HL Deb 28 March 1944 vol 131 cc306-19

LORD MOTTISTONE had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government, whether with a view to mitigating the cruel hardship caused to innocent persons by the prevalence of the crime of bigamy they will direct every citizen to fill in the relevant facts, if any, as to his or her marriage on his or her identity card, and at the same time instruct registrars and all other persons entitled to celebrate marriages to require each person applying for permission to marry to produce his or her identity card at the time of application and not to permit the completion of the marriage contract until sufficient time has elapsed to enable proper inquiries to be made; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am moving the Motion which stands in my name because it has come to my knowledge since I first drew your Lordships' attention to this matter that the evil is really great and growing. Public mention has been made of it by Judges of Assize, and I have heard of it from police authorities in many parts of the country. Of course, bigamy may take many forms, but the one with which I am principally concerned is that which involves the entrapping of an innocent girl by some heartless and heedless man who cannot get possession of her without taking her to church or to a register office. The result does lead to what I have described here. It causes great hardship. There can be no doubt that when we rate monogamy so highly as to make a breach of it punishable by a sentence of seven years penal servitude, and then take so few precautions to see that such breaches are not committed, we, as a State, render ourselves responsible for an untold amount of real suffering and distress of mind. For see what happens to the unfortunate woman when the fact comes out that the man has already got a wife. He has very likely disappeared by that time, and she is left amongst her neighbours without the name she has borne before, and, worst of all, the children, if there are any, are branded as illegitimate.

There are people who think that bastards should not suffer the disqualifications that they do suffer under our law. But it is the law, and therefore I am not exaggerating when I say that the distress of mind which is caused is very real and very great. I think that will be common ground amongst us, and I hope that the noble Earl who replies for the Government will not again say, or suggest, that the evil is not very great. I can assure him, from facts which have come to my knowledge, both in the Home Office and outside, and at the Ministry of Health, that there can be no doubt that this is a very real and growing evil. The question is how to cure it. I have proposed in this Motion of mine a method which really would have the desired effect. I do not for a moment say that it would stop bigamy altogether, but it would abate it to a very great degree. As to that all authorities who have considered it are of one mind. As will be seen, what I propose is that in order to reduce the prevalence of the crime everyone should be obliged to set down in full the relevant facts, if any, as to his or her marriage on his or her identity card. I am indebted to my noble friend Viscount Maugham for pointing out to me that this proposal would carry, as a corollary, that from now onwards everyone who contracts a marriage either at a register office or in a Church of England church should produce his or her identity card, and that it should be stamped or marked in the appropriate division by the celebrating authority. That would at once render the crime of bigamy far less prevalent, even if it did not stop it altogether.

I have been told by the Home Secretary and by the Minister of Health—to both of whom I pay my acknowledgments for the great consideration they have given to this matter and for the very great courtesy they have shown to me personally in discussing it with me—that they cannot carry out this proposal. I cannot see why. No legislation is necessary; all that it is necessary to do is to decree that in the appropriate place in the identity card which we all carry—I hope that I have mine with me!—the holder shall state whether he or she is married or single. There is a space on the card which seems to me to have been made for this purpose. It may be that it was intended to be used by Lord Woolton, because we know that the identity card is important for the proper working of the wonderful food arrangements which we owe to him. However, the space is there, and I suggest that it should be used in this way. To carry out the suggestion of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Maugham, which I gratefully acknowledge, the celebrant or registrar would have to see that the space was properly marked in his presence when a marriage took place. All that is neces- sary is to say that this shall be done, and to ask the Women's Voluntary Service to assist in carrying it out, as they have helped in so many other ways already. I believe it would be found that there was no real difficulty.

