HC Deb 06 December 1968 vol 774 cc2033-56

Order for Second Reading read.

2.40 p.m.

Mr. Alec Jones (Rhondda, West)

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

My co-sponsors and I are asking the House to give a Second Reading to a Bill which is substantially the same as the Bill which emerged from the Standing Committee during last Session. Since the main purpose of the Bill is already well known to the House, and its proposals were critically examined during 38 hours in Committee last Session, I might be accused of wearying the House were I to repeat all the many arguments advanced in its support on the last occasion. On the other hand, I might be considered discourteous to the House, and lacking in appreciation of the importance of the Bill, were I to treat it in a trivial manner.

With the indulgence of the House, I hope to present a reasoned case for giving the Bill a Second Reading, with a minimum of repetition, but giving due consideration to the importance of the Bill both to the individuals who might be affected by it and to the institution of marriage. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, will, in winding up, answer the many questions which I am sure will arise during the course of the debate.

In 1951 my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) introduced to the House a Divorce Reform Bill but subsequently withdrew it on the understanding that a Royal Commission would report on the subject. Paragraph 35 of the Report of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, Cmnd. Paper 9678, included the following statement with which few of us, whether we support or oppose the Bill, would disagree: The Western world has recognised that it is in the best interests of all concerned—the community, the parties to a marriage and their children—that marriage should be monogamous and that it should last for life. This is the view which I hold, and I believe it is the view held by most of the supporters of the Bill. Indeed, if it were possible to legislate for this ideal state of affairs, to make all marriages stable and happy marriages, then I would welcome the opportunity of introducing such a Bill, but this is not possible. Paragraph 35 of the Report continues as follows: … owing to human frailty, some marriages will not endure for life … ". We are fortunate that it is a small minority of marriages. … and that in certain circumstances it is right that a spouse should be released from the obligations of marriage. It is the definition of "certain circumstances" which is the main bone of contention between the supporters and the opponents of the Bill. Whatever our views on what these circumstances should be, very few people are satisfied with the present circumstances. The present basis of divorce, which the Bill seeks to recast, is one which has endured for 110 years, and it is that a matrimonial offence such as adultery or cruelty has been committed by one of the parties to the marriage. Inroads have been made into this matrimonial offence principle, including the granting of a divorce on the grounds of the incurable insanity of the respondent, hardly a circumstance which can or ought to be regarded as a matrimonial offence!

Dissatisfaction with the law led to the Bill which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool in 1963 and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. William Wilson) in the last Session. I pay tribute to the work done by both hon. Members, and to the support given to these measures by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

That there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the law is evident from the many letters on this matter received by hon. Members. Whilst no one could pretend that these tragic letters represent a statistical cross-section of people's views, they paint a picture of human misery, with marriages irretrievably broken down and much consequent misery and unhappiness to the partners of the marriage and to the children. Criticism by individual letters might be considered biased, slanted or not sufficiently objective to be conclusive. May I quote a more objective view from paragraph 70(v) of the Report of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce: … for whatever reason marriage breaks down, the prevailing law of divorce provides an easy escape from the bond of matrimony for those who are minded to take it. Desertion for three years or, for those who wish a speedier release, the commission of adultery, is all that is needed. For those who are not prepared to resort to such expedients—and we believe the number is by no means negligible—there is, however, no such relief. We think it may be said that the law of divorce as it at present exists is indeed weighted in favour of the least scrupulous, the least honourable and the least sensitive; and that nobody who is ready to provide a ground of divorce, who is careful to avoid any suggestion of connivance or collusion and who has a co-operative spouse, has any difficulty in securing the dissolution of the marriage. In June, 1964, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed a small group, chaired by the Bishop of Exeter, to seek to discover whether it was possible to devise a new law of divorce free from the most unsatisfactory features of the existing law. Its published report, "Putting Asunder", gives in paragraph 45 another objective criticism of the present divorce law. It says: That the law as it stands is unsatisfactory, all the judges and lawyers who gave evidence agreed, however much they differed concerning the remedies to be applied. We are far from being convinced that the present provisions of the law witness to the sanctity of marriage or uphold its public repute in any observable way, or that they are irreplaceable as buttresses of morality either in the narrower field of matrimonial and sexual relationships or in the wider field which includes considerations of truth, the sacredness of oaths and the integrity of professional practice: as a piece of social mechanism, the present system has not only cut loose from its moral and judicial foundations it is quite simply inept. Those are not my words but the words of "Putting Asunder".

