§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD MUIR MACKENZIE
My Lords, I am in rather an awkward position with regard to this Bill, because it was a private Bill in the other House of Parliament and it would be natural that some private member should undertake it in this House, and those who are responsible for it in the other House asked me if I would submit it to your Lordships. But I had the satisfaction of seeing on the Paper this morning that my noble friend, Lord Onslow, would take charge of the Bill, and as there are undoubtedly great difficulties connected with it, I need scarcely say that I proceeded with my breakfast with more appetite than that with which I sat down. Still, in spite of that error having been made, I will do my best with the Bill as it stands.
A further difficulty that I personally had in the matter was this. I suppose there is no one in your Lordships' House who has a stronger objection than I have to proceeding with a Bill with undue haste and without proper consideration, and the only 965 possible excuse I can have for dealing with this Bill is the strong sympathy I feel with members of the House of Commons, who, under great difficulties, have succeeded, probably at the last moment, in getting their Bill through that House and sending it up to your Lordships. If we had the advantage of an autumn session, which so many of your Lordships desire, we should have been able to deal with it in a proper manner.
It happens that I have the strongest sympathy with what really is the main object of the Bill, and I do not think it is necessary for me to trouble the House with arguments upon it. It is not like a subject which recently came before your Lordships, where the House naturally rejected a proposal of a novel kind, very unfamiliar, which ought never to have been considered at all. Hare is a case with which every one is familiar. There is no one in this House who has not an opinion as to whether legitimation would be a good thing or not. The Scottish members of your Lordships' House are familiar with it, because it is the law in that country.
The Bill is called the Children of Unmarried Parents Bill. In that respect, and in many others, I should have been glad of an opportunity of dealing with the drafting of the measure. Clause 4 is really the Bill. It deals with the legitimation of illegitimate persons by the marriage of their parents. That is really the important proposal in the Bill. The other clauses deal with matters of administration, and need no explanation because they are obviously and evidently right. This proposal of legitimation is naturally one in which your Lordships will take great interest if you are willing to proceed with the Bill at the last hour of the session, I should like to recommend it on its merits very strongly. I would go so far as to say that, difficult though the language of Clause 4 undoubtedly is, partly through the drafting and partly through the nature of the case, as far as I am entitled to express any opinion on such a subject, the drafting works out right.
What I should like to suggest about the Bill, if your Lordships will give it a Second Reading, is that we should not proceed under the powers we now have by the abominable suspension of Standing Order No. XXXIX, but that the Committee stage should be taken to-morrow, and that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack 966 will then allow me to ask whether, in his opinion, the drafting and effect of Clause 4 is, as I venture to say, right. If the noble and learned Lord will assure the House that it is, I think your Lordships might accept the clause on that authority. If any noble Lord desires to ask a question upon either of the other clauses, which I think may be read a second time. I shall be happy to do my best to answer him.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a— (Lord Muir Mackenzie.)
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT BIRKENHEAD)
My Lords, the promoters of this Bill in another place are to be congratulated on the fact that their sponsor in this House is a member for whom your Lordships entertain great respect, but not, I think, upon the zeal or warmth which he has brown into the presentation of this particular proposal. He has made it plain that he is dissatisfied with the drafting of what I may call the less important proposals of this Bill, but, nevertheless, he asks your Lordships to enter upon the consideration of this Bill at this stage of the session and to apply your minds to the controversial points involved in Clause 4. As far as the other proposals in the Bill are concerned—the issue of summons by justices, the amount to be paid by fathers under affiliation orders, the duration of orders made in proceedings instituted by Boards of Guardian—I am unaware of any objection in substance in any quarter, and having read through the various clauses I should have thought the drafting was neither better nor worse than that on which we daily feast.
But, undoubtedly, graver issues arise on Clause 4. As to its drafting I take no responsibility. I am informed that it was placed before the Law Officers and they did, in fact, make themselves responsible for the form. But more serious questions arise here than those relating solely to form. Since I applied my mind to these matters, I have been strongly in favour of the rule which is recognised in the law of Rome and in Scotland—legitimatio per subsequens matrimonium. But it would be foolish to deny that a proposal effecting such a change in our system is one in respect of which reasonable difference of opinion, and considerable controversy, may be looked for. I have never known any considerable proposal which appertained directly or indirectly to our Marriage Laws which did not immediately invite 967 protracted controversy the moment it was put forward, and it seems extremely unlikely that this particular proposal will be more fortunate. There are obvious collateral matters presenting great difficulty. There are such questions as the position of the child so legitimated in relation to other children which may be born in the interval, the effect of the change in the law on proprietory settlements and a number of complicated questions, and I see little prospect of these matters being satisfactorily dealt with in the short time indicated by the noble and learned Lord.
The suggestion I have to make will, I think, recommend itself to everyone. It is, that without embarking on any detailed discussion of the disputable matters contained in Clause I we should give a Second Reading to the Bill, upon the understanding, which the Government will do their best to make effective and which the noble and learned Lord must fully understand, that there will be no further progress with the Bill, or at any rate with Clause 4, unless full agreement is reached, which I think is unlikely, with those members of the House who at present are not prepared to give their assent to these proposals. On that understanding, I think that most of your Lordships may be ready to agree to the Second Reading.
THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
My Lords, I have listened with great satisfaction to the last words of the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, because it seems to me that though we have had a good many startling proposals as regards the time allowed for deliberation during the last fortnight, I do not think we have had anything equal to this. This is, admittedly, a Bill which affects the home life of a very large number of people in this country. I am not hostile to this Bill, so far as I understand it. But. I do not understand it. The Bill was put in our hands this morning for the first time. One of its clauses contains a vast amount of legal language, which will obviously require a very great deal of thought and exposition.
I understood that it came here as a Government measure, because it appeared on the Paper in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. I hurried to get a copy and to see what was proposed. I now find, however, that it is not a Government measure—that was a mistake on the Order Paper—and the proposal is taken in hand 968 by a noble and learned Lord—no human being could do it better—who has admitted to us that he has not seen it before and would have liked to have to do with its drafting. It follows that it is not a measure for which he would desire to claim paternity in any form. I turned then to see whit; passed in the House of Commons, and I learnt front the OFFICIAL REPORT, which was circulated only to-day, dealing with the proceedings of the night before last that an important Amendment was introduced, and when the Question was raised whether it should be properly considered, the proposer said—" I would be very willing to explain it, but it has been agreed to by the promoters of the Bill, and it is now half past twelve." That was the explanation given for an important change which was proposed in the measure, and which was agreed to.
I think that we have reached a point of rushing matters which requires a protest, notwithstanding what the noble and learned Viscount has said. I entirely accept the suggestion he has made, as being in some degree, at least, satisfactory, or, at all events, as lacking the disadvantages of going forward with the Bill to-day. But. I am a little at a loss to know what we should mean by giving a Second Reading to this Bill. Are we to commit ourselves to a measure which I, for my part, do not understand, and which I honestly admit I have tried in vain to understand, with the extremely technical language in the very long clause about legitimation, succession, and to forth. It may be all right; very probably it is; but. I have no means of knowing that. When I look to ordinary sources of information, I cannot find enlightenment. It may be said that we should do no great harm by passing the Second Reading of this Bill, if we stopped there. But shall we gain, if we commit ourselves to something which is not understood? Shall we not be in an equally good position if we do not give the Bill a Second Reading, and if it comes before us when we have a little more time to consider it?
Let it be understood that I am not opposing this Bill on its merits. I knew that to some extent, though perhaps not exactly, it would be making the law correspond to the law of Scotland. I am a Scotsman, and I have never opposed the custom which has been the law there for many years. But I have never had occasion to consider the matter in this form, and there is a great 969 deal more here besides, which we are asked to consider. I venture to urge that we should consider what we have to gain by giving this Bill a Second Reading. If I were to assent to the Second Reading tonight, should have no justification for so bring in comprehension or intelligent understanding of an exceedingly technical and, as it seems to me, very complicated matter. I venture to hope that we may not go forward with this Bi because it does not seem to me that we shall lose anything by not giving it a, Second Reading now, while, if we do give it a Second Reading, we Might find ourselves committed to what many noble Lords in this House may, as I do, find sonic difficulty in understanding, particularly as regards the very complicated clause to which I have referred. If so, we shall find ourselves being committed to giving a Second Reading to the Bill without having had it explained.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
With your Lordships' permission, I might be allowed to say that this is not a proposal in which the Government is specially, interested itself, or in which we ask your Lordship; to do anything. But the other proposals contained in the Bill are undoubtedly useful, though perhaps not of the first importance. It is entirely for your Lordships to say but I should have thought that we might have given a Second Reading to the Bill on the clear understanding that it is given to the Bill as a whole, arid that no noble Lord is pledged to the approval of the principles contained in Clause 4. This would give us an opportunity of dropping Clause 4 and proceeding with the rest of the Bill, if that course were thought proper. I do not urge this, but it seems to me that it is not objectionable.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, I can follow the protests made by the most rev. Primate against asking the House to commit itself with regard to this Bill. It is quite obvious that the provisions of Clause 4 are highly disputable, because, even though, in a general way, a great many of your Lordships might be disposed to favour the legitimation of children by a subsequent marriage, yet, as the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack pointed out, there are a great number of by-products attaching to that process in relation t o property and different forms of succession, which must require close consideration. But I realize that it is possible 970 that the House might be so impressed by the desirability of passing the first three clauses of the Bill, and dropping the fourth, that your Lordships might be persuaded to proceed with the Bill to-morrow in that Sense.
I am assuming, of course, that, so far as we know, Parliament is to be almost immediately prorogued. If the course which I ventured to suggest some time ago had been followed, and an Adjournment had taken the place of a prorogation, it might surely have been possible to adjourn the debate or the Second Reading, in order that the Bill might be considered again when your Lordships had more time at your disposal. Failing that, it seems to me that there is nothing to be done but either to drop the Bill altogether now, or to adopt the course which, I understand, the noble and learned Viscount on the 'Woolsack favours, and take the chance of passing what may he regarded as the non-controversial part of the Bill to-morrow.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
Perhaps the noble Marquess will move that further consideration of this Bill be adjourned, because it is the fact—I cannot. let the observation of the noble Marquess pass without adding this— that the nature of the situation and of possible developments in Ireland may very easily, even at this moment, lead to a modification of what, up to this moment, has been the intention of the Government. I, myself, should support the noble Marquess in such a Motion.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
I am very much obliged to the noble and learned Viscount for stating the possible modifications in the plans of the Government which events may easily bring about, and I will therefore move that the debate on this Bill be adjourned.
§ Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.— (The Marquess of Crewe)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly.