HL Deb 30 April 1929 vol 74 cc258-63

Order of the Day read for the House to be put into Committee on recommitment of the Bill.


My Lords, you will remember that this Bill was referred by this House to a Select Committee, who have been diligently through its provisions and made a Report, with the terms of which it is unnecessary to trouble your Lordships. I think I need read only one paragraph. They say:— It may be difficult to prove that, in Great Britain, the disparity between the legal age of marriage and the facts of national life impedes the progress of morality. But there is evidence that it does impair the influence of Great Britain in co-operating in the work of the League of Nations for the protection and welfare of children and young people, and docs prejudice the nation's effort to grapple with the social problems arising from the early age at which marriages are contracted in India. On these grounds the Committee are unanimously of opinion that a revision of the law in respect of the minimum age of marriage is necessary, and that the law should be brought into closer conformity with the moral and social development of the nation, and should register the progress already made. I believe that that expresses in language the elegance of which I think we must owe to the Chairman, Lord Ernle, the view which your Lordships expressed unhesitatingly when you approved the Second Reading of the Bill. Therefore I have no further comment to make before I ask your Lordships once more to resolve yourselves into a Committee on this Bill, after which I will call your Lordships' attention to two trifling Amendments which are proposed.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Buckmaster.)


My Lords, I am very glad indeed that the fortunes of this Bill have not been so sinister as my noble and learned friend at one time was afraid they would be. The Bill has been before a Select Committee. It has received very careful consideration by that Select Committee and it has emerged from that ordeal successfully. Although personally I was not the author of the Motion to refer it to a Select Committee, yet I cannot regret that that course was taken. I think the fact that this very difficult subject has been before a Select Committee, and a strong Select Committee, and has been carefully considered by it and approved in the main by it, con- stitutes a great claim upon the attention of Parliament and of public opinion which it would not otherwise possess, and has placed it in a far more satisfactory position than if that inquiry had not taken place.

As far as the Government are concerned we always favoured the Bill, and we are anxious to see it passed into law, but I have two observations to make upon it. The first is that it is quite impossible at this stage of the Session, with the conclusion of the Session and of the Parliament immediately impending, to pass the Bill unless it is done by general consent. The Bill will no doubt pass without great difficulty through your Lordships' House, but it has also to pass through another place, and, speaking on behalf of the Government, I can give no assurance of its final passage into law this Session except by general consent. It is quite obvious that if there was anything like a strong opposition to the Bill, there is no time left for its proper discussion and for its passing into law. That is one observation I have to make, and I earnestly hope that noble Lords belonging to different Parties may use what influence they possess in another place to make it possible for this Bill to be secured.

The other observation is that, although the Government have no objection whatever to the insertion of the Amendments in substance which have been proposed by the Select Committee, yet in form—and it is merely a matter of form, not a matter of substance—there are changes in the wording which, in the view of the Home Office, Parliament would be well advised to make in substitution of the actual drafts as they stand, coming from the Select Committee. That cannot be done to-night, because there has been no opportunity of giving notice. Therefore, the Government will not resist the insertion of the Amendments from the Select Committee when they are put from the Chair, but we hope that your Lordships will allow us to put the same points, differently drafted, before the House on Report—there is no change in substance—and in that case to-morrow I hope you will consent upon Report to substitute those other words. As far as this House is concerned, speaking for the Government, there will be no desire except to see the Bill pass rapidly into law.


My Lords, as I was responsible for moving that this Bill should go to a Select Committee, if it had come back from that Select Committee absolutely untouched I should have felt it my duty to apologise to your Lordships and to my noble and learned friend opposite for having taken the course which I did. But it has come back from the Select Committee, as I think, vastly improved, and in a shape in which it may very properly be placed upon the Statute Book—of course, with those verbal alterations which the noble Marquess suggests. My noble and learned friend said it was only necessary to read from the Report of the Committee—which he detected, by the elegance of the language used, was drawn by my noble friend beside me (Lord Ernle)—one passage, which he proceeded to read. But I think I must trouble your Lordships by reading another. The Committee have put in two Amendments, one to safeguard the girl against an injustice which might very likely happen to her where there was a child born of the marriage, the other to protect from a criminal prosecution the boy who had married the girl in circumstances in which such a criminal prosecution would be entirely wrong. I cannot think how it was that my noble friend opposite did not see these points and himself secure their insertion in the Bill.

The passage that I would read from the Report, couched in the same elegant language as appealed to my noble and learned friend, is this:— For the reasons which have been given in some detail, the Committee have come to the unanimous conclusion that the principle adopted in the Bill is right, that the minimum age for marriage should be raised, and that all marriages, where one or both of the parties is under that age, should be ab initio void. But they consider that if the Bill passes into law in its present form "— that is, the form in which my noble and learned friend introduced it— 'a grave injustice may be done in cases whore a genuine mistake has been made as to age, and they have therefore amended the Bill accordingly. I am surprised that my noble and learned friend did not think of that himself. He is so humane, he has introduced so much legislation into this House for the protection of the desolate and oppressed, he has done so much for such defenceless creatures as the lapwing that I am surprised that it did not occur to him that here were people quite as defenceless as lapwings, who cannot even fly, and who would suffer if this Bill were passed into law in the shape in which he introduced it. A member of your Lordships' House wrote: In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest. My ambition will be satisfied if I have been able to add one feather to the panache of my noble and learned friend.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF DONOUGHMORE in the Chair.]


The usual question now is that the Amendments made in the Select, Committee be agreed to, but I understand that Lord Buckmaster wants to refer to them.

LORD BUCKMASTER moved that the Amendments made in the Select Committee be agreed to. The noble and learned Lord said: I only wanted to call attention to what these Amendments are, and to explain that I entirely agree with what was said by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, that it might be possible to render these Amendments more effective if they were couched in other words. If the noble Marquess thinks right on behalf of the Government to put down these Amendments in another form between now and to-morrow I shall be quite willing to accept them. In order that you should know what they are, I will just refer to them. The first is perfectly simple. If a man is charged with having had unlawful connection with a girl under the age of sixteen, it is to be a defence if it can be shown that he married her reasonably believing that she was sixteen when he married her. If the marriage were declared void under this Bill he might have been defenceless. It is not likely to occur often, but if a man had been a party to such a marriage he would otherwise have been liable to heavy penalties if he had unwittingly mistaken the age. The Amendment is reasonable. Another thing which seems to be equally reasonable is that if a marriage is declared void under this Bill, if would be possible for the woman to apply for maintenance for a child that has been born of the marriage, which would then become an illegitimate child, within twelve months of the marriage being declared void. I beg to move that both these Amendments be agreed to.

Moved, That the Amendments made in the Select Committee be agreed to.—(Lord Buckmaster.)

On Question, Amendments agreed to.