HL Deb 22 November 1967 vol 286 cc1047-134

2.39 p.m.

LORD HENLEY rose to call attention to the Report of the Committee on the Age of Majority, and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the debate on the gracious Speech a fortnight ago the Lord Chancellor said that the Government proposed to listen to what was said in Parliament on the Latey Report, in order to see what was the general opinion, before finally deciding which recommendations of the Committee they would seek to implement. That is nice to know when one is introducing a debate on a general subject in your Lordships' House. More than that, however, I think that not only will the Government listen to what we say to-day, but it will be listened to with great interest abroad. Apparently no other country has had an Inquiry of this sort before, and already other countries have shown great interest in the Report. I think that great interest will be shown in what we say here, and what sort of opinion is expressed.

I personally welcome the Report very much in every one of its recommenda tions. I am convinced by the arguments and by the evidence which they put before us. I think that probably my noble friends take the same view. After all, this is not a Party matter, and it may well be that if one were to suppose that the Liberal Party was a microcosm of society one would find the same sorts of reservations in the minds of members of that society as I expect to find from members of different Parties in this House in their remarks to-day.

I feel that the most useful thing I can do to set the ball rolling in the debate this afternoon is to look at the areas of disagreement which are contained in the Report. Of the 52 recommendations, 44 are agreed. It may well be that some of your Lordships have reservations on some of the 44 points which were agreed, and we shall probably hear about them this afternoon. However, I do not want to talk about them to-day. I want to touch on those eight points in the Report which were not agreed, which were not unanimous and which were the subject of a Minority Report. Most of those eight are in fact probably consequential, and the ones which really form the nub of the whole question are those which deal with the question of free marriage and with contract. Most of the debate this afternoon probably will range about those two subjects.

Before one comes to the two main subjects of marriage and contract, perhaps one should look at the matter from the point of view of what happens if one accepts these two proposals. If one accepts them, does one open up wider aspects in the constitutional and social field, and will they have consequences which one does not necessarily want to see? In the Report this is called "the civic field". The civic field is not in relation to such matters as voting and jury service or any kind of public service, which was one of the aspects the Latey Committee were asked to report upon, but nevertheless the minority group and those who opposed bringing down the age from 21 to 18 felt that if one accepted the principle of free marriage at 18 and contracts to be entered into at 18, one would open up a whole number of subjects embracing voting, jury service and so on. Some people would be perfectly happy to let in voting at 18, and in fact would prefer that to letting people of 18 marry freely. I think that the Liberal Party are committed to having the vote at 18. This may well be a compromise between my noble friends here and Young Liberals, who possibly would like it to be even earlier. But, nevertheless, as a Party we should like to see the vote at 18.

It will be interesting to see what attention will be paid to the Latey Report by the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform. The Latey Report said that they did not consider that such matters as voting, jury service, and so on, necessarily went hand in glove with their recommendations, and that they need not in fact do so. I myself am not so sure about this. I cannot help feeling that once you have broken the barrier in regard to free marriage and free contract and the matters which are consequential, then such matters as voting are bound to come into the picture. I disagree with the Latey Committee on that point where they suggest that this would not necessarily be consequential.

On the subject of jury service, I was very impressed with the Houston experiment in Texas, which is set out in the Report, where they used juries composed of young people to try young people, which apparently has been an enormous success. I do not know that we would do the same thing in this country, but if we were to bring people of 18 on to juries—and they would comprise a fairly small proportion—would it be damaging in any way? I cannot see that it would, and the Latey Committee felt the same way. Similarly with public service and all the things that go with it, should we in this House mind having a lot of 18year-old noble Lords? I am quite sure we would not. We should be only too delighted. Part of the difficulty would be to persuade them to come—and this applies to all forms of public service. Public service is something of an acquired taste. It is not one of those tastes, like marriage, which one necessarily acquires at 18. So I do not really see a great flood in that respect.

