§ 4.34 p.m.
§ The First Secretary of State (Mr. Michael Stewart)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Report of the Committee on the Age of Majority (Command Paper No. 3342).The Latey Committee was asked first to consider certain aspects of the civil law relating to people under the age of 21. As it got on with its work it came to the conclusion that if it confined itself to the broad topics within its terms of reference it would not be able to do a satisfactory job. With the approval of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, it therefore widened its considerations, and its Report now deals pretty well with the whole of the civil law as it affects young people.
But the Committee made two exclusions. It says explicitly that it has not considered any possible repercussions in the criminal law. It saw its task as being concerned with the great majority of young people who keep the law, and not with the small minority who break it. The other thing from which it deliberately refrained is any discussion of the voting age. It may well be that in due course we shall get an expression of view on this subject from Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law.
If, after consideration of the various matters raised in the Latey Report, the House or country came to the view that young people are fit to marry without their parents' consent, to enter into valid contracts, and to do all the other things recommended in the Report at the age of 18, it might well be that this was bound to influence the judgment of the House and the public about the voting age.
I draw that point to the attention of the House, but we are not today considering the voting age. The House is being asked at present only to take note of the Latey Report. The Government as a whole find themselves in broad general sympathy with the recommendations of the Latey Committee, including those which were not made unanimously but only by a majority vote. But, clearly, it was desirable to get the opinion of the House first, and that is why we have staged the debate in this form.
957 We should express our gratitude to Mr. Justice Latey and his colleagues on the Committee for their work. They heard an enormous amount of evidence, because the number of people who have opinions about what young people should or should not be allowed to do is unlimited. They have been thorough in their consideration and have made a large number of recommendations, great and small. Of the 52 recommendations, 44 were unanimous and eight recommendations of major importance were passed only by a vote of 9 to 2. A note of dissent is expressed in a minority Report by two members of the Committee.
The Committee also displayed throughout in its whole approach to the problem that combination of sympathy and common sense which is necessary for a study of the problem. Moreover, it managed to produce one of the most entertaining and readable Blue Books that it has been our pleasure to have for quite a long time. It is full of not only the most thorough study of the problems under consideration, but interesting information on all sorts of matters.
Some publicity has been given, in particular, to the Committee's study of the historical considerations which led to the age of majority being 21 under our law so far. There has been some feeling that we should regard as ridiculous the old reasons why the age of majority was 21. But the two dissentient members of the Committee argued that we should not regard history in that contemptuous light. I think that when our forebears made certain decisions about the age of majority they made them on what were in their day practical and sensible grounds. Those decisions were related to the facts of the society in which people then lived. It was a society in which one's rights and duties were determined to a large extent by the rank or station in life into which one was born.
It was not unreasonable, if one grants that first premise, that the age of majority should be different for different sections of society. Today we live, and are proud to live, in a more mobile society that is not stratified in that fashion and we certainly should not want a different age of majority for different sections of the population. Further, in the early Middle Ages, when hacking one another about 958 was one of the major occupations of the upper classes, it was quite natural and practical that the age at which one was strong enough to bear and use armour should be the age of majority and that, if one was the son of a merchant, it was not unreasonable to say that one should come of age when one was able to measure cloth and count money.
The point that I am making is that these historical decisions on the age of majority, quaintly as they seem to read today, made perfectly good sense in their own time, granted the facts of the society in which they were made. What we have to ask ourselves is: is our present settling of the age of majority at 21 in line with today's facts in the way that the historical ages of majority were in line with the facts of a previous age? If we decide that 21 is not in line with the facts of the society in which we live, should we make a change and, in particular, should we make the change that the Latey Committee recommends, the change to 18?
Is there any demand for such a change? the two members in the minority on the Committee say—and this is true—that there does not appear to be, either among the population as a whole or among the majority of young people. Although that is true and is a point to be made and considered, I do not find it conclusive. We have found that the public has become more aware, in a variety of ways, of the fact that the keeping of the age of majority at 21 is having certain undesirable results.
There was Press publicity over one or two cases of wardship which brought out a point made by the Chancery judges in their evidence to the Latey Committee, that is, the difficulty in the present day and age of maintaining that someone between the ages of 18 and 21 should be made a ward of court. The public have become increasingly aware of the fact that the legal restrictions on people between 18 and 21 making contracts and being able to carry out certain kinds of property deal are inconvenient and not in accord with the real facts of our society.
I do not think that if this House, after discussion, feels that there is a good case for a change, we ought to be put off merely because polls have indicated that there is no majority for it outside. There are occasions, and alterations of the law of this kind are particularly fitting, when 959 it may be necessary for the House to take a lead. We should also notice, in this connection, that all the members of the Latey Committee took the view that young people should be able to make a valid will at the age of 18, should be able to own land, fill the office of trustee, should be able to apply for passports on their own, without any question of parental supervision or consent.
Everyone would say that if those changes were made it would be on the whole, a good thing. Yet, I doubt if one could say that there is a great public demand for those changes. People now do not commonly go about discussing the question: should young people be entitled to make wills? It is when they are brought up against some particular case of a responsible young person between the ages of 16 and 21 being inhibited from doing something that, on commonsense grounds they ought to be allowed to do, that people suddenly say how absurd the law is. It is with that kind of thing in mind that we have to consider the question of change
My own general sympathy is with the Latey Committee's proposition that the age of majority should be 18 and not 21. If we are to try to keep in line with the facts of the time we have to ask: have our young people in recent years, or in this century, changed to such a degree that it is sensible to talk about lowering the age of majority? There is very little doubt that they have.
That they have changed in the physical sense is undoubted. Their physical maturity certainly comes decidedly earlier than it used to a generation ago. I know of one famous boarding school which has had to carry out a considerable rebuilding operation mainly because of the sheer physical fact that a changing room that could once be regarded as being a reasonable size for 20 boys two generations ago simply will not contain them today. We all know of more important examples than that which show that physical maturity is coming earlier.
It is an arguable point whether those who mature earlier physically also mature earlier emotionally and psychologically. The weight of the evidence is that on the whole they do, and that our young people are not only physically more mature but are more mature 960 emotionally and psychologically at the age of 18 now than they were a generation or two ago. That is one great difference, the earlier maturity, certainly in the physical sense, and I would claim in other senses as well.
Further, young people between the ages of 18 and 21 are very much better acquainted with money matters than they were a generation ago. They earn more money, they save on a scale that young people of that age did not a generation ago. They enter into, and make themselves responsible for, monetary transactions of all kinds on a scale not known a generation ago. This is a very relevant point in considering changes in civil law. As I have said, in the old days the merchant's son was considered of age when he could count money and measure cloth. In an age when young people are becoming increasingly familiar, through day-to-day contact, with commercial and business transactions, it is reasonable to ask whether the age of majority should any longer remain at 21.
Another change is that young people are very much more aware of all the things going on in the world, of all the things that there are to form opinions about and all the sources of information. We live in an age in which many more subjects are frankly and fully discussed than was the case in the past. More important still, we live at a time when the amount of serious reading is steadily increasing and where wireless and television are increasing people's opportunity for finding out about all manner of subjects, whether personal relations, management of property and money or disputed questions of public affairs. Another factor that has given young people this greater awareness is that they travel abroad on a much greater scale than they used to. The facts of the present age are that people at the age of 18 are in every sense more grown up than 18 year olds of a generation ago.
One might ask: they are more grown up, but are they better? Of course, it is especially hard for the middle-aged to answer that question affirmatively, because that would mean admitting that they are better than we were at their age, and the middle-aged have never been very willing to admit that.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (St. Marylebone)
Surely, it might be admitting they are better than the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Stewart
I will happily let the right hon. and learned Gentleman do that.
A clay tablet dug up in the ruins of Nineveh was carefully deciphered by learned men and it displays to an expectant world that in Nineveh, in 900 B.C., things were not what they used to be and that children no longer respected their parents. A little later, an ancient Roman writer of the first century before the Christian era wrote deploring that young Romans of his day were not as good as those of some century previously and he held it against them, first of all, that they had this nasty habit of going about clean shaven instead of wearing manly beards as the Romans of old used to do and had developed the decadent habit of washing instead of going about as the ancient Romans did, stinking of sweat and manliness.
It is quite clear, I think, that in the eyes of the more cantankerous middle-aged the younger generation cannot win in any age or in any century, and it is exactly that kind of prejudice which we must put aside. We must abandon the idea that, because young people choose to wear clothes, or to have hair lengths which were not fashionable when we were their age, this is evidence of irresponsibility. One must look for more solid pieces of evidence than that.
There was, it is true, one person, not exactly anonymous, but with an illegible signature, who wrote to the Latey Committee suggesting that really the proper age of majority was 50. Of course, it is a point of view that the great majority of mankind are not capable of managing their own affairs. But we cannot run society on that view. We have to maintain that most people are, and ask ourselves, is there really any good reason for excluding the 18 to 21s from that category.
Why do I say that I believe that when we have set aside prejudices and look at serious facts, we must conclude that there is a greater sense of responsibility, a greater power to take responsibility? Well, some of the evidence put before the Late" Committee weighed with me on that. Although there were differences of opinion among the experienced and respected bodies which gave evidence on particular questions, the question of marriage, for example, there was a very 962 large measure of agreement that by and large this generation of young people are among the very best we have ever had.
I would select particularly the evidence of those extremely sober bodies the Association of Municipal Corporations and the National Federation of Housing Societies. I select them deliberately because nobody can suggest that they had any particular axe to grind one way or the other. Secondly, they do not commit themselves in the newspapers to wide, sweeping pronouncements about our young people and, therefore, they have no particular face to lose by giving evidence one way or another. They meet young people in the conduct of business affairs. They had no interest except to try to get the age right, and I think that their evidence is important for that purpose.
We must notice the very great increase in the extent to which young people pursue education either full-time or part-time voluntarily after the statutory school leaving age. The swelling number of young people voluntarily pursuing part-time education, sometimes at the inconvenience of the loss of immediate earnings, the growing extent to which serious books are borrowed from the public libraries by young people—these are not the kinds of statistics which make headlines in the sense that juvenile delinquency makes headlines, but they are far more important if we want the real picture of what our young people are like.
I think that we should notice, too, the growing concern of our young people to render some kind of public service to the community. I think that it is within the experience of those who come into very close contact with young people that they find even among those of the rougher type who sometimes appear to cherish a strong resentment against the middle-aged and the established, especially where the middle-aged and the established are fortunate and well off, a special sense of sympathy and duty to the more unfortunate members of the community—those hampered by age, or disability of some kind. There is, I think, a very real growth of a sense of social compassion among our young people. I believe, therefore, that if we get rid of prejudice, and look at what 963 is happening in our society, there is a general presumption that we might move towards a lowering of the age of majority.
I want to say a word about the unanimous decisions of the Latey Committee. I do not propose to spend a great deal of time on them. I imagine that every hon. Member who takes part in the debate will probably have his special interest among the many recommendations which are made. I have already pointed out that there were unanimous decisions to enable young people at the age of 18 to own land, to fill the position of trustees, to make their own wills, to get their own passports. There was a unanimous decision that the law relating to infants and contract should be properly reviewed and be sent to the Law Commission for that purpose. I do not think that anyone acquainted with the subject will doubt that that would be a wise thing to do.
There was also a unanimous decision that young people should be able to give consent to medical treatment from the age of 16 onwards. There was also a unanimous decision—and here I do not think there could be much doubt about its rightness—that the law should stop calling everybody under 21 an infant, and should refer to them as minors, and the Committee says, I think shrewdly, that only people who underestimate the power of words will underestimate the importance of that recommendation.
Among the unanimous decisions, however, there is one group I do want particularly to refer to, and this relates to boys and young men in the Armed Forces. There are three recommendations there particularly, one that a boy who has entered on an engagement in the Armed Forces should be able to get out again on application at any time within six months after his entry. At the moment, he has to do it within the first three months. The recommendation was to extend this period of making up his mind to six. A second was that parental consent should be necessary for anyone under the age of 18 to enter into an engagement of this kind. At present, parental consent is necessary up to the age of only 17½.
As I say, in this debate we are only asking the House to take note of the Report; the Government are not presenting a firm decision; but I do not believe 964 that on these two recommendations there would be great difficulty in meeting them.
There is a third, more important recommendation about young fellows in the Services that will be, I must tell the House, more difficult to meet. It is that, when a lad who has entered the Army as a boy reaches the age of 18, he should be able at any time between 18 and 18 years and 3 months to get out as of right by applying to do so. That is to say, on attaining what would be the age of majority, if we adopted the Committee's proposals, he should be able to reassess the contract which he entered into when he was under age.
The Committee argues forcibly in favour of the general principle, but I must draw attention to the fact that its immediate adoption would create serious difficulties in manning the Armed Forces and a serious addition to the cost of the training bill of the Armed Forces. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence for Administration has been making a careful study of this and hopes to make a statement to the House about it. Indeed, as the House knows, he had hoped to make a statement earlier than this, but it has proved a more difficult and complex problem than at first appeared, and I must leave it for the present by saying that my hon. Friend will make a statement as soon as he is able.
I turn now to the disputed points in the Latey Committee's Report, and I will pick out two. The first is the one concerning marriage, and the second is the one concerning contracts. I believe that it is on those two that most of the argument turns.
As the House knows, someone under the age of 21 who wants to marry at present has to get either his parents' consent or, if the parents' consent is refused, permission from a magistrate providing that the magistrate feels that the parents' refusal was unreasonable. The proposal supported by nine members of the Committee is that that should only be so up to the age of 18, instead of 21. The point at issue then is what view we take about the fitness of young people between the ages of 18 and 21 to enter into marriage just as anyone over 21 can.
If one tried to assemble the names of impressive organisations as brickbats to hurl at the other side in the argument, 965 both sides would have a heap of quite respectable brickbats to throw at the other. In the last resort, we shall all have to use our own judgment about it.
