanfeast, because it seems to be one of those appalling cases where rather tidy-minded law-makers have left all the worst kind of loopholes, which needs an amateur to come along and tidy them up.

My hon. Friend also added something as to the inspiration of the need for this Bill, which was a case in the courts—I think it was Angelini v. Dick—back in 1952, when the judge held that the Legitimacy Act had nothing to do with persons who are recognised at common law as being legitimated persons, and that its provisions did not apply to them. He then held that all that the Act did was to add other classes of persons to those already recognised at common law as having been legitimated without affecting the position of the latter class, so that the effect of that judgment on the re-registration of the births of legitimated persons was that the Registrar-General was left without any power to authorise the reregistration of the births of persons recognised as legitimated under common law, although they are themselves as legitimate as those legitimated or recognised to be legitimated under the Act.

That may or may not be the right interpretation of the judicial decision, but it is one layman's cock-shy at trying to explain what seems to be a very curious outcome. The result is that they are therefore denied, under the law as it stands, the right which other legitimated persons have to obtain a birth certificate which shows them to be legitimate.

My hon. Friend did mention the kind of occasions which are still left in this more or less enlightened age which those who suffer the stigma have reason to regret in that they cannot show a normal birth certificate. He gave the figures of the number of persons involved each year, and I am sure I had no idea there were as many as that—300 births a year to which this cruel and barbaric stigma should still be allowed to cling. This seems to me a fantastically large number. I am frankly delighted that my hon. Friend has taken a tiny step to remove from a tiny class the remnants of what must seem to all of us to be an utterly barbaric survival. I hope that the day will come when we can perhaps go further and sweep them all away, but that time, frankly, is not yet. Let us therefore concentrate on what is as yet entirely uncontentious. The time may come, but it is perhaps not for me to say when that will be. I do not think any of us here would ever want to stand in the way of helping anyone who is in that unhappy position. This tiny and modest Measure will do something to make retribution for what society has made them suffer, unnecessarily. On behalf of the Government, I commend this Measure to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).