HC Deb 13 April 1965 vol 710 cc1165-8

3.40 p.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable a further marriage to be contracted by either spouse when a separation has persisted for five years. The House gave me leave towards the end of the last Parliament to introduce a Bill on rather similar lines to the one which I am proposing to introduce today. I say at the outset that the law on marriage needs drastic alteration to meet the needs of the present day. Since it was made known that I proposed to introduce this Measure. I have received many heart-rending letters from people throughout the country who wish to marry in order to legitimise their children, something which they cannot at present do because of our marriage laws.

A great deal has been made of the fact that there has been a big increase in the number of illegitimate births in recent years. I submit that this has been largely due to the fact that a large proportion of the population does not accept the present marriage laws as being reasonable.

At present, about 40 per cent. of illegitimate births—these figures are for last year—are in stable "families"; that is, families in which the man and woman live together and are endeavouring to bring up their children as members of a family unit. If one considers the number of illegitimate babies born to women over the age of 25, well over two-thirds of that number are born to women in such stable "families."

The trouble is that at present these unions are, to all intents and purposes, de facto but not legal marriages. Remarriage is possible after three years' desertion and I suggest that it should also be possible after five years separation. Why five years? I suggest, first, that if one considers the expectation of the average adult life—that is, people between the ages of 20 and 70—then one-tenth of that time would seem a reasonably long period to have to wait in order to go in for a second marriage if the first one has been a failure.

My second argument in favour of this period of five years is that if a second marriage is to have a reasonable chance of success it is desirable that it should take place before the parties to it are too old.

Hon. Members may be interested to learn that this is the law in Australia. Since 1959, when the Australians decided to have a Federal law covering marriage, this has been the law in that country. It was decided then to adopt what had been done in Western Australia for many years. Because this marriage law in Western Australia had been found to be such a success it was decided to adopt it for the country as a whole.

Our learned Archbishop has stated that we should discuss whether or not we should end marriage by consent. I personally believe that that is not the problem at all. If people jointly wish to end a marriage they have no difficulty in doing so. All that they have to do is to arrange for one of the parties to commit adultery, or to appear to have committed adultery. There is no difficulty about ending a marriage by consent. The real difficulty is the problem of ending a marriage without the consent of the other party if that other party tries to stop the legal marriage being ended in this way.

This raises some questions of great importance. The first is the moral question whether or not one should continue to treat the guilty party differently from the innocent party when a marriage breaks up. I take the view that that should not be the criterion on which one should judge whether or not a marriage should be ended. It takes two to make a marriage and two to break one. We should, therefore, not take this issue of whether or not one party is guilty as being a legitimate reason or not for allowing a divorce.

If the parties have been living together for a long time that is a good reason for allowing them to make their marriage legal and not have to continue with a merely de facto marriage. For there is no real marriage at present if the parties who are legally bound are not living together. Surely living together is an essential part of a real marriage.

The second objection might be on religious grounds. I submit that the marriage laws of any community should meet the needs of all the people in that community, irrespective of their religious beliefs and should not represent only the views of one section of the population. Our marriage laws should meet the needs of Catholics, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists, Humanists, Jews and all religious denominations in the community. At present, our marriage laws do not do that.

I recommend to the House the views expressed on this matter by Archbishop Cranmer, who believed that if a marriage broke down the sooner it was ended the better so that both parties could set about building new marriages. That view has been held by many people since then in this country and I submit that it is very widely held today.

About one-tenth of our population are regular churchgoers. Even if all the churchgoers in the community wished to keep our present marriage laws I suggest that that would be no reason why their views should be allowed to dictate to our society. What right has one ex-partner to refuse the right of remarriage to the other ex-partner? If one ex-partner is opposed to a second marriage that ex-partner need not remarry, but he or she should certainly not have the right to veto the right of remarriage of the other. This is a form of religious persecution. There should be no room in the marriage laws of this country for religious persecution today.

Only too often an ex-partner to a marriage wishes to have revenge upon the other ex-partner. Such revenge is often gained by preventing what would otherwise be a happy remarriage from taking place and, in too many cases, an ex-partner will take the view that because a success has not been made of their first marriage a second marriage should not be permitted. That attitude is thoroughly wrong and should not be encouraged by the law.

I appreciate that the important problem of the children in such circumstances must be considered, although I submit that that problem is a separate issue. It is desirable that the problem of children in all fatherless families, should be treated as a common problem, whether the reason for fatherlessness is caused by divorce, a wife having been deserted, because the woman has been widowed, or because a mother wishes to bring up her illegitimate child or children on her own.

This is a problem which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should be tackling as part of his review of the social services. There should be a common approach to the whole question of fatherless children. Their needs—especially financial ones—are largely alike.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Parker, Mr. Marcus Lipton, Mr. Michael Foot, Mr. Taverne and Sir Barnett Stross.