HC Deb 17 February 1969 vol 778 cc38-106

Order for Second Reading read.

3.36 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

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

This is a very important Measure of law reform, but it is not just a lawyers Bill. It introduces important social reforms and its consequences will be far-reaching. Its purpose is to make three major changes in family law and each of its main parts stems from the Report of a separate Committee. Part I implements, broadly, the recommendations of the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority, Part II implements the Report of Lord Justice Russell's Committee on the law of succession in relation to illegitimate persons and Part III is the result of the Law Commission's consideration of the possibility of introducing blood tests in civil proceedings where paternity is in dispute.

It used to be a reproach against Governments that, when a problem needing solution arose, the matter was referred to a Committee, the Committee produced a Report and the Report was then consigned to a Whitehall oubliette, there to vanish. This Government, at any rate, have an impressive record for early implementation of the recommendations of Committees in the field of law reform.

When I recently moved the Second Reading of the Administration of Justice Bill, I referred to the work of lawyers—judges, barristers and solicitors alike—in recommending and generating interest in law reform today. It used to be a taunt that one could no more expect lawyers to reform the law than tigers to reform the jungle, but that could not fairly be said today, even by the most severe critics of the lawyers.

I should like to pay tribute to all the members of the Latey and Russell Committees, both lawyers and non-lawyers, for the services which they have rendered and the considerable amount of time and energy that they gave to producing their impressive Reports. To the Law Commission, also, we are indebted for the authoritative Reports that it has produced.

There is general agreement, I think, that family law as it stands needs reform. Only recently have we come to think of family law as a specific field of its own. The Law Commission is now engaged in a study of a number of important aspects of family law and I hope that the implementation of the Latey Report will be the first step towards the systematic reform which is clearly needed.

When the Latey Report was published, in 1967, the Government thought that an opportunity should be given for debate both here and in another place. I need not go over what was said here at that time, but right hon. and hon. Members will remember that the Latey Committee decided, by a majority of nine to two, that the age of full legal capacity should be lowered to 18 in the field which it had examined.

It is important to note that the area of dissent in the Committee was in substance confined to eight recommendations about the age at which full capacity should be conferred in the field of marriage, wardship and to some extent of contract. The Committee was unanimous on the other 44 recommendations which it felt were urgently needed to bring up to date the law affecting young people. The Committee, as the House knows, did not consider the voting age. Because it is a constitutional matter, it has always been dealt with separately. But the Government have introduced a provision in the Representation of the People Bill, which is now in another place, to lower the voting age to 18. That goes hand in hand with this Bill.

It was the view of the Latey Committee—and the Government are in full agreement with it—that the law relating to young people must match their needs as much as possible and reflect social conditions as they are today. There is no magic, and there never has been any magic, about the choice of the age of 21. Indeed, it appears that we have arrived at it by a process of historical accident. On mediaeval times the young burgess became of full age when he could count money and measure cloth; the young sokeman—that has no alcoholic meaning, but means a yeoman farmer—came of age when he was 15 and the tenant by knight's service when he was 21.

The latter age, which later became general, apparently had some connection with the ability of the young man to sustain a heavy suit of armour and lift a lance or sword at the same time—not, the House may think, a very relevant consideration today.

Nor are there many indications today of the supposed need in the last century to protect from the clutches of moneylenders infants who were said by the Law Journal of the time to be

"prone to horse-flesh, dog-flesh, cigars, sparkling drinks, swell attire, betting and making presents to ladies who are sometimes fair and often fragile."

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

The House will be interested in my right hon. and learned Friend's reference to moneylenders. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that modern moneylenders are much more efficient than were ancient moneylenders and that the whole question of hire-purchase and money lending for juniors is a vexed question about which I may require to speak later.

The Attorney-General

The House will listen to my hon Friend with great attention. Control over money lending and the restrictions related to it are much stricter today than they were in the last century. If I may anticipate what my hon. Friend will say, some of the provisions of the Trades Descriptions Act and of the earlier Acts in regard to misleading descriptions of goods will be of additional protection to those who might be the victims of the potential sharks, many of whom float about in the waters of our society.

There is a lot of criticism of, and a great deal of publicity about, young people at the moment, particularly those at university. I feel that it would not be a bad thing if the TV cameras were turned more frequently on some of the vast majority of young people who leave school at 15 or later, get jobs, marry and have families before they are 21, and lead normal lives, subject, however, to the legal restrictions which at present affect them, but which, in the view of the Latey Committee and the Government, are no longer geared to their needs or their requirements. The weight of the evidence which the Committee received was to the effect that the vast majority of young people today are more mature and more responsible than they have ever been, and it is about time that our laws recognised that fact.

Clauses 1 to 3, together with the three Schedules to the Bill, implement the main recommendations of the Latey Committee. Clause 1 provides in general terms that a person shall attain full age at 18 instead of 21 and that all statutory references to minority and infancy shall be construed accordingly. This has the effect of enabling persons who have reached the age of 18 to hold and dispose of property, to make binding contracts and to make wills. The Clause applies to all enactments whenever made, but it does not apply to private dispositions, such as deeds and wills, which were made before the Clause comes into force. It would not be right to interfere with such dispositions which were made in reliance on the existing law. I feel sure that I carry the House with me in that view.

Schedule 2 contains three exceptions to the general change which is brought about by Clause 1. The first is the Regency Acts. It has long been the case that at the age of 18 the Sovereign becomes capable of exercising his or her functions as such and that the heir presumptive or the heir apparent can act as Regent or Counsellor of State. Other members of the Royal Family cannot act as Regent or Counsellor of State until they are 21, and it is proposed not to alter that provision.

The second exception is the voting age which, as I said, is dealt with in the Representation of the People Bill. The exclusion of Section 7 of the Parliamentary Elections Act, 1695, means that a person would still have to be 21 before he can become a Member of Parliament—so there will be no teenagers in the House yet. The last exception is financial legislation, because changes in taxation are not appropriate to a Bill of this kind and must be considered for a Finance Bill. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has this under consideration at present.

Clause 1 with Schedule 2 also makes a number of transitional provisions with which I need not trouble the House at this stage.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

Would the Attorney-General explain the relation between Schedule 1 and Schedule 2? I understand that Schedule 1 gives a list of those Statutes where the change is made and Schedule 2 gives a list of those Statutes where the change is not made. What is to happen to a Statute which is neither in Schedule 1 nor in Schedule 2?

The Attorney-General

I will give consideration to that question and deal with it in due course. I imagine that there must be a simple answer. It is probably that these are the only Acts provisions of which are affected by the Bill.

Clause 2 deals with the age of consent to marry, and it was discussed in general terms in our debate on the Latey Report. It gave rise to an Amendment in another place which would make 20 rather than 18 the age of "free" marriage, as the Latey Committee described it—that is, marriage not needing parental or court consent. It is a convenient if somewhat surprising expression. I must tell the House that it is the Government's intention to move an Amendment in Committee on the Bill which would restore the age to 18. In my view, it would be illogical, irrational and inconvenient should the age of free marriage differ from that of full legal capacity in other respects. But we shall probably discuss that matter in detail in Committee and I will say no more about it now. This Clause also implements a recommendation of the Latey Committee by allowing a superintendent registrar to require written proof of consent to the marriage if he thinks fit in those cases where consent will still be required.

Clause 3 is important in that it reduces from 21 to 18 the age at which a person can make a valid will. The Clause also provides, in effect, that anyone over 18 can take in full right any benefit to which he may be entitled on an intestacy when an intestate dies after the Bill comes into force.

I come to Clauses 4 to 6 of the Bill, which are concerned with the maintenance of children who are, or have been, the subject of guardianship, wardship, affiliation or matrimonial proceedings. It is the intention of the provisions, contained in these Clauses to enable the courts to continue to award maintenance for children up to the age of 21 although other forms of jurisdiction will cease at 18.

The recommendation of the Latey Committee was that the court should have power to make maintenance orders without any age limit, but the Government do not consider it right to make any change in the existing situation while the Law Commission as a matter of urgency are considering the whole question of financial provision in matrimonial proceedings. This is, therefore, something of a holding operation pending the report of the Law Commission which my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor hopes to receive later in the present session.

Clause 7 will enable the Chancery Division to commit wards of court to the care of a local authority or to order that they should be placed under the supervision of a welfare officer or local authority.

Clause 8 will clear up confusion about the ability to consent to medical treatment by providing that anyone over the age of 16 can give a valid consent to such treatment.

Clause 9 is designed to remove a curious oddity of the law which, in most cases, means that a person attains a given age at the first moment of the day preceding his birthday. The Clause introduces what might be thought to be the obvious solution of providing that a person attains the given age at the first moment of the relevant birthday.

Clause 10 repeals certain enactments relating to minors, like that relating to the fraudulent abduction of heiresses. But it will still be an offence to abduct a girl under 18 whether or not she has property or expectation of it. We move to a previous era in dealing with Section 6 of the Employers and Workmen Act, 1875. This Section, which empowers justices to order imprisonment of an apprentice who fails to comply with direction to perform his duties, is also repealed.

Clause 11, more importantly, will allow persons under full age to be called minors instead of infants, which is the unreal technical name which we give them at the moment.

I come now to Part II of the Bill, which is concerned with the recommendations of the Russell Committee on the Law of Succession in Relation to Illegitimate Persons. Its purpose is to give a better deal to children born out of wedlock who have for far too long been the subject of unfair discrimination.

The law of England and Wales is that where a mother dies intestate, leaving an illegitimate child but no legitimate child, the illegitimate child can share in the distribution of her estate. In all other cases, however, the illegitimate child or any person claiming through an illegitimate link has no claim in the distribution. Furthermore, the illegitimate child has no right to apply to the courts for provision out of his deceased parents' estate under the Inheritance (Family Provisions) Act.

There is yet another disadvantage suffered by the illegitimate child, which is that where a testator makes a gift in his will to his "children" there is a rule of construction that the gift is to be taken to be intended only for legitimate children where no contrary intention is shown. So, at present, it is sadly the case that the illegitimate child is virtually excluded from all benefits of his parents' estate unless a specific provision has been made for him.

The Russell Committee considered that this state of affairs should be ended, and so do the Government. This is what Part II of the Bill seeks to do.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman means that the Russell Committee recommended in favour of ending this state of affairs.

The Attorney-General

As to the rule of construction, I agree. I shall say a little more about that in a moment.

The Committee considered the law both of England and Wales and of Scotland, and the Scottish law has already been altered in the sense of this Bill by the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act, 1968. The principles underlying Part II of the Bill have thus already been approved by the House and are now part of the law of Scotland.

Clause 13 of the Bill provides that an illegitimate child and his parents shall have the same right to share in each other's estates on an intestacy occurring after the Clause comes into force as if be were legitimate. The Clause deals only with illegitimate children and not with remoter descendents because it is felt, by both the Russell Committee and the Government, that it was wisest not to go further than the immediate parent-child relationship. I think, and I hope that the House will agree, that the provisions in the Bill go far enough to remove the basic injustice which I have described. The Government and I are satisfied that in making the reforms proposed by the Bill the institution of marriage will in no way be weakened.

Clause 14 deals with the construction of the term "children" in wills by reversing the current rule by which an expression connoting relationship prima facie means such a relationship traced exclusively through legitimate links. Under this Clause, the presumption will be that expressions of this kind are intended to include relationships traced through illegitimate as well as legitimate links. This is a departure from the recommendations of the Russell Committee which thought that the rule of construction should stay as it is.

There are arguments both ways and the matter is nicely balanced. However, the Scottish Law Commission took the opposite view to the Committee and this has now been incorporated in the Scottish Act. My right hon. Friends and I have considered this carefully and are of the opinion that it would be best to follow the Scots, and that is why Clause 14 appears in this form. I should perhaps add that the abolition of the rule will not affect in any way existing dispositions.

Clause 15 will give illegitimate children the right to apply to the court for provision out of the estate of their parents as if they were legitimate.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

Before the Attorney-General leaves Part II, may I comment? He said that these provisions would not affect the institution of marriage. Perhaps he would confirm that the overwhelming majority of Christian opinion will support the measures in Part II as righting injustice because very few people today continue in the belief that the sins of the fathers should be visited on the children.

The Attorney-General

I am grateful for that intervention. It would seem almost a piece of cruelty to punish a child for the circumstances in which the child was born.

I was turning to Part III of the Bill, which is concerned with questions of proving paternity. [Interruption.]

Mr. J. T. Price

I am sorry if I appeared to be muttering. I did not mean any discourtesy. I remarked that there were some cases where there was reward for the sins of the parents, particularly if there were a distinguished or honourable parent. I do not want to argue that now.

The Attorney-General

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not be so ungenerous as to say that any child of an honourable Baronet should suffer in consequence of the happy chance of that paternity. What the Bill will do is to see that the illegitimate child is treated as fairly as the law permits. Gradually, the attitude of society itself is changing in this field.

For the third time, I turn to Part III of the Bill, which is concerned with questions proving paternity. About three years ago the judges of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division suggested that it might be useful for the Law Commission to consider the whole question of blood tests in cases where paternity was in dispute. In particular, it was felt that an investigation was required into the question whether the court should have power to direct parties involved in cases of this kind to undergo blood tests.