The Report by the Law Commissioners, Cmnd. Paper 3123 of November, 1966, was the next important investigation into divorce reform. While the Law Commissioners quite rightly pointed out that the responsibility for settling such controversial social problems as divorce is with Parliament, we should be grateful to them for at least marking out with great clarity the boundaries of the field of choice in divorce reform. Their main conclusions include the words: The objectives of a good divorce law should include:—

  1. (a) The support of marriages which have a chance of survival.
  2. (b) The decent burial with the minimum of embarrassment, humiliation and bitterness of those that are indubitably dead."
Those are the two objectives of the Bill. As a buttress to the stability of marriages during the more difficult early years. the present law normally excludes the presentation of a divorce petition within three years of the celebration of the marriage. This position remains unchanged by the present Bill.

There are in the Bill proposals to improve the provisions for reconciliation, proposals which I am sure all will welcome. Even if the reconciliation successes which might flow from those proposals might be small in number, it must surely be correct to include such proposals in any divorce reform Bill.

The Home Office recognises and makes grants to certain voluntary bodies such as the National Marriage Guidance Council, the newly-named Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies and the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. In addition to those grants, local authorities are authorised to make grants to local councils affiliated to the central organisations I have mentioned, but those grants are too small both in comparison with the amount of money spent annually in divorce costs and in comparison with the importance of the work they do. Whatever fate befalls this Bill, I hope that the appropriate authorities will seek to increase the grants so that we may increase the scope of the preventive medicine of guidance before marriage and of help during marriage.

I am sure that all will agree that this will be important, but meanwhile we have to deal with marriage situations which cannot be healed. To continue in legal being a marriage which has irretrievably broken down hardly seems to be a means of witnessing to the sanctity of marriage or of upholding its public repute. In quoting particular cases I fully realise the pitfalls and dangers ahead, but at least those individual cases highlight the tragedies caused, not by divorce but by the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

Letters written to me, and I am sure to hon. Members on both sides of the House, from men and from women speak of periods of separation of up to 53 years. Can the present law, which forces those marriages to continue in name only, he said to be upholding the sanctity of marriage? What sort of marriage exists after these long periods of separation?

These empty marriages, as they accumulate, add increasing harm to the community and injury to the ideal of marriage itself. The result of keeping in being these empty marriages is a large number of illicit unions which cannot be regularised and a still larger number of illegitimate children who cannot be legitimated. The Law Commissioners estimate that if the law were changed as we suggest it could be by this Bill, about 180,000 illegitimate children could be legitimated and in each future year 19,000 children who otherwise would be condemned to permanent illegitimacy might be born in wedlock or subsequently legitimated.

These figures are likely to be underestimates if we accept the report in New Society of March, 1968, which suggests a current total of 284,000 such illegitimate children. It is true that there are many factors which affect the validity of these figures, but if the number referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool of 200,000 is wrong, it seems to be wrong in being too low a number.

These are children born, not of any temporary alliance, but of stable unions which are marriages in everything but name. This divorce Bill has been framed to carry out as faithfully and as effectively as possible the proposals of the reform of the divorce law which emerged from the joint discussions between the Archbishops' Group and the Law Commissioners in July 1967.

I now turn to deal with some of the Clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 recognises that the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage and not the matrimonial offence shall be a ground for divorce. Divorce will no longer be regarded as the punishing of one party to a marriage and the relief of the other. The court will be required to satisfy itself that the marriage has irretrievably broken down and, if it is so satisfied, to dissolve the marriage. The relative blameworthiness of the parties will become less important than the viability of the marriage itself, although it may still be relevant in determining which of the parties should provide support for the other and to what extent that support should be provided.

In Clause 2 the court is to infer the breakdown referred to in Clause 1 if, and only if, one of the more factual situations set out in Clauses 2(1) is established to its satisfaction. With divorce jurisdiction exercised by a large number of judges, in county courts as well as the High Court, and by Commissioners with widely differing views on human behaviour and marriage, grave uncertainty might be introduced if each judge could operate on his own "hunch" as to breakdown or no breakdown. If the breakdown principle is to prove workable it is thought to be necessary to circumscribe the discretion of the court. The court cannot grant a divorce unless one of the prescribed factual situations is proved. Neither can the court refuse a divorce if one or more of the factual situations is established.

Clause 2(1)(a) relates to the respondent's adultery. In addition to proving adultery, the petitioner must show that he or she finds it intolerable to live with the respondent". Those words have been inserted to meet the views of those who feel that a single isolated act of adultery alone, which may have no effect at all on the relationship between the parties, should not suffice to establish breakdown.

Clause 2(1)(b) preserves the respondent's cruelty as one of the facts from which breakdown is to be inferred but avoids the use of the word "cruelty", with all its emotional overtones and implications of marriage and matrimonial offence.

Insanity is not specifically mentioned among the factual situations from which breakdown is to be inferred. It is, nevertheless, covered rather more effectively than under the present law and in a more realistic and humane fashion. No longer is incurable insanity of the respondent a ground for divorce thereby equating his misfortune with a matrimonial offence. The test is whether the marriage has irretrievably broken down. That is to be inferred, not from insanity as such, but either from his intolerable behaviour as in Clause 2(1)(b) or from the fact the parties have lived apart for five years—Clause 2(1)(e).

Clause 2(1, c) reduces the prescribed period of desertion from the three years under the present law to two years. This is because of the close connection between the time provided for in this paragraph for desertion and the time provided in Clause 2(1, d) for, separation. If the prescribed time for separation was longer than two years, parties would then seek to have the marriage dissolved on the basis of real or pretended adultery, exaggerated cruelty, etc.

It is hoped, therefore, that most couples will proceed under Clause 2(1, d) and so enable the marriage which has irretrievably broken down to be resolved with dignity and without the rancour and controversy which bring such unhappy repercussions both on the parties themselves and on any children. If two years separation is convincing evidence that a marriage has broken down, surely two years continued desertion is even stronger.

Clause 2(1, d) states that if one party petitions after two years separation and the other does not object, it is clear that both parties accept that their marriage has irretrievably broken down; and they are likely to be the best judges. It must be emphasised that it is the separation which gives rise to the inference of the breakdown of the marriage. The factor of which the court has to be satisfied is that the parties have lived apart for at least two years and that the respondent does not object to a decree being granted". This requirement has been chosen so that we should not exclude from this least contentious way of dissolving a marriage those who, whilst not objecting to a divorce, may be unwilling or indifferent formally to confirm this.

Clause 2(1, e) provides that after five years separation a marriage may be dissolved at the suit of one party despite the objection of the other. The basic philosophy of the Bill is that a marriage ought in the public interest to be dissolved if it has irretrievably broken down and the strongest evidence of breakdown is a long period of separation.

The Bill takes the line that if irretrievable breakdown is established a marriage should be dissolved, nothwithstanding the objection of one party, but only so long as disproportionate hardship is not caused to that party. To avoid that hardship, certain safeguards are provided, notably those in Clauses 4 and 6. One of the strongest arguments in favour of Clause 2(1)(e) is that it will enable many stable illicit unions to be regularised and the children of these unions to be legitimated.

Clause 3 is the Clause designed to encourage reconciliation. It seeks to encourage reconciliation when the parties first consult their solicitors and makes provisions for the petitioner's solicitors to certify whether he has discussed with the petitioner reconciliation and given him names and addresses of marriage guidance councils.

This Clause also gives the court the power to adjourn to enable the possibility of a reconciliation to be explored. Unlike in the previous Bill, where the power of adjournment was three months only, the power of adjournment is now open ended. I think that this is an improvement, and I want to thank the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), whose Amendment made this possible, and I express appreciation for the support given him on that occasion by the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald). This Clause, the reconciliation Clause, also enables legal advisers to assure their clients that they may resume cohabitation for a trial period without weakening their case for divorce.

Clause 4 enables the respondent to oppose a grant of a decree and to seek to satisfy the court that the dissolution of the marriage will result in grave financial or other hardship to him or her. Its main operation is likely to be in cases coming under Clause 2(1)(e) under which a so-named innocent wife might be divorced against her will by a so-named guilty partner. If the respondent satisfies the court that the dissolution of the marriage would result in grave hardship, the court has then to weigh the factors referred to in Clause 4 and, in the end, if it decides that on balance it would be wrong to, dissolve the marriage, the court must refuse a decree.

Clause 5 enables a respondent whose divorce is dependent on marriage breakdown inferred from two years' separation, as under Clause 2(1)(d), to object to the decree being made absolute or to ask for the decree nisi to be rescinded if she has been misled. A similar Clause in the Bill introduced last Session limited the misleading to the future financial position of the respondent and her children. The Clause in the present Bill is wider in ambit, and again we are indebted to the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and learned Friend for this improvement.

Clause 6 is designed to ensure that when divorce based on breakdown is inferred from separation alone, additional protection is provided. Subsection (2) provides that the court must consider all the circumstances, and of especial importance are the words the financial position of the respondent as, having regard to the divorce, it is likely to be after the death of the petitioner, should the petitioner die first. Those words make clear that the court must consider the pension position and must ensure that the provision made does everything possible to mitigate any loss of pension rights to the respondent.