One of the great and very natural anxieties of those who want to keep the age at 21 is that it is not disputed that what I might call the "failure rate" among marriages entered into by people aged 18, 19 and 20 is exceptionally high, and one might well ask if we want to make marriages of that kind easier. But we have also to notice that these marriages, with their high failure rate, are not prevented by the present law. There is clear evidence that the two barriers of parental refusal and consideration by a magistrate do not rule out the entering into by young people of a number of unsuccessful marriages. Not only must we ask if the young man or girl really knows best, but if we are really sure that their parents know any better.
Sometimes the refusal of consent by the parents is motivated by something which is not in the best interests of the young people. I do not suggest that it is always so, but it is quite possible and it does occur. Parents may want to keep a girl at home, where she is very useful. They may not want to lose the companionship of their children. There are a large number of motives which may lead pa rents to refuse their consent to a marriage.
The very fact that the failure rate is high suggests that we have not found in our present law how to prevent young people from making imprudent marriages. We have not found an answer, and I think it doubtful that the human race ever will.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
Has the right hon. Gentleman any statistics of the failure rate where the parents' consent was given, as opposed to where a magistrate intervened?
§ Mr. Stewart
No, I have not, and, as far as I know, they do not exist. One would want case histories of what has happened to young people whose parents said "No" and a magistrate said "Yes", and, still more, what has happened to the young people where both the parents and the magistrate said "No", but I suppose that one could never get those. However, it is not until we know more 966 about these matters that we can make any pronouncement. It may be that there is just as depressing a record of low success among couples who in the past were forbidden to marry as among those who were allowed to marry. As the parents of Juliet discovered, the trouble is that young people have a tiresome habit of falling in love with other young people without necessarily following their parents' advice or wishes on the matter. It might have been better if Juliet had been a good girl and married the Count of Paris, as her worldly-wise parents wished, although the world would have lost a great deal in the realm of literature. However, I had better not pursue that line of argument any further.
The serious point is that it is not conclusive to say that many young marriages are unsuccessful. It is an unhappy and important fact, but it is far from proved that requiring parental consent or a magistrate's consent for anyone under 21 is any safeguard against more unhappy marriages. We have to consider what view we take, by and large, of young people between the ages of 18 and 21. Some of them will contract imprudent and unhappy marriages. Some of them will enter into foolish contracts. For that matter, so will a number of people over 21, 31 or 41.
Those who dislike the idea of bringing down the age of what is called "free marriage" from the age of 21 to 18 are concerned that one should not thereby weaken the authority and influence of family life. That is again an understandable and natural anxiety. But we have to ask if the character and whole atmosphere of family life is really improved by parents having a legal veto in the background at an age when, for so many purposes, young people are already treated as if they were adult and have begun to think of themselves as adult.
There is a shrewd comment on this whole aspect of the matter in paragraph 71 of the Report:…we feel extremely strongly that to keep responsibility from those who are ready and able to take it on is much more likely to make them irresponsible than to help them.It may be that the influence of the family and parents is best exercised by persuasion and affection when the people have reached the age of 18, without the legal 967 compulsion in the background. Hon. Members must finally use their own judgment on this.
There is also the question of wardship and whether people between the ages of 18 and 21 should any longer be made wards of court.
§ Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)
As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it would be wise to bring the age down from 21. Has he given any thought to bringing it down to 19, say, rather than to 18?
§ Mr. Stewart
I have, but I have been trying not to pursue all the possibilities. One could go on doing that for ever. I found myself very much in agreement with the Committee's view. It argued the age of 19, which, it says, was a clear Second choice, and on balance I think it is right. There is a point in paragraph 125, page 40, where it brings out for how many purposes 18 is already regarded as an age where a person is nearly adult.
I do not propose to say anything about wardship beyond mentioning it, because it and a number of other fascinating legal questions will no doubt be referred to by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. If the Committee's recommendation on marriage is followed it would have to be followed on wardship, because it would create an anomalous situation if one was legally free to marry at the age of 18 but could still be made a ward of court at that age. The one decision probably hangs on the other.
The other important matter was that of contracts. We all know that just as people of all ages can contract imprudent marriages, people of all ages can and do enter into contracts to be provided with poor quality encyclopaedias for a price they cannot afford, or whatever else some smooth-tongued person has persuaded them into signing. We can tackle this problem partly, as the nation and Parliament have been doing, by looking at the law on contracts of this kind as a whole as it affects adults signing them to prevent excessive influence, sharp practice, and so on.
My own feeling is that if it can be shown that a number of people between 18 and 21 are entering into undesirable contracts 968 of this kind, the remedy is probably again to have a look at the law on contracts as a whole. But I do not believe that this is the case with contracts concluded by young people. It is true that young marriages do not appear to be as durable as marriages contracted by people of riper years, but there is no evidence that people between 18 and 21 more frequently enter into imprudent contracts than people of more advanced age.
There are some people—we all meet a few of them probably in our constituency surgeries—who never seem to be able to grasp the fact that if they sign their name promising to do something, they will be expected to do it. Some people just do not seem to grasp this, however, many years go by.
We have to ask ourselves the question: is there any valid reason for regarding people between 18 and 21 as peculiarly in need of protection here? This was why I laid stress on the evidence from the housing societies and town clerks, because that was evidence that bore on young people in business transactions. I should have thought, therefore, that there was a case for agreeing that, by and large, 18, rather than 21, should be the majority year.
In paragraph 125, page 40, the Committee remarks:18 is already an important watershed in life. To mention some examples of the freedom attained at this stage, at 18 you become liable for full National Insurance contributions; liable to military service when there is conscription; able to drink alcohol in public; no longer liable to care, protection or control orders; free to carry on street trading; and, of course, you can apply for a commercial balloon pilot's licence. And by 18 you can drive a car or motor bicycle, be treated as an adult when in need of treatment for mental disorder and choose your own doctor and dentist within the National Health Service. In a sentence, at 18 young people nowadays already become emancipated for many purposes of their personal and private lives and are free to order them as they will.I do not think that it has been possible to show that people between 18 and 21 are seriously unfit for any of the powers of choice mentioned in that paragraph, or others.
I am led to the view, therefore, that 18, rather than 21, is the age at which we could say people can enter into a valid contract.
I have mentioned marriage and contract. I pick those because, if one agreed 969 with the majority of the Latey Committee on those two, it would be difficult then to say that a young person cannot have an independent domicile at 18, which was another of the disputed points, or that a young person cannot engage in a law suit without what I believe is called a guardian ad litem.
The first recommendation, which was one of those that was not unanimous, that the general age of majority should be 18 rather than 21, would really follow on what decision one took about marriage and contracts. If one agreed with the majority on those two and added them to the many unanimous recommendations, then I think the simple recommendation, that in general the age be 18 and not 21, would follow inescapably.
I have not disguised the fact that the Government's sympathies lie with the majorit2, of the Committee on the disputed points. I thought it would probably be more helpful to the House if I made this clear than if I tried to give merely a jejune weighing of the pros and cons without expressing an opinion. But I want to emphasise that this is a debate to take note, and perhaps we might remember that while we are sitting here taking note of the Latey Committee's Report, the huge majority of hardworking, healthy, useful young people will be carefully taking note of how we acquit ourselves in this debate.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Sir John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)
I think that I should begin by declaring an interest. I have an unmarried daughter between the ages of 18 and 21 and three grandchildren in whom I may have a contingent interest in their future marriage and contracts. For that reason alone, I have been greatly interested in the Report which we are now debating.
In some sense, to debate this subject today is rather like fiddling while Rome burns, with the tremendous events which have been occurring over the weekend. Nevertheless, I agree with the First Seccretary of State that this is a topic which is of very widespread interest to a very large number of people indeed, and in every generation the numbers of those who are approaching the point where they take full responsibility for their own 970 lives is bound to be a high proportion of the population as a whole.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we are not today debating, and the Latey Committee was not concerned with, what is, I think, the major topic that interests most hon. Members, namely, the age at which citizens should have the right to vote. This was not included within the terms of reference of the Latey Committee. Indeed, it is entirely a matter for the Report of Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law. We shall read that Report on this topic with great interest when it comes out. But the Latey Committee was very careful indeed to make clear, in paragraph 25 of its Report, that it did not regard its own recommendations as relevant to the wider political question, namely, the age at which an individual should begin to have the right to vote.
Paragraph 25 on page 17 says:But it does not seem to us that changes in the civic field are at all likely to follow changes in the private field even if we wished that they should. It is a very diffierent thing to cope adequately with one's own personal and private affairs and to measure up to public and civic responsibilities.That is the point at which the minority disagreed with the majority, and it is the point at which I, too, disagree with the majority.
I think that the main question is, what is the age at which the majority of young boys and girls reach a maturity in which they are capable of taking charge of, and being responsible for, not only their own affairs and their own future, but civic responsibility for the future of other people, if they are to vote or to serve on a jury or to carry out the many other important duties which fall on a citizen and which affect other citizens?
To that extent, those who wish to derive some answer to the question, "At which age should citizens begin to vote?", do not get very much comfort, because the majority say that their answer, which is that 18 should be the age of voting is not relevant to the discharge of civic duties, while the minority, who say that they want to retain 21 as the age of majority and not reduce it, say that the two are inter-related. Therefore, anybody who wants to use this Report to say that the age for voting should be brought down is in a difficulty. He can only get 971 part comfort from the majority, and part comfort from the minority, and if he is to back either one or the other he will find himself either not reducing the age, or in a position in which it is irrelevant to consider the conclusions on the age of voting.
One of the things that interests me about the Report is the comparative law table at the end, which shows very clearly what is done in many other countries. I join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking and congratulating the Latey Committee on this admirable Report, on the enormous amount of material which it assembled, and on the extremely lucid and readable way in which it has been put before us. It has been a pleasure to read the Committee's comments, and the careful analysis of the evidence. I recommend this Blue Book—something which I have never done before—for general reading by anybody who is interested in this topic.
There is, I think, an unfortunate lacuna in Appendix 7 in that it does not deal very extensively with European countries. If we are contemplating joining the Common Market and wish to think in a European way, it would have been very helpful if this appendix had contained details about all the countries of the Common Market. I can find details only about France, West Germany, and Italy. It may be that I have not read it fully enough, but the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg seem to be omitted, and one does not know what the rule is there.
Nevertheless, on the material provided by Appendix 7, it is plain that in Italy, France and West Germany the general age of majority is 21, and that the age for voting is also 21, and that therefore, as the minority say in the Report, in all the countries within the European tradition there is no country where the general age of majority is lower than 21, and that in nearly all of them the voting age is 21.
The only country that I can find where the voting age is lower than 21 is the Soviet Union, and in a number of American States—Illinois, Kentucky, Idaho, and Dakota. I do not regard these as good precedents for the conditions in which we live. It is also interesting to notice that Japan is one of 972 the only other countries in which the general age of majority is lower than 21. It has a general age of majority of 20, and so does Hawaii. This does not appear to me to indicate that the general experience of other civilised communities is that the general age of majority ought to be lower than 21.
The trouble about having a general age of majority is that it is entirely arbitrary. We all know that there are many people who, as the right hon. Gentleman said, are extremely foolish throughout their lives, however old they are, and there are some young people below the age of 21 who are wise, sensible, mature, and responsible. We are asked to fix an arbitrary date to apply to everybody in the group between 17 and 22. We know that applied generally over the whole community it would be absurd for some people aged 17 or 18, and for others of 22 or 23, to be given complete personal responsibility, or complete civic responsibility.
We have to fix an arbitrary age. It has to be one which, as far as possible, approximates to the average individual to whom it is intended to apply, and we can all remember the sad story of the American who was drowned crossing a river which he had accurately been informed had an average depth of 2 ft. One of the inevitable difficulties facing any legislature is that one has to fix an arbitrary date which is intended to represent an average. Everybody knows that the average individual seldom exists, and that when he does the last thing that he should be told is that he is the perfect average.
We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for telling us the Government's general approach, but he said singularly little about what the Government intend to do by way of implementation. The only subject with which the right hon. Gentleman dealt was that of young men of 18 who joined the Armed Services. Their position is to be slightly improved, but even this is subject to a statement by his colleague from the Ministry of Defence.
The right hon. Gentleman has not said a word about the large number of recommendations, many of them agreed, which require either legislation or Government action. I hope that when the Solicitor-General winds up the debate he will give 973 us a little more information about the Government's intention with regard to many of these important matters which will affect the administration and procedure of the courts, and the way in which the law affects not infants but minors.
I think that the Latey Committee has shuffled some heavy burdens off on to the Law Commission. First, it is to try to draw a law of contract for minors which will assimilate the law of England and Scotland—no easy task in any event, but one that I welcome. It is absurd that the law affecting contracts made by infants on either side of the Border should be different. Further, considering the great amount of postal marketing and the great amount of sales from newspapers that go on at present it is absurd that there should be a difference in this law on either side of the Border.
I wish the Law Commission well in its task of codifying the law of contract and, in the process, assimilating the law of contract relating to infants on both sides of the Border. I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General could inform us what progress is being made by the Law Commission in that task.
§ Mr. F. J. Bellenger (Bassetlaw)
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned the difference between the status of the infant and the mature person on both sides of the Border. Will he speculate on the position internationally, as he has already mentioned that within the European Economic Community there are differences in respect of the age of majority? Might not that fact bring impediments into the negotiations that we are now assuming to try to get into the Common Market?
§ Sir J. Hobson
I agree that the question of the assimilation of the law concerning the general age of majority and the right to contract should be considered in a European context, and that it might well cause difficulties if we tried to get into the Common Market. If people in this country have the vote at an age which is different from that at which people vote in Europe, and there is a difference regarding the right of infants to contract, I foresee considerable difficulties arising. It is therefore very important to try to get the law in the United Kingdom on the same basis in this respect. I also 974 hope that it would be possible to arrange with the Common Market countries for some assimilation of the law there. But that raises a wider issue than the terms of reference of the Latey Committee.
