HC Deb 09 July 1969 vol 786 cc1440-51
Mr. Speaker

I understand that the next four Amendments, Government Amendments, Nos. 10, 11, 12 and 13, are all drafting Amendments.

The Attorney-General

That is so. They are minor Amendments to include in the Schedule statutory references to the age of 21 which have come to light since the Committee stage. The age of

c. 44 The Customs and Excise Act 1952. Section 244(2)(a) Entry invalid unless made by person over 21.

No. 11, in page 22, line 30, at end insert:

1946 S.R. & O. 1156. The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board(Borrowing and Stock) Regulations 1946. Regulation 36(1) and (2). Stock held by persons under 21.
1949 S.I. 751. The Gas (Stock) Regulations 1949 Regulation 19(1) and (2). Stock held by persons under 21.

No. 12, in page 22, line 34, at end insert:

1955 S.I. 1752 The South of Scotland Electricity Board (Borrowing and Stock) Regulations 1955. Regulation 30(1) and (2). Stock held by persons under 21.

No. 13, in page 22, line 39, at end insert:

1957 S.I. 2228. The Electricity (Stock) Regulations 1957 Regulation 22(1) and (2). Stock held by persons under 21.
1963 S.I. 935. The Exchange of Securities (General) Rules 1963. Rule 1 (1). Definition of "minor".
1965 S.I. 1420. The Government Stock Regulation 1965. Regulation 14(1), (2), (3) and (5). Stock held by persons under 21.

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

7.40 p.m.

The Attorney-General

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

This useful Bill implements three important Reports—those of the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority, the Russell Committee on the Law of Succession in relation to illegitimate persons, and the Law Commission on blood tests and the proof of paternity in civil proceedings.

We have had most interesting and helpful debates. I am grateful to the hon. Baronet the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) for guiding us through the labyrinth of the law of succession, around the fringes of which we have walked tonight for a short time. Having briefly heard some of the technicalities this evening, the House may well feel that this is a bit of the law that must be looked at some time, but I cannot enlarge on that on Third Reading.

The most important feature of the Bill is that it reduces the age of majority to 18. This important social and legal reform will enable young people, the generality of whom are maturing earlier and

21 will be altered to 18 in these provisions.

Amendments made: No. 10, in page 21, line 31, at end insert:

—[The Atorney-General.]

accepting responsibility at a younger age, to be freed from the legal restrictions which now affect them. There is little doubt that the present law is no longer geared to their requirements, and it is right that this change should be made.

We have discussed at some length the implications of the reduction of the age of majority for marriage. The Government's view, which the House has accepted, is that the age of free marriage should be 18, the same as the age of majority for all other purposes. The phrase "free marriage" is odd, and has only a technical meaning. There are perhaps few undertakings more expensive than marriage. In the Government's view, it would have been illogical if the requirements of parental consent remained until the age of 20, when all the other incidents of parental and legal control ceased two years earlier.

The change is important. The Law Commission is engaged in a study of many aspects of family law and I hope that the Bill will prove to be merely the first stage in a comprehensive reform of family law, which is clearly needed.

Part II takes important steps to improve the lot of illegitimate children. We discussed at length the detailed matters arising from the change in the construction of the term "children" in wills, and have considered in more general terms the scope of the reform. Some hon. Members have felt that we were not going far enough, while others have contended that our approach was too radical. The need for better provision for illegitimate children has, however, been expressed on both sides of the House, and it is the Government's view that the present proposals constitute a sound and sensible measure of reform in a difficult field. The illegitimate child and his parents will now have the same right to share in each other's estate on an intestacy as if the child were legitimate.

The extension of the provisions of the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act to illegitimate children is also an important step which will go far to remove a fundamental injustice in our present law.

We are satisfied that these proposals will in no way weaken the institution of marriage. They will give a fairer deal where for so long it has been badly needed.

The third part of the Bill will give the courts considerable assistance in determining paternity issues. The provisions reflect the rapid scientific advance that has taken place here in recent years.

I commend the Bill to the House.

7.46 p.m.

Sir P. Rawlinson

One thing that is absolutely certain is that when we pass the final stages of a Bill which will shortly become law we are serving the best interests of lawyers. In the Bill before us we have three Bills in one. I can see great feasts for the lawyers arising from practically all its provisions, even that relating to blood tests, as a result of its many complexities.

I drew attention to the fact that the Bill is three Bills in one on Second Reading. I do not think that this is the best form of law making. There should have been three separate Bills. I know all the problems and difficulties that face the Lord Chancellor's Department in promoting such Bills, and the difficulties which face the Law Officers in conducting them through the House.

I think that my comments on Second Reading when I seemed to become unduly exasperated by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) were unwarranted, and I am sorry that he is not here for me to tell him that I withdraw what I said when my quick temper flew when he intervened.

Two of the three Bills with which we are presented will affect many people. Despite the time we spent in Committee and the help given by the Attorney-General and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth), I wonder whether we have dug sufficiently deep as legislators into the problem. It is a matter of great interest to us all that the Law Commission is examining family law. The extent of the family law is enormous, and I am glad that the Law Commission is making that investigation. But let us not hesitate to recognise that when it presents its report to us it is not Holy Writ being handed down. It is our responsibility as legislators to test its proposals and examine them with the greatest care.

Part I deals with the change which the House has agreed to make in the age of majority. It gives the advantages of free marriage, to use the Attorney-General's phrase. I have read of non-wives and non-marriages, but I think that "free marriage" means one that a person can enter into without obtaining permission from a guardian or parent. But we must understand that we have also imposed liabilities and responsibilities which have not hitherto been borne by 18-year-olds.

Up to the day when the Bill becomes law, a person of 18 avoids the responsibilities and liabilities. The Bill will impose such liabilities and responsibilities on them. I think that this will have a serious effect. I think that the essential decision was taken when we decided that the voting age, and, therefore, the age of adulthood and maturity, should be 18. But again it is right to be logical and it follows that the age of 18 should be for all purposes—fiscal purposes and purposes affecting all responsibilities as well as all rights. We have decided that, by the age of 18, a man achieves full adulthood and therefore full responsibility, and we must ensure that, in other legislation, a person at 18 not only gets rights but also accepts liabilities and responsibilities in every aspect of the law.

Part II is a matter of introducing almost unbelievable complexities. It has a compassionate and civilised aim which most of us agree with. Yet, hidden in it, is an immense number of snags. There is the problem, for example, that has already been raised—if we abolish illegitimacy do we abolish legitimacy? We have considered this matter in Committee and on Report. Undoubtedly, the effect of illegitimacy on a child in being has in the past often been very harsh. That harshness is now being eliminated. But we are still left with the problem, which we discussed earlier this evening, of the position of the illegitimate child not yet in being.

I thank the Attorney-General for the help he gave the Committee and the House on this very complex matter. He has himself already paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South. It was a difficult Bill and we have had great assistance from the Attorney-General.

7.52 p.m.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I thank the Attorney-General for the kind things he said about me. If I may say so, it has been the manner in which he has conducted his defence of some almost indefensible propositions that has often turned away our wrath.

The Bill is partly good and partly bad. When it is good, it is very very good and when it is bad it is horrid. Part I I find wholly good. On a personal aspect, perhaps I can claim the merit of consistency here. I believe that I am the only hon. Member left in this House who was here at the time of the Act called the "flapper vote" Act, which gave the vote to young women down to the age of 21. I made a speech on that occasion and dwelt on the aspect of responsibility. I believe that the responsibilities that the Act gave young women have proved to be nothing but good, and I am sure that the reduction of the age to 18 for giving young people full responsibility is a good thing and will work well.

Part II has very much in it that is good. It is right to bring the mother's illegitimate children precisely into equality with her legitimate children for all purposes. I do not see any difficulty there and I believe this is what everyone would wish. One of the most important Clauses is that which brings illegitimate children into the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act. I believe that those provisions will be used a great deal to rectify a great many hardships which should be rectified.

On the other hand, part of the Bill is bad. I believe that the bringing of what has sometimes been called "unacknowledged bastards"—the Attorney-General called them "latent bastards"—into the intestacy of a father is wrong in principle and will do a great deal of mischief. The same is true of Clause 15, where the definition of children will bring bastards into many trusts where the person making the will or settlement has no intention of bringing them in. It will lead to litigation, blackmail and doubt. I believe that we shall find it necessary to pass amending legislation in this case at a fairly early date.

I find Part III of the Bill acceptable. I do not think that it will do much good but I certainly do not think that it will do any harm.

On that brief examination of the Bill, and weighing it up, I am bound to say that I think the good in it exceeds the bad by quite a comfortable margin. For that reason, I shall have pleasure in the Bill receiving its Third Reading and I only hope that my prognostications about the bad will not transpire, as I fear they will.

7.56 p.m.

Mr. Leadbitter

I, too, have tried to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the Bill and to me it goes a long way to giving young people new rights and to bringing some sense into the subject of illegitimacy. Clause 2 is the one to which I spoke in Committee and this is the part of the Bill which, in effect, deals with the question of altering the date of what has been described as "free marriage"—that is, the reduction of the age from 21 to 18.

I indicated in Committee and re-emphasise now that it is not sufficient to be able to show that we have done a useful job in Parliament because we appear to have extended some sort of freedom. The contrary can be the truth. One can succeed in creating new limitations, new problems, for the people one is seeking to benefit. I want to address myself to the language of the recommendations in the Latey Report, which says on page 51: We can only end by saying that this is not because we think parents should never discourage their children's marriages but because this is not the way to do it". Unfortunately, I object to the language in that Report.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. We are not discussing the Latey Report on the Third Reading of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks to how the Bill will operate or otherwise.

Mr. Leadbitter

So be it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the matter is so important to me that I am quite in order, I am sure, in summarising the intentions of the Latey Report. Clause 2 is part of the Bill and on Third Reading surely I would be in order in expressing my anxieties about its consequences. This is what I am seeking to do and I respect your Ruling on the finer point. Here we are involved with the question of the reduction of age for free marriage because of the thinking that consent is not the way to do it.

Whether we like it or not, we are living in times when there are great problems which arise because young people are sometimes misguided about their duty to society. I accept at once that the vast majority of young people are generous, creative and a fine example to the nation but, whenever we think of relaxing laws, we have to remember that there has been an upsurge of wrongdoing, of petty thieving, of vandalism, and much of it arises from the problems associated with the stresses and strains of modern life. Our courts are overworked because of their efforts to deal with this facet of our national life.

I am not convinced by the numbers of young people who go to the courts to seek consent to get married, nor by any other evidence, that to permit free marriage at 18 is wise. The stability of family life is generally to be found among those families where sons and daughters feel it right and proper and a privilege and an honour to ask the consent of their parents to be married. There is something about family life which we must protect and which must not be lost at 18. If the reduction of the age to 18 is regarded as an extension of liberty, why should we not have the corollary of a reduction later to 16 or 14?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member is suggesting Amendments to the Bill and that is entirely out of order. He may support the Bill or state reasons for opposing it, but he must not argue for alterations.

Mr. Leadbitter

I was not suggesting Amendments; on the contrary, I was arguing that there should not be Amendments.

The change will open up wide areas where young people will be vulnerable. Not only will they be able to get married at 18 without consent, but they will have freedom to sign contracts and make agreements without advice. Young married couples getting married are faced with highly complex problems. Earlier, we discussed guidance, but sometimes they will enter into these complexities without guidance—the problems of buying a house, or dealing with hire-purchase contracts for furniture. All this introduces a fearsome and a dangerous element into what for young people is an already strained situation.

I do not want it to be thought that I am saying that we should not liberalise, or that we should be restrictive. On the contrary, I take the view that some stability is a symbol of true freedom and liberalisation. I do not want to appear to be a "square". But there are some factors which demonstrate the need for care. Young people are remarkably generous and creative and are comparable with any previous generations, but there is a growing minority who are unable to deal with the complexities of modern life and who need family stability and who would benefit if they were not able to marry freely until they were 21. Incidentally, the Bill originally proposed the age of 20, and so the judgment of 18 is not based on hard criteria.

Many of those responsible for dealing with the consequences of delinquency and vandalism and the waywardness of footloose young people ask whether this is the right time for Parliament to reduce the age of free marriage. I know that nothing I can say will alter the hard facts of life, but at least one voice in the House has expressed concern about this subject.

8.6 p.m.

Mr. David Waddington (Nelson and Colne)

It has been said that this is three Bills in one. Perhaps the most controversial part is Part I, which we did not have an opportunity to discuss on Report and which I should now like to mention.

As usual, the hon. Member for the Hartlepools (Mr. Leadbitter) has hit the nail on the head. As he said, so many of us do not like to be thought "square". Time and again I have been forced to the conclusion that far too often hon. Members have been so determined not to be thought "square" that they have thrown logic to the winds. I respect the membership of the Latey Committee, but I am still entirely unconvinced by its arguments. What strikes me as so peculiar is that after the whole of the progress of the Bill through the House there is still no public interest in this matter. Do not let us run away with the idea that people are queueing at the doors of the House asking for these responsibilities to be put on their shoulders. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are about to put into law a Bill for which there is no demand in the country generally and precious little demand among young people.

All too often it has been suggested that the Bill will be a boon to young people and will extend their rights, but that is not the correct way to look at it. By passing the Bill, we shall put on the shoulders of young people responsibilities which they have not had and we shall take from them protection which they have always had.

I still regard Part I with some dismay. It has been said that having decided to give votes to people aged 18, it would be thoroughly illogical if we did not give them full civil rights at 18. But it is often a far more serious matter to enter into a binding legal contract than to cast a vote. If a teenager casts a vote, the chances are that it will be cancelled out by the vote of some other teenager, but if he rashly signs a contract, he remains bound by it, and that is a serious step to take. We have been told many times that the age of 18 is a watershed, but almost every age is arbitrary to some extent. After all, one can ride a motorcycle at the age of 16 but has to be 21 to drive a heavy motor vehicle. No one has suggested that at 16 young people should be able to make binding contracts, despite the fact that, although with parental consent, they can marry at 16. I am very concerned about Part I and am disturbed that the House should have put this Measure into law without any demand for it.

Part II is concerned with the property rights of illegitimate children. I agree that this is a very worthy aim. Clause 14 is particularly worthy, since it would allow illegitimate children to succeed on the intestacy of their parents. But I am by no means happy with the way that these provisions will work in practice. None of us who have heard the debates today is entirely happy with how it will work. Many years will pass between the birth of a claimant and the time when, on the death of his alleged father, he can make a claim on the estate. Might we not be putting an appalling burden on the administrators of estates, leaving them to decide whether a claimant is genuine?

Many cases will have to be taken to court and, if the estate is small, it may be dissipated among the lawyers. I say that, although I am a lawyer myself. In some cases—we hope only a few—the claimant will be bogus, but he will succeed, because, like all other legal systems, ours is fallible. It is not good enough to say that the courts can be left to make the right decision. It may be all too easy to make a bogus claim and difficult for the rightful heirs to rebut it. This may be yet another instance of hard cases making bad law. Because of our genuine anxiety to be fair to illegitimate children, we may be unjust to the legitimate.

At present, the word "child" in a legal document means a legitimate child. The Bill will reverse the rule for documents made after it comes into force. It runs entirely contrary to the recommendations of the Russell Committee. The Bill changes a rule of construction. I agree that ordinary English words should be given their ordinary natural meaning by the courts, but, in ordinary language, "child" means a legitimate child in one context and an illegitimate child in another. An obvious example is that a man and woman living together who are not married obviously mean their illegitimate children when they use the word, but a man who leaves money to his son for life, and thereafter to his son's children, means his son's legitimate children. This will make the law more helpful in some cases, but less helpful in others.

I welcome Part III as much as anyone else. It is the least controversial part of the Bill. We should obviously allow the courts to use all scientific methods of resolving disputes, particularly about paternity, which can be so difficult. It is a great pity that three Bills should have been lumped into one, mainly because it is strange to think that, after all the debates on the Bill, we have not had a Division on the vital question of whether the age of majority should be reduced to 20 or to 18. If there had been a vote, I suspect that there would have been much more opposition to the recommendations of the majority of the Latey Committee than one would think from some of our debates.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.