Clause 7 enables rules to be made laying down the procedure under which the parties contemplating a divorce may submit any financial agreement or arrangement which they have made or propose to make for the opinion of the court.

Doubtless, many hon. Members will wish to discuss the nature and practicality of these safeguards not only today but in Committee. I shall not dwell on them now, save to say that, if any points are specifically raised today, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) will, I am sure, deal with them if he catches the eye of the Chair.

Clause 8 deals with judicial separation. Under the present law, Section 12 of the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1965, the grounds for judicial separation are, any of the grounds specified in section 1 of this Act". Those are the grounds for divorce. If, as I hope, we abolish those grounds for divorce and substitute irretrievable breakdown, something has to be substituted in the case of judicial separation. Clause 8, therefore, provides that the grounds for judicial separation shall be no longer expressed as matrimonial offences but shall be related to the factual situations referred to in Clause 2(1) now before the House. There are consequential Amendments to the Matrimonial Clauses Act, and these are covered in the Schedules.

Naturally, the Bill has aroused a great deal of interest. Many people have asked me when it is likely to come into operation. It would be a brave man who ventured to make such a guess, but, if it receives the assent of the House and the other place, I am advised that, even if it receives the Royal Assent in July, 1969, it will be impossible to bring it into operation before 1st January, 1970.

I apologise to the House if I have unduly delayed it. I can only claim sincerely that I have sought to deal with equal justice and importance both with the Bill and to hon. Members on both sides. It is certainly no hastily conceived Bill, its main provisions were endorsed by the House last Session.

It is unashamedly a consensus Bill, it is supported by Members on both sides. Its structure and fine balance are the result of long discussions between churchmen, lawyers and politicians.

I commend it to the House as a sincere and practical attempt to overcome the deficiencies of the present divorce law without weakening the institution of marriage.

3.10 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Campbell (Oldham, West)

Members of Parliament are apt to get a distorted view of public opinion on the question of divorce, because most are likely to have in their constituencies one or two very vocal people living in adultery who continually badger their Member to do something about the divorce laws so that they can regularise their illicit union. I do not think that that is the opinion of the country as a whole. Most people have a high regard for the institution of marriage, and there are still some who regard it as a holy institution.

Members are also apt to forget that those vocal people who continually clamour for an alteration in the divorce law which will enable them to get a divorce are a very small minority and are all people for whom the present divorce laws provide no relief. It follows that by and large, with their very few exceptions, they are guilty men and women who have left wives or husbands and gone to live with somebody else. In every case of that kind the wife or husband who has been left is thoroughly innocent and has done no wrong that the present divorce laws recognize.

I am perhaps in a unique position among hon. Members because I have spent my working life since the war practising exclusively at the Divorce Bar. If I may say so without immodesty, it is a topic about which I know a little. I do not know whether hon. Members realise what an explosion there has been in divorce during the past 20 to 25 years. Up to the war, divorces were being granted at the rate of about 3,000 a year, and a handful of judges could deal with all the divorce cases. But in the past 20 or 25 years divorce has become steadily easier and more popular, with the result that divorces are now running at the rate of about 50,000 a year.

In the last year for which I have figures, 1966, 46,890 divorce petitions were filed, and if the trend has continued, as presumably it has, no doubt this year there will be about 50,000. That means that every year 100,000 people are divorced. If we assume that on average they have two children each, it means that every year 200,000 people are involved in a divorce case—about 1 million people every five years. These are staggering figures. It must not be forgotten that if there are 50,000 divorces in a year it means that 50,000 homes have broken up in that year.

If the Bill is passed, it will give another surge forward to the steady disintegration of family life that has been going on in this country for the past 20 or 25 years. The time must surely soon come, if it has not come already, when we must ask ourselves whether the institution of marriage is worth bothering about any more. Every time one makes divorce easier one makes marriage cheaper, and people tend more and more to enter into marriage as an experiment, feeling that if it does not work out there is always the divorce court—in rather the same way as they might enter into a business partnership. They are doing this instead of entering into marriage on the basis that it is a life-long contract. That is what it is intended to be, and what it must continue to be if our family life is to be preserved.

Although divorce is today easy enough in all conscience, it still is possible for one of the parties to a marriage to say "So far as I am concerned, this is for keeps. My husband"—or "my wife" "may go off and desert me, but, whatever happens, to me this is a life-long contract." Once the Bill gets on the Statute Book that will no longer be the position, because from that time every marriage will be precarious, something likely to end up at the suit of the wrongdoer.