The result of the Law Commission's considerations of these problems was its Report on Blood Tests and Proof of Paternity in Civil Proceedings, which was published at the end of October, 1968. The Commission annexed draft clauses to its Report. These form the basis of this part of the Bill, although there have been a number of changes since their publication.

It appears that it can now be shown conclusively through blood tests that a particular man cannot be the father of a particular child. It can also be shown, with varying degrees of probability, that a man may be the father of a child. It was the view of the Law Commission, that the civil courts should be allowed to make use of these advances in medical science in assisting them to reach decisions in affiliation proceedings, divorce and nullity proceedings and petitions for declarations of legitimacy.

Blood tests agreed to voluntarily are, of course, not unknown in the courts at the moment and there is a good deal of case law on the subject. But the position, in the view of the Law Commission, is far from clear and the Government accept that it should be regulated by legislation.

In divorce and nullity proceedings, the courts are bound at present by what is known as the presumption of legitimacy. This means that, in the absence of definite evidence to the contrary, a child born to a married woman is held to be the legitimate child of that woman and her husband. The Law Commission has considered this rule and recommends its removal.

Clause 18 of the Bill provides, therefore, that in any civil proceedings where paternity is disputed, the court, on an application by any party to the proceedings—that must intitiate the process; the court does not itself take the initiative—may direct blood tests to be made and the report of those tests shall be receivable in evidence. Affiliation cases constitutes the bulk of such proceedings. At the moment, there is only power in the High Court to order children to be tested and no power at all for an order for adults to be tested; so this provision is a substantial extension of the existing law.

I should make it clear, however, that nobody will be forced to undergo a blood test against his will, but, under Clause 21, the court may draw whatever inference it may think proper from a refusal. The right to refuse is stated expressly in Clause 19.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend spell out with a little more precision the purpose of Clause 21, which appears to give to the court no more power than it would normally have to draw an inference from the fact that evidence has been advanced?

The Attorney-General

It will now have power to extend the field in which the direction can be given. If the party concerned refuses to comply with that direction I think that will certainly extend the ability of the court to take advantage of the situation. I would imagine that it would tend in most cases to draw adverse conclusions in a wider range of cases if without any satisfactory reason there were a refusal by a party to submit to the tests.

I was emphasising that no one will be forced to undergo a blood test against his will. That is an important part of this Measure.

Clause 19 will also make it clear that any person over 16 is capable of giving a valid consent for himself, which is in line with the general rule laid down in Clause 8, to which I have already referred. There will be provision also for consent to be given on behalf of persons under 16 and mental patients. The administrative arrangements for blood testing will be contained in regulations made by the Home Secretary under Clause 20. They will be subject to the negative Resolution procedure.

I referred a moment ago to the presumption of legitimacy. Clause 24 implements the recommendation of the Law Commission in this respect and will make it clear that to rebut any presumption of legitimacy or illegitimacy it will only be necessary to produce evidence that the probabilities are the other way. This provision is contained in Part IV of the Bill, because it goes rather wider than the field of blood tests dealt with in Part III and brings about a general change in the law of evidence.

Finally, Clause 25 deals with technical matters of registration of birth of an illegitimate child and Clause 26 contains the Short Title, commencement provisions and other matters. I apologise for taking some time over aspects of the Bill of a technical nature. I commend the Bill to the House as a very important measure of legal and social reform which, I hope, will command general support.

4.8 p.m.

Sir Peter Rawlinson (Epsom)

There are certain characteristics of every debate in which I follow the Attorney-General. First, both of us speak to benches not wild with excitement and enthusiasm and not in a House in which hon. Members are crowding below the Bar listening to every word which either he or I says. Secondly, he always deals with a Bill with great clarity, for which we are always grateful. Thirdly, he always introduces an enjoyable historical anecdote to lighten the general tenor of the debate.

Fourthly, and it is only to this I take exception, the right hon. and learned Gentleman always prefaces his remarks on a piece of legislation with a great flourish about the impressive record of the Government in law reform. The right hon. and learned Gentleman protests too much. In law reform it matters as much how one does it as what one does. One matter which is very much concerning many hon. and right hon. and learned Members is the manner in which the law is being altered, and in which we have before us time after time piecemeal legislation which is rendering the task of those who have to advise many citizens who get involved in questions of law an almost impossible one. This is another measure which alters the law.

The Attorney-General

Would not the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree with me, at any rate to this extent, that no Parliament has had quite so much assistance from expert legal bodies outside Parliament as this Parliament has? In this respect, I think that we are very fortunate. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will join me in expressing gratitude to those who make our work much easier than probably any of our predecessors found this work.

Sir P. Rawlinson

I readily join in that tribute. However, there comes a time when the House should pause and consider the manner in which we are making law by reference. We are continually engaged in lawmaking by referring to previous Acts. For instance, Clause 26(2) says: Except where the context otherwise requires"— that is, the exception— any reference in this Act to any enactment shall be construed as a reference to that enactment as amended, extended or applied by or under any other enactment, including this Act. I, too, pay tribute to the assistance which we are getting, but this is a problem which affects the whole system of lawmaking.

In considering the Bill I bear in mind, as I think many right hon. and hon. Members will, that it is entitled "Family Law Reform Bill". I am a little uncertain as to why it is so entitled. It deals with three separate subjects: it is an amalgam of the Latey, the Russell, and the Law Commission Reports. I do not know whether there will be controversy on all parts of the Bill. There may be on one part and not on others. There will certainly be controversy about the manner in which these changes are sought to be effective.

The Divorce Reform Bill is at present in Standing Committee. That is a Private Member's Bill, similar to one which it was sought to get through last Session. It is a Bill which will affect many thousands of citizens and their families.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are on the Second Reading of this Bill.

Sir P. Rawlinson

It is impossible, Sir, to consider this Bill in context and decide whether we approve of it without examining to a certain extent what is the present state of family law.

The Divorce Reform Bill seeks to alter one aspect of it. The Matrimonial Property Bill—another Private Member's Bill—seeks to alter another aspect. Both the Government and the Law Commission have announced that the whole question of the jurisdictional division of family law matters in the High Court is being considered.

Mr. David Weitzman (Stoke Newington and Hackney, North)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that we should wait for years before making this reform?

Sir P. Rawlinson

I should have thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman might have the courtesy to wait and hear what I have to say; it might help him a little. I am saying that this is the context in which any sensible person will consider this Bill.

Part I affects the age of what was previously called an infant, now to be called a minor. It reduces that age from 21 to 18. This must be seen in the context that the Representation of the People's Act has reduced the voting age to 18. Given that context, it will be difficult for many persons whatever their views may be, to object to this provision.

In the context of the present law, if we are giving to these persons various rights, if they be rights—they may be disadvantages—are we willing for them to accept the responsibilities which they will have if adulthood comes at 18? Let us consider the legal consequences in the context of the Bill and by examining the Bill as lawmakers who have a responsibility to enact sensible law which can be implemented and be understood by the citizens and by those who must advise them when they come into contact with legal problems. For instance, in criminal law special provisions apply to young persons aged between 18 and 21. There are restrictions as to the imposition of imprisonment on young persons up to 21.

Clause 20 will effect an important alteration. If we think that minors or infants should properly be released from their responsibilities and restraints at 18, why should they not accept the consequences?

It is such considerations as these which cause me to be concerned about the Bill's introduction at this time. The hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman) asks whether we must postpone everything. He said: because it is a good thing, must we postpone it? There may come a time when we shall have to do so. Until we have a system for properly codifying the law and putting the whole of the law with regard to young persons and the family into a sensible shape so that it can be understood it may be wiser, if there is not pressing urgency, to delay its introduction.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

Is not what we are seeking to do today on the law of illegitimacy to undo some of the things done in the Statute of Merton of 1236? Does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman believe that even somebody on his side can agree that we are not being particularly precipitate in making these changes today?

Sir P. Rawlinson

That was a particularly offensive intervention by the hon. Gentleman, who will try, as ever, deliberately to distort or to misunderstand any argument which is being advanced. He had better understand what I am saying—that we as Parliamentarians should consider carefully before we bring the whole of the law into total disrepute by enacting law which is not understandable or acceptable.

This process started because of certain desires to get pieces of legislation through. Unlike the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), I am not dealing with this matter particularly on a party basis. This started by the Government's desire to get such matters as Corporation Tax and Capital Gains Tax through in one Measure at one time without any regard to the strength with which the form of the legislation could be criticised. Other examples are the Land Commission Act and various Acts dealing with property law, as well as Acts dealing with parts of the criminal law.

Though there may be parts in this Bill which will be approved without controversy and which some of us accept wholly, I nevertheless utter this caveat before taking the Bill straight away to look at it in the context in which it is presented. I am provoked all the more into doing this by the Attorney-General's reference to the Government's impressive record in law reform. The major task for anyone who seeks to have an impressive record in law reform is to convince the citizens that we can afford a proper form of redress of grievances in which the citizen comes up against the State.

Mr. Weitzman

The Government appointed three Committees, which spent a considerable time going into the three problems which are dealt with in the Bill. Those Committees submitted Reports. The Government are now implementing recommendations of those Committees. Is that wrong? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that we should wait until a future date before implementing those recommendations?

Sir P. Rawlinson

The hon. and learned Gentleman can have his little party piece if he wants to. I agree that it was an excellent thing to set up the Law Commission. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that I knew and worked with the Lord Chancellor for many years before he was appointed to that high office and I have sympathy with many of his aims.

The Law Commission is dealing with the whole subject of family law. Is there this tremendous urgency for us to push ahead with these pieces of piecemeal legislation which are being thrust before us? Would it not have been better to hasten a little more slowly? I know that the hon. Member for Pontypool will go back hundreds of years, even to the Statute of Merton. I am concerned not only as a lawyer, but as a Member, about the reputation of the House and the state of the law. Though some people such as the hon. Member for Pontypool are able to find their way through the law with the greatest of ease, the rest of us find it very difficult.

Part I of the Bill has been introduced under the Latey Report. It is introduced against certain illogicalities. It makes the teenager of 18 responsible for his debts. It therefore hardens the position against him, and it may be right that it should. It is said that he is more mature and, therefore, more responsible. In various circumstances, however, we do not accept that all along the line. We do not accept it, for instance, in the Finance Bill, 1968, by which the income of an infant who is 18 and under 21 is amalgamated with the parents' income, and is liable to the highest rate of the parents' tax.

The best possible hint was given by the Chief Secretary that the law should be changed in 1969. The Lord Chancellor made a similar comment in another place when dealing with this matter. This merely demonstrates that because no Chancellor can anticipate what he is going to put into his Budget, this piece of law-making which people think to be sensible has to wait and we have this untidy position for a matter of a few months.

We must also see the position that we are getting into if we consider Sections 364 and 397 of the Income Tax Act 1952. The Bill does not take into account, as the Attorney-General will agree, and as the Latey Report recommended, that the parents' responsibility for the tax of a defaulting child, though adult and over 18, is wholly unfair. What we are saying here is that a minor now earns so much more money and that, therefore, he should be able to enter into a contractual relationship and should be on his own feet. Yet at the same time we maintain the situation whereby the parent has this responsibility. This is another indication of slovenly law-making.

I do not know whether this matter has been closely considered by the Government but, as the Attorney-General will appreciate, wills usually contain a contingency provision in respect of reaching the requisite age. The age being 21 and the interest falling to the beneficiary at that age, when the age of adulthood is reached there is no contingency to prevent a person selling that reversionary interest, because 21 is the age of adulthood and is the age of vesting. Now it is proposed that this can happen between 18 and 21, against the wishes of the trustee and the testator.

Although I accept Part I as meeting to some extent the requirements of modern conditions, there are matters which will have to be looked at with great care. Otherwise, we shall find that there are situations which have not been considered and that this Measure has not been carefully dovetailed into the present circumstances.

I listened with interest to hear what the Attorney-General would say about Clause 2 and the marriage age of 20. If this age remains at 20 as opposed to 18, I think there will need to be considerable provisions made with regard to sanctions and the wardship of court.

Now I turn to Part II and the Russell Report with its humane objects. As the Attorney-General will appreciate, unlike foreign systems of law, our law of inheritance bases itself on the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act, 1938 and our law on intestacy is based on the Intestates Estates Act, 1952. The object of those Acts was to provide to a spouse or a child relief which the testator refused to give or under the 1952 Act because he failed to make a will.

The meaning of the words "child" and "nephew"—I am not dealing with the merits; I am dealing with how the principle is affected in the Bill—is such that under the present law gifts to illegitimate children conceived after the testator's death are void. Therefore, we have to consider how that is altered.

May I say through you, Mr. Speaker, to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) that, having read the Russell Report and having at first not been in sympathy with what he said in his dissenting report, I confess, on reflection, that what he has said is far more acceptable to me than the majority report. I feel that unless those provisions are adopted—perhaps made less generous—there will be the likelihood of spurious claims, it will be extremely difficult and costly for rightful successors to refute such claims and may lead to the likelihood of blackmailing.

