HL Deb 01 August 1928 vol 71 cc1587-600

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Wraxall.)

THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY, who had given Notice to move as an Amendment, That the Bill be read 3a this day six months, said: My Lords, the few noble Lords who have been able to be present in your Lordships' House during some of our debates will have heard a good deal upon this subject and will have heard, I am afraid, my own voice more than once. I apologise for speaking again, but I feel intensely the inexpediency and even the harmfulness of legislation of this kind being hurried through, as it undoubtedly would be, and passing without adequate discussion outside as well as inside the walls of Parliament. The noble Marquess who leads the House said in a speech last night that in the closing days of the Session everything is done in a hurry. This, of all things which are before us, ought not to be done in a hurry, and if it is done at all, there ought to be a perfectly clear and general demand for it outside.

There are a great many technical measures concerning legal, financial, or industrial matters which lie so far outside the general knowledge of most of us that no one, I think, can take exception if they are dealt with in a House which is small and confined to those who are experts in such matters, or without any ample debate or consideration of the subject by the public outside. This particular measure is quite different. It is a measure which concerns the homes of the people of England. It concerns the social and domestic life of our country from end to end. I do not wish to treat the proposal disrespectfully in the least, and I am sure I have said no word which could give that impression. I do not wish to oppose it as being clearly and definitely mischievous in itself from evidence adequately before us. But I venture to demand for it, with all the earnestness I can command, a very full consideration in Parliament and a very ample opportunity for discussion outside. This, I maintain without hesitation, it has not at present had. The noble Lord, Lord Arnold, said yesterday that it was fully discussed in another place last year. I, therefore, have taken pains since then to read every word that has been said about it in another place during the last two years. I have been through the debates with the utmost care, in order to find the evidence of that general demand which seems to me essential in this case. I can find absolutely no demand of a general kind at all.

A certain number of letters, very few, were produced which showed that certain people who had married illegally were very anxious to be got out of the trouble, and pressed Members of Parliament and noble Lords to bring about legislation, if they could, which would set them straight. There were a few cases of that kind Some of them were brought forward in an admirably clear and perfectly reasonable way by the noble Lord who is responsible for this measure. As regards full discussion and debate, the debate in another place to which the noble Lord referred, occupied less than an hour on a Friday afternoon. That hour was occupied chiefly by protests against the hurry, against the palpable hurry of the matter, the same exception being taken as that which I am taking now. The Bill then went to Standing Committee, and the Standing Committee reported that it could not give a considered Report because it had not been possible to have time to deal with the matter. That was not many months ago. It is perfectly clear that the Bill has not had adequate discussion either in the House or in Committee. All that is beyond question.

From those matters of fact concerning the way in which the Bill has been pushed through the House (with no kind of object but a good one) owing to the pressure of time, I turn for a moment or two to the theory of the measure itself. It is based upon the necessity, or supposed necessity, of logical consequence to the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act of 1907. If anyone is feeling impressed by that argument I venture to ask him to read with care the debates which took place in 1907 and to note recurrently, in both Houses, the clear evidence that there was a definite and strong demand for legislation for marriage with a deceased wife's sister. The demand was very strong, very clearly put and very definite I do not say how far it was widespread throughout the country, but it was clear, I have always acknowledged that. The measure was accordingly passed into law, I think unfortunately but obviously in response to a perfectly clear demand, and after more than ample discussion in both Houses of Parliament. But throughout that discussion there was again and again ample repudiation of the alarm that was expressed by the opponents of the measure who said, as I said at that time: "This will be extended beyond its present scope." That was repudiated again and again by those responsible for the Bill in both Houses of Parliament. The Lord Chancellor, from the Woolsack in this House, said quite definitely in effect: "We are not against the principle of affinity; we do not propose to go further than this measure does, which is simply to meet a recognised need which is specific and exceptional to the general principle." In the House of Commons that was said again and again in answer to Lord Robert Cecil (as he then was) and others.