The other matter concerning the Law Commission in respect of which the Solicitor-General may be able to help us is related to the recommendations set out in paragraph 269 of the Report, on page 73. These are detailed recommendations. Incidentally, of the 46 agreed recommendations we do not know how many the Government intend to implement. I hope that the Solicitor-General will be able to help us on that point. Paragraph 269 contains many jurisdictional and procedural points for the courts in dealing with minors or infants, and many of those recommendations were for consideration by the Law Commission. I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General could tell us how that consideration is proceeding.
One of the most important of the other tasks of the Law Commission was to consider the proposal for family courts, not only in the High Court—in terms of the division of responsibility between the Chancery Division and the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division—but also in magistrates' courts. How is the Law Commission getting on with that consideration? From its last annual report I understand that it is waiting upon the conclusions of the Beeching Commission on the organisation of the courts generally. Can the Solicitor-General tell us whether the Law Commission favours the idea of family courts generally, both in the High Courts and in magistrates' courts, and what progress is being made along those lines as suggested by the Latey Committee?
The Minority Report is much more cogently argued, and comes much nearer the problem, especially in its insistence that we must look at civic responsibilities. It points to many civic responsibilities and says that many Commissions and Committees which have considered the problem have come down on the side of 21 as being the right age of general responsibility for civic matters. The youth employment service, the Morris Commission on Jury Service and many other bodies have recently investigated this matter from a quite independent 975 point of view and, together with the Wolfenden Committee, have all come down in favour of the age of 21 as being the age of maturity or responsibility.
I appreciate that they may have favoured that age because it was at that time the general age of majority under the law. Nevertheless, they had a great deal of evidence and they still came down in favour of 21 as being the milestone at which an individual should begin to undertake heavier and greater civic responsibilities.
We should not divorce the general civic responsibilities of a citizen and his personal right and responsibility, on maturity, to run his own life both in respect of getting married and in making contracts. I believe that the Law Commission is also to consider the proposal of the majority of the Committee that most contracts should be binding on a minor but that, on terms somewhat similar to the Scottish system, the minor should be able to seek to show that it was an unreasonably harsh bargain for him, in which case the court should have a discretion to relieve him of it on the basis that the parties are put back in their respective positions on the doctrine of restitutio in integrum.
I am attracted to Appendix 5. There is much to be said for the Scottish system. In this respect I have had the help and advice of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie), who regrets that a public engagement has kept him from being here to talk about the Scottish position. Certainly English and Scottish law should be assimilated, and I hope that we shall to some extent go along the route that Scotland has adopted for minors, as it seems to be based on good sense and practical provisions.
When discussing this topic we should remember what narrow terms of reference the Latey Committee had. It was asked to consider only four major problems —marriage, with or without the consent of parents or a court; the age at which it should be possible for the Chancery Division to continue to deal with people as wards of court; the ability to make binding contracts and the liability to be bound by them when made, and the problems of owning and disposing of property.
976 In considering those points the Committee rightly took the somewhat broader view of thinking that it would be more satisfactory if each problem could be solved upon the same view of the maturity and responsibility of young people.
I am very attracted by the congency of the arguments put forward in the minority Report, especially on the question of parental or court consent for marriage. The minority Report is much more acceptable when it refers to the present provisions of the law as a buttress to parental authority rather than a knuckleduster. It is much nearer reality to say that the present position is akin to a buttress of parental authority, something which is desirable and which has probably been of assistance in preventing improvident marriages by young people who might have spent the rest of their lives in misery. Indeed, some of the letters from young ladies show how grateful they were to their parents for preventing them entering a marriage the thought of which makes them shudder when they look back at the age of 22 to what they thought was their ideal at the age of 19. I found some of these letters very impressive.
In one newspaper the other day there was a surprising account of how, in many countries where marriages are arranged for young people, the divorce rate is far lower than where romantic love is the foundation for marriage. I certainly do not think that it is right that all parents should arrange marriages for their children. I would regard the obligation to arrange marriages for my daughters as an absolutely horrifying liability which I could not afford to undertake.
All the same, parents probably can usually give better advice than most other people. I entirely agree that there are very stupid parents and that many are wholly irrational and unfair about the marriage of their children. Nevertheless, generally, parents probably are the best people to advise their children upon their marriage and the present provisions of the law give some buttress to useful and wise parental authority. The idea that to support that authority is to put a knuckle-duster in the hands of the parents and thus destroy family life is unreal and absurd.
This Blue Book contains a mine of information and views which one could 977 discuss for many hours. I certainly do not intend to do that. I am glad that we are having this debate on this of all days, when the Foreign Secretary, according to his own information, has been asked to become an honorary member of the Bitter Lakes Association, and when the £ has just been devalued. It must be a little sour for those on the Government benches to have to contemplate that the period of life under discussion today should be 18 or 21 years, especially when they reflect that 18 years is the period between 1931 and 1949 and between 1949 and 1967. It cannot be a very happy period for hon. Members of the Labour Party to have to contemplate for any purpose.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Hamilton)
I have the honour to represent in this House the constituency of Hamilton. My predecessor represented that constituency for 24 years. In a long campaign, I found that thousands of my constituents had met my predecessor personally and many spoke of him as a man who had actually solved a problem for them. They made it plain to me that the only way for any M.P. to stay in Hamilton was to give the kind of service which my predecessor gave, personally, diligently and patiently. Although I have never met him, I would begin by paying tribute to him.
§ Mrs. Ewing
My constituency is a rather good cross-section of the country that I come from. It has all the usual shortages in it and, I am happy to say, many young people, of the calibre which makes thoughtful people get together and formulate a Report like the one before the House. I found them intelligent, selfless and ready to help. I did not find them delinquent. I have studied delinquency statistics and it is worth mentioning that, although the dangerous age for boys is said to be up to 17, the dangerous age for girls—if one can use that term—is between 35 and 45.
I was interested in the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson). Perhaps I may tell the House the story, which hon. Members may know, about the Lord Advocate of Scotland who had a conversation with the Lord Chancellor of England. The Lord Chancellor said, 978 "Would it not be a good thing if the laws of our two nations were the same?". The Lord Advocate replied, "Yes, it would, but would it not be awfully hard to persuade the English to adopt Scots law?" That is where I stand. It is regrettable that, for the present—I hope that it will not be for too long—we do not have Scottish Law Officers in the House.
I am pleased to say that I was a lawyer before I began trying to become a politician and I did not understand that the purpose of the Scottish Law Commission was necessarily to assimilate the law on anything with the law of England, with the co-operation of the English Law Commission. I understood, as does the legal profession in Scotland, that the purpose of the Scottish Law Commission is to find the best possible law. That is what we in Scotland, being a logical nation, like to do. In looking for the best possible law, we may indeed assimilate, but all too often I am aware, as a lawyer, that the English law and the law of logic are two different things. So this assimilation does not necessarily follow.
Hon. Members may wonder why I am "putting in my oar" so early, when the Report under discussion affects England and Wales. In the absence of Scottish Law Officers, I would say that there are always two dangers when English private law reform is on the agenda, and one is almost as had as the other. The first is the danger of Scotland being included and the second is the danger of Scotland being excluded.
The first danger sometimes results in unsuitable afterthought Clauses and interpretation Clauses, about which the best that one can say is that they provide good work for the legal profession. As to the second danger, of Scotland's being excluded, it is a pity that, when a very good reform takes place in England, we have sometimes to wait a long time between the Acts for it to take place in Scotland.
I congratulate the Committee on travelling part of the way on a road which Scotland has been travelling almost since the Reformation. As a lawyer, one finds that, when English law reform is proposed along lines as drastic as these they lean very heavily on the bank of fundamental common sense called Scots law. Since the Reformation, we have been free 979 to marry and to leave home at 16 without parental consent. We suffer few contractual restrictions from the age of puberty, though it is true, as the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington said, that we still enjoy some protections between puberty and the age of 21. We have a more sensible word—"minors"—for this period than the word "infants".
Whatever is decided in the end by the House, may I make a plea for the law to be made as simple and as readily knowable as possible. A great number of examples have been given of its complexity—the different ages for driving cars, being in the army, betting and drinking. One can commit a crime at the age of 8, be sent to prison at 17, and, before the unenlightened law was changed, people could be hanged at 18. I read also about the age for a commercial balloon licence, but that affects no one in my constituency. One cannot become a juror until the age of 21 but can be a witness at 14, will all one's money away in Scotland at the age of 14 but must wait until one is 21 to will one's house away. One may leave home at 16, marry at 16 but may not sign a consent for an anaesthetic at 21 and one may vote at 21. I learned from a previous debate on the subject—it was about all I learned—that one can attend horror films at the age of 16. I confess that previously I did not know that.
It seems to me to be desirable to strike an age. It may be that for some purposes it would not be ideal, but it would be excellent if everyone knew where they were, because the legal landscape at present bristles with all these difficulties.
It has been suggested that there is no demand for earlier marriage with consent in England or for earlier ability to make contracts. I understand that one in four people marry in England under 19, which seems to me to be evidence of the demand, better than any evidence that one could get. What of divorce? As someone who can describe herself rather unfortunately as a "divorce lawyer", it is my belief that the principal causes of divorce are not youth but drink, violence and poverty. Those causes are usually behind desertion.
I therefore make a plea that the law should be made simple and easily know- 980 able. It is illogical to have all these different ages. It used to be said that if a person could fight, then he was entitled to vote. Youth today are not only physically mature sooner but they are politically mature sooner. Hon. Members may say that I am prejudiced when I say that, because of my party, but evidently they believe it to be true in Scotland.
There are moral and intellectual reasons why it is good sense to make people responsible at the age of 18 if not sooner —and I mean fully responsible in every sense of the word. They are becoming less inclined to follow their parents' way of thinking and they are more able to earn. They have seen the world on the television screen, and the visual is more compelling than reading. They have a very good understanding of what the world is all about. There is a revival of interest in politics. I am sorry that the Report does not talk about voting at 18, because that is in the minds of everyone who considers this matter, but if we go as far as the Report recommends, then voting at 18 may well be the logical next step.
I am absolutely on the side of youth. I would remind the House that even if we give the vote at 18, the average age at which the first vote is cast is 21, and if we give the vote at 21, then the average age at which it is first cast is 23. Mr. Pitt was a good Prime Minister, so it was said, and he was only 23, so that today presumably he might not even have had a vote and could not have been Prime Minister.
I ask hon. Members to think well of the Report, as I do. I have a few reservations about the way in which some of these proposals will be applied to Scotland, but I believe that the result of giving more power and the vote to young people will be to hasten the day when I shall be fortunate enough to have some colleagues to join me here from the party I represent.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
The pleasant task falls to me of felicitating the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) upon her maiden speech. It is a matter of particular satisfaction that as a lawyer and as a Scotswoman she has chosen to make it on the subject of the reform of the English law. 981 It is a matter of particular satisfaction that attention has been drawn to the implications of the English law for the law of Scotland by an hon. Member as well aware of it as she is. I hope that she will continue to give us in the House the benefit of her legal expertise.
We are all aware that young people today are the focus of more public attention than at any time in our nation's history. The increased economic independence of young people, the extension of educational opportunities, the rather self-conscious attempts of our society to understand the social and psychological needs of young people have all contributed to the expansion of their horizons and have increased their scope for self-expression. The day has passed when it was felt to be the natural order of things that young people, depending on to which class of society they belonged, should be set to work as young as possible for as long as possible for as little as possible or bound for many years in a needlessly protracted apprenticeship or confined to unrewarded years of hard labour to mount the professional ladder.
To the great credit of our society, much has been done to liberate the energies, the imagination and the idealism of our youth. Some of the consequences of the natural experimentation of young people may not be as pleasing to everyone, but it is my personal point of departure in the debate that not only young people but our society as a whole have benefited from the earlier opportunity of each individual to develop his needs and express his aspirations. I imagine that all who feel as I do will have welcomed the opportunity provided by this Report to look at the law as it affects our young people.
That we should be the first country to do so, the first country to embark on a systematic study of these problems, need not fill us with foreboding, and I do not share altogether the views of the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) on this matter. Still less do I feel that we should be overcome with a sense of our own temerity in recommending changes in the law referring to the age of majority. We are not accustomed in this country to look for a lead from abroad when it comes to recommending changes in our 982 domestic laws, particularly when these laws touch upon conditions in our society which may find no counterpart in other foreign countries.
The work of the Latey Committee, of which I had the honour to be a member, has, I believe, attracted a considerable amount of interest in a number of other countries, particularly those deriving their law from the Common Law tradition, and during the course of our deliberations we received interested inquiries from those countries. The recommendations of the Committee fall broadly into two categories. First, there are those concerned with determining at which age the law should allow young people full legal capacity in the special fields of marriage, wardships, contracts and property. Secondly, there are those recommendations which are concerned with making detailed recommendations for changes in the law as it affects young people, regardless of what age may be settled as the age of majority.
Although the main controversy will probably surround the proposal of the Committee that the age for full, legal capacity should be lowered to 18, it bears emphasis that of the 52 recommendations made by the Committee, 44 of the proposals for changes in the law affecting young people were unanimous. Some of these proposals are of considerable importance. Their implementation would serve not only to remove anomalies, uncertainties and obscurities in the law—for example, by the repeal of the almost universally disliked and certainly universally misunderstood Infants Relief Act, 1874—but would rectify certain intolerable restrictions on the freedom of young people. In this context, I draw particular attention to the proposals of the Committee in regard to the rights of boy entrants into the Armed Services.
I was interested in the points made by my right hon. Friend about the view of the Government towards these proposals and I stress for his attention, and that of the Secretary of State for Defence, the fact that the Committee found unanimously that there were not cogent reasons of national interest which justified the present injustice and severity of the law. I hope that this will be firmly borne in mind before any announcement is made to the House about any possible watering down of the Committee's proposals.