Unless the father has acknowledged the illegitimate child in his lifetime, or has recorded it on the certificate of birth, or unless, as my hon. Friend suggested, there is a duly prescribed document, it will be very difficult for a family to resist what could easily be a spurious claim. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has received from the Life Offices' Association, as I have, representations expressing its concern. It has been its custom, in connection with these small estates, to pay out advances to the families.

If the Association now has to wait to see whether there are to be any claims by an illegitimate child, or by someone who claims to be a child, that puts it at risk and produces difficulties which may prevent it from making advances, as it has done in the past, to small families who are perhaps much in need of the money. This must be considered. We may all pay tribute to the intention of this provision, but, as I said before, how it is carried out matters. Clause 14 needs either to be amended or to be removed.

I turn to Part III, under the Law Commission Report, relating to blood tests. This would appear to be, and is regarded by most people, as something which would be most acceptable in assisting in the decision as to the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a child. But it affects the rights of the individual. The Attorney-General said that there is really no sanction, but, of course, the inference that can be drawn by the refusal is really the sanction. There are people with conscientious objections to that sort of thing. It has been so in the past in other matters, and it remains so now. We have to decide where the balance of advantage lies in relation to effectiveness in resolving a particular dispute and the right of an individual to resist and reject certain procedures.

In my view, these are sensible provisions which will be of assistance, and they weight the balance in favour of effectiveness in resolving a dispute as against what one must accept as conscientious objections. The court must—I hope that it will—reasonably take into account that there are many people who have such objections.

Perhaps my views on the detailed provisions of the Bill have to some extent been sidetracked, as it were, by my introductory observations expressing the concern which I feel both as a lawyer and, more important, as a Member of Parliament responsible for the making of law, but I hope that the warning which I sounded has not altogether concealed from the House the approval which I feel for some of the changes which are made. On the three main matters to which I have referred, my objection is to the manner in which the changes are made. In that sense, therefore, I welcome the Bill, altough there is much in its separate provisions which I shall wish to amend.

My final word is to repeat the warning. I hope that the House will think carefully about the present state of the law and the manner in which we, as a law-making body, are dealing with it.

4.32 p.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) usually engages the House with the grace with which he presents his case. Usually, his elegance of expression and the manner in which he contributes are matched only by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, but today he has fallen far short of his accustomed style. The right hon. and learned Gentleman tried to put in dispute a Measure which is throughout informed with compassion and understanding, and I regret that he has used this occasion to controvert the reasonable presentation of the case by the Attorney-General.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman told us that what he objects to in the Bill is not so much its content, but the manner of its making. For my part, I could hardly think of another Bill which had so enlisted the aid of sections of the community outside the House in drafting its provisions. I regard it as a model in many ways of how a Bill should come before the House. Instead of having before it a Bill produced by party caucuses or by legalistic lawyers, the House now has a Bill which, as a result of a sensible decision to draw upon thinking outside itself, reaches us in admirable form.

The members of the Russell Committee and the Latey Committee and the Law Commissioners, people from many disciplines and with wide knowledge, have contributed greatly in the preparation of the Bill, giving us the advantage of expertise which we do not have here. If ever there was a Measure coming before the House in which we have had the benefit of participation by disciplines outside Parliament, this is it.

It was churlish of the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom not to pay greater tribute to every member of those outside bodies. It was churlish of him not to acknowledge the work of the Law Commissioners who, when the matter was referred to them, ably and speedily presented us with their conclusions and with the draft of the Bill in embryo.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Gentleman is guilty of a little hyperbole in praising the Bill so unreservedly. It has some good features, but there are some grave omissions, particularly with regard to illegitimate children. The Bill improves their position, but it does not, for example, provide any means by which a father can recognise an established legal relationship with his illegitimate child. It is not such a wonderful Bill as the hon. Gentleman suggests, although it is a useful Measure.

Mr. Abse

I shall come to that point, which the hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise. For his part, he should note that his own Front Bench suggests not that we should assimilate law reform research as far as we have gone and remedy at least some of the troubles but we should postpone action and legislation to the indefinite future.

That is something which those of us who know how changes can be brought through the House cannot accept. So often, against the sort of conservatism which the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom has expressed, we have to proceed by gradually eroding the prejudices of the community so that we may through legislation educate the public to accept what we believe to be principles corresponding with social realities.

Sir P. Rawlinson

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not doing it purposely, but he is misrepresenting what I said. I thought that I had made clear to the House, if not to him, that it is the manner of effecting changes or of making law which cause me concern, not the particular changes proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Abse

It is the manner in which the Bill has come to the House, after having engaged the attention of wide sections of the community outside in consideration of the problems raised, which I so much approve. I regard it as a highly desirable way to reach such conclusions.

The Bill is a welcome advance. It frees us from some of the most ugly, unjustified and punitive attitudes which are at present embodied in the law, particularly relating to illegitimacy. The Attorney-General is right to claim that we are, literally, freeing ourselves from the incubus of feudalism which for so long has borne upon certain parts of our family law. He rightly pointed out that the age of majority was determined by the age when a man could wear heavy armour and carry a lance.

But that is not the only way in which the Bill makes changes. It frees us from the branding of the bastard which took place seven centuries ago, when the stubborn barons refused to countenance any change in the status of the illegitimate. When the Statute of Merton was passed, so that nothing should be done about the status of the illegitimate the barons roared out, "Nolumus mutare Angliœ leges" —we will not change the laws of England. Today, the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom has echoed that cry. The cynics who, too often, denigrate Parliament's zeal for reform should note that the Bill is further evidence of dramatic changes which are being made in social reform, and are being made by our Labour Government.

The old linking of the age of majority with a particular capacity to take part in battle underlines some of the techniques which were adopted by the elders of society to contain the disturbing assertions of manhood by their young men. Since the last quarter of the 18th century the intervals between wars fought by European nations or the United States have been remarkably constant, ranging from 18 to 24 years, and averaging 19½ years, just about the time required for a generation born during or just after the last war to reach manhood. The classical method hitherto of releasing the inter-group tensions prompted by the clamorous young men was to send them off to wars for, at the best, initiation, or, at the worst, death.

This ploy will clearly no longer work; it will no longer save the old men from the challenge of the young now that an H-bomb war would wipe out the old and young with the most inconsiderate lack of discrimination. There is no Empire, and hence there are no natives on whom young men can be unleashed. Therefore, the old have to find a more rational way of coming to terms with the young men.

One of them is to acknowledge the reality that they have attained manhood, to welcome them into the community as adults, as the Bill does. But, clearly, for the hereditary peers, just as for their ancestor barons in 1236, these changes are too much. It was the vote of the hereditary peers that wrenched from the Bill the proposition that young people may marry without their parents' consent at 18. If it were not for the hereditary peers' vote against the proposition, which I am pleased to learn the Government intend to put back in Committee, the vote would have been derisory. Doubtless, the peers are concerned about their precious titles and perhaps their landed estates, and want to determine what girls should marry their well-endowed sons.

But life is lived very differently in my South Wales valley. My Cwmbran Council, long before the Government appointed the Latey Committee, pressed me to raise, as I did, the anomalous position of the large number of married young citizens of 18 and 19 able to afford and wanting to buy houses but, because they were under 21, barred from obtaining local authority mortgages. The fact is that our much maligned and ever so cool young people have a veritable passion for domesticity.

Marriage has rarely been so popular amongst the young, and it is particularly popular among the 4,300,000 young men and women under 21 who are living away from home. Unlike many of the scions of the inherited peerage, they are supporting themselves. Indeed, 42 per cent. of all the women who marry in England and Wales marry under 21. Despite this huge figure of early marriage, only 600 cases came to the courts as a result of dispute with parents last year, and in 350 of them the courts decided that the young were wiser than the parents and gave consent.

I can think of no more bizarre proposal than that offered to us today by the other place. The Lords are inviting us to give an unfettered right to the under-21s to buy a house. They are suggesting that there should be an unfettered right to obtain a mortgage and to enter into hire-purchase agreements to buy furniture, beds and bedding, but wish to refuse the self-same people the right to marry.

As an old-fashioned, middle-aged man, I am shocked by these immoral and unexpected proposals, which seem to have emanated from Lord Brooke of Cumnor and Baroness Summerskill, and which are self-evidently a deliberate incitement to young people to live in sin. I was told by the late Rev. Llewellyn Williams, when I first came to the House, that the only Motion that would gain support from every section of the House was one directed unequivocally against sin. I hope that when it deals in Committee with the question of the age of consent the House will not depart from its traditional unanimity on that subject.

Apart from that blemish, which can be remedied, there are other flaws in the Bill, which can also be remedied. They are perhaps more noticeable in this Bill, precisely because so much of it is beyond criticism. In a Bill that wipes out so many of the disabilities of the illegitimate, and some of the handicaps suffered by the unmarried mother when seeking to prove paternity, it is unfortunate that all the legal obstacles still in the way, apart from blood tests, have not been finally resolved.

To that extent, I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Epsom. But if he levels reproach at us for that sort of omission he should also level it at his colleague on the Front Bench, the right hon. and learned Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg), with whom I was glad to be associated not so long ago in another piecemeal reform which at least helped to take away some of the difficulties suffered in the matrimonial courts by unmarried mothers who could not receive more than 50s. in respect of their children. But why are we now dealing with the blood tests in affiliation proceedings and not with all the other notorious difficulties to be found in the Affiliation Proceedings Act? Is it not time to deal with the time limit of 12 months in which proceedings have to be started, and should we not deal with it in the Bill?

That is an unreasonable period, placing as it does the necessity for decision on a woman when she may be ill-fitted to reach a sound decision as to the best interests of herself and the child. The fact, too, that the father must be resident in this country for an order to be made against him takes little account of the reality of modern life.

There is no procedure for the registration of voluntary agreements between unmarried parents dealing with the maintenance of their child. The wretched woman has no alternative but to take the sometimes equally unhappy man to the magistrates' court, if she is to have the benefit of an affiliation order. As the Chairman of the Law Commissioners has said, it is a pity that affiliation proceedings should carry with them the atmosphere of crime and the criminal courts. There is so much that could sensibly have been done, in addition to dealing with the question of the blood test, valuable as that is, and I am bound to regret that it has not. It is a pity that we have not altered the law that neither lump sums may be made nor settlements made.

But beyond maintenance and property there must loom the whole problem of status. I do not know what society gains by branding children as illegitimate. The whole question of the status of the illegitimate child is at present under study by the Society of Public Teachers of Law, as a result of the invitation of the Law Commissioners. I trust that it will not be long before we can have another Bill embodying the human and civilised proposals that I hope will emerge from that study.

This is a time of a rising incidence of abortions among unmarried mothers, to which the hon. Member for Chelmsford has rightly drawn attention. The consequently clogged gynaecological waiting lists of our hospitals are causing widespread concern. The civilised reaction to this state of affairs is to demand the legal and social changes which would encourage the unmarried mother to keep and not to destroy her child. There is no more vulgar error than to imagine that all unmarried mothers have children by mistake. Every social worker knows that many unmarried mothers have their children, wanting to give and to receive the love denied them in their own home situations. To destroy the unborn child, in so many cases, is to prompt the unmarried mother's half-conscious yearning to lead to yet another conception.

The long-delayed changes in the Bill, and the fact that even with these changes which are being made we still have not come to the end of the road of needed legal changes in our laws of illegitimacy, shows how far we still are away from required changes in our social attitudes.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

The hon. Member has mentioned unmarried mothers, saying that it is very wrong to blame them for abortions, but can he say what proportion of married women have abortions?

Mr. Abse

From figures given in the Press, and in today's Daily Mail, it is quite clear that it is a disproportionate number of unmarried mothers who are now receiving abortions and it is no use retreating from the situation. We should acknowledge that the social attitudes of the community are such that too many of the unmarried mothers are turning more to abortion than to maintaining their children.

The punitive community should stop dumping the pregnant single girl on to the overstrained health services. The need is for the housing authorities and our social insurance schemes to enable the unmarried mother to keep her child, as she is able to do in countries like Denmark. Then doctors would be able to get along with their proper function of receiving children into this world and not sending them to the next.

So far as the Bill goes—and it goes a very long way—it is excellent. It shows that the Government are certainly not prepared to allow the dust to gather upon the work done by able committees. It shows the Government's insight and understanding of problems which have been neglected for centuries, and by recent Governments, who have persistently neglected them. The speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Epsom was one which gave a clear declaration to the lawyers and social workers throughout the country that all that they can expect, if ever we have a Conservative Government, is yet more delay in social reform.

4.53 p.m.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

The hon. Member for Ponty-pool (Mr. Abse) condemned the conservatism of the mediaeval barons. I think that he might remember that it was their obduracy which led to the best and freest system of law and government which the world has ever seen.

The changes proposed by the Bill are due to the changes in the social and economic structure of our people. Changes in family law are necessary, and I am glad that the Government have seen fit to introduce a Bill in this connection, but I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) that the Bill is incomplete. In some respects it is clumsy, and indeed, dangerous.

What astonishes me is that the Government have seen fit to introduce a Bill dealing with these particular subjects and, at the same time, allow legislation dealing with the far more important question of divorce to be conducted by a private Member. It is that which seems to me to be wrong about the Government's attitude to this matter—to be wrong and to be lacking in courage.

I was thinking that when, 45 years ago, I first became a Member of the House, the structure of our society was somewhat different from what it is today. A relatively small number of rich and well-educated men controlled the great mass of manual and clerical workers. Now, in 1969, there is a far wider distribution of ownership and education. Those who own, those who manage, and those who work, whether manually or otherwise, enjoy standards of living which are much closer together than they were 45 years ago.

It is that change which has led to such practical results among them, as that, in the first place, our young people have much greater independence. They are better off, and that enables them to be much freer. Secondly, many more people are able during their lives to make some accumulation of wealth. I do not mean great fortunes, but at least they buy houses of their own and are able to leave some invested capital. It is these results which have made changes proposed in the Bill necessary.

I have no objection at all to any of the main proposals contained in the Bill. As for Part I, I find in my own constituency, and I think that it is true everywhere, that the vast majority of young people, of both sexes, are earning their own livings and often living away from their parents, and many of them hold responsible positions. It is ridiculous that those people should not be responsible for their debts and their contracts. I personally would go somewhat further than the Bill goes. I was glad to hear what the Attorney-General said about Clause 2. On that I, personally, would support him. I think that the restriction against marriage is not right, but I am also quite certain that freedom in that respect must be accompanied by financial freedom, and I am quite certain that before the Bill is passed the Government ought to indicate their general intensions, at any rate, with regard to the taxation of minors, and as soon as possible.

I want to say something about Part II. I was a member of the Russell Committee. As I say, I am sure that there is a need for changes to be made, mainly because many people nowadays have something to leave, and this means that the kind of family in which the parents are not married and their children, therefore, are illegitimate is often nowadays what might be called relatively well off. This is a circumstance which rarely, if ever, existed half a century ago.

In particular, I welcome Clause 17. I will use the word "bastard" because it was used by the Committee and it has the great convenience of being clear when one utters it and of assistance to those who report our debates. Clause 17 enables the bastard to obtain maintenance from the estate of his deceased parent. I welcome this reform, which is long overdue. I entirely agree with the proposal that the bastard should share in the estate of his deceased mother. The vast majority of mothers in distributing their worldly goods after their death would wish their legitimate and illegitimate children to share together; but I cannot agree that the same argument is true of the father.

Since I wrote the note of dissent to the Russell Report to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred, my views are on record. This matter can be discussed in detail in Committee, but there are some broad aspects which can properly be referred to on Second Reading. The Russell Committee passed all its recommendations on the principle that an illegitimate child should have the same rights as a legitimate child. The Committee fully acknowledged the practical difficulties to which this would give rise.

In discussing whether there should be some limitation on the power of the bastard to claim from his father, paragraph 39 of the Russell Report says this: We reject in principle the suggestion that succession should be limited to cases where there has been voluntary recognition whether formal or informal: though we recognise that the result of our views later expressed may be, in fact, to exclude nearly all other cases. In other words, a bastard's right in his father's estate, in accordance with the recommendations of the Committee, and, therefore, in accordance with the proposals in the Bill, will be very far short of genuine equality as between his parents. The Russell Committee and those who support its views are salving their consciences towards bastards by inflicting distress and probably expense on legitimate relations.

When a child is a member of what can conveniently be called an illegitimate family, that is to stay, a stable union, where the parents are not married, I entirely agree with what is proposed in the Bill. There is no difficulty of proof; it can be shown that the child is living with both his parents, and there would be no repercussion on a legitimate family. If either the father or the mother subsequently marries, the earlier conduct of that parent will be generally well known to the subsequent spouse.

Similarly, when the father of a bastard has given open recognition to his child, there is no difficulty of proof and no danger of subsequent repercussion. But with bastards who are not members of a stable illegitimate family the difficulty of proof will be immense and opportunities for legal blackmail will occur.

Those who have studied this question will know that an affiliation application may be made by a woman already pregnant who thereupon seduces the best-off man she can find with a view to making a claim against him. Again, an entirely promiscuous woman will often choose to make a claim against the best of the men with whom she has been living. Cases of this sort must be borne in mind.

When a claim for maintenance is made, either under an affiliation order or under Clause 17, the difficulty of proof is not so great, because the claim for maintenance must be made within a relatively short time; indeed, if it were not, it could hardly succeed.

Here we are dealing with a totally different case. The father of a legitimate child is usually a young man, probably between 20 and 25 years of age at the most. The present expectation of life is about 70 years, so that the average lapse of time between the birth of the child and the possibility of its making a claim under Clause 13 of the Bill will be nearly 50 years. That is the difficulty which the Bill creates and which we are proposing to throw into the lap of the courts for them to work out the rules for dealing with it.

It may be said that a man should pay for his wild oats; but it is not the man who will pay for his wild oats, it is the man's widow and his legitimate children. It may be that hon. Members wish that to be done; but the man is not being made to pay; he must be dead before a claim can be made against his estate. That is why, on practical grounds, the proposal is wrong.

Mr. Abse

Would not some of the hon. Gentleman's apprehensions be mitigated by a procedure of registration of recognition, something other than is obtained in the affiliation case which, as the hon. Member will know, affects only a small proportion of illegitimate children?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I could not agree more strongly with what the hon. Member has said. If he will do me the honour of reading my minority report, he will see that that is precisely what I suggested. The majority of the Russell Committee are doing lip-service to something which is called equality, but the probability is that the courts, after a great deal of heart burning and litigation will arrive at this result, and, therefore, I think that this part of the Bill ought to be amended.

There is a difficult moral problem as well as the practical one. On the one hand, we all have sympathy with the bastard. Whoever may be guilty, certainly he cannot be. On the other hand, no one would be prepared to say that there is not a need to sustain the principle of the legitimate family. It is the very basis of our civilisation.

One can fulfil one's feelings about the first by abolishing illegitimacy. I am not certain that the hon. Gentleman did not come near to saying that in his speech—

Mr. Abse

Quite right.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

If that is done, one abolishes legitimacy at the same time and, therefore, undermines the very basis of the legitimate family.

This case does not arise where there are no children, by definition, and, if it is made no longer worth while marrying because nothing is gained from it, I think that there will be a lot of people who will adopt that attitude. From some of the divorce figures and other matters now appearing, there is a tendency for people to feel that way even now, and that is why I say that some of the provisions in the Bill are dangerous. By that, I do not mean in the short-term. The Bill will not upset the country in a few months or a few years. Its ill-effects will be felt 50 and 100 years ahead. I think that this House has a duty to consider that point.

This country is not unique in confronting these problems. One of the matters which the Russell Committee considered was what has been done in other countries. Some of them are more liberal-minded than we are. We took evidence from all that we could and, if hon. Members look at Appendix IV of our Report, they will see that in every case in which a bastard is entitled to some share in his father's estate, the condition is laid down that the father has recognised the bastard. I believe that we shall be driven to that, either by an uncomfortable process of litigation, or by an Amendment of the Bill, or by some other means if the Bill goes through as it is drafted at present. Before it is passed, I hope that the Government will agree to an Amendment.

Clauses 14 and 15 make a gift contained in a will or deed to a child, either of the giver or of some other person, include an illegitimate child or someone who is related through an illegitimate link. This is contrary to the recommendation of the Russell Committee. This is not a very important point, as a general question. It is a mere matter of construction, and convenience probably should prevail. As the Government have framed this proposal, if property is left for life to the child of a testator or some other donor and the recipient of the gift has no children to succeed him, assuming that the meaning of "child" is altered as the Government propose, the result will be that he need only go out and get an illegitimate child in order to find an heir to the property that he has enjoyed during his life. That does not seem to be a very moral proposal, on the face of it, and I can imagine that it might lead to worse than that.

Under Clause 25(2) a father and mother together can re-register a child. I cannot see that it would be easy to disprove that a person who claimed himself to be the father of an illegitimate child was not the father. Reregistration would open the door to the arrival of a little heir without any difficulty. The individuals concerned would be tempted to make a somewhat fraudulent bargain which, although it would be illegal, would be almost impossible to get at under the law as it now stands.

I hope that the Government will look at this aspect of the matter. It would be better if these provisions were removed. Certainly, I do not wish to encourage immorality or fraud, and I fear that that is what the Government are tending to do in this connection.

I hope that the Bill will be amended as I suggest and, with those reservations, I wish it a swift passage through the House.

5.16 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)

In his concluding remarks, the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) suggested that fraud or immorality may arise from the Bill. However, in my view, the terms of the Bill are the very negation of that view. They attempt to get rid of the fraud which arises so often in affiliation proceedings by allowing the court to order a blood test. Then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) said earlier, the provisions of the Bill reduce the possibilities of immorality.

I welcome the Bill but, at the same time, I have a lot of sympathy with the views of the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) about (he form of it. I think that he overstated his case and was far more aggressive on a party political basis than one is accustomed to hearing him, especially in a legal debate. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool was equally aggressive in defending this three-in-one Bill.

In winding up the debate in another place, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor admitted: This is not the right way to draft legislation, but those who manage our Parliamentary time say that three Bills always take up more time than one and, therefore, if you want to get your thing in you have to put three in one."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 26th November, 1968; Vol. 297, c. 1194.] I do not think that we ought to put three Bills into one, which is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman was saying. I do not think that he was attacking any of the Bill's principles. He was attacking its form—

The Attorney-General

I thought that the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) was also suggesting that there should be a postponement of partial measures of reform in family law until the whole position is codified. In my view, that would substitute altogether the good for the best. That is the part of his proposition which I find unacceptable.

Mr. Oakes

I was about to come on to that because I, too, find it quite unacceptable. However, there is no reason for not bringing in three little Bills, each of them carrying out the intention of the three parts of the Bill, rather than lumping them together in this Family Law Reform Bill.

I wish that we had a real Bill dealing with all the matters about which we have heard today, including illegitimate persons, marriage, families, maintenance and the collection of maintenance. Some day, I hope that we shall have a Bill setting up a family court, so taking away the stigma of criminal proceedings which still attaches itself to matrimonial and affiliation proceedings. Practising in the courts, I have heard many times the chairman of a bench of magistrates say in affiliation proceedings, "We find you guilty." But there is no questtion of guilt or innocence involved in civil proceedings where a mother brings the putative father to court.

I welcome very much what my right hon. and learned Friend said about Clause 2, that we will endeavour in Committee to set aside the ridiculous proposition put before us by the other place. The other place is often unpredictable—that is one of the alluring things about it—but when it suggests, as it does in Clause 2, that the age of marriage shall be difference from the age of majority generally, it is behaving not with unpredicta bility, but like an eccentric recluse.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

Is is not equal criticism of this House that we are too predictable?

Mr. Oakes

That may well be. The other place has said that a person reaches full age and full legal capacity at 18. This House has said that a person shall have full citizenship at 18 in a separate Bill. In Committee, the hereditary peers, to whom my hon. Friend referred, descended upon the other place in droves and altered that provision concerning marriage, so that a person should not be allowed to marry without parental consent until the age of 20. I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend or anyone in this House can think of any country in the world that advances the proposition that a citizen of full age and of full legal capacity should not have the right to marry without consent. That is the hotchpotch that the other place made of Clause 2 by altering the age from 18 to 20.

A lot of people are involved. By that Amendment I calculate, from the figures given by my noble Friend Lord Wells-Pestell in the other place, that no less than 88,961 women and 30,252 men, a total of 119,213, of the ages of 18 and 19 were married in 1966. That is a great number of people of those two ages—equal to the population of a very large town—getting married in one year. Yet the other place wishes to set back the law and say that they shall not marry without parental consent.

I ask the House to consider another proposition which we may be neglecting: whether a person under the age of 18 should be able to marry at all, with or without the consent of the parents. We say that a man must be able to support his wife and family, so we will give him the legal capacity to buy a home, which more and more young people wish to do—and the Latey Report states that these young people honour their financial obligations better than older people. We also say that young people between the ages of 16 and 18 can marry with the parents' consent, even though they cannot go into a public house to buy half a pint of beer. I wonder whether it would be more advisable to have a uniform age of marriage, namely, 18 years of age. Below that age 25,000 people got married in 1966.

According to the Latey Report, the vast majority of those young people got married at the age of 16 or early 17 because the girl was pregnant. I think that the House will agree that that is the worst possible reason, at that age, for two people to get married. I suggest that if the girl is having a baby she should have it and wait until she is 18 years of age, by which time the two young people concerned are better able to decide whether they wish to marry than in the emotional stress of what in other respects we consider a child, and what we consider in the Children and Young Persons Act to be a child—someone under 18 years of age. I think that we should seriously consider permitting such young people to marry at all.

Mr. Abse

I am rather shocked by my hon. Friend's proposition. Surely he appreciates that every child should, if possible, have two married parents. In the early formative years of life this is very important. Is my hon. Friend not considering it a little abstractedly?

Mr. Oakes

I think my hon. Friend will agree that the marriages of a large number of young people who marry at 16 and 17 years of age end in divorce and tragedy. That is only the tip of the iceberg. They are the ones who actually go to court. But there may be many other broken marriages that really just hang together. I put the proposition to the House that if we are to be logical in considering reducing the age of marriage without parental consent from 21 to 18, we should also consider whether we will permit to be married people whom we will not allow to go into a public house to buy a drink.

I welcome most warmly the second part of the Bill concerning illegitimacy. The hypocrisy with which this country, this House and the law of this land has regarded illegitimacy over the centuries is astounding. We have a completely dual standard. Little opprobrium rests upon the head of the man. That is understandable, because even in the Bill we do not say that the bastard child is his. He still has no rights over the child, as my hon. Friend pointed out. However, we heap opprobrium upon the girl's head, although she is only one of two parties. In addition, the law over the centuries has done the unforgivably cruel thing of laying opprobrium on the innocent child of the union, although the child clearly could not be responsible for being born. The Bill attempts to redress the balance a little in favour of the illegitimate child. I do not like using the expression "illegitimate child". The hon. Member for Hendon, South used the word "bastard", which is a much better expression. How can a child, a being, be illegitimate, unlawful, as the term implies?

I have a minor criticism of the provisions of Clauses 4 and 5 and perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will consider it when he replies to the debate. In Clause 4(2) we see that a minor, who has been the subject of custody proceedings under the Guardianship of Infants Acts, can take his father, or one party of the marriage, to court provided that his parents are not residing together. I do not like the phrase "not residing together". I do not know what it means. Many separated families in this country live in the same house. Residing together and living together as man and wife can mean two very different things. Perhaps in Committee we will have a close look at the words "residing together".

The legitimate child has that indisputable right. But the illegitimate child, in Clause 5(2), appears to have that right only if his mother is dead, of unsound mind, or in prison. If she does not come under any of those categories, there is a distinction between the legitimate and the illegitimate child. There may be a reason for this. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will explain it to me and to the House at the conclusion of the debate.

Concerning blood tests in bastardy proceedings, I think that the House should unreservedly welcome this proposal. This protects the putative father just as much as it is of value to the mother. It is shameful that a man, disputing the proceedings, who asks for a blood test can be denied a blood test because the mother refuses to allow one on the child. The mother who was doubtful about the parenthood of the child would be the very one to refuse a blood test in that child's case. Now the court can order a blood test. I think that that is a wise provision which will prevent a great deal of injustice. It should have been done a long time ago in affiliation proceedings.

This is a good Bill, even though it is a little cramped, dealing as it does with three subjects in one Measure which I do not particularly like. Nevertheless, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. I hope, too, that, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, we shall restore the sense of the original Bill to make 18 the age for marriage without consent, just as it is the age for legal capacity in other respects.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

I welcome the Bill. I should not have voted, and did not vote, for bringing the voting age down from 21 to 18, but now that it has come down for voting I see no reason why it should not come down for other legal obligations.

I am sorry that the Government did not decide to bring in three small Bills. Had they done so, they would not have had the face to bring in a second Bill which dealt with illegitimacy in such a short Measure as this, and it is to this part of the Bill that I wish to address my remarks.

I want to follow some of the thoughts put before the House by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), because I agree with him that we need a real family law Bill dealing with illegitimacy. We in this House need to have another full look at the whole problem of the illegitimate child. I welcome the steps taken in the Bill, but I am disappointed that it does not go anything like far enough.

Anybody who has been to a magistrates' court and seen affiliation proceedings must realise what a game they are. The legal obstacles have been enumerated by the hon. Member for Pontypool, and I shall not go over them again. They are there because we have inherited a tradition that it is not a great sin for a boy to create a child but for a girl to do this is something wrong and wicked. It has always been made difficult to bring the father to book, and it is still difficult to do so in the courts today. I think that it is time we had a serious look at the legal obstacles which stand in the way of proving paternity, but that is not the real point that I wish to make.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hen-don, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) said that some hon. Members might want to abolish illegitimacy. I wish that we could. That is exactly what I should like to do. I do not for a moment believe that by abolishing illegitimacy we shall undermine marriage in the slightest. I do not believe that people who are married and have happy homes will find that their homes and their marriages are the slightest bit undermined if we take away this abominable stigma, which, as a society, we still place on people who are so unfortunate as to be born out of wedlock.

It is not just for this House to abolish that stigma. We can do something about the law, but what is required is a change in the social climate, a change in how people view these things. I am glad to say that this is coming rapidly in this country, but we, too, have our duty to do. We should make it possible for the girl who has an illegitimate child easily to bring up that child, and to have a real status. There should be no stigma attaching to her. There should be no inhibitions on that child being brought up as if it were being brought up within a marriage. Until we make that change injustices are bound to continue, and I hope that we shall soon have before us a Bill to make that alteration.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Does not my hon. Friend agree that if we succeeded in removing the stigma to which he referred, and also in removing the financial incentive, a large number of people would not get married? There would be no conceivable purpose for doing so, other than the purely theological.

Mr. Miscampbell

This is a matter of judgment, and my judgment is simply that that is just not right. I do not think that people would not get married. I cannot argue from instances, but I do not know that I should not have got married simply because it was possible to have a large illegitimate family, and I suspect that that goes for most people.

It is unfortunate that the theological grounds for staying married are, unfortunately, waning. We know from statistics that we are a minority Christian country. Only 10 to 12 per cent. of the people go to church. I deplore this, but I recognise it as a fact, and thus that tie is lessening, but I do not think that the practical ties, the advantages of having a stable marriage, are any less today than they have ever been, and I do not for a moment believe that they would be undermined by changing what I consider to be not only an anomaly, but a grave injustice. I am sorry that this provision is not in the Bill, but I am glad to have had the opportunity of saying that it should have been, and that I hope we shall very soon have a Bill which deals with this whole problem.

5.36 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I shall not detain the House for long, because my principal interest in the Bill is in Part I, and we had an opportunity to discuss this during the debate on the Latey Committee's Report, when I made my views clear.

I thought that the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) was extraordinarily disappointing, and I take issue with the manner and substance of what he said about the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman did not make clear his objections to the Bill, and I think that it behoves the principal Opposition spokesman to do so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said—and said at some length—that the manner in which this legislation had been brought forward was in some respect faulty. It was not clear whether he thought the Bill was too wide-ranging, or not sufficiently wide-ranging, on the matters of family law with which the Bill is concerned.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman instanced the fact that the Bill does not deal with certain tax matters, despite the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General had explained that these matters were proper for consideration in a Finance Bill introduced by Chancellor of the Exchequer. The right hon. and learned Gentleman also made some passing allusion to the criminal law, and seemed to imply that we should not seek to amend the family law until we took into account the possible consequences on criminal law.

Sir P. Rawlinson

Perhaps I might make my position clear. I obviously did not do so when I spoke earlier. I thought that what I was saying was that it behoved us all to look carefully at how we effected law reform and changes in the law. I referred to the fetish that we could not change even some of the financial provisions which follow from this Bill, because we have to wait for a Finance Bill.

Secondly, I though I made it clear that, with certain Amendments which other hon. Members have suggested, all three parts of the Bill were acceptable to me, but that as we were dealing with a Bill concerned with the law we should think about the way in which we are getting the law into such a mess by all this cross-reference and amendment of legislation.

Mr. Maclennan

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I do not think that he has cleared up the point. I cannot believe that he is seriously arguing that we should alter the incidence of taxation within the ambit of what is clearly a law reform Bill.

Perhaps the more serious objection to his point of view arises from what he said about the criminal law. I shall take some time over this point, because I entirely disagree with him about the manner in which the reform is being implemented. This is an absolute model of how law reform should be proceeded with. The question of criminal law was not within the remit of the Latey Committee; indeed, no recommendations were made in respect of it, for the very good reason that the Committee thought it right not to enter into this field. But it pointed out—and it should be pointed out in this debate—that the Bill deals with the law as it affects the normal, responsible young person, and not the exceptional person who runs up against society by law breaking or anti-social behaviour.

The Latey Committee—of which I had the honour and great satisfaction of being a member—recommended that the general capacity of young people to order their personal affairs should not affect the criminal or penal field because it was the irresponsible, the disturbed and the inadequate who become involved in anti-social behaviour.

It is not only undesirable; it is quite impossible to reform at one fell swoop the whole law affecting the family. It is the sort of recommendation which comes strangely from the Opposition, who formerly never proceeded in this way. They have always proceeded step by step. In this Bill there is nothing that really divides the Government and the Opposition, but the right hon. and learned Member sounded as though he was proposing something rather like the Code Napoléon. This would be wholly alien to all our traditions and practice.

I now turn to the substance of the Bill. I should like my right hon. and learned Friend to say something about the progress of the Law Commission in its study of the law of contract as it affects young persons. The Latey Committee made some general recommendations in this matter but, recognising that it was not fitted for the task of making specific recommendations to deal with a peculiarly difficult field of law, it suggested that the work should be put in hand by the Law Commission. We are glad to hear that the Commission is working on this.

So long as the Infants Relief Act remains on the Statute Book the law relating to the contractual capacity of minors—as they are now to be called—cannot be regarded as satisfactory, and it is to be hoped that this is one of those matters in respect of which the Commission will speedily bring forward a recommendation for amendment.

I do not wish to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) at great length. I take the view that in the mid-twentieth century it is quite indefensible for the child born out of wedlock to be virtually excluded from all the benefits of the parents' estate unless special provisions have been made for that child in the will. I therefore take this opportunity of welcoming that part of the Bill which seeks to amend the law and bring it into conformity with the law prevailing in Scotland.

I know that the hon. Member has already participated in our Scottish debates on this subject and has expressed a similar point of view. I know that he will not think it ungallant of me if I point out that he raised similar arguments in respect of a Bill last Session.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to introduce a Bill making legitim part of the system of law in England.

Mr. Maclennan

It would be most incautious to do so. In view of my earlier and rather inapt intervention in respect of Part III, I ought to explain at greater length my doubts about Clause 21. I realise that the discretion given to a court to take into account the failure of a person directed by that court to comply with a requirement to take a blood test is a discretion which will be exercise in a judicial fashion, but I question the wisdom of my right hon. and learned Friend, reply to my intervention, in saying that in many cases he believed that the conclusion to be drawn from a refusal to supply blood when the direction had been given would be adverse. Many people, for religious or other reasons, are reluctant to allow blood tests to be carried out, and it would be most unfortunate if, by our drafting of the Bill, we were to allow the impression to gain currency that an adverse conclusion should necessarily be drawn from such a refusal.

Perhaps the way the Bill deals with this matter cannot be improved upon; certainly where there is a conflict the balance ought to come down in favour of the direction rather than the refusal. I hope that I have made myself clear, although I fear that I may merely have made myself more obscure. A court should be most reluctant to put any weight upon the refusal of anyone to provide a blood sample. Only in the most exceptional cases, and where the evidence is fairly compelling, should weight be attached to this.

This is an important Bill, and it is in conformity with the notable record of the Government in bringing forward law reform Measures. It gives me great personal satisfaction. It must be most unusual for Members of Parliament to have the privilege of participating in a Committee which is studying a branch of the law and then of finding, within less than two years, that the Committee's recommendations are not only fully debated by the House but form the basis of legislation.

This matter has been dealt with completely and expeditiously by the Government and the Bill's provisions, especially those relating to young persons, are most timely. Nothing that has happened since the summer of 1967, when the Latey Committee reported, has diminished the urgency of recognising the capacity of the young to order their lives in matters of contract and marriage. The predicament, particularly of the young married, must increasingly give rise to concern. The difficulty, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) referred, of the young in acquiring a mortgage or in acquiring the property necessary to set up a home by hire purchase, and many other difficulties of this kind put an added strain upon the domestic life of young people.

The growing divorce rate among the young is a cause of great concern to many and nothing that we do should contribute to the tensions which are inevitable if the material circumstances of the young married couples are made more difficult. The Bill recognises the social facts and in some respects is more of a layman's Bill than a lawyer's Bill. However, as a lawyer, I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and the Government upon this Measure and I hope that it will speedily pass into law.

5.52 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

It has been my fate recently to take part in debates on lawyers' Bills and to be the first non-lawyer to speak.

I found the Latey Report, particularly the first part, a fascinating document. Paragraph 29 said: … wherever possible the law should be simple and clear. That is an admirable sentiment, but it does not seem to have been translated in this Bill or in many others. One thing which is illogical is that we shall be considering the age of majority and of voting at 18 and will not allow people to enter the House until they are 21, Yet Charles James Fox came in at the age of 19. I do not understand why this should be so and perhaps it will be explained to me.

I may show myself rather "square" in this debate, because I am not sure that we are doing the right thing and would rather come down on the side of the minority Report in respect of two particular cases. In the summary on page 157, recommendation (2) says: Parental or court consent to marry should continue to be necessary until the age of 21. Also, I hope an amendment on the lines of recommendation (5) under the same heading will be incorporated in the Bill: A person under the age of 21, who is able to show that a contract to which he is a party is or was harsh or oppressive, should be entitled to have the contract set aside and to further relief to such extent as the court considers just and equitable (except in the case of completed contracts for the disposition of interests in land); This idea is supported by the Law Society and recommended in the pamphlet by the Bow Group, and is surely applicable to this Bill.