They were told that it would not lead to other things, that it was an exceptional proposal and was being treated as such. Therefore, we are justified in saying now that this is a new departure which was not contemplated in 1907. It is not really demanded in the country now, and beyond all question it is being hurried through the Houses of Parliament. I have referred with care—it is a ponderous process—to the Report of the Royal Commission which sat in 1847, the year before I was born. The Royal Commissioners virtually said—I have the exact words, but I do not think it is necessary to read them—that they did not trouble about anything else except the case of the deceased wife's sister, because there was no demand for anything else. If there were another question it might have to be considered, but at that time there was no demand for anything else. Therefore, in their Report they said that when they spoke of marriages within prohibited degrees they were to be understood as confining their observations to the deceased wife's sister. They made the very moderate and cautious recommendation that that subject at least ought to be considered, and they accompanied it with the statement that they were dealing with that question only. I think attention ought to be directed to that when we are told now that this is a perfectly natural and inevitable sequel to what happened in 1907.

The change that will be effected if this Bill becomes law is not in the least realised, I think, either outside the House or inside it, because attention has not been publicly drawn to this matter at all. I wonder how many members of either House of Parliament had the least idea a month ago that there was going to be put before us at the end of the Session a change of this vast kind in the Christian law of marriage. It is a thing which, I am perfectly certain, is not understood in the country at this moment, and it is disastrous that such a change should be made in the conditions which I have mentioned. The law of affinity has been a part of the Christian law of marriage from the very beginning. Long before the Church of Christ affinity as well as consanguinity has been recognised as a bar, needing perhaps an exception in particular cases in the Churches which dealt with it by means of dispensation. There may have been these exceptions here and there but the law was maintained and the principle of affinity has been asserted alike in the Jewish and the Christian faith during a time that goes right back to the roots of what we believe.

Now you are proposing by this measure to sweep that law of affinity almost wholly aside. You do not sweep it quite fully aside, because by this measure a man may not yet marry his stepmother or his stepdaughter, but I do not know how long we are to wait before the next step is taken. We are told by those who support this measure that they do not intend that. But that is precisely what we were told on the former occasion if the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Bill were passed. We were told that the matter was not to go any further. This change ought not to be made, if it is made at all, without full consideration and without a perfectly clear demand from outside the Houses of Parliament. The objections to it are social. There are also, I am told, though I have not gone into it from that point of view, technical objections on eugenic grounds. I am told that high medical authorities want to raise questions about it in the way that. I am not going to try to do. Give us the opportunity of going further into this matter. If it is to be pressed upon us there should be an opportunity of securing from outside a demand for it. We ought to ascertain whether there is really a widely entertained demand for it before we pass it. How many members of either House of Parliament imagined a month ago that they were to be asked to go so far as this Bill goes?

I should like to say this in conclusion. I have been thirty-four years a member of this House. I have given from the beginning all the attention that my powers admit of to questions of social life and of morality in the homes of England. This presumably is the last time that I shall have the opportunity of standing here as the representative spokesman of those of us whose life has been spent in dealing with questions of a social and domestic kind that concern the homes of England—dealing with them on moral considerations. I want, therefore, to make an appeal as strongly as I may be allowed to make it against hasty legislation in this matter. I have made that appeal. If I fail I have at least tried to prevent what I should regard as an infinitely rash and most inconsiderate act.

Amendment moved— Leave out ("now") and at end insert ("this day six months").—(The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.)


My Lords, it is with the very deepest regret that I find myself obliged to differ on this occasion from the most rev. Primate. The last words of his speech naturally make my regret all the deeper. As a very humble but I hope very sincere member of the Church of England I have during his long tenure of his great office looked up to him as my spiritual leader. Therefore it is, as I say, with the deepest regret that on the last occasion on which, as he has said, he will address your Lordships' House, I should find myself opposing practically everything which he has said. This is, as your Lordships know, a Bill which I introduced and which has already passed the House of Commons. I cannot agree with what the most rev. Primate has said that this Bill has been hurried. It has been introduced no fewer than five times in the House of Commons. On the first occasion it was introduced by a member of the Liberal Party and was supported by members of all Parties. Since then it has been four times before the House of Commons and your Lordships know the history of the measure during the last three years.

