HL Deb 12 March 1929 vol 73 cc397-425

Order of the Day for the House to be again put into Committee read.


My Lords, I think some words of explanation are necessary in order to show why it is that I ask that the House should once more resolve itself into Committee upon this Bill. The history of this measure might afford the moralist a text for the purpose of showing how easily things go wrong, how easy it is to be misunderstood, and how very difficult it is for people to make their meanings plain to one another. It has come to my knowledge since I first put this Bill down that People have regarded me as acting in this matter on behalf of other people as if I were some kind of conduit pipe for conveying outside ideas to your Lordships' House. The power of representing views that are not your own is a very admirable one in advocacy, and it is indeed essential to a fair administration of the law, but in politics, unless the fact that what you are stating is being stated on behalf of others is made plain, to represent other people's views as your own appears to me to be an act of detestable insincerity, and it is one to which I at least have never stooped.

I would like to tell your Lordships how it was that I became acquainted with this Bill. My attention was drawn to the extract from a paper containing an account of the case to which I called your Lordships' attention. I then at once communicated with a well-known lady who is connected with work for women and girls. She gave me the information that the League of Nations anxiously desires the raising of the marriage age here as an essential step for stopping the traffic in girls, and she told me that there was a Bill ready if I would introduce it, and gave me the Bill. There, from beginning to end, has been my association with outside sources. I may say for myself that when once I read what had happened in the Press, and when once I heard what was desired at Geneva, I became strongly impressed with the view that every day that passed before our existing laws were altered was a day misspent. I placed this matter before your Lordships and told you the facts to which I have referred. I regret to say that it appears to have shocked the susceptibilities of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hanworth, who in the course of the debate has complained that I placed before your Lordships details which he has called at intervals, "nauseating," "morbid" and "horrible," and wished that I had based my case on other grounds. It is unfortunate that the facts of life are harsh and grim, and that I cannot make them delicate and rare to suit the noble and learned Lord. Nor will I ever consent to hinting at veiled evils and dealing with them before your Lordships' House in terms of language that might be well adapted to a junior class at Miss Pinker-ton's Academy in Chiswick Mall.

Your Lordships at least showed no feeling that I had in any way overstepped what I considered to be my duty, and gave a welcome to this Bill which, but for the fact that it might have been an unusual phenomenon, would almost show that it was carried by acclamation. From that time difficulties began to arise. If any of your Lordships have any knowledge of attempting to get a Bill through this House, you will know quite well that the operation of finding convenient days is not unlike a game which children sometimes play, when a certain number of children seek to find accommodation on an insufficient number of chairs. At the moment when you think there is a vacant chair and rush to take it you find it is already occupied and have to look for another. There was a very convenient day two days after the Second Reading of the Bill. I agree with what the noble Marquess said. He thought it unwise of me, though I broke no rule of the House, in selecting that day. I only saw there was an empty seat and sat in it at once. But there was more in it than that. I found myself unable, to understand, and I still find myself unable to understand, how members of the House who accepted the principle of a Bill which contained nothing but one clause, that the marriage of persons under sixteen should be void, should think it was possible to do anything in the way of amendment. I was wrong, and I was further misled by this: that the only Amendment put down was an Amendment to declare that such marriages instead of being "void" should be "voidable."

I hope that the use of these words, which are not particularly pleasant ones, misleads no. one. Everyone knows what a void contract is. It is a contract which, when made, has no operation of any sort or kind. It is just as though it had never been. A voidable contract is a contract which either party to the proceedings can declare to be void. Such an Amendment was put down without any qualification at all. It has since been amended. It meant that a man could do exactly what was done in the case I quoted to you. He could live with the girl until she was over sixteen, or any age he pleased, and then declare the marriage void, because he had married her before she was sixteen, and so effect a simple process of divorce which I, even in my most hardened moment, have never ventured to suggest to the House. It appeared to me to be a most monstrous proposal. That is the way in which it struck me. I could not think that such an Amendment could be seriously proposed, and throughout the whole time my anxiety was to get to grips with this astounding Amendment on the floor of this House.

Then Lord Desart asked for further time. The real difficulty is this. Things do not appear to everybody in quite the same way. I very much doubt whether any two of us in this House at this moment are seeing identically the same scene, and I am quite certain that no idea presented to our mental vision appears to any two of us alike. And what seemed to me so simple, and what I was so anxious to do, appeared a very different thing to the noble Earl, Lord Desart; and I think, but for the fact that I was so extremely anxious to get to grips with that horrible Amendment, I should have been prepared at once to admit it. I was not and I regret it; and though I am sure that the noble Earl would be the last person to expect me to apologise to him, I would gladly do so. Then you would have thought that the matter might still have gone right. But it did not, and for another reason. The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, I am sure desiring to give advice which I should have been glad to take, did a thing which, I am sure, he did not mean to do. He addressed me in terms which were strangely and unpleasantly reminiscent of the lecture room and I am quite certain that your Lordships would react as I reacted if any such reminiscence as that were ever aroused in your minds. And so instead of the noble Marquess accomplishing what he wished I am afraid he drove the thing further off, and it was left to the clear and cool good sense of the noble Earl, Lord Donoughmore, to put the matter right. There ended the first chapter.