Paragraph 571 refers to the survey carried out by the Sunday Mirror, which showed that there seemed to be no real desire for this lack of parental support over their marriage. That survey, reported by Anne Allen … shows that no less than three-quarters of young wives regret the fact that they married so young. And there is no doubting the sincerity of the 21-year-old who was 'very, very grateful' to her parents for saving her from a disastrous teenage match … The paragraph goes on to give her views at length.

We should not be certain that we are doing the right thing, but if we are to implement this proposal I hope that we shall ensure that all young people know what will hit them. They will not find it easy to change from their present way of life to these additional responsibilities. Before the Bill is enacted, circulars should be sent to schools where young people stay until the age of 18 and to colleges and universities, stating the facts, so that they know how they will be situated in future.

There has been no demand for this change. Things were different when women fought for the vote before 1918. Today, in this quickly changing world, young people have enough to do to cope with present conditions and I am not certain that they want this changed. The suicide rate at Oxford and Cambridge is ten times the national average and that at other universities is seven times the average, which shows the strain on many people of this age group.

Paragraph 558 of the Report quotes the opinion: There are already too many adults made ridiculous by unwelcome pandering to youth in attempts to be switched on. I hope that we will not try to be too "switched on". Many people will still stay at school until they are 16 or 18 and will not have the same practical experience as our grandfathers and great-grandfathers had, many of whom went to work at 12 or 14 and then, for a long period, were still not considered adults. This must be considered.

As to the age of marriage, it appears that there were only 600 applications for court consent to marry, of which 350 were granted. There must have been some desirable reason for not granting the others. In view of the quotation which I gave, I should have thought that this method is probably a help to many young people. The younger marriages are three rimes more likely to break up than those in the older age group.

The Report says that, of 56 countries and States considered, only Japan and Hawaii maintain an age of majority of 20, Alaska, Kentucky and New Hampshire an age of 18, and the U.S.S.R. 18 or 17. Some States do give a woman an age of majority rather lower than that for men. Some other countries give age majority over marriage.

The Report also sets out an opinion poll which gives a very good answer. It asked whether those interviewed considered the age of 21 to be the right age for the signing of a hire-purchase agreement, buying or selling a house and marrying without parental authority. The vast majority of the replies considered that 21 was the right age. Thus, I am not convinced that we would do young people a service by lowering the age of majority—

Mr. Abse

Is it not notorious that this poll was conducted among people who were living at home and that grave doubt has been placed against this poll, precisely because, as I said, more than 4 million young people do not live at home but are under 21 and earning their living and because none of those people were asked?

Dame Joan Vickers

The Report does not say whether that is so, and I do not know. Nor do I know how many letters the hon. Member has had about this. I have had no demand at all that the age should be lowered. I do a great deal of speaking around the country, including much among the younger age groups.

One question which has not been raised is the question of wages. If one is under 21 at present, one earns a boy's or a girl's wage, Which on average is at present £9 11s. 9d. But the wage for someone over the age of 21 is £20 6s. Id. Surely if we are to give these people full majority rights, we must give them full men's or women's wages. Perhaps the Attorney-General will deal with that point in reply.

As a member of the Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, I welcome the provisions to help illegitimate children. I hope that in future the birth certificate will be identical for legitimate and illegitimate children. It should carry only the personal name, date of birth, place of birth and country. I suggest that legislation on the lines of the provisions of Section 19(1) and (2) of the Registration of Birth, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act, 1965, should be implemented in the Bill, for I can see no reason why they should not tie up well with the Bill.

I understand that at present the name of the father of a person about to be married must be inserted in the register of marriages. This can cause a great deal of embarrassment, and I hope that a provision deleting this requirement will be included in the Bill, because it does not help illegitimate men or women if, on marriage, they have to supply this information. They have thus to admit that they are illegitimate, although they will be able to produce birth certificates which give no indication of that fact.

Part II of the Bill seems in favour of helping the illegitimate child to obtain his rights, whereas Part I seems against that, which is extraordinary. Clause 4(4) states, no order shall be made under subsection (2) of this section requiring any person to pay any sum towards the maintenance or education of an illegitimate child of that person. In all probability that means that an increasing burden will be placed on the State to undertake the maintenance or the education of such a person. I hope to see that amended in Committee, and I hope also to see Amendments to Clause 4(5) and Clause 6(6) so that all children can be dealt with under the Maintenance Orders Act, 1956. The maintenance of children while they are undergoing full-time education or training is covered in Clause 4(1) and (2). The provision made may be extended to the age of 21. I should like to see the provision extended to the age at which a boy or girl ceases full-time education or training.

I feel that a child born out of wedlock should be as much entitled to inherit as if he were a legitimate member of the family of his natural father and mother. Persons born out of wedlock should have equal rights with those born in wedlock.

Clause 13(2) gives the natural parents of an illegitimate child entitlement to succeed from his intestacy. The present wording of the Bill gives an absolute right to a parent to take on the intestacy of the child without regard to the behaviour of the parents towards the child. Clause 13(4) is not very helpful, because it means that the natural father who has denied paternity and has never supported the child financially will still be able to claim the child's property on intestacy. This also applies to the mother who has handed her child over to a local authority.

May I comment on the provisions about blood tests? Clause 18 gives the court power to order a blood test to establish paternity, but Clause 19 provides that a blood sample shall not be taken from any person without his consent. Surely this introduces an inference of guilt? I would rather this Clause were not included in the Bill because it gives an appearance of guilt without proof.

Clause 18(1) refers to "civil proceedings". It seems that affiliation proceedings are defined as "domestic" under the Affiliation Orders Act, 1957. I feel that this relates largely to such matters as the limited publicity and reporting of domestic cases. In my view, it is held, unfortunately, that affiliation proceedings are criminal in character. Appeals under affiliation orders go to quarter sessions or to the Court of Appeal. I feel that this gives the proceedings a criminal character. What is to be the future position?

I am fascinated by the fact that in another place it was found necessary to include in Schedule I, page 20, c. 46, Section 3 of the Hypnotism Act, 1952. This provides that persons under 21 are not to be hypnotised at a public entertainment. It puzzles me how a hypnotist is to discover before he hypnotises a person that that person is under 21 years of age. I am interested to note that under this provision an entertainer, who perhaps has not been able to ascertain the age of his subject, can get into trouble, whereas the Bill does not deal with those gentlemen who often come to the door of a house selling goods on hire purchase and who hypnotise the housewife far more effectively and with more lasting damage than does a hypnotist at a public entertainment.

I am, therefore, opposed to a large part of the Bill in its effect in reducing the age of majority to 18, but the Bill could be improved if we included the safeguards in respect of contracts suggested in the minority Report. I am not at all happy that people will be able to marry at the age of 18 without parental consent, because parental consent has proved a safeguard. I hope that the Attorney-General realises that at this very difficult period of time we are putting many additional responsibilities on young people, which I feel may be unforunate. They have plenty of time during their lives—and we have been told that we live much longer these days—to bear the burdens of the everyday world, and I should like to see them free of these burdens as long as possible.

Clearly, however, my view will not carry the day. I hope that the Attorney-General will consider some of the points which I have brought to his attention, particularly that relating to wages.

6.8 p.m.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) for having put forward a woman's point of view in this debate about family law reform. It would have been ironic if no views had been expressed by lady Members of the House on a subject on which the hon. Lady has a good deal of specialist knowledge.

May I try to introduce a lay point of view into this somewhat rarified debate? I understand that the Bill is consistent with other reforms passing through Parliament reducing the age of majority for voting and for other purposes from 21 to 18. On previous occasions I have expressed doubt about the process but, like the hon. Lady, I recognise that there is a consensus of opinion throughout the House that these reforms are necessary. On humanistic grounds I must welcome provisions which seek to remedy many of the disabilities which have been placed on illegitimate children. That concerns the ethical aspect of the problem.

When we consider the legal implications, we are face to face with the property aspect of the problem. The statute law of England is heavily overladen by property legislation. When the House begins to consider proposals which involve succession to property, as the Bill undoubtedly does, all the lawyers in the House and elsewhere look at them through a microscope and try to see where the snags arise.

It is on record—one of my hon. Friends referred to this in a debate some time ago—that not all illegitimate children suffer from the fact that they are illegitimate. Many illustrious people in our history—we are not ashamed of this; it just happens to be our history—were the result of illegitimate unions. One of the later Kings of Scotland, before the Act of Union, was reputed to have sired 18 illegitimate children. There were others who are not on the record, but very generous property endowments were placed on the admitted 18 offspring as some compensation for the fact that they were illegitimate. Therefore, it is not true that illegitimacy is always a handicap, but in most cases it is. However, the House rightly concerns itself with the great stigma on those who are not born in wedlock. On that aspect, while I am content to leave my legal friends to argue the niceties of the property repercussions of the Bill—they are very important repercussions; no one can brush them under the carpet—I welcome it as a liberalising reform which will help to put illegitimate children in a stronger position vis-á-vis civil rights, property and other things.

My purpose in rising to speak was not to deal with illegitimacy, about which we could speak for a long time and on which weeks will be spent in Committee—

The Attorney-General

I hope not.

Mr. Price

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is moaning. He says that he hopes that a great deal of time will not be spent on these matters in Committee. This Bill concerns questions of property. We had an indication of what will happen in the interesting speech of the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth), who is legal adviser to a very noble family. He speaks with great personal knowledge of property. I do not blame him for that. He is a very acceptable Member of the House and we all listen to him with great respect when he gives us the benefit of his wisdom. He is concerned mainly with property questions. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be concerned for a long time with property questions in Committee. I hope that I am not on the Committee. I ask not to be put on it because I have other things to do.

The Bill extends civil rights to people between the ages of 18 and 21. The House generally welcomes steps of this kind. We have debated the merits of the reduction in age on the Representation of the People Bill. Those of us who were against it were outvoted. I am being a good democrat; I accept the verdict of democracy. However, I wish to draw attention not to the advantages conferred on young people by the Bill but to some of the disadvantages, which must be seriously considered.

I hope that I am right in saying that it has always been the accepted common law of England that a person under the age of majority, under 21, who is a minor or infant in law, could not make a contract which was not for his personal benefit. If he were induced at an age under 21 to enter into a contract, that contract could be set aside when he reached 21 if it were faulty and if he were legally advised to take action. The Bill gives people of 18 years of age the legal right to enter into a contract and to be bound by it.

The hon. Lady the Member for Devon- port referred in passing to hire purchase. The high-powered world of salesmanship is so highly organised by clever advertising and brain washing of all kinds that people are often induced to enter into purchases which they cannot afford. The Latey Committee made passing reference to this matter. It pointed out that young people honour their legal obligations better than older people. I do not know on what statistical evidence that statement is based. What I do know is that if we establish by law, as the Bill un doubtedly intends to do, a situation in which people of 18 years of age, whether they are married or not—it is not a question of whether they are setting up home or whether a young man is taking unto himself a wife at an early age—can enter into a contract and be bound by it and sued in the courts of non-performance of it—

Mr. Maclennan

My hon. Friend rightly refers to the hazards to which members of the pubic are subjected by high-pressure salesmanship and the techniques of selling. However, would he not agree that these dangers afflict all members of society and that old ladies of 70 are as liable to be led astray as people under the age of 21 and that what we need to do is to improve our consumer protection law by such measures as the Trade Descriptions Act?

Mr. Price

I agree. But too many people are being led astray already. I do not want to add to the number. I do not want an additional group of young people to be led astray. However clever young people may be, they are most impressionable and are more likely to be "conned" by high pressure advertising than older and more mature people who know what they are being presented with.

The situation needs very careful review, for this reason—and I hope that I have the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General because what I am about to say concerns the county courts. The Latey Committee said that young people honour their debts better than older people. I do not know of any evidence on which that statement is made. But I do know that many of the hire-purchase companies which are running long lists of bad and irrecoverable debts would never dream of taking legal action against a person under 21 in the county court through their professional debt collectors. They would rather take action against the parents of the young people who had bought goods improvidently or stupidly or in ignorance of what they were doing. As a result of the Bill, the county courts may face a flood of judgment summonses seeking to recover debts from young people who should not have undertaken them. In that sense, therefore, as well as the new rights which the Bill gives, we are imposing on young people serious additional obligations. As legislators, we understand that giving a right implies a corresponding necessity to take on an obligation. The enforcement of debt collecting from young people will place a heavy additional strain on the judicature, and particularly on the county courts where judgments summonses are usually heard.

Mr. Oakes

Would not my hon. Friend agree that obligations should rest on people who buy goods? He is right that at the moment under a guarantee-ship it is poor dad who has to pay, not the black sheep.

Mr. Price

That depends on the premises of the argument. It is an impeccable piece of logic. But the Bill would be an enfranchisement not only for young people but for hire-purchase companies, and one has to weigh one advantage against another. One does not want to extract the last drop of blood from an argument of this kind, and we can discuss the matter in Committee.

I put it to the Attorney-General that before we change the contract law so fundamentally we should consider the social implications and further protection which may be needed to prevent exploitation by clever salesmen and their agents of young people who might otherwise be landed in great difficulty. Having made what I hope was a temperate comment on the Bill, I generally welcome it for some of its forward-looking and progressive reforms needed in this modern age. But let us not forget that if we legislate on the assumption that people of very tender age are in a position to accept responsibility before they reach an age of mature judgment, we may be heading for further social trouble, and heaven knows we have enough already.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. David Waddington (Nelson and Colne)

I am very glad to follow the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) because he has forcefully made a point which I wish to make. Some people appear to imagine that by passing the Bill the House will be bestowing a packet of unmixed blessings on young people; but that is far from the case. I cannot remember who said: Youth is no doubt a great calamity and seems to excite the worst passions of human nature amongst those who no longer possess it. We cannot do much about the passions but we can prevent the situation being more of a calamity than is inevitable, and that the Bill lamentably fails to do.

There is an odd characteristic which the Bill shares with another which recently came before the House. Just as there was no demand in the country for votes at 18—I think I can say that with confidence as a result of my experience in fighting a by-election only last year—there is clearly no demand for full legal rights; at the age of 18.

I need refer only to paragraph 91 of the Latey Report, which says: Our sources of direct information from the young are these: (1) Those who have individually written to us. They favour lowering the age to 18 in the ratio of two to one. The significance there is not the number who wrote advocating a change. One can always get people who are steamed up and excited about an issue believing fervently in a reform. The significance is in the number who went to the trouble to write to say that they were content with things as they were. The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) suggested that those who lived away from home were just as able to write to the Committee as those who were living at home, but when one adds the results of the survey commissioned by the Committee, which is dealt with on page 131 of the Report, one sees revealed that those between the ages of 16 and 24 were opposed by majorities of no less than two to one to any change in the law.

Mr. Maclennan

As to the evidence of those who were in favour of reducing the age, the hon. Member might be interested to know that the overwhelming number of those recommending a change were not people who had some theoretical interest in the problem but people who had actually come against the law as it stood and had suffered some kind of hardship.

Mr. Waddington

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. I pay tribute to him and to the other members of the Committee for a most interesting Report, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

There is another point made with some force in the Report. If the people who wrote wrote because they had suffered a particular inconvenience from the present law, their evidence is surely less valuable rather than more because they have not been able to make an effective judgment as young people who came down hard on one side or the other because of their experience. If there were a great agitation for a change in the law one would have expected many more to write saying that they wanted a change and many fewer to write saying that they did not want a change.

I am sorry that the Government should be unwilling to accept the Amendment made in another place. Of course it is illogical that I, being of the opinion that it would be far better if there were no "free marriage" below the age of 21, would be happy to compromise at the age of 20, but the strictures made by hon. Members opposite are uncalled for. They seem to assume that what an hereditary peer says is necessarily wrong. It is worth looking at the arguments made in another place to see whether they are right, rather than come to the conclusion that because an hereditary peerage voted for them they must be wrong. There is the old adage Marry in haste and repent at leisure. Figures show that there is more repenting after teenage marriages than after marriages later in life.

The Committee and the Government accept the usefulness of the device of parental consent. This is important because both the Committee and the Government would keep parental consent for the sake of young people anxious to marry between the ages of 16 and 18. How can it be seriously argued that it has no usefulness after the age of 18? It can be so argued only if one is convinced that someone over 18 needs no special protection because of lack of maturity.

One is almost compelled to the conclusion that the Government and the Committee have been far too anxious to achieve uniformity at almost any cost and have ignored some of the very vital evidence put before the Committee, such as that in Scotland, where parental consent is not necessary and has been wholly dispensed with, the young divorce rate is markedly higher than it is in England. I cannot believe that the difference is due merely to dark nights and lack of rival attractions north of the Border. I am convinced that a better approach would be to keep the age of majority at 21 but remove some of the disabilities which infants suffer but which may be removed without taking away from them the protection they deserve.

I say this for the following reasons. First, far from being evidence that earlier physical maturity has been accompanied by earlier psychological maturity, the divorce rate and the crime rate tend to show precisely the reverse. Secondly, our criminal law acknowledges the need for special protection for those under 21. No one has said in the House today that the Sexual Offences Act, 1967, should be amended. The House recognised as recently as 1967, when the Bill was going through, that people under 21 needed special protection. Now we are having the argument advanced that they need no special protection and are as mature at 18 as they will ever be.

Mr. J. T. Price

The hon. Gentleman could go on to cite with even greater effect the Children and Young Persons Act.

Mr. Waddington

I agree entirely. Our criminal law acknowledges the need for special treatment for people under 21. Nobody in the House has said that one of the consequences of a recognition that maturity arrives so much earlier today is that we do not need borstal training. It may be that 21 as the age of majority has come about as an historical accident, but in almost every other civilised country 21 is the age of majority. We should think very carefully before we feel ourselves able to ignore this worldwide experience.

I hope that the Government will think again, even at this late stage. I hope that they will at least seriously consider according to infants the very limited protection in the field of contract which is suggested in the minority Report and which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). By doing that we should not be denying young people anything they want. We should be conferring a privilege which I think they richly deserve.

On the tax matter, I hope that the logic of what they are doing has not escaped the Government and that in spite of Schedule 2 there will be no nonsense when the Chancellor carries out his threat to include children in the family unit for tax purposes. The Government will forfeit what little moral authority still remains to them if they try to have it both ways and, in their desire to introduce class legislation, try so to arrange matters as to leave a person between 18 and 21, who under the Bill will become an adult, an infant for tax purposes.

6.32 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-North-wood)

I apologise to the House for not having been here for the earlier speeches. I understand that the tax question which my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) has just raised was taken earlier by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson). My hon. Friend made a slight mistake when he spoke of the Chancellor's "threat". There is no question of a threat. It is a fait accompli.

I want to ask the Attorney-General, first, how the provisions of the Bill will affect young men of 18 who wish to go to university Will they be personally liable for their fees at university on the basis that they have attained their majority? Under the present means test it is very difficult to obtain a grant of about £50 if the parents have a reasonable income. That is the usual figure if the parents are earning a considerable sum. Having gone into this matter for my own personal reasons, I know that to send a young man to some university colleges today costs a bare minimum of £800–£850 a year, of which only £50 is provided by a grant. Under the present penal level of taxation which the present Government, in particular, have imposed upon us, it is no easy matter for a parent with two sons at university at the same time to find £1,600-£1,700 a year net after taxation.

If the Bill will mean that a young man of 18 on attaining his majority can claim a full grant because, having attained his majority, he is in no way dependent on his parents, if for no other reason I personally, as a parent, shall welcome the Bill wholeheartedly; but it will cost the taxpayer and the ratepayer a great deal of money.

My next question concerns an aspect which may have been raised already; and, if it has, I apologise to the House for raising it again. What happens in the case of a grandparent or parent who died some years previously and left a very large sum of money to his grandson or son on the basis that he would receive it, in the terms of the will, on attaining his majority? Will young men who hitherto would have had to wait until they were 21 now find themselves the free users of sums of, say, £100,000 or £200,000?

This aspect needs examining, because a young man at that age, going to the university of all places, with enormous sums at his disposal can easily become a victim to his fellows. From 18 to 21 is an impressionable age to have the free handling of large sums of money. It obviously would not have been in the testator's mind that the legatee should receive the sum at 18.

Finally, will any attempt be made by the Government to keep the Bill in step with the criminal law? As the Attorney-General knows only too well, there is little that the recorder or chairman can do at quarter sessions in the case of a young man under 21. Such a defendant can be fined, put on probation or sent to a detention centre. Up to the age of 21 he can be sent to borstal. He can be sent to prison if the judges wishes, but the reasons for so doing must be stated; and if there is to be any chance of their being upheld by the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, the reasons have to be very special indeed. If young men are to attain their majority at 18, it is only equitable and sensible that the provision relating to whether a person under 21 can be sent to prison without special reasons being stated should be removed.

6.38 p.m.

Mr. Emlya Hooson (Montgomery)

This is a Bill which is bristling with Committee points on which it is not easy to make a Second Reading speech. I extend a qualified welcome to it, and apologise for having missed the early speeches.

The Lord Chancellor made it clear that he regarded this as being three Bills in one but that because of the lack of Parliamentary time it was necessary to concertina them into one Bill. That is how the Bill comes before the House in this way.

I agree with the Attorney-General that it was better to take the good rather than delay matters and wait for the ideal. If we delay matters and waited for the ideal, we should have to delay for many years, because there is so much work to be done on this subject.

It is essential that we get absolutely clear the relationship between the Government, the House and the Law Commission. The Commission is now a very important instrument of reform. It has expertise which is not available to private Members but is available to the Government. However, the Commission is very ready informally to help any private Member with any matter that he seeks to bring before the House. It is important that the House should have the opportunity in the fairly near future to consider in relation to future reforms arising not only on Government Bills but also on Private Members' Bills exactly what the relationship should be between the Government, the Commission and the ordinary Member in the House of Commons. Much of the criticism that has been made of the Bill on Committee matters is criticism which the Commission must consider in deciding how to extend the reform on these three important aspects.

To turn to the Bill itself, it seems to me with regard to Part 1 that there is no agreed age of majority. There is no age to which objection cannot be taken. One can argue about the age of 21. Many people are immature at that age. On the other hand, many people are extremely mature at 21. It is possible to argue about the age of 18. I believe that in Scotland the age for free marriages without consent is 16, and I do not know that the Scots have suffered from that fact. There are other countries where a child cannot own property until he is 25 or 27. Very often this is a matter of general habit and experience.

However, having considered all the arguments, and albeit conceding many of the arguments in favour of the ages of 20 and 21—I thought the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) put forward the contrary argument in a constructive speech—although I was to some extent swayed, I have come to the conclusion that 18 is the right age. I was first persuaded to this view when I was very much opposed to the death penalty. I used to think that if it was right to hang a boy at 18 it was right that he should have the vote at that age. I do not remember anybody who has opposed this Bill, for example, arguing in those days that 21 was the right age at which capital punishment should be executed upon a person. It seemed to me that if it was right for a man to serve his country at the age of 18 and if the final penalty of the law was to be exacted at that age, then it was at least right that other measures of responsibility should devolve upon a person at the age of 18.

At the very least there should be the one age. We should not have 18 as the age at which people can vote for membership of this House but 20 as the age at which one is allowed to marry without the consent of one's parents. If it is to be 18, it should be 18 for all. By all means let us have a debate about the right age, whether it should be 18 or 20, but whatever it is, it should be the same age across the board.

If we want a responsible society we must give responsibility. I entirely agree with the point that has been made that we are not conferring simple benefits on the under 21s, on those between 18 and 21, by means of the Bill. We are not. We are conferring an addition to certain rights and benefits. We are conferring very important liabilities. But it is right that the young people should take them. Today when people are probably physically maturer at an earlier age—as the Latey Report pointed out, they are probably emotionally maturer —although they do not necessarily have a knowledge of life which makes their judgment any more mature, at the same time I believe there should be a reduction in the age for some purposes to 18, and if we reduce the age for some purposes we must reduce it for all purposes.

The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington), in an interesting speech, quoted the old adage marry in haste and repent at leisure". Then he dealt with the question of hereditary peers. He might reflect that the hereditary peers who have considerable landed estates perhaps have more to repent about at leisure in relation to a marriage that has been extremely hasty. That might account for the preponderance of hereditary peers in the voting that took place in another place on the issue of the age at which marriage should be permissible without the consent of the parents.

As I have said, many of the points that could be raised on this part of the Bill are really Committee points and I shall not weary the House with them.

As to the second Part of the Bill, I give an unqualified welcome to it. This does not exhaust the matter. It is just a beginning. There are many implications and ramifications in the first and second Parts which have not been adequately considered yet, but I am certain that this reform of giving illegitimate children the same rights of succession on their parents' intestacy as if they were legitimate is an overdue reform. In fact, I welcome the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) that we should eventually have a much larger Bill dealing with this whole problem.

With regard to Part III, which empowers the courts to order blood tests in cases of disputed paternity, I am in favour of this provision. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about it in the House. A blood test normally cannot establish paternity. It is a very rare case indeed and is confined to very few blood groups—those of a special and unique kind—where a blood test can possibly give evidence and establish paternity. What a blood test can do in the majority of cases is to say whether it is possible for the putative father to be the father. In the majority of cases we all have common blood groups. What is possible is for a putative father to be excluded from the possibility of paternity by a blood test. I see nothing inequitable or unfair in this provision.

It is entirely fair and reasonable that courts should have the right to give directions for the use of a blood test to ascertain—quoting from Clause 18— whether such tests show that a party to the proceedings is or is not thereby excluded from being the father of that person …". It is entirely right that this should be so. Some of the objections raised and the qualms expressed about this provision are misplaced and seem to indicate that this provision is not properly understood.

I am sure that the reforms in this Bill are largely overdue, and it is right that they should be embodied in a Bill of this kind, even though there are really three separate Bills, if adequate parliamentary time cannot be found for them. I ask the Attorney-General to state his views on what should be the relationship between the Law Commission and the House on future reform and the development of the reforms in the Bill.