983 If I concentrate today less on the proposals for changes in the law as it affects young people it is not because I do not regard them as of great importance and usefulness—and of a kind which could be speedily implemented by Parliament; and, to a large degree, proposals of little controversy—but because I prefer to focus on what I believe to be the central recommendation of the Committee; that the age of majority should be reduced to 18.
It will undoubtedly be argued that the onus of persuasion in this matter rests on those who advocate this change, I fully accept this burden and I believe that it has been discharged by the Committee. I will, therefore, rely on the arguments adduced by the Committee at great length, and I will not cover the ground covered by the Committee or enlarge at length on the points made by my right hon. Friend, with which I entirely agreed.
When first considering this question, one has probably already formed a view about the central proposal. As we said in our Report, a number of members of the Committee had formed views themselves before considering these matters. Indeed, some of us felt obliged to reconsider our position in the light of the massive amount of evidence put before us.
This further point bears emphasis. We are all well aware of the need to protect the immature members of our society, although we do not always pay sufficient attention to the risk of over protecting those who are ready to assume the responsibilities of life. We are not always ready to recognise the real frustration—about which the Committee had masses of evidence—caused by the confinement of the law on those who are ready to exercise their judgment in matters which more intimately affect them than they affect society at large. I refer to such matters as buying a house, purchasing consumer goods, leaving a will or choosing a partner for life in marriage.
I do not feel at liberty to follow too closely the arguments of the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington about the inter-relations of the Committee's proposals in the civic and private spheres. Being a member of Mr. Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law, I am inhibited from canvassing the 984 argument at present being considered by that body. However, it is proper for me to re-emphasise the view of the majority of the Committee that the question of the capacity and aptitude of an individual to determine and order his private affairs does not necessarily influence the view one may take of his capacity or aptitude to exercise his public responsibilities and rights.
This subject was clearly outside the terms of reference of the Committee, but it wished to make it clear—and this was done in paragraph 25 of its Report—that consideration of the civic implications of the question of the age of majority should not prevent, inhibit or retard consideration of whether or not there was a need for change in the private, civic, civil law.
On all the matters which were principally the subject of consideration by the Committee, I stand by the arguments advanced by the Committee, although there are some arguments against change which call for rebuttal. The first and most easily disposed of is that there is no demand for change. The evidence of the opinion polls has been cited as some proof of this. I take this as being little more than the natural response of those who, for the most part, have not encountered the trammelling effects of the law as it stands.
It is natural that if one is stopped in the street and asked, "Do you think the present age of majority is the right one?" if one has not encountered any difficulties, or such difficulties do not exist in one's immediate experience, one will not think that there is a crying need for change. However, more weight should be given to the opinion of those who have encountered such difficulties, and, indeed, to those who have considered this matter.
It was pointed out by the Minority Report—I do not propose to chop and change arguments with the minority on this—that a majority of young people favoured the law as it stood. Of more significance in this context is the fact that a decisive majority, of two to one, of those young people who considered the question, who wrote to the Committee and who gave evidence, favoured a reduction in the age to 18.
On this point of evidence, the Committee did not at any time argue that there 985 was a consensus about the need for change. It would have been impossible to do so. Such a matter as this is not susceptible to an approach of that type. However, it did argue, I believe with justification, that the widest evidence was submitted in support of change. It is also of significance to note that the young people who presented themselves to the Committee impressed us as putting forward extremely cogent arguments in favour of acknowledging the need for a reduction in the age of majority.
Further arguments have been made against the reduction which the Committee recommended, principally attacking, I suppose, what was the foundation of the Committee's position—that by the age of 18 young people have reached a maturity sufficient to order their affairs. It has been pointed out that, while there is medical agreement that physical maturity is now reached appreciably earlier than formerly, there is no such demonstrable certainty that psychological maturity is reached at an equally early age. It is truism that psychological medicine is in many respects less precise than the other branches of the profession, but we did not receive any evidence whatsoever to suggest that there was not a clear connection between psychological and physical maturity. I put it no higher than that.
It is also cited in support of the view that the age of majority should not be altered that the incidence of juvenile delinquency in the community is increasing, and that this has to be taken as evidence of an increasing immaturity. It is important, however, that the House should bear in mind that we are not here considering the treatment of the abnormally immature juvenile delinquent but the broad majority of people into whose minds it would never enter to commit an offence, to break the law or to behave in an anti-social fashion. It is with this broad majority that we are primarily concerned, and we have to consider whether those people are harmed by the law as it stands. I believe that the evidence submitted to the Committee showed overwhelmingly that considerable hardship is suffered in a number of cases by those who are brought up against the present law.
A further point made in opposition to the argument for change related to the 986 growing incidence of young marriages, and the general social undesirability of encouraging them. I think it is true that no member of the Latey Committee would have wished to do anything to encourage young marriage, particularly marriage under the age of 18, but it was recognised by the Committee that the requirement of parental consent to marriage could not be shown to affect the issue one way or the other. Indeed, it was argued by a number of witnesses that the present law served to weaken the basis of trust and family relationship upon which it might be urged that parents would be more likely successfully to exercise their powers of persuasion.
I promised not to rehearse at length the arguments that were put forward by the Committee—I believe that they have been put better than I could do it, and at greater length than would now be appropriate—but I believe that if the Government speedily implement these recommendations they will have served our young people well. I appreciate greatly the opportunity which serving on the Committee gave me to confront these questions and to expand my own personal understanding of the problem.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)
First, I associate myself with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) in congratulating the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) on a witty and informative maiden speech. We watched her campaign with admiration, and all of us on this side regard her victory as second only to another possibility which she quite completely ruled out. We are happy to see her here. We have heard the quality of her speech, and we look forward to many contributions from her in the future.
Perhaps I may say how completely I agreed when the hon. Lady spoke up for that part of the Report which recommended that in this country we should substitute the word "minor" for the word "infant". I began life as a minor and a pupil with a tutor and curator—heaven knows what might have happened had I began life as an infant. It is much better to begin life as a minor.
I must also tell the hon. Lady that we shall watch her progress here with great sympathy though, as an expatriate 987 Scot with the honour of representing an English constituency, I am not sure that I am wholly in sympathy with her aims, because goodness knows what would happen to many of us serving in England if frontier posts were to go up along the Scottish border.
Being in a congratulatory mood, I now follow those who have congratulated the Latey Committee—and we are happy to have with us the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland who was a member of that Committee—on a racy, interesting and highly readable Report. It was a Report—and this is not true of all Blue Books—that one could use as bedside reading on returning home after an all-night sitting.
I read the Report with a mind very open to being convinced that it would be right to reduce the age of majority from 21 to 20, 19 or 18 if cogent reasons for that step could be found. After carefully reading the Report, and having had the advantage of hearing views at a large meeting of young people in my constituency, I came to the conclusion that the balance of the argument was with the minority Report.
In considering proposed changes or reforms it is always good to consider, first of all, the historical background—and that the Latey Committee did very fully—and, secondly, the practice in other countries. Here the Committee was perhaps too prone to take an insular line and to reject the experience and practice of other countries. Indeed in the minority Report one found a headline which spoke ofLesser Breeds without the Latey Committee?When considering an important reform like this, I submit that that is not the way in which to approach the practice of other countries.
As to the historical background, we have heard a great deal about changes in maturity, and the Latey Committee referred to this. It is said, and there is some evidence for it, that young people are maturing earlier and therefore there is some reason for reducing the age of majority. But the present age of majority has subsisted for many years—as the Committee showed, for many centuries. In the Middle Ages, in the 15th and 16th centuries, 21 was the age of majority but 988 I do not think there is much doubt that people matured much younger. They married much younger and went about their affairs and business when they were much younger.
The fact that 21 has been regarded as the proper age for many years shows that this age should not be overthrown and another substituted without very cogent reasons indeed. So much for the historical case. What about experience in other countries? As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) pointed out, there are very few countries where 21 is not the prevailing age of majority. Those countries where a different age prevails—Japan, 20; Russia, 17 or 18; Alaska, 19; and Hawaii, 20—are not perhaps those which immediately suggest themselves to the British Parliament as most socially comparable to our own.
What do other bodies suggest as the proper age for majority in other contexts? My right hon. and learned Friend referred to the Wolfenden Committee, which recommended 21 as being the relevant age of consent. He also referred to the White Paper on The Child, The Family and The Young Offender. I was a little surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) commit himself to saying that on the whole the Government are in favour of the majority recommendations in the Latey Committee's Report. That same Government were responsible for the White Paper, Cmnd. 2742, in 1965.
It is true that on the whole we have heard comparatively little about it since, but that White Paper recommended that offenders under the age of 21 should for the great majority of purposes be taken outside the purview of the ordinary courts. It said, in paragraph 30 in regard to hearings and appeals:The young offenders' court would sit at separate times from both the adult courts and the family courts to avoid contact between adults accused of crime and the persons of differing ages with which the special courts would have to deal. Appeals from a young offenders court would be heard by a court of quarter sessions specially constituted…The whole object of that White Paper was to treat offenders under the age of 21 as not being adults, as being individuals who should be taken outside the purview of the ordinary courts and subjected to 989 a completely different régime for trial in the young offenders' court unless that court for some special reason or purpose thought it right to send them for trial at assizes or if they elected for trial by jury.
This shows a complete dichotomy in the attitude of the Government to the problem of youth in the sense of what is the right age for a person to be treated as an adult. If the White Paper is right in its conclusions and recommendations, one would expect the Government to say that the Latey Committee must be wrong. The point I make is not one of how much juvenile delinquency there is. That has nothing to do with it. If a person is only to be treated as an adult for the purposes of responsibility toward society, so far as crime is concerned, at 21 and under that age is to be taken outside the scope of the ordinary courts where he appears at present, would it be right to reduce the age of majority?
In effect, what the country would be doing if it implemented that White Paper and implemented the conclusions of the majority of the Latey Committee would be to give young persons much greater rights and to subtract enormously from Their responsibilities. That would be wrong. In considering the Latey recommendations the Government would be right to give very serious consideration to that.
I turn from that aspect of the case to the question of demand. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, a member of the Latey Committee, spoke of demand and in an earlier paragraph of the Report there is a reference to demand. I cannot lay my hands on the paragraph at the moment, but there was a statement in the early part of the Report that the views expressed by young people to the Committee indicated that the majority were in favour of the change. That was certainly not the impression made on the minority of the Committee who were in favour of retaining 21 as substantively the age of majority. They pointed out the results of the opinion polls which, a few moments ago, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland wished to discount.
I had a meeting in my constituency to elicit the views of young people. At a 990 meeting attended by 60 or 70 of them I did my very best not to express a concluded view because at that stage I wanted to find what their views were. They were young people between the ages of 16 and 25. I asked those who had a clear view on the matter to tell me their view. The majority were in favour of retaining 21 as the age. If that is a good example of opinion in the country—and there is much in the Latey Committee's Report to suggest that it is—would it be right to thrust majority on a group of the population who are not asking for it?
If there is no great demand it is unlikely that there is any great ill to be remedied by this reform. In paragraph 523 the minority said:The first notable thing is the limited nature of the demand for any change in the existing law. Until it was raised in correspondence to The Times (in September, 1963) the subject had hardly been raised in public debate. And even thereafter it was very little mentioned, except in the context of the age-old argument Old enough to fight, old enough to vote'".In paragraph 524 the results of various opinion polls were referred to. I quote only one for this purpose: marrying without parental consent, 62 per cent. of those aged 16 to 20, and 65 per cent. of those aged 21 to 24 were in favour of keeping the relevant age of majority at 21.
If 21 remains, as, after this consideration and reading the whole Report, I believe that it should, as the age of majority, should there be any other change or should there be a modification in it as the age of majority? I was interested to see that the minority of the Latey Committee considered the question of allowing persons to assume majority on marriage. For marriage, it would still, of course, be necessary to have the consent of the parents or a court up to the age of 21.
It is noteworthy that in France—this is set out in Appendix 7 to the Report—the normal age of majority is 21 but a person attains his majority either on marrying or upon attaining the age of 21. The minority Report stated, in paragraph 593:Left to ourselves we should probably not have been persuaded in favour of any reduction in the age of majority in the fields of contract or property. Indeed, the more we 991 think about it the more we should be disposed to agree with anyone who could work out a reasonable formula for enlarging the contractual capacity only of those who have married under 21. But every proposal that has been made to this effect involves the risk of encouraging people to marry merely for the sake of enlarging their contractual capacity—which would not be desirable.I believe that that is not really a valid objection, however. Once a person has married he or she should have all the rights of majority—the right to make a will, the right to contract and other rights dealt with by the Latey Committee, such as the right to own land—indeed, every right incident to complete majority.
I cannot think that anyone is going to contract a marriage merely for the sake of being able to enter into a contract for the purchase of a washing machine or something of that kind. Most of these things are wanted only by those who are married, anyway. Therefore, whilst I accept the conclusions of the minority of the Committee, I suggest that there is a strong case for giving majority on marriage. This has been done in France since the Code Napoleon was promulgated. With that reservation, I believe that we should maintain the majority age at 21.
I am completely with the minority of the Committee in thinking that a person should not marry, however, without permission under the age of 21, that the consent of the parents or the court should be obtained first. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend on this. This is not a knuckle-duster but something in the background which would reinforce parental rights. As the minority pointed out, it is noteworthy that the breakdown rate of marriages contracted by young people is three times greater than the breakdown rate of marriages among persons who have achieved their majority. That does not mean that every person contracting a young marriage has a breakdown in that marriage—far from it —but it shows the necessity for care in young marriages.
§ Mr. Maclennan
In the earlier part of his speech, the hon. and learned Gentleman drew attention to foreign law and felt that it should have greater attention paid to it. Would he care to pay the same attention to the law of Scotland in the matter he is discussing?