But the second was quite as full of incident. I then sought to find a suitable day and I found it on a Wednesday, five or six days later, and I announced twice to the House, as you will find in the OFFICIAL REPORT, that that was the day I had selected. Now it so happened that that was the day that had been arranged by the noble Marquess, with the consent of the Leader of the Opposition and my noble friend Lord Beauchamp, to be appropriated to the Local Government Bill. Of that I knew nothing whatever. I had not the faintest idea that any such arrangement had been made. I suppose that these things are forgotten, and they are not the kind of interesting information that you keep in your pocket book. So I said: "Now at last I have my day, and we will have all these Amendments properly and fully debated, for my Bill is right at the top of the list." And there it remained. Nobody—neither the Government Whips nor anybody else—told me that I was already occupying somebody else's seat, and that, unless I wanted to throw myself right across the whole feeling of the House, the sooner I got out of it the better. But that information was conveyed to me late on the Tuesday, the day before my Bill was coming on. What was I to do? To say: "Well, nobody has spoken to me about this; I am entitled to take the day that I have selected"—which nobody could deny—would, of course, have nut me and my Bill in a very awkward and unpleasant relationship to your Lordships, which, above all things, I should desire to avoid. I am quite satisfied that the noble Marquess will at least assent to this, that I have never attempted in any way to impede the business of this House, and that I have even occasionally tried to help its progress, though not always in accordance with the views of those among whom I sit. So I could not do that.

Then I got another day, and I had to go off again. This time there was presented to me a Notice Paper that contained comparatively trivial items of business for the following day. "Well," I said, "those things will not take any time; you can put your Bill down, that will be perfectly satisfactory." I put it down for that day. Unfortunately, the printed list I saw was not the list that had been arranged for the next day at all. Things had got in, two, at least, measures of considerable consequence, and the result was that this unfortunate Committee stage of my Bill, that I was anxious to have, and have fully discussed, before your Lordships' House, never came on until seven o'clock at night. Your Lordships know what happens then. Nobody is very willing to receive mental sustenance at seven o'clock at night in this House—minds are set on other things—and when the Amendment was moved and I proceeded to deal with it, it was obvious that there were several people who were interested in supporting that Amendment, which had now got a little altered; it was a more presentable Amendment, though I cannot say that it was much more palatable to me. Then various things happened. The noble Viscount, Lord FitzAlan, explained that they had already in his Communion raised the age to sixteen and fourteen respectively. I thought it was an odd reason why he should not try to help to raise it in ours.


I said I was in favour of the Bill.


That is what so often happens with this unfortunate measure—I never can find out where the opposition comes from, or what it is I have to fight. Anyhow, he was speaking in favour of this Amendment, which I do not think is an amendment of the rules which his Church has introduced. He was followed by Lord Hanworth. Lord Hanworth certainly said things which caused me very considerable pain, quite apart from my being told that I had been using morbid and nauseating language. He reproved me for expressing my indifference to the law, and said:— I have such respect for tradition that I prefer the law which has stood and lasted from generation to generation and has proved to be sound, and has found its place constantly in repeated editions, because it is good law. Well, after that, people who say that the Tories and Lord Eldon are dead must revise their views. For myself, I can imagine nothing that would disturb the true flow of my feelings much more than that, for I tell your Lordships frankly I would as soon worship a gargoyle on the Cathedral of Notre Dame because it happened to be part of a sacred edifice as I would pay the least respect to some vicious and contorted anachronism because it happened to be part of the stately fabric of the law. To show reverence where reverence is not due is to rob reverence of its respect, and devotion of its grace.

Well, at any rate, after that you may well be prepared to believe that the course of true debate did not run smooth. This went on until the noble Marquess got up, moved that the House be resumed, put on the Government Whips, and bludgeoned the life out of the discussion. As I watched the thin stream of independent Peers trickle slowly through my Lobby I could not help saying to myself: O! it is excellent To have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous To use it like a giant. We upon these Benches know better than any the bitter truth that is enclosed within those words, but we know also that the use of such machinery is an essential part of Party Government, carried on as it is to-day. We know that it is only through collective agency of that kind that the Government can, as it must do, use every means to carry out its measures. But though we feel that, we do feel at the same time that it is a little hard that the mighty engine of authority should be employed when the matter in dispute is surely not one upon which Party feeling can decide the issue. I have only one favour that I beg, and it is this, that in the ensuing controversies upon this Bill the House be left to its own judgment. Then, if defeat awaits me, as well it may, and the Bill be lost, I shall at least con- sole myself with this, that I have been defeated by the only verdict that I have ever sought, the free, independent and collective judgment of this House.

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


My Lords, I had not intended to intervene at this moment, but the closing words of the eloquent speech to which we have listened called in question, in a very kindly way, the action which I ventured to take on the last occasion when this Bill was before your Lordships, and I think it is only due to the great regard I have for the noble and learned Lord that I should say why it was I ventured to take the action I did take on that day. Let me say in the first place how much I sympathise with the noble and learned Lord in the account which he has given of the fortunes and misfortunes of this Bill. It is indeed a very laborious and often a very ungrateful task for an independent member of your Lordships' House, however distinguished, to pass a Bill through the House without the assistance of the machinery which is at the command of the Government in power. I am very sorry for the noble and learned Lord, all the more because I know that he sets such great store by this important Bill for which he has made himself responsible, and I can assure him he has nothing but the respect of all of us for his earnestness and zeal in this matter.

The one thing he said which I confess did find a joint in my armour was that I had been guilty of the great solecism of delivering a lecture to him upon something or other. I did not believe that charge would ever be made against me in the whole course of my life. In my early life I know there was nothing I disliked so much as lectures. If I erred this time may I express my profound apology to the noble and learned Lord for having ventured to assume the rôle of pedagogue even for a second. That is not at all what I desire to do. Undoubtedly the position of one who seeks even for a few years, to lead your Lordships' House is a difficult one. He has not only responsibility as representing the Government of the day in his own capacity: he has also, if he possibly can, to see that the business of the House is properly conducted, and conducted with due regard to what may be considered the general interests and wishes of the House, and if it appears to a man in my position that the House evidently desire more time for the consideration of a Bill, then I think I should fail in my duty if I did not voice as far as I could what I believed to be the general wish, in order that that should be brought about.