It is, as I tried to explain in my speech on Second Reading, merely following up the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act of 1907. That certainly made a great alteration in the law and, no doubt, there were many members of both Houses who felt that they were taking a great responsibility in the vote they gave on that occasion, but this Bill is merely following up that Act. We are only asking to allow a number of people, and they are quite a number of people, many of whom contracted these marriages without knowledge—some no doubt contracted them with knowledge—to become legally married. It really does—again I must disagree completely with what the most rev. Primate has said—meet a recognised need. He has asked us to visualise for ourselves the effect of this Bill if it is passed. What has been the effect of the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act and the Deceased Husband's Brother's Marriage Act of 1925? I feel myself that both these Acts have been for the good of this country. I must resist the Amendment which the most rev. Primate has proposed.


My Lords, I shall not intrude on your Lordships for more than a very few minutes, but lest no other layman should support what has been said by the most rev. Primate as the spokesman of the Church of England against this measure, I feel bound to offer to the House a very few observations with a view to calling attention to the suddenness and gravity of the proposal to which your Lordships are asked on the first of August to accede. I venture to say that this Bill is practically unknown in the country. Among the masses of the people in the country it has barely been heard of. Nobody has suggested that there is a public demand for it. My noble friend who has moved the Bill says that there are several, perhaps there are a few hundreds of people who have contracted marriages within the prohibited degree in defiance of the law, and, as he said a few days ago, some of them have gone across the water to give a spurious pretence of legality to the marriages they have contracted. It is in the interests of that small body of persistent people who wish their breaches of the law to be sanctioned by an amendment of the law that the House is asked, without public demand, without any discussion in the House of Commons which has attracted public attention, and after a few days' mention of the matter in this House, to introduce changes in the law in respect of affinity which will practically destroy the law of affinity, or if it does not do that will make the exceptions ridiculous, and to legalise marriage in respect of eight classes of people, numbering not a few score nor a few hundreds but probably hundreds of thousands, to legalise marriage for these eight classes of people although the experience of ages has shown that the sanctity of family life, the protection of family life, requires that restriction should be put upon marriages within certain degrees.

Now what is in question? It is not a matter of some old-fashioned notion or of some logical basis by which you repair some omission in the Act of 1907. It was not an omission in the Act of 1907. After the gravest controversy extending over more than a generation, over something like two generations, an exception was made in the law of affinity. Now it is proposed to abolish it because the exception was made and logic is appealed to in support of that proposal. But what really is in question is family life. If there is an interest of vital consequence throughout the land I think it cannot be said that there is any interest of more vital consequence. We may look on all our political institutions and contemplate changes in them, but I do not believe any serious man, certainly I do not believe any of your Lordships, would contemplate a revolution in the family life of the country without the gravest anxiety. What is proposed is that where there are legal sanctions which require that a self-respecting man shall not look upon certain relatives of his with a view to marriage these sanctions are to be withdrawn. It may be that you should put marriage upon some logical footing, that you should amend the whole law of marriage, but I feel sure that this House would never consent to a wholesale amendment of the law of marriage upon the proposal of a private member of the House of Commons or of any individual member of your Lordships' House not having responsibility as the leader of a Party.

Here we are on the first of August called upon, not upon the ground of reason, not upon a ground of public interest, but for the purpose of assisting people who have broken the law, to amend the law so that they shall not suffer the reproach of breaking it. It may be right or it may be wrong to amend the law, but that your Lordships should be called upon practically on the last day of the Session to take this sudden step, seems to me to transcend anything I have ever heard of in Parliamentary procedure in what is now a long period in which I have taken considerable interest in it. I hope the speech, for which I am sure many of us will be personally very grateful to the most rev. Primate, will have its effect, but whether it is, as he has said, the last occasion on which he will speak—which I trust is not the case—I hope he will go with the satisfaction of knowing that a weighty protest which he has made as head of the Church in this House is not disregarded.


My Lords, the noble Lord has made great play with the first of August. I think he ought to be reminded that it is not by any choice of the promoters of the Bill that this discussion takes place on the first of August. The Second Reading of the Bill was somewhere about the 24th or 25th July. If the Amendment had been put down then this matter could have been discussed at a more convenient moment. I am not in the least complaining of the most rev. Primate. He has put this Motion down as it was his right to do if he objected to the Bill and if he wished to get rid of it, and he was within his right in whipping up, as I see he has done, his ecclesiastical reserves. But it is very inconvenient to discuss a Bill like this on practically the last day in the Session in a thin House. Therefore I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord. I do not think that those who are responsible for this Bill are to blame for that. During a great many years the most rev. Primate and I have sat together in this House, and I have frequently had occasion to admire him and I have frequently had occasion to agree with him. I have no words to use but those of admiration of his courage in putting down this Motion now, in a cause which he thinks a just one, in order to object to the passage of a Bill which he thinks an unjust one. I regret, as I am sure he will regret, that his last appearance among your Lordships should be one in which there is any clash of opinion between him and any other section of the House. It is unfortunate, but it is one of the necessities of debate, and I am sure that he would not have taken this step if he did not feel that it was both justified and necessary.

