HL Deb 05 July 1963 vol 251 cc1151-62

3.31 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, recently I initiated a debate in this House on the position of women in industry, with regard to their pay and conditions, and on the financial position of the wife who worked solely in the home. In the course of my speech, in order to support my argument I quoted from the Report of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, which recommended in paragraph 701 that: … savings made from money contributed by either the husband or the wife or by both for the purpose of meeting housekeeping expenses (and any investments or purchases made from such savings) should be deemed to belong to husband and wife in equal shares unless they have otherwise agreed. To the best of my ability I adduced an argument in support of this proposition, and was extremely gratified when, in the course of his winding-up speech, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, whom I am delighted to see here this afternoon, said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 250 (No. 96) col. 1331]: … the Government would have no objection to accepting the recommendation of the Royal Commission about joint ownership by husband and wife of savings from housekeeping money and … this might be a suitable subject for a Private Member's Bill. This was indeed encouraging, and shortly afterwards I presented the little Bill which is before this House this after- noon. Those of your Lordships who heard my speech on June 19, will forgive me if I re-emphasise certain points which I then made, because it is necessary for the development of my case. And I am sufficiently optimistic to think that those in another place will at some time consult the Hansard of to-day, in order to be assured as to the points which I propose to make.

Evidence on behalf of the housewife was given before the Royal Commission which sat for four years. May I emphasise that, my Lords? This is not a question of my coming here this afternoon and asking you to accept this small Bill. I want you to realise that for four years a Royal Commission sat and considered certain aspects of the economic position of the housewife. They then summarised some of the evidence in their Report, and they described the housewife in this way: She has no way of ensuring that she gets a sufficient allowance on which to run the home … She has no legal right to any allowance for her own personal spending. Any money she manages to save from the housekeeping allowance is in law her husband's. She can lay no claim to a share in the home and the furniture except to the extent that she can prove that she has contributed out of her own separate income. The profits of her husband's business are his own, although she may work with him in it without taking any wages. Furthermore, they said that it was said that a woman separated on the grounds of her husband's cruelty or adultery may be forced to return home, because she will have nowhere else to live. My Lords it is in the light of that that I venture to move the Second Reading of this Bill to-day.

Having considered all this evidence, the Commission expressed their opinion. They said: We think that the weight of evidence suggests that some amendment of the law is desirable in order to give more effective recognition to the wife's contribution to the marriage. Now it cannot be argued that the wife automatically inherits the house or the modest savings of her husband, to whom she has given her services over the years, and that she is therefore guaranteed some immediate financial security. As the Royal Commission have said, the law gives her no entitlement to anything, not even the house or the furniture. I should say to the Scottish Peers that the position here is very different from that in Scotland. I would almost advise a woman to marry a Scot, because in Scotland she has some entitlement. It is rather a curious coincidence that the noble Lords from Scotland are here listening to this shameful condition of the English wife. She has no entitlement to anything—not even to the house or the furniture. They are the sole property of the husband, and he may dispose of them without her consent or leave them by will to somebody else.

Of course, the plight of the older widow or the deserted mother (I am not arguing the plight of the young, physically active woman) is often tragic. She might have been married to a drinker or a gambler, and have seen money frittered away, but she is completely powerless; for, although she may cook, clean, mend, wash, nurse and bear children, she has no right to any share of the family income; and she has no savings because she has not been permitted to save in her own name. The housekeeping money which she has handled belongs to her husband because, in using it, she has acted solely as his agent. If she decides to help by taking in washing or lodgers, any profit she makes belongs to her husband, because he supplies the soap and the facilities for the washing, and he supplies the beds for the lodgers. Her hard work entitles her to no share—and no noble Lord can say that there is no hard work in doing washing or taking in lodgers. Likewise, the "divi" which accumulates from buying at a co-operative stores belongs to her husband.

My Lords, those who have raised their objections to this Bill have sought an excuse—it cannot be a reason—on the grounds that a woman cannot be trusted to act honestly. They say that if she were allowed to have savings from the housekeeping money she might be tempted to give her husband corned beef instead of roast beef for dinner.


Hear, hear!


I believe that there was a letter in The Times (and this will please the noble Lord more: he has argued over the years that kippers or herrings are better than roast beef) saying that she might be tempted to give her husband kippers or herrings, instead of roast beef.