On that occasion I was convinced of it, and, if I may, I will tell the noble and learned Lord why I was convinced. It was this. At an early stage of the proceedings which the noble and learned Lord has related this afternoon to your Lordships, he did tell us that he had behind him the support of a great number of people, which is indeed true, but also I think he said he had the support of representatives of some of the great religious bodies in the country. I observe the noble and learned Lord shake his head. I thought he had said so, but it must have been some other person interested in the matter who told me so. As the debates went on I discovered that was not altogether true. Although every religious body, as far as I knew, approved of his Bill, yet they were not altogether convinced of every particle of it. It appeared in the course of the proceedings that the Roman Catholic body desired a little more time, and I was informed that the authorities of my own Church, the Church of England, also required more time. That made a profound difference in estimating what ought to be done in the circumstances of the moment, and therefore I took the course, which I think almost everybody in my position would have taken as Leader of the House, that appeared to be necessary in order that the matter should be adjourned. If I erred I am very sorry.

LORD DARLING had an Amendment on the Paper to move, That the Bill be referred to a Select Committee. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hesitate, after the speech of the noble and learned Lord, to rise to address your Lordships because of the punishment which he has administered to all of those, except myself I think, who have spoken before. There was a moment when I thought I was alluded to as the gargoyle of Notre Dame, and that I should not like, because I have seen the gargoyle and it is said to be the gargoyle of the devil. I do not think it resembles me at all. On thinking it over, and knowing the real, kindly disposition of the noble and learned Lord, I have come to the conclusion that he did not mean that person. I have an Amendment on the Paper and it is simply for that reason I now rise to address your Lordships. I beg to assure the noble and learned Lord and all of your Lordships, that if this Bill simply raised the age when marriage is possible in this country to sixteen (the age at which he fixes it) I would not have said a word. I think it would have been carried, as the noble and learned Lord said, with acclamation. And that is my view now. If it did only that there would really be no opposition.

If it did that alone it would leave the law of England with regard to the contract of marriage, and what I think many would call the sacrament of marriage, absolutely untouched. But the contract of marriage is not the ordinary contract that the noble and learned Lord seemed to think. He said a contract may be void or voidable, but the contract of marriage involves a great deal more than any other form of contract. It gives a particular status to the man and particularly to the woman. It involves, or it oftens does involve, the bringing into the world of children. Children who come into the world as the result of such a contract as that are legitimate children, bearing their father's name and having all manner of rights and privileges and duties. But this Bill of the noble and learned Lord would make the children of people, one of whom was under sixteen, although born in wedlock, apparently bastards, and to get out of that state they would have to take advantage of some recently passed laws which I need not explain to your Lordships. I thought (and I still think) not that it necessarily follows that the marriage of people under sixteen or of persons of whom one is under sixteen, should not be void, but that it was inexpedient to enact such a great change as that in the law relating to marriage without further consideration and advice.

This Bill touches people of different races who are His Majesty's subjects. It would alter the law, as I have said, as it now stands about marriage, because as the law of England stands a marriage solemnised between people under the statutory age, which is now twelve for a girl and fourteen for a boy, is still voidable. The children born of such a marriage as that—of course they would not be born unless one or other were somewhat older, somewhere on the verge of sixteen—as the law stands at present are not bastards. They are legitimate children with all the rights of such, but the marriage is voidable. It can be avoided if it is expedient that it should be avoided, and that is all I propose with regard to the Bill of the noble and learned Lord. All my Amendments are "horrible Amendments." I am thankful the noble Lord did not compare me with Lord Eldon, as he did my noble and learned friend Lord Hanworth, although I dare say I should survive that and my reputation as a lawyer would rise. But at the worst my Amendments only propose that the law of England with regard to the result of the marriage should be left alone, although the marriage age would be raised to sixteen years.

It seems to me, that that is a question which should be fairly and fully considered. The question is whether the whole foundation of the law of marriage should be altered in an afternoon with practically no discussion, by acclamation as the noble and learned Lord opposite said, or whether those who alter the law should take time to consider all the consequences and should determine whether the marriage should be void ab initio or whether it should be, as at present it is, merely voidable. Therefore in order that that may be considered, not in the heat of debate in this House, but where nobody talks about Lord Eldon, I beg to move that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee of this House.

Amendment moved—

Leave out all words after ("That") and insert ("the Bill be referred to a Select Committee").—(Lord Darling.)


My Lords, I venture to appeal to the noble and learned Lord, whose eloquence has delighted us on this, as on many other subjects, to agree that it is desirable that a little more time and inquiry should be given to this Bill before it goes forward to become the law of the land. The sympathy of us all was evoked by the noble and learned Lord in the account he gave us of his position, his reminiscences of musical chairs, and the position in which he is in regard to the Bill. We all feel that. His characteristic cogency, enthusiasm, and eloquence in appealing to us on behalf of this Bill were, I think, absolutely unanswerable. I entirely supported the Second Reading of this measure. I believe we did exactly what was right in giving a Second Reading to the Bill for the reason that we all desire to raise the age of marriage, but when we come to details it is surely in accordance with the ordinary usage of your Lordships' House that some care should be taken to see whether or not any modification in the exact terms is necessary.

I would say to the noble and learned Lord that as regards the purpose which he has put so forcibly before us now and on several different occasions, always usefully and effectively, he is pressing an open door. No one in all the speeches made in the several debates has said one word adverse to the principle of raising the age of marriage beyond what it is now. That is the principle of the Bill as he has told us. That is what he desires to bring about, and I, for one, am whole-heartedly in favour of it. But it is another question to say what the precise form of that alteration should be, or what exactly is the form which the new law should take when the alteration has been arrived at. I think that before we are in a position to discuss that usefully in Committee it is desirable that there should be more time for consideration of the facts, both at home and overseas, which bear very markedly upon the question. This is a matter on which we cannot legislate lightly. I would venture to say with the greatest genuine respect for the arguments of the noble and learned Lord that it would really seem as if he were dealing with some matter, like shop hours, which can quite well be altered if we find that the law does not work well and which does not require any profound consideration of fundamental principles before we arrive at it.