On the day the Bill reaches the Statute Book—if it ever does—everyone who respects English law must hang his head, because for the first time in our history it is proposed to introduce into the law of England the principle that a man may take advantage of his own wrong. For centuries we have prided ourselves that it is a basic principle of equity in our law that no man shall ever be allowed to take advantage of his own wrong. The Bill seeks to give a man that right. When he grows tired of his wife, and she ceases to be sexually attractive to him, he will be allowed to desert his wife and children, go off 'with a younger woman and, after five years, to force his completely innocent wife into a divorce so that he can marry the new woman.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

Then go off with another one.

Mr. Campbell

For my part, it will be a black day when the law of England——

Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)

The hon. Gentleman refers constantly to England. The Bill covers Wales and Scotland as well.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Aberdeen, South)

Not Scotland.

Mr. Campbell

I beg the forgiveness of the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Dan J ones). I excluded Wales. I recognise that this Measure affects the innocent husbands and wives of Wales just as much as those of England. However, it does not apply to Scotland. It will be a black day for England and Wales when our law gives approval to the sort of behaviour that I have just described.

It will be said that this happens now. In the present state of the law, men desert their wives to live with other women. Of course, they do. But it will happen more frequently once the law has given a mark of approval, as it were, to such conduct.

Concern will be expressed for the children involved. The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) talks about the illegitimate children born of illicit unions between those who cannot marry. The way to deal with illegitimate children is to alter the law relating to illegitimacy, not the divorce laws. I am glad to know that we are taking steps in that direction to ease the lot of the illegitimate child. But to try to alter the law of illegitimacy by changing the divorce laws is rather like going to John o' Groats via Land's End.

In this context, children are not a consideration which we should take into account. One can deal with illegitimate 4n children by improving their status. I do not see why they should have any poorer status than legitimate children. I see no reason why they should not have one parent or two and be in the same position. An illegitimate child should be in the same position as, for example, the child of a widow. But to try to improve the lot of illegitimate children by altering the divorce laws is quite the wrong way to go about it.

It is said that there will be safeguards for these innocent, deserted and abandoned wives. My reply is to say that it is nonsense. We know that the proposed safeguards will be quite inadequate. In the present state of the law. if a man leaves his wife and lives with another woman, that other woman has no legal claim upon him. The only woman who has a legal claim upon him is his lawful wife. She can go to the court and the court will award her a reasonable slice of the man's income.

But once that man is allowed to marry the other woman, he will become legally liable to maintain her as well and that, of course, is impossible. We are not talking about millionaires. We are talking about the millions of ordinary men and women who live in those rows and rows of terraced houses in our constituencies. They all live on a tight budget. Most people live on a tight budget, and those tight budgets simply do not permit maintaining two households.

Mess Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

I am following the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument carefully, but can he explain something to me? On what does he base his argument that it is only men who leave their wives? I know of no evidence for it. Hon. Members have argued as though it is the man who will leave the woman rather than the woman leave the man, and it must, therefore, be an argument based on economic dependence. Ought we not therefore to be directing our attention to the subject of economic dependence in marriage and not making an assumption about promiscuity among men which is no more valid than the assumption of promiscuity among women?

Mr. Campbell

I accept much of what the hon. Lady says. I do not believe that husbands are all that much more prone to desert their wives than wives are to desert their husbands. Unfortunately, by and large the husbands are the breadwinners, so that if the husband does the deserting the wife is left without means, whereas if the wife does the deserting the husband can still win his bread and may even have more for himself than in the days when he had to share it with the wife.

But the Bill is designed to make it possible for guilty people, husbands or wives, to leave their spouses and, after a time, reject them, divorce them and be finished with them. It is for that reason, quite apart from financial dependence, that I say that it is a thoroughly bad Bill.

It is true that husbands, too, are rejected and they suffer, perhaps not so often financially, but they suffer, nevertheless, when, after providing for her, perhaps for 20 years, and behaving perfectly well to one wife, they find that she decides that he is growing older and that she is attracted by a younger man and that she will leave the husband to live out the rest of his life alone. It is not just money with which we are concerned it is a question of families. Every time that marriage is weakened and made a more precarious partnership, the family life of the nation is weakened. If divorce is made easy, marriage is cheapened, so that people enter into marriage lightly and because they enter marriage lightly and even sometimes frivolously, such a marriage will probably reach the divorce court much sooner than others, and so the vicious cricle grows.

What we should do for the health of the family life of the country is not make divorce easier, but make marriage more difficult, but instead of doing that the Government propose to make marriage easier as well and now——

The Solicitor-General (Sir Arthur Irvine)

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman allow me to say that when he said "the Government propose" it was no doubt a slip of the tongue?

