HL Deb 29 July 1952 vol 178 cc403-9

3.40 p.m.

Debate on Second Reading resumed.


My Lords, I have spent a great part of my life in connection with matters of the sort dealt with in the present Bill and I cannot plead that I am quite ignorant about this subject. I have been greatly interested in the Bill, and I have considered the observations in support of the Bill that have been made with great force, both by my noble and learned friend who was Chairman of the Committee which considered the subject and by other noble Lords. I should like to say that I entirely approve the Bill, with, for the moment, a doubt about Clause 6. I believe that the Bill will remove a good deal of injustice which occasionally occurs when people of comparatively small means die intestate.

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, the first duty I feel I ought to perform is to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for dealing with a very intricate subject in a manner which has been intelligible to the layman. This is one of the few Bills that I have read through from beginning to end and I expected that to-day we should have had what I may call a "field day" for lawyers, as we had the other day on the Defamation Bill. As a layman I feel that I am in the same position as was my noble friend Lord Burden then, but not having his audacity I approach my side of the business to-day with a considerable amount of trepidation, not lightened by the fact that the Bill is a complicated one, as other noble Lords have said.

It may be pertinent to remind your Lordships of the hopes of the Committee which sat on this matter. In reading the Report of the Committee yesterday, I found the following two passages which may interest your Lordships in relation to the need for a clear Bill. In paragraph 31, the Report says: The law should remain as simple and intelligible to the layman as possible. I call your Lordships' attention to the word "remain." I take it that the inference to be drawn from that is that the subject is already intelligible to the layman. Again, in paragraph 12, referring to certain proposals which had been made to the Committee, the Report says these proposals would add complications to the law of intestacy, a law in which brevity and simplicity are particularly desirable. Whether the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has achieved this simplicity in the Bill before us it is perhaps not for me to say. My main concern in this is a layman's concern for a matter which has been dealt with both by the mover, and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morton of Henryton. Here I should like, as one who has had experience of many Committees, to express my admiration and thanks to the noble and learned Lord for the way in which he directed us and educated us as we went through this intricate subject. I commend what I think is not a customary method—that is, the reproduction of the whole of Sections 46 to 49 of the Act of 1925 in the Schedule of this Bill. That should be a great help to anyone approaching this subject in future. Again I must commend the novel method—at least it was not recommended by the Committee—by which the value of a matrimonial home is to be computed. I think it is a most ingenious and very fair method, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and his advisers for their work on that difficult point.

I am most concerned with the simple question of what the widow will get on the death of her husband. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morton of Henryton, has already told us of the vast proportion of estates which are willed to the wife of the person concerned. Yesterday, I went through the probate register of a large pension fund in which I am interested, and I am sure your Lordships will appreciate that with the growth of pension funds, which has been phenomenal during the last few years, more and more people are being affected by the present £1,000 limit. On going through this register, I found what I considered to be a rather startling position. The people I am concerned with are ordinary working-class folk, and I found that out of ninety-five deaths in the current register, eighty-three were intestate, so that the need for some clear and sensible disposition of an intestate's estate is manifest. In most of these cases a statutory trust had to be created for a relatively small amount, as generally the estate exceeded the £1,000 limit by a few hundred pounds. In one case, which at this moment is under consideration, the whole estate is worth something like £1,300. The widow gets her £1,000 and for the rest a trust has to be created for an infant child of three years of age.

The difficulty is not so much that a trust has to be created, but that the widow resents this. She feels the inference to be drawn from it is that she is not to be trusted to look after her child. The raising of the £1,000 limit to £5,000 would enable small estates to be cleared up and the widow to buy the house in which she lives, and the effect of this increase will be very great in cases of people with small means. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and other noble Lords who have spoken to-day, I have considerable difficulty in justifying Clause 6 and the Third Schedule to the Bill. However, as I understand that the matter is to be dealt with in Committee, I need say no more now. I have said all that I want to say, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morton, dealt fully with the provisions of the Act, as also did the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. I will only add that I am delighted that, as a result of our work on the Committee, we shall have on the Statute Book a measure which will implement what we recommended.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I shall in due course, to the best of my ability, try to do my duty by the Bill which my noble friend Lord Mancroft has introduced. However, my reason for speaking to-day is that experience has shown me that whenever there is an English Bill—especially one with which English people are pleased—it is nearly always to be followed in due course by a similar Bill for Scotland. I have been told that that may be the case in this instance. The fact that there is a Report on the subject gives point to my fears. The Report to which I refer itself indicates that the matters contained in it are highly controversial—and, in my view, they are even more so than the Report indicates. This is something which has nothing to do with the economic effort, with rearmament, or with Tory principles. I suggest to Her Majesty's Government that if they seek to introduce a similar Bill for Scotland they will be asking for controversy in a matter which would otherwise lie quiet. A Report which starts by suggesting that we should imitate France, which goes on to suggest that we should imitate Germany, and finally—to gratify the vanity of my noble friend Lord Mancroft—comes to the conclusion that we had better imitate England, is not likely to avoid controversy.