We are here altering the laws of marriage which have prevailed in this country for very many years, and which I think need alteration. You are doing something which will affect not only England but presumably the Dominions overseas, because usually they follow suit in such a matter as this. The matter is a very important one indeed, and the results may last far beyond our time as they will extend far beyond our shores. The particular question upon which difference of opinion first arose was between the words "void" and "voidable." I express no opinion about that. I really do not feel competent to do it. It is a legal question on which no one is better entitled to hold a strong opinion than the noble and learned Lord. It is a question for legal experts and not, it seems to me, for some of us who can make no such claim. But that is not the only point to be considered. I am myself by no means sure what are the best ages to choose. Whether sixteen and fourteen mentioned here——


Sixteen and sixteen.


Whether sixteen and sixteen are the best ages to choose I am by no means clear, and I think that a great deal, or at any rate a certain amount of careful inquiry is necessary, to find out what has been the experience in our own country and in countries other than our own before we come to a decision which may be of enormous and long standing importance upon the subject. I think we want to know all the relevant facts and I believe that the way in which we can best do that is by referring the Bill to a small Select Committee. This is one of the cases in which what we make permissive on paper may differ widely from what is wanted in practice. The noble and learned Lord brought out most clearly in one of the debates how there have been changes of public, opinion and usage in this matter. His pointed reference to Romeo and Juliet and the rest called our attention to the fact that the age at which marriage is ordinarily contracted is now considerably higher than the age at which it used to be contracted not so many generations ago. He called attention to that, and we have very clear evidence of it if we look into the facts as recorded in registry offices and elsewhere.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, as such, has necessarily a great deal to do with that. It was my duty for many years to preside over various offices in which marriage licences are given, and the three of them, the Faculty Office, the Vicar-General's Office and the Diocesan Registry, were all constantly under my supervision. I carefully examined what was happening with regard to marriages. I have been interested, on examining the facts now, to note how very few licences were issued for the marriage of a girl, not under fourteen but under eighteen. The numbers of marriage licences issued from those offices even for a girl under eighteen are exceedingly few, much fewer than people who have not thought about it realise. I agree that the consent of the parents has to be given for the marriage of a minor, whether bride or bridegroom, and in any ease of the marriage of a girl under eighteen the consent of the parents would not be regarded alone as adequate by those responsible, but they would look into the matter further.

In the Vicar-General's Office and in the Faculty Office, where hundreds of licences are issued every year, great care is taken not only to see that the parents have consented to the marriage of a girl of seventeen, but to see whether on other grounds it is desirable The Vicar-General himself has looked carefully into all such cases, and the matter has been carefully considered in every case that has come up. The number of such cases is indeed very few. In 1926, 624 licences were issued through the Vicar-General's Office and of those three were for girls under eighteen; in the next year out of 613 there were two for girls under eighteen; and last year out of 535 there were three. That is to say, there were eight such licences applied for out of 1,772. It is perfectly true to say that we are advancing markedly from what used to be the case a few generations ago as to the age at which people applied for or obtained marriage licences.

That is not all. Your Lordships will remember how the noble and learned Lord a fortnight ago called our attention to the importance of a common standard of marriage being established so far as possible among the various nations who meet at Geneva to discuss these questions. He spoke with effectiveness on the terrible reasons why this matter is brought urgently to our notice by some of those who have at heart the welfare of our women and children—the white slave traffic and all the rest. He said emphatically—and I agree with him—that we ought to be the very first to arrive at the best possible solution of the marriage age. To find ourselves in the lower grade as compared with other nations is an exceedingly undesirable and humiliating position. What are the facts as regards a common standard? He said that a common standard was necessary as regards the different nations who have their marriage laws under consideration. We find ourselves in the position of being in the lowest grade of the nations as regards the age laid down by our marriage laws.

We find great variety among the nations in the age for marriage, but a still greater variety as to the correspondence between the age given as the minimum age of marriage and the age of consent, a most difficult point and deserving very careful consideration indeed. In twenty-three countries at this moment the minimum age of marriage is higher than the age of consent, which is all in the direction which the noble Earl would desire. In our country the age is much lower. We find ourselves in that respect in rather strange company. Great Britain, Greece, Siam, Venezuela, Cuba and one or two others are in that category. I do not think it is a satisfactory thing that we should pass that lightly by. When we look into it further we find there may be interesting arguments as to the reasons for the different rules in different countries. I will remind your Lordships of what these ages are. In France the age is eighteen for a man and fifteen for a woman; in Germany, twenty-one for a man and sixteen for a woman; in Norway, twenty and eighteen; in Sweden, twenty-one and eighteen; in Switzerland, twenty and eighteen; in Japan, seventeen and fifteen. Then comes a great group in which Great Britain has a prominent place. Greece, Great Britain, Venezuela, Poland, Cuba and our Australian Dominions have the ages of fourteen and twelve. Turkey is higher than England with fifteen for both sexes. In Spain the ages are sixteen and fourteen, while in the United States there is a very great variety among the different States of the Republic.

These figures cannot be taken quite simpliciter because examination shows that in many, though not all, of these countries there are possibilities of obtaining leave to marry under the age mentioned with the consent of the parents and of a magistrate who may give special permission. It would be a mistake to take these figures as themselves ultimate and decisive in the matter. Roughly speaking, this is quite clear. We in England stand with a group of nations with whom, however much we may respect them, we do not usually find ourselves markedly acting in common when we and other nations are discussing questions of this kind. That being so, it is beyond question that a further inquiry is desirable. If, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Buckmaster, has urged, we are to get sonic uniformity of system and if we are to be foremost, or among the foremost in bringing about such a change, we need a further examination of two or three different sets of facts. First, there is the relation between the age of marriage and the age of consent. That is exceedingly difficult, as any one who reads the full paper of the League of Nations will see. Any one who does that will see that different countries have come to different conclusions. Next, there is the question as to "void" or "voidable." There is a good deal to be said on either side and I am not prepared to express judgment on that as it is a legal question. Then there is the important question of what is the right age to be fixed for allowing marriage.