§ Mr. Grieve
Obviously I have considered that but what I am adducing now are figures which show the tendency to break down in marriages contracted by the young. It is not a question of law but of fact. But from that I draw the conclusion that young people under 21 still need fairly careful guidance if, in the view of their parents, they are selecting the wrong partner.
Like my right hon. and learned Friend, I am a father. My children are rather younger than his, but one of them is a teenage daughter. I do not know whether she would take this view but I should be happy to have some voice in her choice at least until she is 21 and, indeed, after. I think that this is the attitude of many parents with the interests of their children at heart.
In saying this I recognise fully, as did the First Secretary of State, that there are unwise or silly parents or parents who bring the wrong considerations into balance. Nevertheless, in my view—and here one draws on experience on many other countries and on a long historical experience here—the right age at which this great freedom should be achieved remains, in so far as it is possible to make statements about this, 21 rather than 18. The case has not been made out for change. In this matter, the burden of proving the case for change lies on those who urge it and I think that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland himself accepted that burden a little while ago.
If freedom to marry untrammelled by the views of parents or courts remains at 21, then the wardship age, of course, should also remain with it, although surely everyone would agree that the age of wardship should go down if the marriage age without consent were to go down. The two are indissolubly linked. I think that there may be a case for wardship even after the age of marriage but it would be quite unworkable.
Anyone practising in the law recognises the drawbacks and disadvantages of the present state of affairs in matters of contract—for instance, the difficulties encountered in practice with the Infants Relief Act, 1874. I was impressed by the minority recommendation that the way to deal with this should be that a person under 21 should be free to contract but 993 that the courts should have the general power to set aside a contract regarded as neither just nor equitable. That would probably be the sensible way to deal with this.
There is a great deal one could review in the Report but I have concentrated on what, I hope and believe, is the salient question of what should be the age of majority—21, or 18 or some other age. I conclude by saying how stimulating as matters of debate and consideration I have found this Report to be, and in those congratulatory words I include the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. W. O. J. Robinson (Walthamstow, East)
The right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) said at the beginning of his speech that we were discussing this Report on the same day as we were discussing matters of considerable financial importance. I was not quite sure whether he thought that it was inappropriate that we should discuss this matter today, but I find it very right and proper that we should, on such a day, discuss the impact of the age of majority. We must face the fact that the problems besetting the country now will have to be met and solved by the young people of today. I have confidence that they will be met and solved. It is a good thing that the House can find time today to discuss this problem of young people.
I join in the congratulations which have been accorded generally to Mr. Justice Latey and his Committee for their excellent Report. It is the most readable Blue Book that I have ever opened. I never imagined that I would really enjoy reading a Blue Book. It is not only readable, it is most entertaining on occasions, and could well constitute bedside reading for Members of Parliament and many other people.
It is not merely an exercise in light reading—far from it. The Committee is to be congratulated on the excellence of the research into these problems, and also the very clear and concise way in which its conclusions and research work has been set out. As one who is ageing, I would like to express my congratulations and thanks to the Latey Committee for the way in which it has so readily and formidably jumped to the defence of 994 young people. Today's young people are the most maligned section of the community. We are all very much inclined, as the Report emphasises, to judge the standards and calibre of the young people by the odd—and I mean odd—exceptions in the community. We are too inclined to take our views of young people from those who draw our attention to their eccentricities.
I want to emphasise the remarks made by the Latey Committee, which stress how easy it is for those who are not closely in touch with the youth of the country to get the wrong idea of what they are like. The Committee refers to the word "teenager", which, to many of us in the middle and older age brackets, conjures up a horrible picture. We think, as the Report says, of the thousands of pop fans screaming out their adoration and admiration for the pop singer. We are also inclined to equate teenagers with people roaming the streets, being rude to adults. As the Report says:…scores of thousands lead normal, decent lives and little is written about it …".How true that is.
The Report refers to the old tag about "dog bites man is not news but man bites dog is". That is the situation with regard to young people. It said:We would certainly like to see more written about the enterprising, responsible and vigorous young people about whom we have had so much evidence.We would all echo that.
§ Mr. Grieve
I endorse every single word that the hon. Member has said. This has been true, I hope, in this country not only in this century but for centuries has it not? It is a big jump to make this change on that ground.
§ Mr. Robinson
I accept that there has always been criticism of the young by those not so young. But probably the mass media for propaganda in these days makes the disparity even greater. We are now able to see on television, and hear on radio, criticisms of young people. These media were not available in the past.
The Committee uses a delightful expression when it denies criticism that our young people are nothing but a lot of layabouts with no visible means of support except the wall of the nearest coffee bar. That is a delightful way of putting 995 it. As a rider to that I would like to add that the vast majority of young people today have more than sufficient backbone to stand up on their own and do not need the visible aid of a coffee bar wall.
Two aspects of the Report have naturally received the greatest attention. The first is the question of the age of consent to marriage. We are in great danger here of not realising what we are discussing. We are in danger of considering that we are discussing the age at which marriage might safely take place. I adopt a comment made by the Committtee on this when it says:But at whatever age you embark on it, marriage is a shatteringly serious step….We would all say "Hear, hear" to that one. We are not discussing that.
If we were discussing the age at which one could safely enter into matrimony, perhaps many of us would not be so wholeheartedly in support of the recommendation that it should be 18—we might even be tempted to reverse the figures. It is a question of at what age are our young people able to determine the partnership which they are about to embark upon for the rest of their lives?
Marriage is a very important step and matrimony a very sacred institution. One should not encourage people to embark upon that journey without serious thought. Can it really be said, when we realise the activities and the responsibilities which young people undertake today, that 21 must be reached before people are able to think correctly and decide their future? After all, so many people have to take a decision about their future, about their careers and many other aspects of life at 18 and below. No one would suggest that they are incapable of doing that.
I was impressed by the statement on the effect of having to apply for consent. The argument presumably is that, under present law, parents are better able to decide what is good for their children between the ages of 18 and 21. This overlooks the fact that in many cases at 18 young people are entirely removed from their family circle. They are at universities or away in jobs and are not under the control or influence of their parents.
996 They meet a young girl to whom they are attracted, whom they regard as a desirable partner. They then have to go back to their parents and, first of all, introduce the partner whom they contemplate marrying. No two people see another person in the same light and, obviously, parents cannot be expected to see through the same rose-coloured spectacles the young lady or young man whom their child wants to marry. The young person of 18 is removed from the family circle and the parents are certainly not able to determine whether the proposed partner is likely to be suitable.
It is a very poor start in life if young people have to go to the court and ask for a third party to determine whether they or their parents are right. That is the wrong basis for a successful marriage. The Report refers to the fact that the need for obtaining consent by magistrates may even be used as a blackmailing lever by young persons. It is said that if they felt that consent was likely to be refused they would start a family prematurely. I suppose that that is not a very serious suggestion, but it is one of the possibilities. The job of a magistrate who has the privilege and responsibility of determining whether the parents are right in their decision is not a pleasant one and is a task which ought not to be expected of them.
We are in danger of concentrating too much on the paragraphs in the Report about the consent to marriage. The Committee makes some very useful recommendations in the same sphere on the obtaining of consent. I hope that the Government will make it possible to implement the recommendations.
The first is that:…all applications to the Court for consent to marry should be heard in private.That is absolutely imperative, because the acrimony which might well develop between parents would be even greater if the neighbours could sit in and hear what was being said.
The Report also indicates that the magistrates dealing with these cases should have special experience and knowledge of young people, which is also very desirable. It also make the obvious point that applications for consent should not be heard in the atmosphere of a criminal court, with the parties going into 997 the witness box or even the dock to plead their case for a life partnership. I hope that those recommendations will be implemented, if necessary in advance of others in the Report.
A very interesting passage, well worth reading and re-reading for its indication of the Committee's practical approach to the problem, is that about education for marriage. I have already quoted the statement emphasising what a serious step the decision to marry is at any age. The Committee also emphasised the importance of children having education for marriage at the earliest opportunity and the tremendous advantage in human relationships which could follow if teaching on the subject were given in the schools. A number of people probably differ on this and feel that the right people to tell children about the pitfalls or otherwise of marriage should be the parents. I do not subscribe to that view, because very often the more intimate and personal relationship between parents and children makes it impossible to have a detached discussion on the subject, which is essential.
The Report refers not only to teaching in schools but also to the very valuable work of the National Marriage Guidance Council and other similar bodies in preparing people for marriage. It makes the recommendation, while I hope that the Government will adopt, even though this may not be a propitious time for saying so, that the present grants to these bodies are:… much too small and should be greatly increased.I say "Hear, hear" to that and hope that it will be possible, because it is essential that young children should have more and more education on these difficult problems.
We must realise that marriage is as important a business enterprise as any other. I was delighted at the statement in the Report that children should grow up educated not only in:… chemistry or the use of power drills, but in life, liberty and the pursuit of married happiness.Long may we have Blue Books and White Papers which are written in such terms!
Another important aspect of the Report is the question of the age at which people might enter into contracts. I agree wholeheartedly with the view expressed 998 in the Report. If we are to accept that people can enter into matrimony of their own free choice at 18 it must follow that they should be able to enter into other contracts. For that reason the Report's recommendations should be implemented.
I shall cite one instance which highlights the ridiculous situation over contracts, the ability to hold property and the age of majority. In my professional capacity, I was approached some time ago about the conveyance of a house being taken in the name of a young bride-to-be. Since this was so unusual, being a reversal of the normal procedure, and was not even a joint purchase, I inquired the reason. I was told that the husband-to-be was a month under the age of majority. His bride who was just 21, could take the conveyance in her name and the husband would have to wait a month until he could be joined in it. That shows that it is imperative that if we reduce the age of consent to marriage, we must also reduce the age at which one can freely contract in other matters.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr. James Davidson (Aberdeenshire, West)
The debate is possibly being conducted in a slightly unrealistic atmosphere following the weekend of devaluation and preceding two days' debate on that subject. But I hope that this will in no way detract from the importance and interest of today's debate.
I should like to add my congratulations to the Latey Committee. We all agree that its Report is most readable. It is of the most readable of the Blue Books or White Papers I have yet had the pleasure of looking at. I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who was able to use his special knowledge of the law of the United States in parts of the Report, and no doubt contributed throughout the Committee's discussions.
My qualifications for talking on the subject are very slight. They are no more than those of anybody who has left the age of majority a long way behind and who has two or three children—in my case three—who have not yet reached that age. In Scottish terms, they are still pupils. I have a son of 12 who, being under 14, is not yet a minor, and I have a daughter of 10 who also has two years to go to reach the age of minority under 999 Scottish law. I am very concerned about the laws that will affect them when they reach 16, 17, 18 and upwards, as all parents of young children must be.
I agree thoroughly with the Report's general conclusion that the age of majority should be reduced from 21 to 18. It seems that all the medical and other evidence points to young people reaching maturity earlier. The Minister's reference to a certain lack of demand among young people for such a reduction in the age of majority should not be taken too seriously. It would be a poor Government that always waited until there was universal demand before they started to think of changing the law or altering conditions for contract or any other form of legal activity.
I believe very strongly that if a young person is given responsibility he or she will normally take it, but that withholding it is an invitation to irresponsibility. The young man or woman who is not trusted and not given responsibility is likely to remain irresponsible for a long period. We all know that there are irresponsible people of every age. I certainly do not think that between 18 and 21 there is a sudden shooting up of psychological maturity. Most people reach responsibility by the age of 18, and those who do not are not particularly likely to do so suddenly after reaching 21.
I was very interested in the remarks by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. W. O. J. Robinson) about parental consent to marriage below the age of 21. He had a very good point when he said that parents are far too often too emotionally involved in the lives of their children to offer really objective advice to a child who wishes to get married and who they do not think should get married, or of whose prospective partner they do not approve. In that condition, the parent is often the worst person to give advice. A friend of the family who can look at the matter in a detached way, a mature person with legal knowledge, or a school master who knows the child might be far better qualified to advise a child, young man or woman, or a minor of that age wishing to consider matrimony.
I shall try to leave the legal niceties of the Report to the lawyers and advo- 1000 cates, who can understand and argue them. I want to deal with the question of young servicemen and the effect that the Report could have on them when its recommendations are eventually implemented.
This business of the age of 21 is a two-way traffic. It is not just a matter of bringing down the age from 21 to 18 in certain respects. It is also a matter of looking after the interests of people below certain ages, and in this respect we all know that young men of 14 or 15 can commit themselves to a career from which at a later stage they have considerable difficulty in extricating themselves. May I quote from an article which appeared in the Observer on 5th March, 1967. I will not quote it all, because it is too long. It reads:The National Council for Civil Liberties has received over 50 letters on this subject".By now it must have received many more.One seaman writes: "I'm beginning to think that it's a crime to want to be with my wife and to see my child grow up.' The mother of a soldier who has seven years to serve says, 'It must be like serving a prison sentence. How many people know what they really want at 17?' Another mother comments: ' Surely it costs just as much to train a doctor or scientist at university, and these people aren't tied down at all'. An R.A.F. pilot who 'signed his life away' writes, It is truly iniquitous that a youngster is allowed to commit himself for such a long time to a life about which he knows very little'. A sailor who deserted ten years ago tells the National Council for Civil Liberties: 'At this impressionable age (15) I was only concerned with getting away from home and the whole romantic image of going to sea '.Boy entrants to all Services give an undertaking that they will serve 12 years after they complete their apprentice training. They are allowed to buy themselves out for £20 in the first three months of boy service, The Army allows boys to apply to buy a discharge (this costs between £50 and £150) before the end of their apprenticeship, normally at 18. But the other two Services will allow a discharge at this age only on compassionate grounds. Boy recruits in the Army now number 10,000. Last year it recruited 5,836 boys: in the same year 1,450 applications for discharge were granted, half of them by purchase. The Navy's recruitment of under-I8s in 1966 was 4,566 and the R.A.F.'s 1,244.This is a very big problem, not just affecting a few people. The artcle added:In almost every case, the boy concerned or the parents have assumed that discharge by purchase is an Automatic right. Recruiting officers should be fully satisfied that the 'contract' is fully understood by the prospective recruit.1001 I know that personal cases make bad arguing points, but I hope that the House will forgive me if I quote my own case. Because it is my own case I feel very strongly about it. In 1940 at the age of 13 I decided to go to sea. The quickest way of doing so was to sit the entrance examination for the Royal Naval College, which I did. I entered as a cadet. I signed nothing and, as far as I know, my parents signed nothing. Looking back to those days—although I enjoyed much of my time in the Navy—I try to find what were my motives at the age of 13 in wanting to go to sea. Apart from the general desire to travel, there was the fact that my father was already at sea on East Coast convoys. I had recently seen a film about the sea which greatly excited my imagination, and I was also most attracted by the Service gas mask and tin helmet, which were carried by young cadets. Instead of having one of the civilian masks, which looked like a lady's handbag, the cadets had the Service gas mask and tin helmet, and at the age of 13 I found them extremely attractive. The glamour of the uniform the attraction of the Service and the fact that my father was at sea were all my motives in making that decision at the age of 13.
