HC Deb 07 April 1965 vol 710 cc486-9

3.34 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law with respect to guardianship and custody of infants. I am encouraged by hon. Members opposite to think that the Bill I seek leave to introduce will be acceptable to them, for two reasons on which they are agreed. One is that in their election address they state in their Charter of Rights that they wish to give equal pay for equal work. If they wish to do this, they surely cannot agree to go on retaining the inequality between men and women before the law. Also, as we have just heard, there is to be a Bill to do away with racial discrimination. The race of women is still greatly discriminated against. Therefore, I hope that the Bill will commend itself to both sides of the House. Hon. Members opposite will have a chance today to show that they agree with the action I am trying to take.

The reason for my asking leave to bring in the Bill is that by the common law of England the father is deemed to be the guardian of his child. I am anxious that the mother should have equal guardianship. I am not asking for anything that is at all difficult to grant or which is a new idea or which has not been done before. In many countries this right has been granted to women and has worked very well. These countries include Greece, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Russia, Finland and, in the Commonwealth, Australia, New Zealand and Canada with the exception of the Province of Quebec, and also South Africa.

Even in Switzerland, where, as the House will know, women have not got the right to vote, they have equal guardianship of their children with their husbands, except in disputes. If this type of legislation commended itself to the House, I should be perfectly willing, if the Bill is given a Second Reading today, to amend the Bill I seek to bring before the House to allow this provision to be added.

In many cases the mother takes far more than her fair share of responsibility in the bringing up of the children, yet by common law she has no legal right, only customary right. When both parents have equal rights, it has been argued previously that it would be necessary when a declaration has to be signed for both parents to sign. I understand that in countries where women have equal rights this is not necessary and that there is a willingness to accept the signature of either parent when there is equal guardianship.

The main disabilities occur when the woman is deserted. That is a time when she has no knowledge of where her husband is. One of the most outstanding examples is in connection with the issue of a passport. These are still issued, as the House will know, by virtue of the Royal Prerogative, and Regulation 4(1) contained on Form A states: Children under 21 years of age may not be granted facilities without the consent of the legal guardian—that is the father—or if he is dead the mother except when the applicant is married or in Her Majesty's Forces. The form states that the mother or any other person claiming, during the lifetime of the father, to be the legal guardian must produce a court order committing the child into the custody of the mother.

This creates many difficulties. Many schools now take children overseas for their holidays. If a mother obtains a form for the purpose of obtaining a passport for her child, she reads that she must secure the father's signature. I agree that if she sends it up to London, and sees a solicitor, she may be able to get her signature accepted. Most women do not know this. They accept the form. They go home. They do not know where the father is. They merely tell the child that he cannot go on the school treat. It is difficult enough for a child when he does not know where his father is, but to be deprived of the opportunity of joining a school treat or of going abroad with relations or with his mother is a great hardship to a child.

A mother has no right to let her child have an operation, if the child is under 21, without the consent of the father. This applies to the Post Office Savings Bank. If a child has money in it, lie cannot get it out without the consent of the father. This applies also to marriage. A mother has no legal right, if the child is under 21, to permit the child to marry.

This also leads to blackmail. If a man is living with another woman who is anxious that the man's wife should divorce him, but the wife is not anxious to have a divorce, the other woman says to the man, "You claim the children", which he can do legally. Unless the wife goes to court, or puts her children in custody, or makes them wards of chancery, she has no chance of keeping them. The House will agree that this is hardly conducive to happy matrimonial feelings. If the wife is anxious to have her husband back, as many women are, especially if they have children, this is a great obstacle which is put in the way of her resuming matrimonial life perhaps at a later date.

Where such cases occur, the wife, having gone to court, does not always obtain custody of the child. Very often, particularly in provincial towns, these things get into the local newspapers and this makes life difficult for the woman and her children.

The woman takes half the responsibility for her children, but by common law she is not the legal guardian. This makes things extremely difficult for her, in many cases. On the other hand, if she is widowed she immediately becomes the legal guardian and if she remarries she is still the legal guardian of her children. Why, therefore, cannot she be the legal guardian if she is deserted? I cannot understand this.

Women are not entitled to have any of the earnings of their children, even though they have brought them up and paid for their education and looked after them during the absence of the father. If, at a later date, the husband comes back and pays the rent he is, by law, entitled to some of the earnings of his children. The mother can never have this advantage.

Section 2(1,c) of the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act, 1960, says that the court may make an order where, by reason of the impairment of the husband's earning capacity through age, illness, or disability of mind or body, it appears to the court reasonable in all the circumstances so to order, a provision that the wife shall pay to the husband such weekly sum not exceeding seven pounds ten shillings as the court considers reasonable in all the circumstances of the case. Therefore, in certain circumstances the wife has to support her husband but even then, supporting the husband and paying the rent, she still is not the legal guardian of her children.

Section 42(1,a) of the National Assistance Act says that for the purposes of the Act a man shall be liable to maintain his wife and children". Paragraph (b) says that a woman shall be liable to maintain her husband and her children". Although she has these obligations, she still is not the guardian of her children. When husband and wife are members of the same household and their requirements and resources are aggregated, then for certain payments under section 7(3) of the National Assistance Act everything that a woman has is aggregated with her husband's, but she still has to pay for his keep should he not be able to work.

Furthermore, under Section 24(2) of the Children Act, 1948, The father and the mother of a child shall be liable to make contributions in respect of the child, but only so long as the child has not attained the age of sixteen. Therefore, many obligations are placed on the wife without any rights, as I hope I have proved to the House.

I hope that it may be agreed that the Guardianship of Infants Acts, 1886 and 1925, are out-of-date. I am pleading particularly for the deserted wife and for those who need to have full guardianship of their children to have a happy life. I hope, therefore, that the House will give me leave to bring in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dame Joan Vickers, Mr. Peter Bessell, Mrs. Braddock, Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop, Mr. John Parker, Mr. Geoffrey Howe, Mr. Peter Mills, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, and Mr. Arthur Tiley.