All these call for examination and the material is ready for us. If we refer this matter to a Select Committee it does not mean that they have to make inquiries throughout Europe or bring witnesses from overseas. The material is in documentary form and easily consulted, and they will find arguments there which have not been brought forward in this House with regard to a good many of these different facts. All that is a legitimate argument for spending some time now before we are asked to come to a decision, bearing on our social life both at home and over-seas, which may be so far reaching in its consequences and so long standing in its durability. It is to me intolerable that, in the inquiries which are now beng made and in the efforts which are being put forward to remedy all the horrors of the white slave traffic and the rest, Great Britain should find herself constantly exposed to the taunt that for all we say about what we desire in these things, our age of marriage is far lower than that of the other nations with whom we are contending. For that reason I am wholeheartedly with the noble and learned Lord in his desire to get this matter considered in such a way that it can be fully judged and examined on all the available information. That is a step which, I think, ought to be taken in a matter so far-reaching before we go any further. Accordingly I entirely approve of the proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee.


My Lords, the only question involved at present is between a Committee of the Whole House and a Select Committee. I agree with much that the noble Lord, Archbishop Davidson, has said, but, having occupied for twenty-five years the position of Vicar-General, I know that the evils at which this Bill aims are fortunately not of common occurrence. It is very important that this matter should be fairly considered at the present time, because it is being considered as an international question at Geneva by a great many people and, as matters stand, this country is really in the lowest grade so far as the age at which marriage is allowed is concerned. I do not want to go into the questions raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Darling. I think that would be premature, but I wish to state most clearly that in my view these marriages ought to be void and not voidable, and that this is how the law stands.

I would quote in that connection Lord Stowell's well-known dictum that marriage stands in contract. The entire question, so far as our law is concerned, is as regards the contract of marriage, and the age should be made higher than it is now because the ages of fourteen and twelve are to be regarded as ages at which a contract of this kind cannot be entered into. The age was fixed because it was thought that the parties concerned were incapable of entering into the contract in question. I do not wish to go further on that point. Surely the House itself, in a matter of this importance, is a better tribunal than a Select Committee. I quite agree that all the facts have already been ascertained. I do not think that there is any question of taking evidence or anything of that kind. It is the principle that is the matter for discussion, and there is no place where it can be discussed more profitably or in a wider sense than in the House itself. I hope, for these reasons, that the Bill will not be sent to a Select Committee but will be decided by discussion in your Lordships' House.


My Lords, as a very humble member of the Bar, but one who has had considerable experience of cases that raise this question, I think it possible that I might be allowed to address your Lordships very shortly. I have met very many eases that raise this very difficult question and I am perfectly certain that this is not a matter that ought to be decided absolutely on a short discussion without careful consideration by people who are familiar with these questions. One point was made in a very short speech by the mover of this Amendment, Lord Darling, with which I do not find myself in agreement. He said that the ages of marriage were fourteen and twelve, but that, of course, you would not get children born at those ages, though you might get a child born when the girl was fourteen years of age. I have come across two cases in my experience at the Criminal Bar of a girl under twelve having a baby. These are things that have to be gone into and we have to see what the result is going to be. I would only say—I said that I was going to say a very few words and I am sitting down on this—that my experience in these matters has been carried over a considerable number of years at the Criminal Bar and I think it would be deplorable if this House decided the marriage age without due consideration by a Committee of the views of people who have experience in these matters and who know a good deal about what happens in practice.


My Lords, as a plain member of your Lordships' House, I must say that I find myself hopelessly confused and puzzled by this discussion. We had a speech from the noble and learned Lord who moved to refer the Bill to a Select Committee and we had a longer speech from the noble Lord, Archbishop Davidson. They told us a large number of interesting things about the marriage law and the practice in this and other countries, and they said there were all sorts of interesting matters that might be enquired into. So, no doubt, there are, but I cannot feel the difficulty. The question, to my mind, is a very simple one. Do we or do we not think it unseemly, and even disgusting, that marriages should take place at the age at which the English law now allows them to take place? If we feel that—and we do not require a Select Committee to tell us whether we feel it or not—why should we not at once remedy the position? I do not care if the remedy causes some possible inconvenience. I dare say that inconvenience arises from the ages of marriage being fourteen and twelve. The question is one that we can all perfectly well answer for ourselves. Do we think that this is a disgusting state of things and ought not to continue? Nothing that I heard this afternoon seems to me to go very far towards answering that question. The noble Lord, Archbishop Davidson, said that the question between "void" and "voidable" was a legal question. It is nothing of the sort. It is a question that we can perfectly well understand for ourselves. It is the question whether we are going to allow these horrible marriages to take place or not. For my part I require no instruction from a Select Committee and no looking up of ecclesiastical precedents to guide my vote.


My Lords, I cannot but think that it is unfortunate that this Amendment should have been moved, and particularly that it should be pressed. In spite of the arguments that have been addressed to you by my noble and learned friend, I feel that this Bill, as has been said so frequently, is a very simple one. Let me remind your Lordships of one point that seems somehow to have dropped out of Consideration. When the noble Lord, Archbishop Davidson, was speaking it struck me that we seemed to be omitting the fact that it is already a criminal offence to have intercourse under the age of sixteen. That is already settled and there is nothing to enquire into. What is the 'Select Committee supposed to do? Is it suggested that the Committee is to enquire whether that age should be lowered? I do not think this could be done under this Bill. The only question is one of marriage. Having started from that point, all that this Bill is attempting to do is to enact that that which is a criminal offence shall not be rendered an act for which no punishment or penalty can be imposed provided there is marriage.