It may be urged that we should have only the word of the man or woman concerned as to whether he or she was married or single. That is true, but men and women will hesitate for a very long time before writing down what they know to be a lie, with all the chances of being found out. I am told by those who understand the criminal mind that it would be very rare for people so to act. So far as the Forces are concerned, I think that the identity card method is the best one, and I have on my side a number of very eminent legal authorities. The noble Earl who is to reply said in a recent debate that he hoped the day would come when there would be no more identity cards, but I think that point can be met by saying that they will at any rate be needed for some little time after the war, until the various war-time provisions under which we live have given way to more normal conditions; and it would be an advantage, I think, to the Ministry of Health And to the Home Office to have done something to abate this grave evil while they are getting ready their plans to co-ordinate the general arrangements for registration, which I know that they are anxious to do. In thanking those concerned or the consideration which they have given to this matter, I should like to add that the Registrar-General himself has been good enough to give me much of his time and advice.

I think also that it would be easy and wise to decree that whenever any one serving in the Forces comes to be married he or she should produce the pay book which shows the married or single status, and in the case of a man what allotment is being made. It is curious that that is not done now, and it is only necessary to say that it shall be done for it to be done. Already many of our Dominion Forces, anxious to help in this matter, have issued instructions that the permission of the commanding officer is to be shown to the registrar or clergyman, and it would be easy to show the pay book as well. It may well be that the noble Earl who is to reply will say that it is the view of the Government that they cannot mark the identity cards. It has been indicated to me by the Registrar-General that there is another method by which we might greatly abate this evil. I hope that that may be found to be effective.

I think it will be a little difficult in the case of the Church of England. I had thought that there was less risk of the crime of bigamy in the case of marriages conducted by the Church of England than in the case of marriages conducted by registrars. That used to be the case when so many of the population lived stable lives and most of them went to church. The words of the Marriage Service are so terrible in their import that many people would hesitate to commit a crime of this kind if they heard them, and all the people assembled in church would of course know the parties, and that would act as a very real deterrent. I fear that that is no longer the case, however, and I am told that the Church of England does not insist on any document to the same extent as do the registrars. I think that that is so from a conversation which I had with the Registrar-General. I am sure, however, from what the most reverend Primate the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury said on the last occasion on which I raised this matter, and from a conversation which I have had with the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of London, who has been good enough to come here at great inconvenience to-day, that they would be glad to co-operate with the Registrar-General in any well-designed scheme to abate this evil. I make this proposal on behalf of that large and, I am sorry to say, growing number of innocent girls of worthy families who are entrapped in this way. They are the people who are suffering from this intolerable grievance, and it is for them that I appeal. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, I do not want to follow the noble Lord who has just spoken, because I am sure that all your Lordships agree very fully with the objects he has in mind and hope that something may be done to reduce the number of cases of this offence, a number which is, unfortunately, increasing at this time. I rise only to ask the noble Lord one question about identity cards. I am sure that he realizes that as soon as this war comes to an end there will be a very strong campaign for the removal of all controls. We know quite well when we think the matter over that a great many controls will have to be maintained, but we hope that they will be reduced to the smallest number possible. So far as identity cards are concerned, I think that the population as a whole will take more exception to them than to anything else, as being quite foreign to anything to which we have ever had to submit before, and there will be a determined demand to get rid of them. I am not sure, therefore, how long the noble Lord thinks that this solution which he has suggested for the prevention of bigamous marriages will be in operation. For my part, I would do all I could to remove the necessity for identity cards. At present identity cards are in use for food rationing purposes, and when rationing comes to an end probably identity cards will disappear. I do not know whether the noble Lord has considered that point, and whether he is prepared with an answer to the question I have put to him.


My Lords, I should like to support the Motion of my noble friend. Speaking as a lawyer, I can see no objection to his proposal. I quite realize what the noble Marquess has said with regard to identity cards going out of use in due course, but it does not seem to me very likely that they will go out of use for some years after the war. Although it may be desirable that a great many things which are due to the war should disappear, I am not sure that identity cards are things to which most people very much object. My knowledge, as far as it goes, is that there is only one class who really strongly object to identity cards, and that is the criminal class, although I am quite sure my noble friend had not that in mind when he addressed your Lordships. I do not know of any other class in the country who would be very strongly opposed to the notion of disclosing their identity when it may be necessary. At any rate, I do think this terrible evil of bigamy should be stopped, as far as the Government can stop it, and if they are unable to accept the proposal of my noble friend Lord Mottistone I should be very glad to hear that they have some other method of preventing so many hapless girls having their lives ruined by finding themselves involved in an illicit union to a man who has already deserted his wife.