But I would ask your Lordships to remember the distinction which the most rev. Primate has himself made. It is not a matter of conscience that the Bill, as such, should be opposed. He has been careful in every speech that he has made to us to make that clear. He says that there has not been sufficient consideration, that there should be more delay and more evidence of demand, an objection to a Bill which one often takes and is fully entitled to take. But it is a certain flouting of another place, the Bill having been five times passed, having been considered there on several occasions and having on this occasion been passed without a dissentient voice, that your Lordships should, on the last day of the Session and on the Third Reading of the Bill, throw it out. I hope that your Lordships will maintain an attitude of independent judgment and will recognise that what this Bill does is not to make a large inroad into the system of Christian marriage. It does nothing of the sort.

The Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act was passed in 1907. There had been agitation in favour of such a measure for about fifty years. I think it was another fourteen years before the Deceased Brother's Widow's Marriage Act was passed, so long did it take this country to be logical on a matter of that sort. Now another seven years has passed, and what is the alteration that you are asked to make in the law? The law says now that you may regard your wife's sister in the way in which the noble and learned Lord opposite has indicated, that is, that she is a person whom you can marry after your wife is dead. All that this Bill says is that you may regard your wife's sister's daughter and other persons in categories of this sort as legitimate or possible objects of marriage after the death of your wife. That is not a very fundamental change. You are going to a far remoter relationship, in regard to which there is much less likely to be personal contact in the home with resultant inconvenience.

Yesterday we understood that there was to be a conflict. There were many people here prepared to vote upon this question. To-day I fear there may be fewer. If the Bill is lost now, I think it will be a reflection upon the conduct of business in this House, and I say that personally I am very sorry. I am bound to say that I regret that the last occasion on which we are likely to see the most rev. Primate, whom we all admire, in our midst should be one in which there should be any difference of opinion between us, but I hope that nevertheless your Lordships will stick to the attitude that you have adopted in all the other stages of this Bill and will give it a Third Reading to-day.


My Lords, I do not think that the noble Earl who has just spoken, if he had ever been a member of the House of Commons, would have tried to impress your Lordships with the history of this Bill in that House. I have not taken the trouble to go into the exact methods which have been pursued in the House of Commons. I do not know whether the Bill was passed under the Ten Minutes Rule or whether it was passed after eleven o'clock through the accident of no one being there to say that he objected. I do not know exactly in what circumstances it passed through the House of Commons, but I do know one thing. My noble friend who introduced the Bill to your Lordships has told us that it passed, I think, five times in the House of Commons. I can only say that I was myself until last autumn a member of the House of Commons and I never heard of this Bill until it was read a second time in your Lordships' House the other day. I took the trouble, after what occurred here yesterday, to go across and interview some of my friends who are now members of the House of Commons. I failed to find any of them who had heard of this Bill until the matter came up here. Those of us who have been for many years in the House of Commons, as many of your Lordships have, know perfectly well how easy it is for a Private Member's Bill to which attention has never happened to be called, either by the Press or by any opposition from outside, to be passed. There are a dozen ways in which it may slip through the House of Commons and fail to attract attention.

The noble Earl concluded his speech by saying that he thought that, if your Lordships rejected this Bill, it would be a reflection on the management of business in this House. My view is that if, after what has occurred and especially after the weighty protest that has been made by the Archbishop, this House were to pass this Bill now, it would be taken throughout the country as an instance of the frivolity with which great changes can be made by the Legislature without due consideration. My noble friend behind me really began and ended his speech by saying that this was merely following up the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act. How can my noble friend use that language after the way in which we were reminded by the most rev. Primate that in both Houses the promoters of that Act gave assurances to Parliament and to the country that there were not going to be any future proposals following it up and that there was no intention of making a greater inroad than was made at that time in this matter of affinity? I think that, so far from my noble friend being entitled to say that your Lordships should pass this Bill because it is merely following up the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act, it would amount almost to a breach of faith if the assurances that were given were to be gone back upon and this legislation were to be carried without the fullest possible notice to the country, such as has certainly not been afforded now.

