HC Deb 30 April 1975 vol 891 cc478-81
Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the existing requirements for publication of wills. What my Bill proposes to do is to amend Section 170 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1925 so as to provide that wills, though open to inspection at the Probate Registry, shall be restricted as regards publication in the Press to the name, address and date of death of a testator, plus information as to where an interested person, be he a potential beneficiary or a creditor, can obtain details of any will which may concern him.

I have been struck, as I am sure many other hon. Members have, by the real distress caused to individuals by the publication, particularly in the local Press, of full details of exactly how much their recently lost and dearly loved husband, wife or parent was worth and just what he did with his money. I have had a large number of letters on this matter, some of them very moving. They tell how to the pain of bereavement is gratuituously added the embarrassment of unwanted publicity.

It may be embarrassment caused by the large size of the estate, bringing a small and unwelcome army of fortune seekers and others scenting easy prey. Just as much embarrassment may be caused when someone who has played a prominent part in the community turns out to be worth much less than people had supposed and the widow has to put up with much patronising pity. Whether the estate is small or large, it is a matter of keen curiosity for all who love to pry into their neighbours' affairs.

But is this piece of knowledge something that the public has either a need or a right to know? Is not this really something between the deceased and his family? I cannot accept that the public has a right to such information. Morally it seems that the general public has no more right or need to know the size of a man's estate than it has to know the size of his bank balance or the details of his tax returns. Both these matters would be of great interest to potential creditors and perhaps to those hoping day to be legatees, but bank balances and tax returns are not published and I hope that we are a long way from suggesting that they should be.

Of course I accept that, legally, there is a difference and that a way must be found to make it no harder than it is now for those who think that they may benefit under a will or who may be owed money from an estate to get the information they need to pursue their claim, but this genuine need can easily be met if, when probate has been granted, an announcement is made, which can and should be carried in the Press, giving the name, address and date of decease of the testator and the name and address of the solicitor concerned, if appropriate, or other information showing where the will can be inspected. Indeed, it might be stipulated that this notice should be published more than once—perhaps at monthly intervals. There is no need, however, for any sum of money to be published, or the details of any bequests to individuals.

It will no doubt be objected that wills have been published in detail for a long time now—since 1598, to be precise—but we live in an age when privacy is every day subject to fresh intrusion. We all know far too many facts about one another—perhaps that is why we understand one another so little. What the Press likes to call "investigative journalism" and what the rest of us call "snooping" is on the increase. That is why it has become much more important to push back the frontiers of privacy from the individual's doorstep.

People have a right to keep something of themselves to themselves, however much the mass media would like to have us all—themselves, of course, excepted—exposed to the full glare of X-rays at all times. Just because it has been accepted in the past that the publication of wills should be allowed as an exception to the normal rules of privacy, that is no reason why, in the very different circumstances of today, this encroachment among a thousand others should be tolerated, unless it is absolutely necessary—and that it cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be held to be.

This proposal has the support of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, which passed a resolution at its annual conference in 1970 asking the Government of the time to introduce legislation to stop publication of the wills and estates of deceased persons. Members of the federation have assured me of their support for the present Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Anthony Meyer, Mr. Daniel Awdry, Mr. Wyn Roberts and Mr. Michael Roberts.