Mr. Campbell

There is on its way through Parliament a Bill to make it law for children of 18 to marry in defiance of their parents' wishes. Do not forget that they can marry today at 16. The only requirement of the law is that they should at least have the consent of their parents—the best guidance, hon. Members may think, that a young person could possibly have. If their parents happen to be unreasonable about it, they can always go to the court for consent. But the proposal is that they should be able to marry in defiance of even a reasonable objection by the parents.

That will send the divorce figures soaring again. We all know from experience that there are far more marriage casualties among those marriages which take place between very young people than among those which take place between more mature people. Every year Parliament does something to make divorce easier and to increase the incidence of divorce. Last year, Parliament made divorce easier and quicker by sending undefended cases to be tried in the back streets, in the county courts, where inferior litigation takes place.

This year the proposal is to increase divorce by making it possible for the completely innocent to be divorced against their will. Next year, perhaps, we shall have this further provision that young people of 18 will be able to enter into the lifelong contract of marriage in defiance of their parents' wishes. I do not say that our divorce laws are perfect, but I do say that there is not very much wrong with them.

For my part, I would like to see the introduction of a measure of divorce by consent. Today, if a husband and wife decide that they just do not wish to live together any more, and decide to part, the husband goes off and the wife helps him to pack, there is no honest way in which our law can allow them to be divorced. What happens, I suppose, I do not believe that it happens very often. but occasionally it does happen, is that one of those parties will go off and commit adultery, or pretend to do so, which is probably worse, because it involves deceiving the court, simply to provide the other with grounds for divorce.

What happens more frequently still is that when parties part on a consentual basis one of them, three years later, will come to the divorce court and try to "dress" that separation up as if it were desertion on the part of the other partner. That is unfortunate. I would like to see our law altered so as to remove the necessity on the part of people such as those sometimes to deceive the court. I would be in favour of the alteration of our law by the introduction into it of a provision whereby people who part by consent could after a time obtain a divorce.

Whether one would allow them all to have a divorce on that ground or whether one would limit it to couples who had not any children or to people whose children were over 16, are matters which we would have to consider. But a measure of content introduced into the grounds for divorce would be an improvement in the existing law.

I did not have the good fortune to hear everything said by the hon. Member for Rhondda, West in introducing the Bill, but I came from Lancashire specially to listen to this debate, and I am sure that he will forgive me if I was a few minutes late. I do not know whether he had anything to say about the cost of the Bill. If not, this is something which must receive the attention of the House.

The Bill has been costed. I have in my hand the Report of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid and Advice, which was issued recently. I quote from paragraph 60: It seems, however, inevitable that the Divorce Reform Bill, which has been introduced in the House of Commons by a Private Member, will, if passed, considerably increase the cost of legal aid. Not only do the Law Commission estimate that it will lead to 5,000 extra cases a year (and there is, of course, the possibility of an initial surge) but it seems probable that its provisions will lead to a greater emphasis on questions of maintenance etc. and perhaps to more contested ancillary proceedings. …. At present costs this is likely, therefore, to increase the cost to the Legal Aid Fund by three to four hundred thousand pounds a year. I do not know whether anybody in the Treasury has been consulted about this, but the expenditure of a further £400,000 a year surely is a matter which must seriously concern the House. At a time like this, when extra burdens are placed on the people week after week and when the benefits conferred upon them by the State are either being cancelled or postponed, to spend the first £400,000 of available money on enabling a lot of guilty wives and husbands to divorce their innocent spouses must be the wrong order of priorities. Surely it would be much better if that money were spent on helping people to make their marriages work rather than helping them to smash them up.

At present, the Exchequer grant to voluntary societies such as the Marriage Guidance Council is £63,000 a year. Here we are contemplating spending a further £400,000 a year of public money to enable deserters to divorce their abandoned wives and husbands.

This is a disgraceful Bill, and I shall fight it at every stage.

3.40 p.m.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

I think that the House and the country must be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, West (Mr. Alec Jones) for giving us the opportunity to consider the Bill again, because it must be clear to everybody, whatever their attitude to the Bill, that there is a great deal of public interest and concern in it, and it is right that Parliament should once again consider this very important matter.

I take issue with the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Bruce Campbell). He kept referring to the totally innocent, and the totally guilty party. The whole difficulty about legislating in this sphere of sensitive and intimate human relationships is that it is not a question of total guilt or total innocence. Marriage is not like that.

The hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to the increasing number of divorces. He should realise that there is an increasing number of marriages. As the hon. and learned Gentleman rightly said, people are getting married at a younger age, and it is a fact that the greatest percentage of divorce is among the younger couples.

Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that there are no such things as wholly innocent people, or completely guilty people, in marriage?

Mrs. Jeger

Yes, I am. Theologically and philosophically I am suggesting that there is no such thing as total guilt or total innocence, and I hope that no-one will proudly go to his grave averring that the whole of his life has been spent in total innocence.

The provisions that we are discussing today, particularly the five-year non-consenting Clause, are already the law in Australia. The relevant period in New Zealand is seven years. There has been no noticeable collapse of the fabric of the institution of marriage in either of those Christian countries. I think that it does no service to people who are deeply concerned about the survival of their marriages, or about divorce, to exaggerate the figures. Nor does the number of divorces really prove anything. As far as I can gather, during the reign of Queen Anne only eight divorces were legalised in this country. I am not sure that that proves that during her reign there was any less guilt, any less adultery, any less unfaithfulness, and any less marital misbehaviour.

I ask the House to look at this question in a broader context, because most of the difficulties which we are discussing, and of which I am well aware, arise from matters which are not really part of the divorce law of this country. So much that we have heard about maintenance, costs, pensions, and difficulties, arises simply and solely from the fact that there are no sensible arrangements for married women in our National Insurance machinery. A married woman should have an economic status of her own. She should have National Insurance on her own, as an individual, which is what Beveridge wanted, because he emphasised that the breakdown of a marriage might put a woman in as much need as the ending of a marriage through widowhood.

It is because our society insists on continuing to regard women as the appendages of their husdands that we get into this muddle. There is no proper National Insurance for married women who are at home, and I do not think that we can put that right purely in the context of changes in the divorce law, because this has other important ramifications. For instance, the housewife who becomes disabled, perhaps totally crippled, is not entitled to sickness benefit. There are other catastrophes which overtake women and by which they are disadvantaged by our present system.

I hope that the women's organisations will not persist in saying we must have divorce law reform because of the economic dependency of married women. We must be campaigning for a more independent economic status for married women and for them to have individual National Insurance rights.

It is very gallant of hon. Gentlemen to talk so much about deserted women who will suffer under the Bill, but I must draw attention to the fact that though the women Members of this House are notoriously conscientious, only my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) and I, among the women Members, have bothered to come here at all today, and I cannot think that the women of the country can be in such terrible danger if the other women Members of the House feel that their presence is not needed in their defence.

Mr. Richard Wood (Bridlington)

Perhaps the women of the country noticed that their interests were not very well defended by hon. Ladies in this House.

Mrs. Jeger

At least I have come to say what I have to say, and I am not sure of the virtue of absence on an occasion like this. I am sorry I wasted time in giving way to the right hon. Gentleman.

It is no help to us to have hon. Gentlemen expressing the view, as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Oldham, West did, that towards middle age, when we become sexually unattractive, men will go off with younger women. They will talk us women into the ground with that sort of talk. Those of us who are well over 50 like to feel that we are not totally unattractive.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

May I assure my hon. Friend that the whole House regards her as one of the most beautiful and attractive women in the land?

Mrs. Jeger

One of the most interesting social facts of the contemporary scene is that we women are wearing better, and it is quite clear to any observer that it is the men who in middle age get fat——

Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South) rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am a little afraid of intervention at this stage.

Mrs. Jeger

It is middle-aged men who get fat and bald and unattractive. We really cannot allow this important matter to be argued in terms of the age cycles of men and women.

I remind the House that only 10 per cent. of divorces concern women over 50. It is the younger people who are at the heart of this matter, people who may be hoping to have a second family or who want to put right an early mistake. There is so very little time that I have to be very brief, but just to put the opposite point of view to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Oldham, West I want to refer to a letter I have received from an elderly woman. She says: I must write to you because I am so hoping that the Divorce Bill will go through. She tells me she is now over 60; she was married for three years over a quarter of a century ago; then she met a man whom she felt she could love and she moved in with him and with his aged, dying mother; she never took a penny off her husband for over 22 years; the husband refused a divorce.

Now the second man, whom she regards as her husband, has died. She says: I went to my solicitor. After all these years, surely I am a widow now, and he said, no, I am not a widow, I am still legally tied to that first party. It would break my heart if I went to my grave without being free. Hon. Members may not think that this is important, but it is a point of view which has to be taken into account.

I will mention one other specific case of a woman aged 38 who has had to leave her husband after unendurable cruelty. Obviously, one tells her that she must get a divorce on those grounds, and she started to do so, but in her letter to me she says: When I found that it meant I had to tell everything about all those difficult bitter years I somehow couldn't go on with it, so I just left my husband. She wishes to marry again, but her husband will not agree to a divorce, even though they had for many years been living apart.