I remember very well, as will most of your Lordships, the agitation that preceded the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act. It went on for years, and no one could ever have alleged for a moment that the measure was not very fully in the public mind, whatever way the public mind worked. Not only were assurances given that this exception was not going to be followed up, but your Lordships will remember the ground, and the only ground so far as I recollect, upon which that legislation was recommended. Your Lordships will remember that those who opposed that legislation said that it would to a certain extent poison the relationship between a man and his sister-in-law and make it impossible for her to come and stay in his house if she were eligible to become his second wife. The answer to that was that this might be perfectly true, that it was unfortunate, but that, after all, the sister-in-law was the natural guardian of the man's children and, especially in poorer houses, it was almost a matter of necessity in many cases that the deceased wife's sister should come as the guardian of her dead sister's children, and that therefore it was better to regularise a relationship that was very likely to arise in any case. On that plea, and mainly on that plea, the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Bill was carried into law.

Does anybody suggest that all the objections which were felt at that time, and which it is quite unnecessary to specify in detail, are not very much greater if you allow, not merely the sister-in-law but the niece, who presumably in those cases would be a woman of a younger generation, to come habitually to be eligible for marriage with her deceased aunt's husband? It makes it impossible for those relations to come and pay visits to the household. I am speaking about matters of which I know, because these matters touch me personally, and therefore I am able to enter into them. I know quite well what it would be if one felt that it was impossible to ask young women whom one regarded as one's own nieces, and many people do regard their relations in law as their own relations, to come and stay. If you pass this Bill it will mean that those of us who are widowers will find it impossible to ask a niece to come and stay with us, as we habitually do now without the slightest reserve, because there would inevitably be introduced into that

Resolved in the negative and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Amendment agreed to: Bill to be read 3a this day six months accordingly.

relationship a feeling that that young woman was eligible to become a wife.

I submit to your Lordships that although it may have been necessary, and I admit it was necessary, in the case of sisters-in-law, for the purpose of providing guardians for the children, you are going to introduce by this Bill poison into a great many households in this country—not deliberately, but because the matter has not been thoroughly thought out. No reason has been offered for the Bill and before we pass it do let us give the country an opportunity of really considering this matter. It will be discussed in the religious Press, and in the secular Press, and therefore if at some future time, this not being a matter of any urgency, the Bill should again be presented to Parliament, no one will be able to say that the country has not had an opportunity of fully considering it. The country certainly, in my judgment, would have a very great grievance against Parliament if in the existing circumstances the Bill were carried to-day.

On Question, Whether the word "now" shall stand part of the Motion?

Their Lordships divided:—Contents, 25; Not-Contents, 26.

Airlie, E. Sondes, E. Clwyd, L.
Cranbrook, E. Faringdon, L.
De La Warr, E. Bertie of Thame, V. Gage, L. (V. Gage.)
Howe, E. Churchill, V. Hamilton of Dalzell, L.
Iddesleigh, E. Elibank, V. Hemphill, L.
Lucan, E. Illingworth, L.
Onslow, E. Arnold, L. Stanley of Alderley, L. (L. Sheffield.)
Plymouth, E. Avebury, L.
Russell, E. [Teller.] Biddulph, L. Thomson, L.
Wraxall, L. [Teller.]
Canterbury, L. Abp. Grey, E. [Teller.] Fairlie, L. (E. Glasgow.)
Hayter, L.
Hailsham, L. (L. Chancellor.) Rochester, L. Bp. Howard of Glossop, L.
St. Albans, L. Bp. Lawrence, L.
Southwark, L. Bp. Merrivale, L.
Argyll, D. Winchester, L. Bp. Mildmay of Flete, L.
Askwith, L. [Teller.] O'Hagan, L.
Reading, M. Cottesloe, L. Saltoun, L.
Winchester, M. Cushendun, L. Stanmore, L.
Dawnay, L. (V. Downe.) Teynham, L.
Beauchamp, E. Fairfax of Cameron, L.