My Lords, I am sorry I cannot agree with my noble friend who spoke just now about the necessity of preserving identity cards after the war. There is no doubt they must go on for a certain time because, as has been pointed out, they are necessary for rations, and we know very well that we cannot have freedom from rationing directly after the war. I quite sympathize with what the noble Lords says about bigamy; it is a dreadful thing that is going on in this country. If you take the trouble to read this Motion closely, you will see that the noble Lord asks the Government whether with a view to mitigating the cruel hardship caused to innocent persons by the prevalence of the crime of bigamy they will direct every citizen to fill in the relevant facts.… That is a most dangerous thing. You cannot do that because you are not allowed to touch your identity card in any way. Look at the enormous trouble it would be to fill in all those cards again and send them back. It took time enough on the last occasion. The noble Lord's question goes on to speak of filling in the relevant facts "as to his or her marriage on his or her identity card." I do not know what the ladies would have to say to that. Even if you did adopt this suggestion it would be a very difficult thing, and I do not think a great many people would like all these detailed disclosures. Supposing a man has been divorced or is separated from his wife, or something of that kind, it would be very unpleasant for him to have to put in all those details.

It does not seem to me to be the right way of doing things. What I hope is that now that the noble Lord has called attention to the matter the Government will consider it is up to them to devise some remedy. With regard to the serving soldier, he always used to have to get from his commanding officer permission to marry so as to get on the strength. The commanding officer, therefore, would know the facts. It may be difficult in these times to get a certificate from a commanding officer. The same thing might apply to the soldiers of other nations who are quartered over here: they might also be asked to get some certificate from their commanding officers, stating whether they are married or not. I do not expect the Government will agree to this proposal. At the same time, I quite sympathize with the noble Lord, and I think we are under a debt of gratitude to him for calling attention to this state of affairs. But as regards his actual proposal I am afraid it would take a great deal of time and it would be so impracticable that I hope his Motion will not be agreed to.


My Lords, the intention which lies behind the Motion of my noble friend Lord Mottistone to mitigate the hardship caused to innocent persons by the cruel and heartless crime of bigamy will naturally have gained the sympathy, not only of a number of people outside this House but of all noble Lords who have listened to my noble friend's argument. At the same time, His Majesty's Government also are seriously concerned with the increase which has recently occurred in the crime of bigamy. There can therefore be no dispute whatever between my noble friend and His Majesty's Government, for we are all equally anxious to take every practical step to check the rise which has occurred, and which I think can be attributable to the unusual conditions prevailing in war-time. Unhappily this crime of bigamy is no new thing. It has a precedent of respectable antiquity, if I may use such an adjective in such a connexion, for it is recorded in the Bible in the fourth chapter of Genesis, where we are told that the patriarch Lamech, the son of Methuselah and the father of Noah, in spite of living to the ripe old age of 777, married two wives, Adah and Zillah, and so committed bigamy.


But it was not against the law, was it?


I am coming to that. If in those days identity cards had been in existence, and if every citizen had been directed to fill in all the relevant facts on his card it would not have prevented this first recorded act of bigamy, for the patriarch Lamech married both his wives simultaneously on the same day. It does seem to me to exhibit a most unusual desire to double his responsibilities, which he presumably took for better or for worse. But although it may or may not have been the law in that day, let me tell the noble Lord that it was laid down from that day onwards that no man who committed bigamy could advance to the dignified rank of a bishop, so I take it there must have been some law in existence in those primitive times.