The letter adds: I am now 38. If I am to marry and have children there is not much time, so, while Parliament is arguing, the years will pass, and I and many others will grow old alone instead of as a member of a family. I do not press those two examples unreasonably; I merely ask that circumstances of this kind should be taken into account.

Another practical point which has been put to me is this. Where the marriage has broken down and a new partnership has taken place, a wife is unable to emigrate without the consent of her husband. I know of a couple who wish to emigrate and who are not able to do so together, since the legal husband can withhold his consent to the wife's emigration, and this he can do merely out of cantankerousness and not because of a hope for reconciliation.

Children must be at the heart of our interest in the matter. I would, for once, agree with the hon. and learned Member for Oldham, West that we are deluding ourselves if we think that the average worker in this country can afford to keep two families. Of course lie cannot. This is the part of the Bill that makes me nervous. My hon. Friend has been a little restrictive; I can see that the richer man will get a divorce more easily than the poorer man. Two factors must be taken into consideration.

I come back to our unsatisfactory National Insurance regulations. The majority of maintenance orders are not now being met, so the State is meeting them through the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I would prefer to see the maintenance of children completely integrated with the National Insurance system rather than dealt with ad hoc through the Commission. I do not think that the cost to the country would be much more, and it would regularise the situation.

A case can be made out for a generous allowance for children who are fatherless, for whatever reason, whether the mother is unmarried, deserted, separated or divorced. I am reminded of a woman who came to see me here the other day and who said that she never wanted to take a penny from her husband, whom she could not stand the sight of. I do not wish to get involved in arguments, since it may be that he did not think much of her, either. The important thing which she said was this, "It is not money that I want. I want a day nursery where I can leave my child, so that I can go to work. I want to work". This is increasingly the pattern of the future. More married women are today going to work outside their homes than were doing so during the war, when conscription sent them out.

We have to break away from the concept of total domesticity and total dependency when we are trying to do something to put the marriage laws on a fairer basis. I very much hope that hon. Members whose objections to the Bill arise out of totally different considerations will try to tackle those other considerations and try to deal with the indignity to the status of women and their being looked on as completely financially dependant on their husbands and subservient to their husbands for taxation and National Insurance purposes. This is not how life will develop in the rest of this century.

One can see among one's younger friends that women are taking a much more independent view. They are living a more independent life economically, financially and socially. To oppose the Bill on the ground of our failure in other spheres would be a disservice. I would say to many women who are anxious about their property and pensions that I will campaign to try to achieve some fairness in the ownership of property in marriage.

I am glad that the House may have a chance to do that before long, but the campaign for ownership of property in marriage is not entirely to do with divorce. It is just as important in a happy marriage and very important when one is widowed, as I know only too well. Then the question of ownership of one's home and what is in it suddenly becomes a legal matter. That alone, which is one of the main reasons for hesitation on the part of many women, should be dealt with quite separately.

It may be said, why do we not put all these things right, ownership of property for married women and National Insurance for married women and other things? if Parliament were more sensibly organised, of course we could do that. I should like to see those things done first, but we so arrange our affairs that by the luck of the draw an hon. Member who succeeds in the Ballot must put forward what he sees as the most useful and helpful Measure at that time. He cannot do everything he may wish to do.

I hope that the Government will try to see that all these related questions, which are for them to consider, receive urgent attention, and that in the country, instead of campaigning against my hon. Friend's Bill, there will be an intensification of the campaign to get the Government to take some action on all these important matters which are not for private Members, but which should he matters for my right hon. Friends.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Worsley (Chelsea)

It is inevitable that in debates on this subject there should be some repetition of what has been said. At least the debate has been enlivened by the defence of older women by the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger). We appreciated that. She will find that she has many supporters on that in all parts of the House. The debate was also made remarkable by the fact that she expressed a fear, which I do not think any of us share, that she will be talked into the ground. That is an unlikely event.

The hon. Lady spoke about deficiencies of the law in many respects and particularly in respects which would apply to a woman who was divorced against her will whose source of income therefore might be at risk. She said that we should put these things right subsequently and that private Members had a chance of doing only what they want to do at the time. That is true, but it does not strengthen the case for the Bill to say that one knows that many things need doing. Many of us are resolutely opposed to a Bill of this kind going through unless those things are tackled first. I do not think it the slightest good to talk about passing a Bill of this sort and of doing those things subsequently.

I accept that this is a responsibility of the Government and I think it essential that the Government should take their responsibilities related to——

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.