6.47 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

I shall speak briefly in expressing my support for the Bill. The measures it contains, so far as they go, deserve a warm welcome.

Having said that, I think the criticisms of piecemeal legislation which were made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) have a greater validity than some hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), have allowed. This Bill is entitled the Family Law Reform Bill, with no apparent saving sense of irony. After all, two-thirds of it deal with those who are not members of the family in the legal sense. A very important point made by my right hon. and learned Friend was that what we need in this country is a code of family law, just as we need a code of criminal law—a code of family law which would be inspired by coherent principles and which we can get only if we deal with this problem as a whole.

One of the things I had hoped from the Law Commission was precisely that. The Commission has done extremely good work in helping on individual reforms, but it is not fulfilling that function of providing coherent legal principles applicable over wide ranges of the law. This can be developed to a certain extent by great judges, but the ultimate burden to do this really falls on legislators. True, half a loaf is better than no bread, but one could look to the Law Commission to provide us with a loaf in this respect, as also to the right hon. and learned Attorney-General, whose knowledge of the law is both wide and deep.

I turn, first, to Part I and the question whether marriage should be allowed without parental consent at the age of 18 or 20. My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) quoted the aphorism, if such it be, Marry in haste and repent at leisure. But one can wait too long; that also may be a source of grief, and repentance may be of no avail. Much has been said about the lack of psychological maturity of young persons at the age of 18. Psychological maturity is such an evanescent quality, attained by some at an early age but avoided by others, apparently, however long they live, that I regard that as an unsatisfactory concept on which to attempt to base the law.

The basic argument for lowering the age at which a minor may contract marriage is an economic, not a psychological, one. The old economic obstacles to early marriage have largely disappeared. Young people are able to marry at an early age because they have the economic means to do so. By attempting to keep the age artificially high, we should not stop young people living together when they have the economic opportunity. Probably, we should merely increase the number of illegitimate children in the world, and that would be a strange result brought about by a Bill intended to ameliorate that social problem.

The hereditary peers have every right to give their view and vote in the other place, but the point here is that, for obvious reasons, those who have hereditary peerages have a special interest in controlling as much as they can the marriage of their children. What this House has to decide is whether that special interest is weighty and important enough to outbalance the general social desirability of recognising economic facts and acknowledging that people want to get married earlier and in great numbers are now doing so.

I warmly welcome Part II because it greatly improves the position of those who are already heavily handicapped in society through no fault of their own. My only criticism is that it does not go far enough. I await with interest the publication of the Report by the Public Teachers of Law on the whole meaning and concept of legitimacy and illegitimacy in our society today. There is a special duty on those like the hon. Member for Pontypool and myself who have opposed and criticised the law on abortion to do all in our power to make it easier for unmarried women who are pregnant to bear their children.

Religious people have at times tended merely to point the finger of scorn at those who are unmarried and bear children. That has been their contribution. They cannot have it both ways. They cannot condemn abortion and condemn the birth of illegitimate children in the same breath. However, to be fair to the religious, one should point out that at the Council of Merton in 1264, to which there has been brief reference in the debate, it was the bishops of the day who stood out for the rights of the illegitimate, it was the spiritual peers who fought for their rights but were vanquished by the temporal peers.

My final comment is about Part IV, and Clause 25 in particular, which enables a father's name to be entered on the register of birth of an illegitimate child in a range of circumstances in which that is not possible today. I welcome this, but there is an important omission. I am sorry that the Attorney-General did not deal with it. Unfortunately, he dismissed Part IV with a few commendatory phrases. That entry has no legal effect whatever. It may save an illegitimate child embarrassment in later life when applying for jobs and so on, when birth certificates are required, but it establishes no legal relationship between the father and the child. Many legal systems enable a father to put himself in a legal relationship with an illegitimate child if he wishes to do so. Such a legal relationship may be valuable, having important financial consequences in matters of maintenance and so on. I shall be interested to know why the Government did not take the opportunity to include some such provision in the Bill.

The Bill is a humanitarian Measure. There is a great deal of suffering in the world. Much of it is unavoidable, but some is avoidable. The Bill makes a contribution to the avoiding of unnecessary human suffering, and as such it deserves the welcome which it has received in the House.

6.57 p.m.

The Attorney-General

May I have the leave of the House to speak again? I wish to reply to what has been a constructive and interesting debate. Those who are here may well feel that the size of the attendance—not for the first time, or, I suspect, for the last—has borne little relation to the importance of the subject matter.

I share the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse)—though I do not know whether I should share them with quite the same severity—on what seemed to be the unduly churlish reaction of the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) to a Bill which has been hailed as humanitarian and as making a valuable and important contribution to legal and social reform. In my submission, piecemeal legislation, avoidable though it ought to be, brings the law into far less disrepute than unjust legislation. We are here dealing with, among other things, the law of succession in relation to illegitimate persons, and this has been an outstanding example of injustice which ought to have been swept off the Statute Book long ago.

True, if Parliamentary arrangements and time permitted, it would be desirable to proceed with these matters in a way which prevented the proliferation of Measures on the Statute Book. To those critics who say that there should have been only one Bill instead of three, I point out that that would have meant in due course, three more, instead of one, on the Statute Book.

We are dealing with a field in which we are trying to catch up with the neglect of centuries in social and law reform. The problem of codifying the law is enormously complex and lengthy. The same is true of the law of contract and criminal law. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) said about the need for these codes and the embodiment of the provisions of the law in these separate fields into one coherent entity, but it takes time. The alternative that he and the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom seem to be commending is that we should delay introducing urgently needed Measures which can be dealt with piecemeal in so far as they deal with a specific part of the law. His suggestion is that these reforms should be postponed until a date, which may be indefinite, when the whole thing can be dealt with together.

Sir P. Rawlinson

Before Committees at present there are the Divorce Reform Bill and the Matrimonial Property Bill, and now we have the Family Law Reform Bill. I know the straitjacket that we are all in, but does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that we should somehow be able to manage our affairs better so as to have these things together?

The Attorney-General

The House should look at these things. We have tried to introduce the Second Reading procedures in the course of the present Administration, but we have not always had full assistance. In one or two fields we have, but the moment a whiff of opposition appears, the idea of Second Reading procedures, whatever side it comes from, disappears completely. I entirely agree. I think that a massive frustration is felt by those of us concerned to get on with it over the slowness and perhaps excessive complexity of Parliamentary procedures. This needs the urgent attention of the House.

But I return to my proposition that to use that as a reason for postponing a Measure of this kind is wholly untenable. If something is cruelly unjust, the quicker we can remedy it by piecemeal legislation—if that is the only way of proceeding—the better. The criticism from the other side of the House about progress comes very strangely when right hon. and hon. Members opposite dragged their feet in law and social reform through the decades they exercised political power. The present Administration set up the Law Commission, which creates a machinery for law reform that the country has never had before, a combination of professionalism, skill and vested interest in law reform which is already producing most valuable results, and which provides the House with a service in law reform of a kind we have never had. Therefore, I reject the right hon. and learned Gentleman's approach of approving the Bill but preferring that its introduction should be postponed.

A number of matters were raised in the debate which may be more appropriate for Committee, and accordingly if hon. Members find that I do not deal with them all I hope that they will forgive me and wait for a later stage, when we can go into the detail of the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ponty-pool, in a vigorous and characteristic speech, regretted that other legal obstacles in the way of the young and the illegitimate have not been finally resolved in the Bill. My hon. Friend attached great importance to the Law Commission, which is urgently involved in the preparation of proposals about family law. The other legal obstacles to which he referred will no doubt be taken up.

We had valuable speeches from two hon. Members who served on the Committees whose work we have been considering. I am grateful in particular to the hon. Baronet the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) for his contribution. He will forgive me if I do not pursue them in some detail. When he told the House that he had been here over the course of 40 years it made me realise how lightly age weighs upon him, if he will permit me to say so. I had to look up the book to see whether he had made a mistake in that figure.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I was 21 when I first took the oath.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman makes no concession on that. He welcomed the Bill, but criticised it for being incomplete, and directed the main part of his criticism to the matters about which he made an interesting minority report in the Russell Report. Perhaps I may say one thing to him which is also relevant to the submissions of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool and the Member for Chelmsford. Clause 25 goes some way to make it easy for a father who wants to do so to make a formal recognition of his bastard child by signing the register. It is true that he can do that now, but the Clause makes it easier for him. I shall certainly look at the wider point the hon. Member for Chelmsford made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) expressed perhaps a minority view of the House, that nobody should be allowed to marry until he or she reached the age of 18. I am inclined to agree with the Latey Committee that to keep the age at 16 is probably right. The Committee pointed out in its Report the earlier onset of purity—I mean puberty, alas, not necessarily the same thing. According to statistical evidence, the age of the onset of puberty has been falling at the rate of four months for every decade since 1830 and now stands in girls at an average age of 13.2 years.

It is also interesting that the Registrar-General's figures for 1964 show that in that year 24,787 young women under 18 were married in England and Wales, and that children were born within seven months of marriage to over 10,000 of them. Raising the minimum age for marriage would inevitably result in an alarming increase in the number of illegitimate births. If the age of consent is to remain at 16 while the marriage age is raised to 18 it would appear, as the Latey Committee suggest, as an encouragement to illicit sexual intercourse, and result in a considerable increase in the present number of illegitimate children, a contingency which, knowing my hon. Friend as I do, I am sure he would not welcome.

Then my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclen-nan), who was a member of the Latey Committee, made one of the several weighty contributions we have heard in the debate and asked me about the progress of the Law Commission in the field of the law of contracts in particular in relation to infants' contracts. I am afraid I cannot give him any precise information about that matter this evening.

My hon. Friend also asked me a question about Clause 21(1). I do not think it would be wrong to say that a court should attach importance to a person's refusal to undergo a blood test. I think my hon. Friend was suggesting it should be approached in that light. I would have thought that a refusal to undergo a blood test would be a fact which ought not to be disregarded. In a given case where there were bona fide conscientious grounds for refusing a blood test the court would undoubtedly take that into account.

Then the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), as the first layman to speak, made, if I may say so, a most valuable contribution to our discussion. She asked me about the impact of the reduction of the age of minority on wages. It will have no necessary consequence. Wages are a matter for negotiation, I suppose, between employer and employee, depending on many factors, such as the state of the market, and the services actually rendered by the employee. There is, therefore, no necessary consequence flowing in that direction from this Bill.

The hon. Lady asked why we were placing additional responsibilities on young people. I venture to put this point of view to the House, that if we deny to the young the opportunity of undertaking these responsibilities we may well be reducing the sense of responsibility which we ought to be encouraging.

Then my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) presented the hideous prospect of weeks of debate on this Bill. I hope that will not happen. I hope that, as some of the proposals in the Bill certainly have an element of urgency about them, we shall not dally unduly in Committee. My hon. Friend was worried, as other hon. Members have been, about the risk that in this vast, tempting field of hire purchase there might be many victims among the young. I agree with the view which has been expressed by hon. Members that what we want to do is to strengthen even further our consumer protection law. We have gone a good deal of the way in that by various amendments to laws relating to hire purchase, and in the recent Trade Descriptions Act, and it is hoped—we shall see how it works out—that that will prove to be a protection against undue exploitation of those who may easily be tempted if not hypnotised by the approaches of quick salesmen.

Then the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) supported the minority Report in the Latey Committee's Report, and I think it was he who thought that the lesson of Scotland pointed to the need to retain the marriage age at a higher age than 18. The view was expressed that marriages in Scotland, where marriage is legal at the age of 16, lead to a higher divorce rate than that in England. The fact I think is that there is no three-year rule in Scottish divorce law as there is in our law in England. After the three-year period the Scottish and the English divorce rates level out at pretty well the same level and are about the same. Scottish law, under which anyone over 16 can marry whomever he likes without any consent being required at all, seems to have worked reasonably well in Scotland. I do not know that the Scottish marital scene is any more worrying than that south of the Border. I would have thought not, and there may well be some lessons to be learned from this experience but whether success there is due to any particular quality of character and strength of will north of the Border I know not. That may be a possible answer. One hon. Member suggests that it is the cold weather. I should have thought that a disincentive rather than an incentive.

There were other points raised by the hon. and learned Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. Crowder). Perhaps they are more appropriate to Committee, but he asked me a particular question about the temptations, and the risk of squandering, which might be confronted if large sums became available to a youth at 18. The answer is that the testator or settlor of an estate will be free to tie up a large sum, like £100,000, or whatever particular sum he had in mind, till the beneficiary reaches any specified age, whether 21 or 25, or whatever age he may choose.

Mr. Crowder

The point I made is this, and perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman can clarify the question. If in a will the wording is such that the beneficiary will receive money outright on coming of age, and provided that the will was previous to the passing of the Bill, can one take it that, although the coming of age is to be changed from 21 to 18, 21 will apply to any will previous to the passing of the Bill?

The Attorney-General

It does not affect present dispositions of property at all. That I made clear in my opening speech, which the hon. and learned Gentleman did not have the opportunity, he being engaged elsewhere, of hearing.

I am grateful to the House for the welcome it has given to the Bill as a whole, and I hope it will now have a speedy passage through Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).