HC Deb 14 July 1960 vol 626 cc1781-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.45 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to bring forward this case tonight. The case of Mrs. Morgan has received a certain amount of publicity in the Press, and there has been a great deal of correspondence about it with the Admiralty. I raise the matter to try to prevent similar circumstances from arising in future.

When I took up the case, Mrs. Morgan was the wife of Mr. J. A. Morgan who was an E.R.A. in the Royal Navy. They were married on 17th February, 1954 and have one child, now five years old. I understand that Morgan arrived back from the Far Bast on Tuesday, 5th July, this year and was discharged from the Royal Navy, so that in bringing up this matter I shall not in any way damage his career.

In June, 1955, Morgan deserted his wife, but, as she did not want to break up the marriage, she filed a suit for restitution of conjugal rights. However, he returned to her and her petition was dismissed, at her request, and she hoped that they were reconciled. Unfortunately, he did not mean to live with her and he stayed only a short time and then applied to be posted to Northumberland, and refused to have her with him. Mrs. Morgan remained in her quarters.

On 10th January, 1956, Morgan came home for a short time—I believe about 10 minutes—to collect his belongings. He told his wife that he would not live with her and she has not seen him since. It had been agreed previously with Mrs. Morgan's solicitors that her naval allowance should be continued until a divorce was absolute. That was done to avoid unnecessary expense in applying for alimony pending a divorce suit. The earliest date at which a decree could be made absolute was 27th June, 1960. I understand that an order for maintenance of a child cannot be made until a decree is absolute.

About 9th April, without warning and going back on previous arrangements with the solictors, the Admiralty cancelled the allowance and asked for the return of the allowance book. On 18th April, the Secretary to the Admiralty wrote to Mrs. Morgan's solicitors justifying the cessation of the payment. Only today, I have received a letter from the solicitors stating that the solicitor to Mr. Morgan had seen his client, who was now out of the Navy and who had written to the Admiralty in the strongest terms protesting against the stoppage of his wife's allowance, as he had not asked for it to be stopped. It is, therefore, clear that the Admiralty had received no request from Mr. Morgan that the allowance should be stopped.

Mrs. Morgan's solicitor telephoned the Admiralty and was told that the allowance was stopped under the naval pay regulations of the Admiralty. I presume that those regulations are new, because they did not apply when the original agreement between the solicitors was made. It will be agreed that the duty of maintaining a wife rests not with the Admiralty, but entirely with the rating. It is an obligation under law and subsists during the whole marriage. A man is responsible for his wife. But an agreement had been made in this case with the solicitors and the Admiralty, and there was an order of the High Court to pay £3 19s. for the woman and £2 weekly for her daughter. Therefore, I see no justification in law for the Admiralty stopping payment when the decree nisi was obtained. The marriage still subsisted until the decree was made absolute.

As I understand, a decree nisi does not make a woman a femme sole. She would be a bigamist if she married again; she must wait until the decree is made absolute. At any time before the decree nisi and before the decree absolute a wife can have an enforced order for alimony, pending the suit for an attachment order under Rule 64 of the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1959. I gather that under Section 2 (1) of the Naval Forces (Enforcement of Maintenance Liabilities) Act, 1947, a marriage allowance shall not be discontinued until the Admiralty is satisfied that it should no longer be paid. Therefore, I claim that in this case the Admiralty had no right suddenly to stop the allowance. The period of six weeks is mentioned in the Naval Pay Regulations No. 754, and I cannot understand why, in this case, Mrs. Morgan was not given six weeks' notice.

Then there came the question of the rent of the quarters, which were let to her husband, but despite that fact the Admiralty took her to court for the sum of £15 6s. 6d. on 23rd May, 1959, and there was also a court order for £3 13s. 6d. costs. She could not pay these and she might have been liable to 14 days' imprisonment. It was therefore agreed, through her solicitors, that she should pay £1 10s. per month, and this she has been doing.