I was one of those who was old enough in 1945 "to fight but not to vote", as it has been put. I remember resenting that very much at the time. I had a fairly responsible job in the last ship on which I was serving. I was a surface teller in the operations room, passing filtered reports to the bridge and the captain. And yet I was too young to vote.
Two years passed. I applied for university and was accepted, but I was told by the powers-that-be that in my category I could not be released. I had to remain in the Navy for a considerable number of years. I am not suggesting that the time was entirely wasted, but I suggest that a boy or girl could change their minds many times in the course of the teenage period from 13 to 18 or 21 or beyond.
I believe that the solution, or part of the solution, is contained in page 113 of the Report. It recommends that within six months of the date of entry a youngster should be given the opportunity to opt out and that within three months of the age of 18 this opportunity should be repeated. It also recommends that 1002 parental consent to enlistment should be obtained under the age of 18. All these three points are extremely important, and I would even add a fourth. When that young man or woman has reached the age of 21, they should be given a further opportunity to opt out if they so wish.
I fully realise the difficulties and the possible extra expense which this may cause the Services, but that must be accepted. Anything less than acceptance of these three points does an injustice to a large number of young people. If young people enter the Services knowing that they have these safeguards it will make them better Service men in every sense, happier and more contented, and they will be able to give better service because they know that if any factors alter in their domestic life, and they wish to get out of the Service for any reason, they will have the opportunity to do so not just once but again at the age of 21. The Minister referred to the difficulties which this would cause the Services, but that is an aspect that will have to be overcome.
I should like to draw attention to the action of the Minister of Defence for Administration in postponing the long-awaited Ministry Report on the recruitment conditions for young and reluctant Service men. In May he promised an all-party deputation of M.P.s that he would tell the House the outcome of his examination of this problem six to eight weeks after the Report of the Latey Committee. Before Parliament resumed for the new Session, he informed my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) that his promise could not be honoured. He gave the somewhat lame justification that he thought that the Latey Committee would report in November. In fact, it reported in July. In a letter to my hon. Friend dated 5th October he said,I had it in mind that if the report of the Committee came out before the Summer Recess I would make a statement soon after Parliament resumed.There may be very good reasons why he has been unable to make that report to the House, but he should delay as little as possible now, because it is awaited with great interest not only by many hon. Members but by many young Service men who are personally affected by it.
May I refer briefly to the extent to which the Report may affect the Scots 1003 law. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing), who made such an excellent maiden speech, covered many of the important points about Scots law. May I quote from page 24 of the Report, in which it says,Several witnesses have stressed that the laws of England and Scotland in this field should be brought into line. The point is not within our terms of reference. Some would say that in this very personal field of the law there may be good and continuing reasons for differences. But it may be of some significance that in Scotland where young people have much more legal capacity at a much younger age there is no evidence, so far as we are aware that there is any public trend for a change towards further protection.This may well be true. The general recommendations of this Report are for a reduction of the age of majority from 21 to 18. With this I entirely agree, but I would not like this to mean in due course, when a Scots Bill follows an English Bill, an additional restriction on minors in the age group 16 to 18 in Scotland. At the same time I should like to leave the House with the thought that perhaps in one respect Scots law goes a little too far, and that it might, perhaps, be wise to raise the minimum legal age of free marriage in Scotland from 16 to 18.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)
I should like to begin by congratulating the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) on having the courage to take the plunge so quickly following her entry into this House. I well remember that when I came to this House in March I waited timidly for a month before taking the plunge, as I did, quietly, one Friday morning. To all that can be said of the eloquence of the hon. Lady's speech one can add that we appreciate the colour she adds to this House.
I am rather concerned at the remarks which have been made by hon. Members opposite about the generation of which I still call myself a member, because before coming to this House I had, I think I can say, a fair amount of experience of young people, not only in political movements but also in student life and other aspects of life. It appears above all to me that some hon. Members opposite who have been speaking 1004 this evening seem to have lost touch completely with the way in which young people today are thinking and feeling and going about their lives, and that that ought to be causing the House concern.
I am particularly concerned about the voting laws. I fully appreciate that the Latey Committee was not supposed to consider that, but the voting law peculiarities are still such that, because of the timing of elections and the timing of the drawing up of the electoral register, it may not be possible for people to vote till they are about 25 or 26. It is still not possible, often, for young people to vote till they are 22.
It is not only the voting peculiarities with which I am concerned this evening, but some of the other peculiarities with which the Latey Committee, whom I congratulate upon producing such a splendid Report, was supposed to be concerned. It seems to me that we still in this country have a situation in which young people have to bear many of the burdens, have to shoulder many of the obligations, but do not have many of the rights.
Young people at the age of 18 could be hanged. They cannot now. Young people have to pay adult National Insurance contributions at the age of 18. They have to go along, many of them, unfortunately, to the labour exchange at the age of 18, and, of course, they could be called upon, when we had conscription, to fight for their country. All of these obligations and all of these burdens they could be called upon to carry, but they have never had and they still do not have the right to voice their opinions on some of these matters.
Before coming to this House I had—indeed, I still have today—a fair amount of experience of the Young Socialist Movement. This was one of the things which first interested me in politics. It has given me the opportunity of firmly establishing the fact that many of the younger generation—call them what you will—people of 17, 18, 19, 20, who have not yet attained the age of majority—are certainly more adult in their outlook, and certainly more principled in their outlook than many people who have attained the age of majority. For instance, in my constituency, only this summer, a group of young people, who 1005 called themselves International Youth Enterprise, organised by themselves the sponsoring of a 20-mile road walk. Again nearly all by themselves, they went over to Greece to help to build a community centre for young people out there. If people of 16, 17, 18 in my constituency can so organise themselves and do this sort of thing I think they ought to have many of the rights which people who are two or three years older have. They do not have them as yet.
We hear a good deal today about the more colourful facets of my generation—and I will call it my generation. We hear about "flower power", we hear about the Beatles—and I am proud to say I am a Beatles fan, though I shall not detain the House by going through the hit parade at this juncture. But I think I can say that the kinds of things young people are thinking today, the kinds of things which make them more colourful, may conceal some of the deep responsibility which our young people are capable of bearing.
This is very often concealed by apathy. At least, it is called apathy. Much of this apathy springs directly from the fact that these same young people are still not permitted to bear responsibilities. The reason why they feel apathetic is that they feel cut off from the responsibilities which people who are two or three years older carry. I firmly believe that if we give these young people responsibilities, the apathy will give way to the fully fledged responsibility of which I know many of them are capable.
This generation is also a generation which is full of idealism. It is the kind of idealism which I should like to see seeping into our national life rather more. It is the kind of idealism which I should like to see seeping rather more into this House. It is the kind of idealism which I should like to see tempered with rather more responsibility. This is another reason why I am firmly in favour of bringing the age of majority down to 18.
Another reason why I firmly support this Report is that in this country since the war we have had a development of a specific teenage market. It started about 10 or 15 years ago, with the production of pop records directly aimed at young people; and then we had the more expensive long-playing records and the more 1006 expensive clothes. Here is this market which is specifically aimed at young people. Yet young people do not have the right to decide many of the things which have led to this market being inflicted upon them. I say that if they are sufficiently fully fledged to have a specific section of commerce aimed directly at them then they are sufficiently fully fledged to participate more directly in the organising of the commerce, and that is why I think, more specifically, that the age at which contracts can be made legally binding should be brought down to the age of 18.
Various hon. Members referred to marriage, and consent to marriage below the present age of majority. In many of the country districts—I know, because I was brought up in one—the age of 21 still has a mythical significance. Many parents feel that they have the right to have a tremendous hold over their children and to have a tremendous influence over them till they are 21. This in many country districts causes a great deal of friction, because children at the age of 17 or 18 are fully prepared and quite responsible enough to bear some of the obligations and to carry some of the responsibilities which their parents still feel they are entitled to decide for their children before the children are 21. Even if we bring down to 18 the age at which a young person can marry without permission or consent we shall still find that young people will be very loath to go against their parents' advice.
This is not a situation where everyone will rush out and marry at the age of 18. It is not even a situation where the churches and divorce courts will be filled with people at the age of 18 or 19. It will not change the basic responsibility of young people. They will still be responsible and they will still listen to their parents, but, in certain very deserving cases, instead of having to go through rather obnoxious procedures in court, they will be able to give full vent to their feelings, as they are entitled.
There are a great many more practical reasons why I support and congratulate the Latey Committee. I have not lived at home with my parents for long periods since I was 17 years of age, not because I hate my parents or my home but simply because my life has developed in that way. I know many more people 1007 who have gone through the same kind of change. They have left school at 16 and taken up some kind of apprenticeship, or they have gone away to college or to another part of the country to take jobs as nurses or as trainees of some kind. In nearly every case, by the time they are 17, young people of today are living basically different lives of their own, separate from their parents, and they are quite different lives from those that their parents were living when they were 17 or 18. That again leads to a great deal of conflict in some homes, especially where parents continually remind their children of what they themselves were doing when they were 17 or 18.
In a situation where young people are capable of leading their own lives at the age of 17, where they want to get married, set up home and buy furniture, the law today is extremely restricting. People are marrying earlier and leaving home earlier. It is for practical reasons which exist already that we feel that the law should be changed, not because we want to change society but because we want to recognise society as it exists.
It is probably the experience of hon. Members and it is certainly that of many of my friends that the best way for young people to learn is to make their own mistakes. The younger generation has proved itself by the many responsible tasks which it is capable of bearing. It is capable of deciding for itself and of making its own mistakes, but, more important, it is capable of learning by those mistakes. Those are the real reasons why I commend the Report to the House.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)
I agree with a great deal of the speech of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield). I do not know very much about young Socialists, but I agree that very many young people are more mature than a lot of older people realise. Therefore, I agree with him that more responsibility should be given to young people, and I will develop that theme in a moment.
Before coming to the main part of my contribution to the debate, I want to add my congratulations to the hon. Member 1008 for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) on her splendid maiden speech. She showed that she has an excellent sense of humour, and that will stand her in good stead in the House. She made a charming speech and we all look forward to hearing her on many occasions in future.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I pay tribute to the Latey Committee for producing such an excellent Report. Apart from anything else, it is extremely readable, and there is a delicious lack of pomposity throughout the document. It demonstrates a great understanding and sympathetic treatment of this extremely difficult subject which is, after all, an inquiry about human beings. Clearly, the members of the Committee were well chosen, and they have done a superb piece of work.
Their approach to the task is set out in the words of paragraph 71, which has been quoted by the First Secretary but which is worth quoting again:… we feel extremely strongly that to keep responsibility from those who are ready and able to take it on is much more likely to make them irresponsible than to help them.That must be the correct approach to the problem.
At this point, I want to make a general observation which applies to all Committees of this kind. I have faith in the committee system. I believe that committees which study subjects in this sort of depth tend to come to the right conclusions. This Committee met on 65 occasions, it interviewed no fewer than 81 witnesses, and it read nearly a hundred separate written memoranda. By an overwhelming majority of nine to two, it recommended that the age of full legal capacity should no longer be 21. I am certain that it is right.
Many people in the House and outside it will express contrary views, but I doubt if they will have studied the question with anything like the attention which the Committee gave to it. Therefore I hope and believe that the Governmnt intend to make some changes in the law affecting the age of majority.
Clearly, the heart of the matter is the age of "free marriage". The decision which any of us make about marriage is clearly the most important one that we ever have to make. If we are considered mature and old enough to do that on our 1009 own, clearly we are mature and old enough to make all other decisions. If, therefore, we can fix the right age for free marriage, we shall also be able to do it for practically everything else.
The importance of marriage is stressed in paragraph 135, in which the Committee says:Marriage was the most difficult and the most important of all our subjects. It is the most important, because of its consequences: make the wrong contract and you suffer for a year or two, and perhaps make an adult trader miserable for a few months; make a wrong marriage and you may suffer for life and spoil the lives of your children after you.The present state of our law on free marriage is not satisfactory. Let us take the sort of case that we may have to consider. I cannot believe that anyone in this House considers that a girl of 20 or 20½ needs her parents' consent to get married today. Just as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) has done, I have to declare an interest. I have three daughters, and the problem could well be mine fairly soon in respect of my eldest daughter. I do not think that I should be able to exercise a veto on any one of my daughters once they reach the age of 19 or 20. If I did not approve of her choice, no doubt I should exercise such persuasion as I have, if any; but persuasion only it must be.