Another of the wider social consequences which follow on in the civic field is in relation to the criminal aspect, which the Latey Report excludes and, to my mind, quite rightly excludes. It rejects the argument that you might be flung into an adult gaol in a spirit of, "On your own head be it." That seems to me to be a good way to put the matter, and in fact the Latey Report is full of delightful turns of phrase of that kind. They argue, instead, that the capacity of young people to order their own personal affairs should not affect criminal and penal fields, and that in fact criminals are irresponsible, or disturbed or inadequate, that this has nothing to do with age and that the question of age in this field is quite irrelevant.

So much for those other consequences which might follow from free marriage and contracts to be allowed at 18, but matters which are not in fact part of those things argued by the Latey Committee. It seems to me that the arguments put forward by the Latey Committee in that context are the ones that appeal to me. What about the question of tree marriage? This is probably the subject about which we shall hear most this afternoon. I do not propose to say very much about it, except to touch upon those aspects which possibly worry those Members of your Lordships' House who are not happy about bringing the age down to 18. I know that some of my noble friends feel this way.

First of all, to what extent does physical maturity go with emotional maturity? It is very difficult to get any evidence about this. I understand that the B.M.A. inclines to the view that if physical maturity comes earlier, then emotional maturity will come earlier with it. I do not know that that is so. In any case, I am a little dubious about the whole proposition that we are physically mature earlier than we were. It seems to me to be a curious problem genetically. I should have thought that one could not change the age of maturity in a couple of generations, but that it would take forty or so generations to do so. Therefore, I do not feel very strongly on the argument that maturity is approaching at an earlier age. The most one can say—and this perhaps is all the Report says about it—is that whereas in the past some people were kept down by bad food and inadequate conditions, to that extent their maturity was held up and they are now maturing earlier.

Then there is the question of marrying too young. For a variety of reasons, I feel very strongly that one should not marry too young. For a start, you have not had time to get to know the other sex—and the other sex is very different. You have not had time to "play the field". You have not had time to get to know a large enough number of "possibles" whom you might marry. You have not had time to enjoy that carefree time of life when you do not have the difficulties of looking after a house and a husband or wife, which are extremely different things to do. All these things are really an extension of your education. If you marry too young you are going to be faced with difficulties and problems, which it would be better to leave over for two or three years.

I do not feel that the law as it stands is going to help my daughters, or anyone else's daughters, in regard to marrying too young. I do not see that leaving a certain naked power, shall we say, in the hands of parents as an ultimate resort is going to help any young man or young woman to avoid an imprudent marriage. I am sure that one can argue this the other way, and I look forward to hearing the arguments on the other side. But I do not believe we shall get the result we want—assuming that we do not want young people to make imprudent marriages—by leaving the law as it stands, and leaving the ultimate naked power in the hands of parents.

I believe that the same argument applies to some extent on the question of contracts—contracts for hire-purchase, for entering into mortgages, and that kind of thing. It is the same problem, is it not?—that we have to protect young people. In the case of marriages it is against the other sex and against themselves; and in the case of contracts they must be protected against "sharks", shall we say, who want to get their money—and we all know that young people now have a great deal more money than they had before.

I was very impressed by the argument that in Scotland, where more young people have had more legal capacity for quite a long time, there does not appear to be any evidence of pressure to give greater protection to 18-year-olds. That seems to me a most interesting and revealing fact. As the Report points out, the problem is just as bad for a young man of 22 as for someone of 18. It is very doubtful how far age is relevant here. What is relevant is more consumer protection in all directions. One of the suggestions put forward was that a certain amount of residual protection might be offered to young people; for example, that a person should have more protection at 18 than at 19, and more at 19 than at 20. But it is quite obvious, as the Report points out, that this would be self-defeating, because tradesmen and people entering into contracts with young people would merely ignore that aspect altogether and would treat them all as if they were under 21, so there would really be no protection at all.