The committal order being received, a letter was written to the Admiralty asking it to wait until maintenance was received. A reply came in the following terms: The Treasury Solicitor has been requested not to take proceedings in respect of the matter until the question of the maintenance is satisfied. Despite this, on 5th July, 1960, Mrs. Morgan had a letter from the Treasury Solicitor asking for an immediate payment of £3. I am asking that in future no marriage allowance shall be stopped until the wife obtains a decree absolute. It should not be stopped during the time she has a divorce decree nisi. As I mentioned before, during that period she would not be entitled to marry again.

As I have been advised, the words "decree nisi" have no real value in law; in fact, I gather that they are not mentioned in Rayden on Divorce, a work of over 1,300 pages. The Admiralty has stopped payment of part of the marriage allowance and the alimony on the unchecked word of the husband. Mr. Morgan was in the Far East and he said that his wife had obtained a divorce. No steps were taken to verify the truth of this statement, and the divorce went through. Therefore the Admiralty had no right to stop the allowance.

The Admiralty took powers to delay payment after an order had been lawfully signed by the District Registrar. In the letter of 8th June, which I have, the Civil Lord said, in paragraph 5: As for the amendment to the wording of the order about which Mrs. Morgan's solicitors had complained— the High Court amended the wording when the Registrar's attention was drawn to an ambiguity in the reference made to the child. Had the order been served in its original form, the eating's obligation and the powers to enforce it would have been in doubt. E. R. A. Morgan was not represented at the proceedings when the order was sought and the Admiralty was bound, in the circumstances, to watch his interests to this extent. Morgan has a very good lawyer. He has had one for four years. His solicitor is also the coroner for the South-West District and Morgan was advised not to appeal against the divorce. It therefore appears to me to be very irregular for the High Court to alter an order on the instructions, as it would appear from this letter, of the Admiralty when, as I suggest, there is no ambiguity.

Morgan can be committed to prison for not paying the order of £5 19s. to his wife. I suggest to my hon. Friend that, legally and morally, Morgan should have paid his wife, and the letter I received today gives an indication that he intended to pay it all the time. I do not think that the Admiralty need protect Morgan because, as I mentioned, he has a very experienced solicitor who has been dealing with his affairs for over four years. I should have thought that it was irregular for a Department of State to communicate direct with the officials of the High Court of Justice on this matter.

Perhaps I should mention that the divorce judge granted Mrs. Morgan costs of £102 4s. against her husband. She was refused a legal aid certificate because her income, together with the naval allowance which she was not getting, was above the maximum. She had to find the money herself for her costs all because the Admiralty refused to honour the order of the High Court she could not enforce the order for payment while her husband was overseas.

This is a regrettable case and one in which the Department had no right to suggest that the court should make an amendment to the order. This case has been badly handled, and I therefore felt that I should call the attention of my hon. Friend to it.

The Naval Forces Act, 1947, clearly says: …a marriage allowance shall not be discontinued until the Admiralty is satisfied that an allowance shall no longer be paid. I should like to know why the Admiralty was satisfied that this allowance should no longer be paid. I think that more care should be taken in future to give these people at the least six weeks' notice to which they are entitled. They can obtain this under paragraph 754.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing)

I ask my hon. Friend to look at paragraph 755 which qualifies the conditions of paragraph 754.

Miss Vickers

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

I hope that in future the Admiralty will give wives better notice. It is difficult if one suddenly finds that one has no allowance. I hope that the Admiralty will see that these cases are dealt with in a better way in future.

I have brought this case to the attention of my hon. Friend because a similar case has been reported to me. I want to ensure that this mistake is not repeated because I am certain that this case has not been dealt with in a way that would meet the best interests of the rating or the wife concerned.

12 m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing)

I should like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) for the very courteous and calm way in which she has presented her case and am delighted to be given an opportunity of replying to it. I agree that, if the facts as she has presented them were right, mistakes would have been made, but I wish to try to show meticulously that some of the facts are not right and that we are bound by certain regulations which I shall enumerate. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that the Admiralty has acted in a sensible and, above all, in a humane way in dealing with this case.

I understand that it is in no way at the request of Mrs. Morgan that this matter has been raised. I believe that for some time she has been living in London with her child. My information is that she is working there and she is not seeking permanent maintenance for herself now that her decree has been made absolute which suggests that she is under no financial stress. I think that my hon. Friend endorses that there is no question of Mrs. Morgan being under financial stress at the moment.