The question was mentioned by the mover of the Amendment, my noble and learned friend Lord Darling, of marriages being voided by a person being under age. Surely the whole question is this. I need not remind your Lordships of the stages through which we have passed, and how, for reasons which appeared to be stronger each time, we have altered the law with regard to the age of consent. We have done that deliberately, because it is thought to be immoral, unwise, and injurious to the welfare of the people generally that these things should be. Why then should we not all say that a marriage with a person under that age is to be void? I confess that I am more puzzled than ever after hearing the speech of Lord Davidson, because of the suggestion which he made, as I understood, that there might be as a result of this Select Committee some change made—that you might require to lower the age at which a girl could be married; that is to say, less than sixteen. Therefore it would mean that the Select Committee was going to enquire into the possibility of making that which is now a criminal offence, and must remain a criminal offence until the law is altered, no longer an offence if a marriage takes place.

It is difficult to understand the reasoning. If a thing is wrong under the age of sixteen how can it become right if it is cloaked by a marriage? That was the whole point that puzzled me as I listened to the argument. I know full well that difficulties do arise in the Courts with regard to age, but they always will arise, and those are matters surely which we have not to consider. All that my noble and learned friend is asking in the Bill is that we should say that a marriage of persons under a particular age should be void. The second, and I think only other ground on which it is said that there should be further consideration by a Select Committee, is, as proposed by Lord Darling in his Amendment, whether the marriage should be voidable at the instance of the person under age. Here, again, may I ask your Lordships to consider whether there is any reason why we should seek to perpetuate the law? If you once declare by your law that henceforth such a marriage is void there can be no difficulty about it. I have no doubt that your Lordships are affected by considerations of the legitimacy or otherwise of children, but it seems to me best to declare the law by this very simple Bill and to clear up any doubt with regard to it. Having done that, it is very difficult to understand what a Select Committee is to do in regard to this matter.

I cannot help recalling to my mind a question of this kind which arose while I was in India, where an attempt was made to pass a Bill raising the age of marriage, and there were many difficulties into which I need not enter. Your Lordships may remember that there was a book written upon the subject. The same kind of argument was used and the Government had to accept a Bill with some alterations by which there could be marriage at thirteen, but the age of consent remained at fourteen. Since that time those interested have failed to understand why it was that this change had to be made. What is said now is very much the same thing. I would ask your Lordships to say with regard to the two points that have been put that there is nothing for the Select Committee to consider and no reason why we should not come to a conclusion.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, who moved that the House should go into Committee upon this Bill, began his speech by moralising upon the extreme difficulty there is in one person conveying his thoughts in clear meaning to another. As he went on in his speech, and was good enough to refer to what I had said, or what he thought I had said, or the meaning which I had conveyed to him, I could not help thinking how very cogently he had proved his opening remarks. I did not rise, however, to make any further remarks about that, and I will not detain your Lordships on such trivialities. What I did rise to say was that all the speakers were in favour of this Bill passing. I want it to pass in the most perfect form, and to pass in a way in which it shall not be discovered hereafter that it has caused either difficulty or injustice to one spouse or the other, or to any children.

There are questions connected with this subject which apparently to the noble Marquess who spoke last, present no difficulty, but they may present some difficulty to some minds. May I remind your Lordships that if we want this Bill to pass we must not only pass it ourselves but secure that it shall pass in another house; and that when this matter comes before the House of Commons it will come with greater force and make a stronger appeal, I am confident, if it has come after due deliberation and after a Select Committee has considered it? If it goes down in its present form, without further consideration, after having merely been considered in a Committee of your Lordships' House, I feel quite certain, with some knowledge of the House of Commons, that there will be an even greater divergence of views presented there than has been presented here. This divergence might be overcome and brought into agreement if it were known that this Bill was sent down from this House after most careful investigation and consideration by a Select Committee, and that your Lordships had come to the conclusion that the right age had been chosen, that it was unnecessary to add any other clause, and that the interests alike of both spouses, in all circumstances, and their possible children, had been preserved and provided for. It is in that spirit that I shall certainly support Lord Darling's proposal, for I believe that we are thus taking a step which is in the interests of the success of the Bill.


My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord knows, from the very first my object has been only to obtain an inquiry, and therefore it is quite obvious that I shall be a supporter of Lord Darling's Amendment. The noble and learned Marquess, Lord Reading, said just now that this was a simple Bill, and he, like Lord Buckmaster, agreed that, as a necessary and regrettable consequence of the Bill to other people, it would produce the illegitimacy of the offspring of any union under the age in question, and would prevent a child being legitimised, whoever might be willing to consent to the union being turned into a legitimate marriage. Well, among other things which call for an inquiry are those very questions, and there was a curious illustration of that in something quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Davidson, about one of the countries to which he referred, when he spoke about provision for the consent of parents. I have in my hand particulars of three or four cases in which children have been conceived, the parents of both the boy and the girl said, "For heaven's sake, let them marry", they were married, and the child became legitimate in consequence. Whether those marriages turned out well or ill I do not know, because nothing was heard about them. So there is no presumption either way.