A great deal has been said about the age of maturity, and I rather enjoyed the definition which appears in the minority Report in paragraph 536:Kenneth Lovell says: 'A typical psychiatric definition of maturity would suggest the ability of a person to work out a harmonious relationship between his basic needs, conscience and ideals on the one hand, and the environment on the other. This will permit him to make the maximum use of his psychic energies in constructive work, adjustment to the opposite sex, and altruistic living. Maturity in this sense demands that the individual be able to make decisions for himself and accept responsibility for his actions and requires some ability to evaluate.'That is a fairly tough test of maturity. I can think of many people of 30 or 40 who are clearly totally immature by that definition.
My definition of "maturity" would include an ability to respect another person's point of view and personality. Many young people under 21 today have learned to do this by the hard experience of life.
1010 Having said that, I concede that to lower the age to 18 is to take a chance, if not so much for girls, at any rate for boys. I have thought about this a great deal. We should fix the same age for boys as for girls, and on balance I consider that we should play safe for the time being and make the age 19.
If I was asked to set out my arguments for making the age 19, I would refer back to paragraph 122 of the Report where the case for 19 is very fully argued. The case is so well put there that it is worth spelling out again. The Committee there says:The advantages of 19 are these:These seem to be excellent arguments for keeping the age at 19. I am surprised that those arguments were rejected by the Committee. I realise the reasons why they were rejected, but I do not think they were convincing reasons; for my part I would fix the age for free marriage at 19.
- (a) We are sure that by 19 the vast majority of young people are ready for the full rights and responsibilities of adulthood. At 18 there must inevitably be more who are not ready—though admittedly only a minority.
- (b) In recent years there has been a steep rise in the number of marriages at 19, which increase has not been reflected to anything like the same extent in the number of marriages below that age. And it is those who are or who are trying to be married who mainly find themselves hampered by the restrictions of the law as it stands.
- (c) If 18 might be the right age with the school leaving age at 15, then 19 would match the school leaving age of 16, which is to come in 1971. This would carry more weight if school life were as divorced from real life as it used to be; but it still remains a reasonable point."
From my experience as a lawyer, I conclude that any attempt today by parents to stop a child over that age from marrying by refusing consent does great harm. If a child applies to the court—and I have been involved in these cases, and we heard the experience of a magistrate earlier in the debate—the magistrates very nearly always give consent, but there remains a permanent bitterness between the parents and the child. I find these sort of cases extremely depressing and would like to see an end to them.
For contract and also for property I would propose that the age be fixed at 19 and—dare I say—for voting, too. On this particular point I agree with the 1011 minority report which comes out in paragraph 560, subparagraph (c):The age of majority in private affairs cannot logically be considered in isolation from the age of majority in public and civic affairs.This seems to me absolutely right. I realise the dilemma I am in, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington said, in that I have been quoting from both the majority and the minority Report. On this point I can see no distinction between private and public affairs. If we make the age 19 for private affairs, we must be prepared to see the logic through, and allow it for public affairs as well. If a person is old enough to get married without his parents' consent at 19, old enough to have children and be responsible for them, and old enough to earn and keep unlimited income and capital, surely he is old enough to vote as well. I am not afraid of the political consequences. Not all these young people will be young Liberals. Some will not want to vote at all, but those who do will do so in a serious and responsible way. As has been said repeatedly, because we are fixing the age at 19, it does not mean that young people will necessarily be voting at 19. Many of them will still not be able to vote for the first time until after they have become 21. If we give young people responsibility in the private field, as I think we should, because in my opinion the Report is right, they will resent it if we do not give them any power or representation in the public field as well.
I come back, as the Committee did time and time again, to its conclusions in paragraph 71:For we feel extremely strongly that to keep responsibility from those who are ready and able to take it on is much more likely to make them irresponsible than to help them.By giving younger people the vote, we shall be taking a step in the right direction. I hope that we shall do this.
§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Denis Coe (Middleton and Prestwich)
I wish to intervene only shortly in this debate. In doing so, may I apologise to the House for being unable to be present earlier on.
Like other speakers, I congratulate the members of the Latey Committee 1012 for bringing a blast of realism into the true position concerning young people today. If for nothing else, their Report is a tremendous contribution to thought about this matter.
We in this House recognise the fact of earlier maturity. As an ex-teacher I want to comment very shortly on one of the general conclusions in paragraph 518 and one other point earlier on. That is where the Committee say:That the start which has been made in education at school in personal relationships and in the realities of family life should be developed much more fully.I wholeheartedly underline that point.
Already two quite remarkable things have been happening, particularly in secondary education, over the last decade or so. First, what is tremendously noticeable on going into secondary schools today, is the way in which children have developed a self-assurance which was not perhaps so evident in the days when we were at school. I believe this is because they have been helped through the attitude of the staffs of these schools to think for themselves and to find out as much as they can about issues, questioning them to the full. It is this sort of attitude which is contributing to this early maturity and is something which, as the Report rightly says and stresses, should be encouraged to the utmost extent.
The second remarkable thing which is also happening in our schools is the emphasis which is now being placed on community service. This is a fairly recent development in the way in which it is being carried out today. I hope that my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Education, will do all in his power to help headmasters, and masters and mistresses in the schools who are concerned with this, to encourage it still further, because sometimes the sort of community service which youngsters are in fact taking part in is partly held up because of administrative difficulties. It seems to me that this type of service is of great help in guiding this earlier maturity into the best possible ways of social development and social co-operation.
I would only add on this point that it seem unrealistic to talk about earlier maturity of children and to talk about the great contribution which secondary 1013 schools in particular can play towards guiding this earlier maturity if in fact there is not at the same time an emphasis in our secondary education on the advantages of co-education. I would argue that the development which we have seen in our primary schools to the position where now 98 per cent. of our primary schools are co-educational ought to be carried through into the secondary schools. At the moment we have a rather surprising situation. We put our children, boys and girls together, at the primary stage and again, they are educated together in further educational establishments, but, in between, for a variety of reasons, in quite a large percentage of our secondary schools we segregate them. It seems to me that the whole question of the development of personal relationships which the Latey Report is recommending would be advanced by accepting the fact that co-education is something which really does help in this process. Therefore, I hope that over the coming years more and more of our secondary schools will become co-educational.
I have one observation to make about an earlier paragraph, the one dealing with the civic field. The Committee said in paragraph 25:We do not accept that the civic and the private field either would or should necessarily go together …The hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) took issue with that, and I am inclined to agree with him. It seems to me that if we change the law in relation to marriage and other related issues, we are accepting that a youngster of 18 has the maturity and the responsibility already, and if this is the case it seems sensible to extend it to civic responsibilities. From my experience in education I have found that the more responsibility which is given to prefects, and to older members of the school, the more responsibly they act, and if we are going to change the law in one respect, it is sensible to change it also in the civic field. I hope, therefore, looking forward a little, that another body will make a similar recommendation in the civic field.
I wanted to make those points because it seems to me that we ought to see this Report as something which is as much concerned with education as with the bare bones of changing the legal situa- 1014 tion of young people. I, like other hon. Members, welcome the Report as a move towards this.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Quintin Hogg (St. Marylebone)
The moment that the Leader of the House told us that he was moving the discussion of the Latey Report to Monday, that is today, I knew that the Government were going to devalue the £, and it says something for my personal altruism that I never divulged my knowledge to anyone, nor made use of it myself. I knew that the Government had chosen a subject which they hoped and believed would empty the Chamber for most of the time, and indeed it has done so, except for the happy interlude of a maiden speech which I would congratulate even more warmly if its author were still present amongst us.
We are discussing a jolly and chatty little Report, very well written, and very readable. The members of the Committee obviously had a very good time exchanging epigrams with one another, and ultimately embodying them in their final draft. I am not sure that it is any the worse for that, but I am equally not sure that it is the better for it.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) made the speech that he did, because it so happens that everyone on this side of the House, except my hon. Friend, has sided with the minority rather than with the majority Report. As I am going to express my usual agnosticism on a great number of the subjects covered, I am glad that my hon. Friend made the speech that he did, because the first thing that I want to say is that so far as I know, having studied the views of my hon. Friends, they have not a defined position as a party on this matter, and I daresay that if the party opposite was more fully represented than it has been more views than one would have been expressed on the benches opposite.
One thing about which I feel fairly confident is that the fewer ages of majority that we have the better. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson), and, I think, with the First Secretary, who opened the debate, that although we have not been discussing 1015 the age of voting, and the treatment of young offenders, or jury service, one cannot but think that one decision must inevitably affect the other.
I hope that the Government will not make up their minds on the age of majority until they have the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference before them, and until they know exactly what they are going to do, both about the treatment of young offenders, as a matter of age at least, and as regards jury service, because whether one prefers 21 or 18, or whether one takes the private enterprise view of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham, and prefers 19, I cannot help but think that the age ought to be the same for all these activities. Indeed, the reasoning is, if not identical, at least inter-connected and parallel.
The only facts that I know about young people which make them different today from the young people of any other time are that they are, by and large, much better educated than they have ever been before, and this is demonstrable. It is a fact, and not an opinion, and I shall try to distinguish facts from opinions. Secondly—and this is a fact, and not an opinion—they have a great deal more money than ever before.
Both those matters are related to the subject under discussion. I am not as convinced that they necessarily cut one way. I am not, for instance, as convinced as was the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield), that the fact that there is a market of which young people are the subject is necessarily a reason for making them bound by their contracts. On the contrary, the fact that they have more money, earned week by week, is precisely the bait which will attract unscrupulous persons to try to exploit them.
I am not worried about young people being sufficiently responsible or mature. I have no doubt about that. But are they sufficiently experienced? This seems to me to be the nub of the problem, and here I must make a general point about the Report, because it is one which seems not to have been made either by the majority or by the minority.
The underlying assumption of the Report is that the age of majority, of legal liability, ought to coincide with 1016 maturity. Curiously enough, I do not accept this as obvious. At one point it was allowed to peep out of the majority Report's historical conspectus that our ancestors, however foolish they may have been in the 11th century in equating the age of majority with the ability to carry the weight of 11th century armour—which, incidentally, the majority Report greatly exaggerated—deliberately added a year on to what they thought was maturity. Indeed, they deliberately chose to say—and I am bound to say that as an assumption I would have chosen to say—that before we add legal liability to maturity there must be a year or two of experience, and when one is talking about marriage and contractual liability, I would have thought that the assumption that one must identify the age of majority with the age of maturity and responsible thinking is wrong, and that we ought to add at least one year of experience to it.
I would say the same about the problem of marriage. I am far from thinking that parents know better what is good for children than do the children themselves. When I say "children", I mean their children, and not children in the sense of pure age. I know that young marriages tend to have a disproportionately high rate of failure, and I know that on the whole a good parent will tend to discourage young marriage, at any rate in boys. When I say "young marriage", I mean before 21. I know very few responsible parents who would not say, "Do not get married until you have spent a little more time qualifying yourself for life, or getting experience. Look around a bit before you get married."
Although I agree that in the end the parental veto is not a thing which I would probably exercise, the fact that it is there is a matter which gives one authority to speak. The child is apt to say, "What has it got to do with you?" I agree with the minority in that respect and to that extent.
I predict with a considerable degree of assurance that, at any rate marginally, a larger number of young marriages will take place if this decision is made and, if so, a larger number will fail. That means that, marginally, at any rate, a larger number of young people will be made unhappy for life, or at least until they have recovered their equipoise from 1017 the failure of their marriage, which is a very serious thing for any one who has undergone it and even more serious from the point of view of the children of the marriage. Therefore, I remain a little sceptical about the argumentation of the Report.
There are one or two other arguments that I want to put forward in the same direction, pausing in the logic of my argument, now that the hon. Lady is here, to congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing) on a most successful maiden speech. Like others who have done so, I want to congratulate the hon. Lady on her sense of humour. Unlike the others, I want to draw attention to her almost sinister command over the rules of order.
When I saw that she had chosen this debate for her maiden speech I thought that she might get into trouble with the Chair. On a Report confined to England and Wales I thought that with her opinions she might even trouble the well-known tolerance of the occupants of the Chair for maiden speakers. Not a bit of it. Each Scottish point was carefully modulated into the English Report in a way which would have done credit to many of the Scottish Members I have heard speaking about other English subjects.
The hon. Lady seemed to have got the idea to the manner born. She realised at once what every Scottish Member ultimately realises, which is that he cannot lose whatever he does. If Scotland is excluded from a Report, great wrong is done, because Scotland is not allowed to be discussed. If it is included it is another example of the majority of non-Scottish constituences impressing their rule upon a recalcitrant Scottish minority.
But it must have rejoiced the hon. Lady's heart to know that almost every Member who has contributed to this English debate has been a Scot. The right hon. Gentleman the First Secretary is probably a by-blow of a Scots royal family. Then there is the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) who declared himself to be a crypto-Scot—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington is certainly a crypto-Scot.
1018 I could go on enumerating the speakers, one after another. It is intolerable that they should dominate English Members in this way. But I suppose that nine-tenths of my ancestors came from that unhappy country. We welcome to our midst the first-born child of the hon. Member for Hamilton and we hope to see many more such offspring from time to time.
I now want to revert to the main thread of my remarks. As the First Secretary said, generally speaking we like to base our law on some relevant or practical or even rational consideration. Most of us lawyers have long since given up hope that we can do so but we hope that one day something will be done to make it so.
On this line of country, if the age of majority were 50 or 15 we could see by the light of reason that something would have to be done about it. But here was the flaw in the right hon. Gentleman's approach to the matter. In this question there must be an element of sheer arbitrariness. The same will not do for all people and it will not always do for each subject. If we tailor-make the age for marriage, we shall probably get it wrong for jury service or voting. If we tailor-make the age for borrowing money to indulge in betting and gambling, we will almost certainly be wrong with the age for marriage. There must be an element of sheer arbitrariness when what we are discussing in practice is an age between 21 and 18, choosing any one of the intermediate years that we prefer.