Engine Room Artificer 1st Class J. W. Morgan and his wife, Mrs. Lydia Morgan, have been estranged for some years. They have a child which has been in the wife's care. Morgan has throughout the period continued voluntarily to pay his qualifying allotment, and marriage allowance for his wife and child has thus been paid by the Navy. Mrs. Morgan took divorce proceedings recently and a decree nisi was made on 24th March, 1960, which granted her the custody of the child. The rating did not apparently defend the case.

The order for the decree nisi did not include any direction at all about the payment of maintenance. Mrs. Morgan, perhaps through an oversight, failed to notify the Admiralty of the granting of the decree nisi as she should have done in accordance with the instructions in the red insert in her navy order book. I will pass a sample of this book to my hon. Friend later. She continued to draw her allowance up to 14th April, 1960. It was due to this oversight or failure by Mrs. Morgan to inform us that we did not sort out the situation as quickly as we might have done.

When a decree nisi is obtained the Admiralty continues the payment of a marriage allowance only if—here there are three points: first, there is an immediate prospect of a court order for maintenance being obtained; secondly—this is an additional reason—if the wife is deserving of and needs financial support from her husband; and, thirdly, if there is a child in need of maintenance. Since there seemed to be no special financial hardship in this case the Admiralty was unable to continue paying the allowance until the court order had been obtained.

This was done on 27th April, 1960, when Mrs. Morgan obtained a maintenance order from the time when she last drew payment and for the same amount as previously. After an ambiguity in the court order had been cleared up, it had to be served on Morgan since, until it had been served, no deductions from his pay as qualifying allotment could be made. The order was served on the rating when his ship, H.M.S. "Gambia", arrived in South Africa from the Far East, on 1st June, and instructions were at once given to pay Mrs. Morgan the £5 19s. a week due to her. This con- tinued until the decree was made absolute, that is, from 1st July, after which Mrs. Morgan is entitled only to the proportion of the order for the child, or £2 a week.

May I now turn to some general considerations? It is a man's responsibility to maintain his wife and this is not the responsibility of the Navy. The Navy pays marriage allowance to the wife of a rating only when the husband claims it and voluntarily pays the qualifying allotment from his pay. The man can at any time cease paying the qualifying allotment and his wife's remedy then is to obtain a court order. At any time when the man ceases to pay the qualifying allotment—I will deal with the other point about decree nisi later—the wife ceases to draw the marriage allowance. I will show later that we try to manage this in a sympathetic way. In these ordinary cases, if the wife has to have time to obtain an order, we continue marriage allowance for a few weeks while she is obtaining the order.

I turn to the legal position. This consideration, that marriage allowance is paid only when the husband claims it and volutnarily pays an allotment is reinforced under the legal Acts and instruments. The payment of marriage allowance is basically governed by an Order in Council of 1920 under the Naval Pay and Pensions Act, 1865. This provides that payment shall only be made where the husband and wife are living together or are separated solely by the exigencies of the Service. This has been interpreted generously to mean that this can go on as long as the husband and wife are not legally separated, although from time to time they may live apart, as happened in this case, over a number of years.

A different Order in Council of 1959 under the Naval Forces Enforcement and Maintenance Liabilities Act, 1947, governs the payment of maintenance where the earlier Order in Council no longer applies, and there is a court order for maintenance. It is under this Act and this Order in Council that we are able to make payments to those separated or divorced—and also under this arrangement we make payments to the wives of those men who decline to make a qualifying allotment, perhaps after a family quarrel, against whom their wives get a court maintenance order.

Now I turn to the question of decree nisi. The effect of what I have said is that a marriage allowance as such can no longer be paid when there is any form of legal separation and a decree nisi counts as such. This is not civil law. We are not considering whether the woman is married in the eyes of the civil law, but are operating under naval Acts and Orders in Council which mean that under legal separation or decree nisi we cannot continue marriage allowance. There is no need for a divorce decree to be made absolute before we cease payment. It has been argued that decree nisi makes no difference to a woman's status as a married woman, and that marriage allowance should not stop. This was a point my hon. Friend made. Marriage allowance is not paid on account of the legal status of a married woman, but it is paid to the wife of a man not legally separated from his wife, who chooses to make a voluntary qualifying allotment.