I do not suppose that Lord Buckmaster has been able to trace from the statistics what has happened in these cases. It would be difficult to do so. But it is some evidence that nothing very serious happened when we find that no separation order has been applied for. Separation order: are now easily—too easily—applied for, and where there is matrimonial trouble the cases come before the magistrates pretty quickly. It is not as if by making marriages void you affect morality. The immoral connection is the first evil, and it is independent of Acts of Parliament—it is propinquity, opportunity and character which are the cause. There is the connection and the child, and what you do in this Bill is to make it absolutely impossible to give any remedy, to legitimise the child, to give the mother a status by which she is entitled to maintenance and support from her husband, instead of being thrown back upon an affiliation order as the only remedy. It would be interesting to find out how frequent those cases are. I have four here, which can be proved. In one case that was brought before the Court the learned Judge who tried the case approved of there being no prosecution, in order that this might be done. It is not quite correct to say that the defence under the Act of 1922 to the charge no longer exists. It remains a defence in some cases and in many of these the girl looks far older than her real age. It frequently happens that girls who look over age, for the purpose of getting marriages solemnised before the registry, make false statements as to their age and as to the consent of their parents. That is very common.

I only refer to these things as matters about which evidence can be obtained. Lord Parmoor, I think, said he did not see whom you could ask outside this House. I think there are sources from which a good deal of evidence can be obtained, and I am sure this Bill will have a much better chance of passing if such inquiries have been made. I therefore certainly shall support this Amendment, as a thing that will produce the sort of inquiry for which I have always sought, and not from any hostility to the Bill. In fact, I believe if it had been introduced in a different form, leaving the law of England as it stands, and merely saying that the age of marriage should be changed, it would have passed without difficulty. But where you make the marriage void you raise other problems which at least deserve consideration.


My Lords, I am in this position: I think if I were asked now to vote upon the issue—void or voidable—I should vote for void and against voidable, because on the whole the argument which the noble and learned Lord advanced on a previous occasion, and I think mentioned to-night., that it is really in the public interest to discourage these marriages altogether, prevails. But I recognise that the point raised is a very difficult one, and there are considerations of great importance on both sides. But that is not the issue we are trying at this moment. The Question which has been put from the Woolsack is whether we should have this Bill considered by a Committee of the Whole House or by a Select Committee. That is, in one sense, only a question of procedure. It is only a question as to which form of your Lordships' methods is the better one for the purpose, and there is no doubt that, for consideration in detail of difficult issues of this kind, a Select Committee is in many respects the more suitable plan of the two.

An appeal has been made to your Lordships to give that opportunity. That appeal has been made by noble Lords of great importance in this House. There is the most reverend and noble Lord who sits upon the Cross Benches (Lord Davidson). There are the learned Judge, Lord Darling, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Desart, with his great legal experience. They have all asked that this should be considered in a Select Committee. Why should it not be considered in a. Select Committee? What is to be lost by considering it in a Select Committee? I should think what the noble and learned Lord would say is that it is time that would be lost. There is nothing else that should be lost. I should not think it ought to take very long to consider the Bill in Select Committee. Your Lordships are not accustomed to dawdle in matters of this kind, and really it lies in the hands of the House and of the members of the Committee. I agree that the net ought not to he thrown too wide. I was a little nervous at one or two words which were used by the most rev. and noble Lord just now. I should be sorry to see the whole question ripped open; that might take rather long. But, as to the sort of issues which are raised in the Bill, these ought not to take very long, and surely it is a very strong measure to refuse an inquiry if it is asked for.

After all, everybody knows that legislation, even of this importance, coming from an independent Peer, has very little chance of passing into law this year. I agree that it is conceivable it should, but only by general consent. That is obvious. Nothing else could carry it. Are you likely to get general consent if you are obliged to confess that you have refused an inquiry? I must say I think that in the interests of the Bill itself—I with my noble and learned friend behind me in that respect—much its best chance is to let it have a Select Committee. To pass the Bill as it were in the teeth of a request for an inquiry, and carry it perhaps through your Lordships' House, then send it to another place and expect them to pass it sub silentio—really it is incredible; whereas if, as the result of the inquiry by a Select Committee, there was practical unanimity in your Lordships' House and in public opinion outside, then it is conceivable, though I am afraid not very likely, something might be done. For those reasons, not that I am an enemy of the Bill, not even that I oppose the noble and learned Lord upon the specific issue of void and voidable, but in the general interest of business and of the Bill itself, I should have thought the noble and learned Lord would have done wisely to accept a Select Committee.


My Lords, it would be a very easy thing for me to accept the proposal, to agree with my noble friend Lord Desart and say we will accept the special inquiry, and let the matter end. It would be a very easy thing to do, but I am quite satisfied that by doing it I should kill the Bill. It is perfectly plain to anybody, I think, who has heard this discussion that if this Bill is referred to a Select Committee, and the Select Committee considers the history and the variety of cases and proceeds to call evidence and to enquire, the chances of this Bill getting through in the lifetime of this Parliament are so remote that they need not be considered. I do not share the view that your Select Committee here is going to impose this Bill upon another place. My own belief is that the Bill, introduced into another place would meet with universal acceptance, and the matter would end. I may be wrong, but those are the reasons that move me.

I will deal further in detail with what it is that it is said this Committee should do, but first of all I would like to ask the noble Marquess, who is thoroughly familiar with the procedure of this House, if he can recall any case where a Bill, after passage of its Second Reading and after considerable discussion in this House, has been referred to a Select Committee against the will of the Peer who was responsible for its introduction? I, of course, have only had the opportunity of sitting here for some fourteen years, but I can recall no such case. I do not say for a moment that such a case may not have, existed, but I do say that the ordinary procedure with regard to Select Committees—and the noble Marquess will correct me if I am wrong—is this, that when the Bill is brought before the House in the first instance it is often made a condition of the acceptance of the Second Reading that it shall be sent, to a Select Committee, as was done in the case of the Bill of the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, which referred to motor traffic. Again, even if that is not done, it may be that the Bill is of such a character that it involves highly difficult and technical matters which are incapable of being discussed upon the floor of the House. A Bill relating to some electrical undertaking would, I think, answer that description. It would necessarily follow then that such a Bill would be referred to a Select Committee. But to conduct the business of your Lordships' House through the medium of a Select Committee is, I submit, to run straight across the whole course of Parliamentary procedure.