My noble friend has suggested in his Motion that the particulars of marriage should be inserted by every citizen on his or her identity card, and that all persons who intend to be married should produce their cards to the Registrar-General or the minister of religion who is performing the ceremony. Frankly, I do not believe that the first proposal contained in this Motion would afford any protection. Anyone, as I see it, could enter on his identity card whatever facts suited his particular case. Let me try to give my noble friend an example, not of what might occur, but of what would always occur. Supposing my noble friend himself was prepared to perjure himself in a notice of marriage and was perfectly prepared to enter into a bigamous union. Surely there is no reason whatever why he should stop short of making a false entry on his identity card as well. It would be utterly futile for him to perjure himself for part of the journey when he intended to travel the whole way. It follows that unless we can be assured on every occasion that the entry made on an identity card is absolutely correct, the proposition which my noble friend has put forward is bound to collapse. It would not be sufficient to direct all citizens of this country to enter particulars of their marital state on their identity cards. There could be no guarantee that any of these entries were correct, and it would be a physical impossibility to ask the Registrar-General to call in 27,000,000 identity cards and endorse them with the appropriate remarks defining the marital state of the holder of each card. My noble friend will agree with me that, really, the work involved could not be justified at the present time in dealing with what is really a very limited problem.

Let me turn from that and examine the second suggestion which my noble friend has made—namely, that identity cards should be shown to registrars and others entitled to perform the marriage ceremony, and if the relevant particulars were unsatisfactory or insufficient the celebration of the marriage could not take place until further facts were provided. I do not want to enter into any legal arguments on the preliminaries of marriage, but it is quite clear from what my advisers have told me that to meet the point which my noble friend has made would require legislation involving considerable amendment of the existing Marriage Acts. It is equally obvious that it would be utterly impossible to introduce such legislation at the present time. My noble friend went on to suggest that a registrar should warn those intending to marry of the consequences which would follow if they committed bigamy. Frankly I am not enamoured with that proposition. I cannot help feeling that my noble friend, in his preoccupation with the guilty case, has overlooked that that warning would, in well over 99 per cent. of cases, imply a suspicion that the particular declaration was a false one and that one of the parties, or both of them, intended to commit the crime of bigamy.

No doubt my noble friend will observe that I have turned down the two suggestions he has made, but there remains the question whether His Majesty's Government can take any practical steps to deal with the increase in the crime of bigamy now and at once. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs, who is primarily responsible in this matter, is, as I have already said, seriously concerned with the recent increase in this crime which has occurred, and he is anxious to take every possible step to check the increase in bigamous marriages. My noble friend is doubtless aware that certain steps have already been taken in consultation with the military authorities whereby it is made more difficult for members of Dominion and Allied Forces in this country to commit bigamous marriages. At the same time he will also remember that measures have been taken to prevent delay, as far as possible, in the celebration of war-time marriages, and the shortening of the period of notice in order that marriages may be celebrated more quickly has received the general support of the public. It would be unfortunate if my noble friend pressed his suggestion that members of the Armed Forces, chiefly of the British Army, should produce their paybooks if they desired to be married. I have been in consultation with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for War, who definitely objects to that suggestion on the reasonable ground, as I think, that soldiers, or indeed members of any of the Services, should not be singled out for such a requirement.

It therefore remains to see how it would be possible to assist my noble friend. I have here two forms which have to be completed before marriage in the case of all denominations other than the Church of England. The supply of these two particular forms is now, I understand, exhausted, and my right honourable friend is prepared to consult the Law Officers of the Crown before the forms are reprinted, to see whether additional words cannot be inserted to remind people of the serious crime of bigamy and of the penalties involved. That will go a long way to meet the point which my noble friend has in mind. As the result of these discussions arrangements can probably be entered into with the most reverend Primate to see whether the Church of England could in some way fall into line with our suggestions. If my noble friend will accept this offer I shall be very happy to invite the Home Secretary to enter into consultation with the Law Officers of the Crown as soon as possible to draft words which will meet the point which both my noble friend and His Majesty's Government have in mind.

Perhaps I might make one last observation on the question of identity cards. Your Lordships will have observed that there is considerable feeling in some sections of this House as to the advisability or not of continuing identity cards after the war. They automatically expire when the emergency comes to an end as laid down in the National Registration Act. I do not want to enter into a discussion now as to whether they should be continued or not, but if my own personal view were asked it would be one which would support my noble friend Lord Londonderry and my noble friend Lord Jessel. I realize that I have not been able to go the whole way to meet my noble friend, but I feel sure that the action which the Home Secretary is prepared to take will bring the severe penalties for bigamy before the minds of those who are ready to commit this heartless crime, and I hope my noble friend will accept the suggestion which I have been authorized to make to-day.