I checked this matter with the other Services. I thought that perhaps my hon. Friend would think that the Navy was unduly harsh, but I found that it is almost exactly the same in the other Services. They work under different Acts and instruments, but the effect of withdrawing marriage allowance after separation or divorce, unless there is a court order, is almost exactly the same for all three Services.

My hon. Friend said that this seems unfair to the wife and that it should not be the case that if the husband decides to make no allotment his wife should be deprived of her marriage allowance. Her remedy is, of course, basically to get a court order against her husband, but it might be said that this may take time. To provide against this, we have ruled that no man may stop his qualifying allotment to his wife without her being given about a month's notice to enable her to get an order in the meantime. At home, this would be an order from a magistrates' court. For a man abroad, the Admiralty would make the order under the 1947 Act. In all this, of course, the wives would have the benefit of our welfare services.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of the Admiralty's part in drawing attention to the court to the form of the maintenance order originally put out and the subsequent amendment of it. When we saw the original order we thought it ambiguous in its reference to the child and we could not enforce an order without being certain of its meaning. We therefore asked the Plymouth County Court to reconsider the order although we could not of course direct the court as to the sense of the amendment. The previous order might have applied only between the decree nisi and the decree being made absolute and it might have been interpreted that there was no maintenance order which took any effect thereafter. For that reason we asked the Plymouth County Court to reconsider the order, although, obviously, we could in no way direct the Court in this matter.

My hon. Friend also referred to Mrs. Morgan's eviction, and here, I think, she had her dates a little wrong. All this took place in 1956—four years ago. Mrs. Morgan had continued to live in an Admiralty hiring after her husband was drafted elsewhere in 1955. We did not at once take legal action. It was not until November, 1956—over a year later—that the Plymouth County Court gave judgment for possession of the hiring with a sum against her for general damages and costs. At the time the judge made some criticism of the Admiralty for having allowed the matter to run for so long before bringing the case before the court. Our delay had been to see whether we could possibly help her.

The damages amounted in total to £18 3s. 6d. We have been lenient about this payment, for Mrs. Morgan has so far paid only £9. This occurred four years ago and £9 3s. 6d. of the taxpayers' money is still outstanding.

Miss Vickers

That was not the order which I mentioned. I mentioned the Marylebone order of 23rd November, 1957.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I thought that in her speech the hon. Lady said 1959. There have been subsequent efforts to reclaim the taxpayers' money, but this dates back to the eviction in 1956 when the court reprimanded the Admiralty for not having been more prompt in taking action. This was at Plymouth.

Miss Vickers

I referred to the Marylebone court.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Perhaps we could argue this out behind the Chair. It is difficult to do it in the House.

May I sum up the underlying points? If a man claims marriage allowance and makes a qualifying allotment, we ask for the marriage certificate to prove it. Conversely, if a man claims that he is divorced, we do not take immediate action, as the hon. Lady suggested that we did. This man said that he had heard while in the Far East that divorce proceedings had started, and we then got in touch with his ex-wife's solicitors. It was confirmed that a decree nisi had been obtained one week before the letter from H.M.S. "Gambia", the man's ship. No action was taken ahead of the decree nisi being obtained on 24th March.

If a man quarrels with his wife he may stop the qualifying allowance. In that case, we investigate with welfare inquiries and make the family welfare officer visit the wife to try to effect a reconciliation. Every effort is made to bring the two together. If there is no reconcilation we advise the wife that her proper method of approach is to the court for a maintenance allowance. We give this advice in the most simple and direct way we can. We have built up in the Department much confidence among these wives who have been estranged and they often visit or telephone the Admiralty for advice.

I hope that I have shown that we have tried to administer these arrangements in a manner which is fair to the man, to the woman and the taxpayer. I feel sure that the House agrees that the Royal Navy acts in a sympathetic and humane way. If my hon. Friend knows of instances in which she feels that there has been hardship, I shall be glad to attend to them sympathetically. She has raised many personal cases and has attended to the wants of her constituents on many previous occasions. My predecessors and myself have always tried to rectify any wrong which she felt had been done to her constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter past Twelve o'clock.