Hear, hear!


Then the noble Lord should be supporting me in this matter.

My Lords, is there any evidence that many women cheat their husbands or children? Are there women so dishonest that they would deprive their family in their own interests? Of course, there are unnatural women—I do not deny that; but the normal woman is a homemaker by instinct; she places the welfare of her family before her own. There is evidence known to us all here, and seen in the papers every day, of cases where women have protected their children at the expense of their own lives. When I served at the Ministry of Food, and when the noble Lord served at the Ministry of Food, it was general knowledge that the wife and mother would give her meat, bacon and egg ration to her husband.

There are, of course, those who have objected to the family allowance being drawn by the mother, because, they have argued that if the woman and not the man draws the family allowance she may use it on drink and cigarettes. Well, my Lords, does the appearance of our children, well-dressed and well-shod, indicate that the mother has saved the family allowance at their expense and spent it on herself? During the 1930's, when there was widespread unemployment, the husband and children always fared best. Medical records—and these can be examined—revealed that anæmia among women was commonplace; it was traced to inadequate diet. Furthermore, is there any evidence that the woman who works outside the home and who can save legitimately is miserly? Social workers report that she often goes out to work to pay hire purchase debts and to help the family. The mean or possessive mart who senses that his personal characteristics might not hold his wife's affection and who relies upon his control of the purse strings should recognise that, even in his undeserving case, he will benefit; because—and noble Lords may contradict me if I am wrong—I think most wives are forgiving; and any small saving she may effect will probably be shared with him in the years to come.

But accepting this Bill, shall we be creating a precedent? Shall we be creata precedent among democratic countries if the Second Reading is given to-day? On the contrary, Britain is lagging behind in the recognition of the services of the wife who works in the home. Community of property has been established in certain Scandinavian and European countries and in certain States of the U.S.A. Recently, as I said, West Germany has established a system of equal financial partnership in marriage. If we accept this Bill we shall only be catching up with these more progressive countries. I am afraid that the Royal Commission was not very progressive and it rejected the community of property observed in so many countries; but the modest provision embodied in this Bill received its support. I hope that this House will approve this measure, which will remedy a grave injustice and will afford some recognition of the unremitting work of the wife and mother in the home. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Summerskill.)

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, we have just listened to a persuasive and concise exposition of this brief Bill, and I need add only a word to what has been said. It is to me, at any rate, refreshing to read a Bill before your Lordships' House which I can easily understand. It is couched in the English language, as distinct from the other language in which some other Bills are couched. It is a very modest and brief measure but, nevertheless, an important one. As the noble Lady has said, the principle underlying it received the unanimous approval of the 1955 Commission. Many of the proposals which they considered did not receive the approval of the whole Commission; but this, I understand, did.

I know that it is said by some that if passed into law this will be a difficult measure to enforce. That may be so; but may it not be comparable in some sense to what is being done by the United Nations in the Charter of Human Rights? This is something which cannot always be enforced but something which holds up an ideal to which all can strive. I believe (although I have no right to speak for it) that informed Christian opinion in this country would be solidly behind the provisions of this Bill, and I do not believe that the male Members of this House need be in any fear that their diet will be unduly restricted as a result of its passage. This is a brief Bill. It requires brief speeches. Therefore I shall sit down, and hope that the Bill will receive the unanimous approval of the House.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, let me hasten to say to the noble Lady and to the right reverend Prelate that I also rise to support the Second Reading of the Bill, but would raise one point which I think may deserve consideration at a later stage. I am sure that the House will have no hesitation in giving the Bill a Second Reading, because of the unanimous recommendation of the Royal Commission; but what I rise to point out is that the Bill—I agree with the right reverend Prelate in admiration of the simplicity of its language—does not completely agree with the recommendation of the Royal Commission. If I may, I shall read paragraph 701 of the Commission's Report. There is only one divergency which I wish to emphasise. The paragraph runs as follows: We accordingly recommend, in respect of England and Scotland, that the savings made from money contributed by either the husband or the wife or by both for the purpose of meeting housekeeping expenses (and any investments or purchases made from such savings) shall be deemed to belong to husband and wife in equal shares, unless they have otherwise agreed. I think it is important that we should realise that the Royal Commission did not recommend any interference with the freedom of husband and wife to agree as they might desire. It merely said what, in the absence of agreement, should be the result. When we come to Committee, I think that it will be worthy of consideration whether we should not add words to make it quite clear that we are not purporting or attempting to restrict the freedom of husband or wife to agree as they may wish.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I hate striking a discordant note in any way. In principle I am entirely behind the noble Baroness in her objective, which is to give the housewife of this country, as indeed she rightly said we give them in Scotland, a fairer and squarer financial deal. They ought to have had it in England centuries ago: there is no doubt about that. But I confess frankly that it is the words "housekeeping money" that cause me anxiety—just for this one reason: that I do not think that money should ever be saved on housekeeping. I believe that, on the whole, we are badly fed as a country. Whatever the noble Lady may say about the British housewife, she is still far behind her Continental sisters when it comes to cooking, and one of the reasons is that she does not spend enough on food. If we compare the amount spent on food in this country with the amount spent on food in the whole of Scandinavia, in Belgium, in the Netherlands, in France and even in Italy, we find that the percentage is far lower in this country.

If this were confined to herrings, I should not mind, but the temptation to feed the husband on lentils or chips or some ghastly concoctions which can be obtained for 6d. in a tin and turned out—no trouble at all—and not to go to the market and buy good, fresh, solid meat, and then to "collar" half of what is left over, will, in my view, he very great. I wish I could believe, with the confidence of the right reverend Prelate, that the man of the house will not be starved. I think that he may well be, not starved, but badly fed, if the housewife is encouraged to save out of housekeeping in order to have that little bit extra in pocket.


My Lords, would not the remedy be largely in the husband's hands? He would not give all the housekeeping money to her for a long time in advance. If he found that he was being treated in this way, surely he would diminish the payment.


He may, my Lords, but it depends on how much he is afraid of his wife. The remedy may be that he goes to the pub, if he is not decently fed at home. I am a little apprehensive, because I think that, as a nation, we still have a certain difficulty in understanding the importance of food, which in some ways is much more important than anything else in life. I am sure that the majority of housewives do not know how to cook it and that they do not spend enough on it or take enough trouble over it. It is because this Bill may mean that they will take even less trouble that I am not in favour of it. But I assure the noble Lady that I will not go into the Division Lobby against it.


My Lords, this Bill, in my view, is entirely unpractical. If you want to make it work in practice, every wife will have to keep the most exact accounts which will have to be audited at the end of the year, and in the case of a dispute it will have to go to arbitration or go to law. There is not even an arbitration clause in this Bill. I hope your Lordships will not give the Bill a Second Reading, although I have nothing but admiration in every way for the noble Lady.


My Lords, so far as Lord Boothby's point about Continental housewives spending more on food is concerned, that probably is so; but does not the noble Lord remember that on the Continent food is far more expensive?


Not so much now. You can have "pot-au-feu", which you will find always in any French cottage, and you will find it absolutely delicious, and in many cases much cheaper than what you can get out of a tin in this country.


Perhaps I have been unfortunate in my Continental meals.


My Lords, while expressing complete sympathy with the noble Lady's Bill and her purposes, I thought she seemed to be a little unduly feminist in this matter. The impression she gave to me was that all men were brutes and that all ladies were saints. In my experience, that is not absolutely correct. More seriously, in the little social work that I have done (which is far less than that done by the noble Lady) with the Children's Country Holiday Fund, I have not found that it is always the men who are to blame. I think it is very much a fifty-fifty business, and that human nature is the same in both sexes. I am all for parity and equality in this matter, but I hope the noble Lady will not give the impression to the House and to the country that all men are beasts, because we do our best.