In that connection, I should like to remind your Lordships of the wise words uttered in your Lordships' House only yesterday by my noble and learned friend Lord Normand. He said: (OFFICIAL REPORT; Vol. 178, Col. 319): I am sure it is fallacious to think that you can argue from what has happened in Scotland to what may happen in England. In answer to one noble Lord who has spoken, I should like to say that there can be no greater fallacy than to look round England and Scotland and find what parts of the law have worked well in either country and then to try and make an amalgam with both. The one certain way of ruining two good systems of law would be to try and make a patchwork out of those parts of the law which have worked well in Scotland and those which have worked well in England. I know that there are many parts of the law of England which have worked well enough here which would be most unacceptable to the people of Scotland, and I am quite prepared to believe that there may be parts of the law of Scotland which have worked well enough there but which would be unacceptable to the people of England. After all, laws are made for people, and it is important that we should remember that, when we are discussing a matter which may touch the intimate life of members of the public … I could not improve upon those words and, if anything, Lord Mancroft's remarks upon the law of Scotland reinforce them.

I should like to say this, because it occurs in the English and the Scottish Reports. I venture humbly to differ from my noble and learned friend Lord Morton in regard to Scotland, in saying that the object of the law of intestacy is to try to make a will for a man who has not made one in the same terms he would have been likely to do. I say that especially with reference to a country where half the heritable property, though held by its owners on title as absolute as it is in England, is still consciously held by them as a kind of family trust. I cannot—I would not if I could—threaten the Government that unless they meet me I will upset the economic effort, or whatever it is, but I do say that I shall feel it my duty to oppose to the utmost of my power a measure which carries out in full the terms of the Scottish Report. There are many points in the Scottish Report with which I agree, but I shall to the utmost of my power, like Tiberius on an equally important occasion instans voce et voltu. I hope, however, that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack will be able to reassure me. If he cannot, I should like to ask that I be heard before the matter is definitely proceeded with.

So far as the English law is concerned, I hope that during the passage of the Bill may have one provision in your law of intestacy expained to me. If a man dies, and has nephews, I understand that in English law they are considered to be his relatives. But if he is cursed with longevity, survives his nephews and has only grand-nephews, I understand that these are no relation, and that the Crown are ultimus hæres. I have never understood that provision. I do not know whether that actually comes into this Bill, but I hope that during the discussion on the Bill I shall have it explained to me.


Before the noble Lord sits down, will he tell us whether he has been explaining the law of Scotland, which we are not discussing to-day, or the Bill which is before us, which applies only to England? Has he been crossing his bridges before they have been built?


I have been taking a very good Second Reading point. I have been asking the Government whether they propose to introduce a similar measure for Scotland, and I have been explaining what I believe to be the position with regard to it.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I might answer the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, before I come to the subject of the Bill which is before the House. I think I can best answer him in this way. In another place my noble friend the Secretary of State for Scotland was asked the question: … whether he is now in a position to make a statement on the introduction of legislation to amend the law of succession in Scotland? My right honourable friend replied: I regret that I am not yet in a position to make a statement on this subject. I do not think the noble Lord will expect me to say more than that. Obviously can give no further assurance on the matter and it is a question which my right honourable friend will have to consider in due course.

With regard to the Bill which is before the House to-day, I join with those noble Lords who have spoken in commending it to the House for Second Reading. I propose to say very little, but I must not sit down without on behalf of Her Majesty's Government thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morton of Henryton, and his colleagues, for the Report which they have presented. In a way I am sorry that it did not fall to my noble and learned predecessor, who had the foresight to appoint this Committee, to thank them, but from other points of view I am not so sorry. At any rate, I ask the House to join me in thanking the noble and learned Lord. Surely our gratitude is also due to the noble Lord, Lord Man-croft, who has undertaken the task of introducing this Bill in your Lordships' House.

Having said that, I feel that I need say little more. This is a Bill which in almost every respect follows the recommendations laid down by Lord Morton's Committee. That that Committee was unanimous, consisting as it did not only of lawyers but also of laymen, shows that the recommendations represent not only the logic of lawyers but also the life of the people. It has been said, "Law is life, not logic." I venture to think that your Lordships may have received much assistance from the speech which my noble friend—I think he is almost a learned friend on this subject—Lord Kershaw made, because he was able to tell your Lordships not what the law should be, but what the layman thinks about it.

There is one exception I must make, and all your Lordships who have spoken have made the same exception. Clause 6 has crept into this Bill without any recommendation from Lord Morton's Committee and, I think, without any serious support from anybody. It is a clause which I am quite sure will not work. I have considered it as carefully as I have been able to, and I hope that when the matter comes before your Lordships in Committee it will be deleted as a blemish upon an otherwise admirable Bill. There may be details in Committee which are capable of amendment. It would be strange if there are not. But, generally speaking, I commend the Bill to your Lordships as an admirable attempt to remedy a state of affairs for which, as popular opinion has shown, a remedy is needed. With those brief words, I venture to commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read 2a; and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.