Where there must be an element of arbitrariness in our choice I attach more importance to tradition than I would in other circumstances. Traditions have a habit of being accepted. They have a certain authority. If we cannot achieve total acceptability, a degree of acceptance is not a bad thing to go for. That is why I do not agree with the argument about public opinion. It is not simply that there is relatively little evidence of a demand for this change. If that had been the only way in which the case could be put, I would agree without doubt with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. But the evidence is that public opinion is against it 2 to 1 amongst the young and rather higher amongst the old.
1019 I am not impressed with the argument that it is only those who come up against the law who complain of it and want to alter it. How about the people who have been able to avoid oppressive contracts? It is all very fine to talk about giving people responsibility and making them free to make contracts, but young people are already free to make contracts. What we are talking about, if people will only use the proper names for things, is the right of an adult to enforce a contract against a minor.
That is what we are talking about, and the young minors are 2 to 1 against being made liable for damages for breach of contract. Everybody in the debate has favoured the majority Report and has said what a fine thing it is to give young people responsibility, and how much they will enjoy being sued in the courts for contracts which they have made.
I remain an agnostic in this matter. I recognise that the young have more money than ever before. But this is what makes them bait for the sharks. I am not impressed with the theory that three years of experience after maturity is too little to enable them to spot a shark when they see one. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, himself a Member of the Committee and a subscriber to the majority Report, says, "Then we can tighten up the law of contract for everybody." That is all very fine, but I wonder when, and how.
I wonder whether it will really be practicable to exclude all oppressive long-term contracts which impose a liability on a contractor year after year, perhaps for 10 or 15 years of his life I wonder whether a hire-purchase contract with a potential liability of nearly £1,000 is quite such a desirable thing to make a young man or woman liable for in the courts if they sign it, and whether it is not a good thing to say to the man who imposes it upon them, "If the young do not like to keep it, let the old run the risk of not getting their money back"—
§ Mr. Maclennan
I would make a serious and concrete suggestion. As the right hon. and learned Member is in a particularly fortunate position to affect the law as it appertains to oppressive contracts, perhaps he might regard this as an opportunity for ameliorating the 1020 position as it affects the whole community.
§ Mr. Hogg
If the hon. Member is referring to the fact that I won the Ballot for Private Members' Bills, he has another think coming. I know too much about the law of contract to start fiddling about with a Private Member's Bill to improve it. I know how far I would get. I would be here till the end of this Parliament and still not complete the Committee stage. Therefore I have other thoughts about that—
§ Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying that a contract not for the benefit of a minor could be enforced against his best interests. Has he also considered that many cases of imprudent contracts in settlement of Common Law damages cannot be enforced against a minor and that he can force another action under our present system if he has been prevailed upon to accept a settlement for damages which is not in his best interests?
§ Mr. Hogg
As the hon. Gentleman rightly reminds us, with these cases of serious personal injuries coming before the courts every day, if the majority Report were accepted, the interposition of the judge's consent will be taken away in the case of a contract of settlement entered into by a young person between 18 and 21. I am not persuaded that this is necessarily good, and if both the majority of the Committee and those hon. Members who support them had asked themselves not whether minors—as we must now call them: I agree—should have the right to make contracts but whether they should be sued on them in the courts, they might have reached a slightly different conclusion. At any rate, the reasons for their conclusion would have been a little less obvious and plausible.
Another argument which has been under-rated by those who supported the majority Report is this. The great majority of other countries use 21 as the age of majority. But, says the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and others who commend the majority, "Why not let Britain be a pioneer? Let us not be last in the league table. Let us give a lead for once." That is very fine and large, but what is our philosophy about those things? We ought to have a coherent view.
1021 Despite all the laws of physics, we have just changed our British Standard Time to correspond with that in Berlin, or not far west of Berlin, so as to be the same as the Europeans, despite the facts of longitude and the fact that the United States is hardly a pauper country, although it changes its time according as an aeroplane moves a few degrees east or west.
Then again, we have just moved to early 19th century physics in the form of Centigrade, which seems to attach a disproportionate importance to the boiling point and freezing point of water, so as to be like the Europeans, in spite of the inconvenient size of the degree and the total irrelevance of the two measuring points from which it is made.
But now we have the Latey Committee and we do not want to be like the Europeans but want only to be like the Scots. But I remain agnostic on the subject. If it is right for Centigrade to take the place of Fahrenheit, why should we move from 21 as the age of majority? There is a certain value in uniformity in these things. When I see that not only the Europeans but nearly all the Americans and the Commonwealth adopt 21, I am not sure that the burden of proof does not rest heavily against those who want to alter it.
I do not want to labour these points. I think that, if Queen Victoria had not been Royal and had been allowed to marry without her parent's consent at 18, she would have married Lord Melbourne, and that would have altered the course of events in more ways than one. For instance, we might not have had the Albert Hall. I see a great advantage in having one age of majority, but I remain decently agnostic about the value of change in this respect. The House will be glad to know, I think, that I am a conservative with a small "c" as well as with a large one.
§ 8.06 p.m.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Arthur Irvine)
I convey my congratulations to the hon. Lady the Member for Hamilton (Mrs. Ewing), who delivered an excellent maiden speech. As the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) said, it has been something of a Scottish day. I would say to the hon. Lady that my father was a man of Fife, my mother was a Mackay on her father's 1022 side and a Fraser on her mother's and that one cannot be much more Scotch than that. The hon. Lady will no doubt readily recognise that, even outside the ambit of her political party, many Scots share her passionate devotion for their native land.
Both sides have paid their tributes to the work of the Latey Committee and I should like to add mine. The right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone spoke of it—I know that he did not intend this description to be at all compendious—as a "jolly and chatty" Report. It is certainly very readable and is much more than jolly and chatty. Like all hon. Members, the Government are most grateful for the Committee's work.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) thought that the Government had given little indication of their intentions. Another hon. Member said that my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State had not presented any programme of action by the Government. I must emphasise that this is a "take note" debate. It is the Government's belief that in a matter of this importance and width of scope it is most desirable that the first step after the receipt of the Report from the Committee is to hear and receive the opinions of hon. Members. In a very literal sense what has occurred today is of great importance to the Government because there has been a good deal of variety of nuance and emphasis in the treatment of the various matters arising, and this will be studied with great attention, and the outcome of a study of that kind will be incomparably more worth having than decisions arrived at without considering the opinions of hon. Members.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington asked me whether I would give some indication of the progress of the Law Commission in its work in this field and whether I would indicate the attitude of the Law Commission towards, among other things, the propects and desirability of family courts. If it were practicable, I should be very happy to give a detailed account of the point which has been reached on these matters by the Law Commission and, if it were possible, an account of the way in which opinions are shaping and taking form inside the Commission. But I cannot 1023 do so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may rest assured that the Law Commission is hard at work on these matters. The vast task of developing a comprehensive study of the law of contract with a view to its codification has begun and, in the nature of things, it is bound to take a considerable time. I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have from me anything in the nature of a detailed or particular reply to his inquiry.
Probably he does not wish to press me for it unduly, because the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone indicated a point of view which has a bearing on this issue—the desirability that there should be some uniformity in treatment and that the recommendations of Mr. Speaker's Conference should as far as possible be synchronised and harmonised with conclusions arrived at about the appropriate age of legal majority. With great respect to the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone, I entirely agree about that. It is a desirable way of proceeding. But it has the quite inescapable result that anything in the nature of too rapid conclusions to these matters and anything in the nature of a too rapid implementation of the conclusions will be detrimental to the objectives which we all have in mind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) addressed the House. This was a matter of great satisfaction to us, among other reasons because of his membership of the Latey Committee. He made an observation which has a great deal of importance in it—that as things stand there is no evidence that psychological maturity is occurring earlier than formerly to the same extent that, according to all accounts, physical maturity certainly is. That is a matter which is important for the Government in its consideration of what to do in implementing the Report.
In this connection I would refer to some observations by the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone when he spoke about the circumstance that experience will often add enormously to the capacity of a young person after he has achieved what is called maturity. Certainly that is a most relevant factor to keep in mind. It has an obvious bear- 1024 ing on the determination of the best and most appropriate age at which to make any adjustment which is thought to be called for in regard to contractual liability. What my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland said about the relative development of psychological and physical maturity and what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said about experience as an all-important element affecting growth are considerations to which we must give most careful attention. It is clear that the members of the Latey Committee gave compendious regard to these matters. Nevertheless, our attention has been drawn to them in the debate, and I readily acknowledge their relevance and their importance.
The hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) drew attention, as did the right hon. and learned Gentleman, to the fact that by and large very few countries have an age of legal majority below 21, and that those that do are not at first sight notably comparable with this country. There is obvious importance attaching to that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, in a condition in which rationality was not readily available, thought that perhaps tradition should be called in aid. That may well be so. These matters of the comparable treatment of problems of this sort by different countries are relevant, too. Of course, it may well be that the future will show that in this country we took cognisance of a change in the development of maturity and the age at which it was achieved which marked our understanding of its importance and that, on a certain view of this matter, we advanced thinking ahead of other States. The fact that others have not made the change cannot be regarded by itself as a conclusive reason for avoiding any alteration of the law in this respect in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. W. O. J. Robinson) thought that the young people of Britain were the most maligned element in it. He pointed out that, at the age of 18, many young people were already free from the family circle. The close relationship which exists in normal happy circumstances between parents and son or daughter makes, in his view, detached discussion of marriage of rather less value than discussion with others 1025 Would be. That view received some support from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry). This illustrates again the conflicting arguments which can be brought to bear, with force and persuasion, on this whole matter.
The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. James Davidson) spoke about the contractual liability age as affecting the position of entrants into the Services. The Minister of Defence for Administration has this matter under the most careful consideration. There are complications and difficulties attached to it, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the point is being investigated energetically and carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) reminded us that at 18 young people assume a whole host of responsibilities and are making their adult National Insurance contributions. He gave examples of the variety of activities in which young people are active—activities of great value and importance in national and international affairs and in which their capacities, abilities and energies play an important part.
My hon. Friend said that many young people were suffering from apathy because they were being cut off in their experience from responsibility. Paragraph 71 of the Report, which is regarded by many people as an important part of the document, states:… we feel extremely strongly that to keep responsibility from those who are ready and able to take it on is much more likely to make them irresponsible than to help them.That is a significant passage and it seemed that my hon. Friend was echoing that opinion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Coe) usefully pointed out the importance of this matter in its bearing on teaching, an activity with which he has been connected. As my right hon. Friend said earlier, the Government's position is that we are broadly in sympathy with the recommendations of the majority of the Committee; but on a subject with so many factors and of such wide scope, the need was felt to hear the views of the House. There was never any intention today to present anything in the nature of a programme or timetable. The purpose has been to ascertain from the 1026 debate what views and opinions are held on this important matter.
It seems to me that the aim in our consideration of this subject must be to achieve a balance between protecting the young from exploitation and the need to avoid unfairness or hardship to honest adults. When such a balance must be struck, differences of opinion are bound to reveal themselves. It is important to remember the remarkable degree of unanimity which the Committee was able to achieve. That is striking because this is a subject on which one would expect a good deal of difference of opinion to occur.
It should be remembered that the Committee was unanimous in recommending that people over 18 should be able to acquire a legal estate in land and dispose of their property by will. All the members of the Committee seem to have gone forward on the footing that it is harmful to withhold responsibility from people who are fit and able to bear it.
The majority of nine, including the chairman, recommended a reduction to 18 for all purposes, apart from the criminal law and the matter of the voting age, which has been referred to Mr. Speaker's Conference. For practical purposes, the minority view was confined to the need for people between 18 and 21 to obtain parental or court consent to marriage and to the desirability of continuing the wardship jurisdiction until 21.
On the question of wardship jurisdiction, it is important that the chancery judges should all have been of the opinion that this change, from 21 to 18 as the limit of their jurisdiction, was desirable. The Committee regarded the existing law about the legal effects of contracts entered into by infants as obscure, and the course that it has adopted will be of the greatest interest to lawyers. I say that because the character of its recommendation is, on the major issues of law, that these should be referred to the Law Commission.
This seems to us to be a desirable way of developing the matter. The Law Commission would be fulfilling precisely the kind of function that those of us who always desired its creation pictured it as having; the function of dealing with 1027 vitally important problems of law which the Commission's learning and experience rendered it peculiarly able to consider. That it should deal with this matter of the law affecting the contracts of minors, with the advantage of the recommendations made by the Committee, exemplify well one of the activities that we felt the Commission could most usefully perform.
After all, it has to be remembered that in the Latey Committee there were many distinguished lawyers, and it had a very distinguished judge as its chairman. There were other members who were not lawyers. A situation in which a Committee of that kind, having made this degree of inquiry and investigation, should ask that its proposal should receive the consideration of the Law Commission is the kind of development in our affairs which is not to be assumed will occur, and is, I suggest, a very desirable happening. We therefore welcome that way of approach.
If one thing emerges more clearly than anything else from the consideration of the Report, I think it is that there are not many friends extant of Section 1 of the Infants Relief Act, 1874. The logical consequences of that Section providing that certain contracts are absolutely void have never, I believe, been followed through. The expression "absolutely void" has been treated, has it not, as meaning absolutely void as against the infant? In the absence of fraud, if an infant receives money for goods which he fails to deliver, or receives goods that are not necessaries and fails to pay for them, he is under no obligation to return the money or the goods respectively. In other words, the existing law enables the minor, as it were, to profit from or take advantage of his infancy; that is to say, the law does not merely protect him from liability. It may be thought that the need to reform the law under this head, and to clarify a situation in which the logic of existing provisions is so seldom followed through, should have a certain priority.
I have ventured to put forward these observations, but what is uppermost in my mind is the gratitude I feel to hon. and right hon. Members on both sides for their contributions to this debate, which will have an important bearing 1028 upon the determination as to what is best to do at which the Government will in due course arrive.
§ Questions put and agreed to.
§ That this House takes note of the Report of the Committee on the Age of Majority (Command Paper No. 3342).