All who are interested in public questions are, I respectfully submit, entitled to have them discussed and debated in the public light of this House and on the floor of this House and not elsewhere. Personally I should resist the idea that I should have imposed on me the opinion of people, however eminent, however wise they might be, who had been influenced by arguments which I had never heard. The reference, therefore, to a Select Committee of cases in regard to which your Lordships are competent to form a judgment is to my mind not only an unusual thing but a thing which I most earnestly ask the House not to force upon a private member, because that would be depriving him of what I submit is his strict and proper right. That being so, what are the reasons—the special technical reasons—that are to take this Bill out of what I do believe everyone of you would accept as being the normal and proper course of Parliamentary procedure? Really I am positively puzzled.

The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said I do not know how many difficulties he had to meet with. I know he has had to meet with difficulties, but those difficulties have nothing to do with this Bill, nothing at all. The cases he is referring to, no doubt, are cases of outrages upon children—sad, horrible, terrible cases—but they have nothing to do with this Bill. What is the difficulty he has had to meet with that you are to refer to the Committee? I ask the noble Earl, Lord Desart, who has given much thought to this matter, what is it that the Committee is going to do with regard to those cases he mentioned—the four cases where the people got married? Are you to say: "Well, then, you had better not pass your Bill because four people got decently married and the end was good"? Why, the whole object of this Bill is to prevent that from happening in the future. Be it so. What is there that is left? The League of Nations has said in plain terms that the raising of this age is essential if you are to stop the traffic in girls, because the bait of marriage is one of the commonest of all the baits used to lure these girls away from their security, and the bait is absolutely the same whether your marriage be voidable or void. It makes no difference.

For the rest are you going to say that you are really not fit to decide whether a marriage should be voidable or void, that there is a special and extra case upon which you desire to be informed and not to argue on the floor of this House? I most respectfully submit to your Lordships that to come to that conclusion is to abrogate your true position. We are here to decide that very class of thing. There is no mystery about the law. The whole of this legal notion has really been raised for the purpose of suggesting that there is some extraordinary legal obscurity which requires to be removed. I have the gravest doubt whether the law is as it has been stated to be, but that I do not care about, because, even if it is, my own opinion is that the sooner it is altered the better for everybody must it be. While the Common Law may have declared that this is or is not the law that regulates questions of marriage, the Canon Law declared in the plainest terms in 1812 that:— Civil disabilities, such as a prior marriage, want of age, idiotcy, and the like make the contract void ab initio not merely voidable. Therefore the whole of this agitation has been based upon an assumption that the law is what I think it is extremely doubtful it is, but, whether it is or not, now we are to have a Select Committee to examine this matter.

Again, if there is going to be evidence called I cannot think what it is going to be. We do not want to be told what is the result of men marrying these children. You do not want to be told

that by doing that they escape the result of their crime. That we know. You do not want to be told what people are saying in Geneva. They have told us that already. There is no need for a Select Committee for that. In the end this matter really comes down to this contrast between a thing that is void and a thing that is voidable, and, as I have already pointed out, the ecclesiastical law has already declared that these marriages were void as the law stands, keeping and maintaining the position which the noble Lord, Lord Hanworth, said was so enormously important.

I regret that I cannot accept the Amendment. I do believe there is a chance for this Bill. I am not prepared to let one single day go by before I have done my best to remove what I regard as a great evil. I am not prepared to let a single day go by before I do my best to provide what the League of Nations says is a safeguard against girls who are lured into lives of shame and misery, and I cannot accept the delay even of a further six months, which is the very least that can be hoped for in the present political position of affairs before this Bill can be again considered. Your Lordships may think otherwise, but I claim the right which I say has not been taken away from private Peers during my experience in this House and oppose a course which I say is to cut straight across the whole course of Parliamentary procedure.

On Question, Whether the words proposed to he left out shall stand part of the Motion?

Their Lordships divided:—Contents, 29; Not-Contents, 37.

Reading, M. Hutchinson, V. (E. Donoughmore.) Lawrence, L.
Monkswell, L.
Buxton, E. Knutsford, V. Muir Mackenzie, L.
Beauchamp, E. Parmoor, L.
Cranbrook, E. Southwark, L. Bp. Redesdale, L.
Northbrook, E. Sandhurst, L.
Russell, E. Arnold, L. Sandys, L.
Strafford, E. Balfour of Burleigh, L. [Teller.] Stanley of Alderley, L. (L. Sheffield.)
Allendale, V. Buckmaster, L.[Teller.] Stanmore, L.
Chelmsford, V. Hemphill, L. Strathspey, L.
Hood, V. Kinnaird, L. Wharton, L.
Hailsham, L. (L. Chancellor.) Halsbury, E. Midleton, E.
Iddesleigh, E. Onslow, E.
Salisbury, M. (L. Privy Seal.) Iveagh, E. Plymouth, E.
Lucan, E. Vane, E. (M. Londonderry.)
Bath, M. Macclesfield, E.
FitzAlan of Derwent, V. Danesfort, L. Hanworth, L.
Novar, V. Darling, L. [Teller.] Howard of Glossop, L.
Peel, V. Daryngton, L. Hunsdon of Hunsdon., L.
Davidson of Lambeth, L. Jessel, L.
Addington, L. Desart, L. (E. Desart.) [Teller.] Monson, L.
Banbury of Southam, L. Ormonde, L. (M. Ormonde.)
Bledisloe, L. Dynevor, L. Saltoun, L.
Carnock, L. Ernle, L. Sinclair, L.
Clanwilliam, L. (E. Clanwilliam.) Gage, L. (V. Gage.) Templemore,

On Question, Amendments agreed to.

Resolved in the negative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

Order for the House to Committee discharged, and to a Select Committee.