My Lords, I am very fond of men; I have to be in a House of this kind. But may I say to the noble Earl, Lord Arran, that I should like him to convey my thanks to his editor, because the Evening News devoted its leader to supporting this Bill.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure your Lordships are grateful to the noble Baroness for the explanation she gave of her Bill, and also to noble Lords who have taken part in this discussion, which, within the last few minutes, has almost bordered upon liveliness. I shall not take any part in the controversial aspect of it. When the noble Lady moved her resolution on Women in Industry on June 19, as she has reminded your Lordships, she referred at some length to the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce in paragraph 701, which she has quoted, and I will read out the passage, including half a sentence in the previous paragraph. It says: We think the right way is to look upon such savings as belonging half to the husband and half to the wife. We accordingly recommend in respect of England and Scotland that savings made from money contributed by either the husband or the wife or by both for the purpose of meeting housekeeping expenses and any investments or purchases made from such savings should be deemed to belong to the husband and wife in equal shares union they have otherwise agreed. In my reply to the noble Lady's Motion I stated that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor thought that the Government would have no objection to accepting the recommendation of the Royal Commission about joint ownership of husband and wife of savings from housekeeping money and this might be a suitable subject for a Private Member's Bill. The noble Lady, in her concluding remarks, having said that she would like to have the honour of introducing such a Bill, added that she did not know whether a Private Member's Bill could go through before the Recess; but it would have to be a very quick Private Member's Bill if it did. I should like to congratulate her on her promptitude in at least giving your Lordships the chance of giving this Bill a Second Reading so very soon afterwards.

Speaking for the Government, I have only two short things to say. The first is to repeat what I stated on June 19, that the Government have no objection to accepting this recommendation of the Royal Commission which we regard as a suitable subject for a Private Member's Bill. The other is to make a brief comment on the Bill itself. I would not presume to offer the noble Lady any advice, especially since I so often find that the advice which I give to people on all kinds of subjects turns out to be not so good as I thought it was when I was giving it, but I hope my comments may at least not be unhelpful. The noble Lady observed in her remarks just now that she hoped Members of another place would read what had been said here in Hansard. I am sure your Lordships all hope that, but my present information is that, however quickly your Lordships may think fit to dispose of this Bill, there is no chance of its being considered in another place during the present Session.

Now as for the Bill itself. There are only three short points I want to make. The first is a very small one. I think it would be better if this Bill did not apply to Northern Ireland, which would have to be stated. I am quite sure there would be no difficulty about that. The second point is that the Bill states that half of the money shall belong to the wife absolutely, whereas the recommendation is that it should be deemed that the whole of it should belong to the husband and wife in equal shares. I am not a legal authority, and perhaps these two phrases mean the same thing. It is very likely that the noble Lady means that. But I think the point wants looking into, because there may be a difference between half belonging to the wife and the whole belonging to both in equal shares. The third, and most substantial, point is that which has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Conesford: that the recommendation says that this should be done unless the husband and wife have otherwise agreed. I am sure your Lordships would all feel that we should try to frame this Bill in such a way as to cause the least possible amount of altercation and disagreement between husband and wife.

I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. I should like to add my own compliments on the brevity of the Bill. If you leave out the Preamble and the Title, the operative clause consists of only 25 words, which I think is an admirable achievement in conciseness. I am not suggesting that it should be made very much longer, but I think that not only would it be a good thing to consider the points which I have already mentioned to your Lordships (which might make it, not into a long Bill, but perhaps into 50 or 60 words instead of 25) but that there are also a number of other possible points which ought to be looked into, with which I will not trouble your Lordships now. What I would suggest to the noble Lady is that since there apparently seems to be no possibility of this Bill going to another place before the end of the Session, she might think it a good thing to consult with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, or his officials, about the drafting of the Bill. It seems to me that that might save time. In such a very short Bill as this, it is very difficult to amend 25 words without redrafting the whole thing.

I do not know whether there would be very much difference between having a Committee stage to amend the Bill, and redrafting this very short sentence as a new Bill. But I would suggest to the noble Lady, that when the Bill, as I hope it will, receives a Second Reading, she might like to take advantage of the help which I am sure my noble and learned friend would be ready to give her in considering how these various points might be met and what might be the most satisfactory way of dealing with them.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Earl for his very kind and understanding approach to this Bill and, indeed, thank everybody who has spoken? I know that the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, is sometimes a little cynical about women; and, on the subject of food may I remind him that after he was ill the doctors advised him not to eat so much. He hissed in my ear one day in another place: "How much better I feel! Look! I am concave now". So perhaps, after all, the expectation of life for some people is lengthened because they have small meals rather than large ones.

May I also thank all those noble Lords who have spoken, for their helpful advice; and I certainly ask the Lord Chancellor to advise me on this matter. My final word is that I only hope that the honourable Members in another place will be as kind and sympathetic to the women of this country as your Lordships to-day.

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