My Lords, as marriages in the Church of England have been mentioned perhaps I might venture to say a very brief word upon that subject and as it has to be brief I must not enter into a debate upon the marriage law in Old Testament days. I was, however, surprised if I heard aright when the noble Lord said that from the days of Lamech onward it had been the law that no bishop might commit bigamy. The episcopal office is a great and an ancient one but it does not go back to the days of Methuselah. On this particular matter the Church of England is only too anxious to do everything possible to assist in the limitation and prevention of bigamy and to impress upon all the sin of bigamy. It is more easy for the Registrar-General by administrative order to secure that a particular form drawing attention to the penalty is used in every case than it is for the Church of England to do the same thing in every one of its churches; but in fact I think in every diocese there does exist an official form to be used when application is made for banns to be issued.

In my own diocese that form asks the very direct question: "Have you ever been married before? If so, was that marriage ended by death, divorce or nullity?" Those are the only three possible causes for ending marriage and nobody who desires to commit bigamy can answer those questions without perjuring himself in doing so. But the fact remains that there is no statement on that form that to commit bigamy is a crime and involves penalties. I think your Lordships will understand that in the Church of England we do not want to suggest that those who come to be married by us are quite likely to commit bigamy. However, if the Registrar-General is going to take steps to draw particular attention to this matter I am sure that the authorities of the Church of England would be only too glad to see how far they can co-operate in the notices they issue and how, in such action, they can keep in line with the Registrar-General.

There is only one other point I would mention. Reference has been made to the fact that members of the Canadian or American Forces wishing to marry in this country have to produce a certificate from their commanding officer authorizing them to do so. Some months ago some of us did most seriously ask that the same system might obtain in the British Army, and to the best of my belief our request was refused and still remains rejected. I cannot see that there is any reason whatever against it. I agree that to produce a pay book is another matter, but every commanding officer has the necessary knowledge and it is not in the least difficult to say that anybody receiving banns for the marriage of a soldier must also require the production of a certificate from the soldier's commanding officer. I still hope that that particular suggestion may be very seriously reconsidered. It works without any difficulty in relation to Canadian and American soldiers. If you say it is singling out of the Army for one particular kind of treatment, I would point out that the Services are in a particular and unusual position. They consist of men living away from their homes and home associations, and it is not in the least easy for the registrar or for a clergyman, when a girl in his parish wishes to marry a soldier, to make the right inquiry about that soldier. It should be simplicity itself, and would be if he had to produce this certificate from his commanding officer. I therefore strongly urge that particular consideration may be given to it again. The last word I would say is that, distressing though this prevalent increase in bigamy is, we do well to remember that it is a tiny proportion of the total number of marriages. Distressing as it is, we have to keep it in proportion, but it does cause such distress that we ought to do everything possible to prevent it.


My Lords, I must add a word to what the right reverend Prelate has said about producing a certificate from the commanding officer. While Canadians and Americans, as the right reverend Prelate has said, do produce this certificate our soldiers do not, and I am sure I shall have the sympathy of the noble Earl who replied for the Government and who himself is a soldier, in saying that it is ridiculous that we should not conform to a rule which the Canadians and Americans have been glad to follow. I am sure he will be able to tell his chief and the Secretary of State for War that this House strongly feels that the plan suggested by the Lord Bishop of London should be followed.

With regard to my Motion I am sorry that my noble friend cannot accept it. I still think that this war-time trouble might best have been dealt with by a wartime measure like that of identity cards, but the suggestion he has made is a most valuable one. He did not, however, make it so clear to all of us as I perhaps hoped he would do. I understand it is a fact that every man going to be married before a registrar has to subscribe to a document and that the Registrar-General proposes to add to that document strong words pointing out the dangers and hardships of bigamy and the penalties attaching to it. If it be the fact that in dioceses other than the diocese of the Lord Bishop of London there is not a similar document to which people must subscribe, I should hope that in consultation with the Registrar-General they will do the same. I thank the noble Lord for his reply and I hope he will convey my thanks to the authorities for having made this concession. I now desire leave of the House to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.