Lastly, with regard to contracts and entering into hire-purchase and mortgage arrangements, if, in a credit-angled society, we prevent certain people who are otherwise reasonably mature from entering into credit contracts, we are putting them at the sort of disadvantage which is very damaging to them. The Report points this out, and it seems a very cogent argument. Both questions, free marriage and the right to make free contracts, are questions of wisdom, and all that that means—maturity, responsibility, judgment. It is very difficult to say how far one is wiser at 22 than at 18; how far one is wiser at 52 than one was at 18. I do not know. But what I do know is that there is an extraordinary pattern which goes through my own mistakes, and I keep on making exactly the same mistakes to-day as I made when I was much younger. I can almost see those mistakes coming, yet I still make them. I do not know whether that is a very thoughtful observation, but it is meant to show that wisdom is an extremely difficult quality to assess, and that it is not only people over 21 who have it.

With regard to one aspect of wisdom—the quite simple one of responsibility—I thought it was rather interesting that the Committee were unanimous in believing that people of 18 should be allowed to make wills, to be trustees and to apply for passports. There are other things which we can already do at 18, such as drink in public, fight in wars and drive cars. If, on the one hand, there are those things which can be done now, and, on the other, the things which the members of the Committee were unanimous in agreeing should be possible—such as making a will—then why not free marriage and contracts? I do not see that there is any difference. If people are wise enough for one set of circumstances, then they are wise enough for the other. I know that marriage is a much more difficult problem than making a will, and a great deal more important; it is the most important step that one can take. But people will not be safeguarded by leaving a residual power which is no longer worthwhile.

Together with marriage and contracts go things like wardship and domicile and legal representation, which I imagine are consequential on the rest. Wardship could quite well be put at 18 and would be better done so, if I understand the Judges' argument aright, even if marriage is left at 21. I do not quite know what to make of that argument, but it seems to point in one direction.

Where has the pressure for this change come from? Has it come, not from young people at all, but from people who have to operate the law as it stands? Has it come, first of all, from people like Judges, who feel that the operating of the wardship provisions in the present law is impossible, difficult, nugatory and self-defeating? Has it come from perpectly responsible and reputable businessmen, who find that the business of refusing mortgages or hire-purchase to young people is self-defeating because the difficulty can be overcome, or because it is damaging to the children? Or is the answer more sinister: that pressure has come from people who want to push hire-purchase on people who have a lot of money to give?

I do not know the answer, but it is curious that the real pressure has not come from the young, unless one says that to some extent a manifestation of pressure is the student revolt in general. I do not believe that this is so. Student revolt in general is a manifestation of wanting to be considered more responsible and wanting to be given more freedom. I do not think it has anything to do with this project. Certainly my own daughters, or at any rate those who are at the age which is affected, tell me that I am barking up the wrong tree, and that a change is quite unnecessary. Why did they say that? Are they not interested in the question? No, I do not think they are. I asked them for a view, and that is their view.

Do they think, as some noble Lords will tell me, that they are going to be protected in some way? How often is a daughter (shall we say?) only too glad to have her mother in the background to say, "You shall not do this"?—because a mother is a very useful kind of person to have in the background. I think the young want guidance. That is what older people are for. That is what younger people cannot do without. Was this what my daughter was saying: "We want protection; we want to be told what to do"? I do not know; I hope I may hear some arguments on this point. At any rate, it is a very curious thing. Where has the pressure come from? Nobody in any other country has done this. We are the first people to do it, and that is very interesting. As I say, I agree with all the recommendations which have come out, but not necessarily all of your Lordships or, indeed, all of my noble friends will agree.

Be that as it may, I hope the Government will implement the lot, the whole 52, and that there will not be any watering-down for the purposes of convenience. What I mean by that is that one of the recommendations of the Report—it may be several of them—deal with soldier boys. Now it is extremely inconvenient for the public, and expensive, if, when you have entered into an arrangement by which you give somebody a very good education, and he has undertaken to do something in return for it, when the time comes for him to be of use to you he is allowed to say, "I am tired of this; I am going away". So there will be, I think, pressure (and any Administration must listen to pressure of this kind because it has to run the economy) to say, "We shall have to exclude these boys". I hope that pressure will be resisted. If one accepts this Report—and I hope the Government will—it must be accepted without watering-down the provisions dealing with boy soldiers. If that is not done it will really make a nonsense of accepting the rest. So, as I say, I hope to see it all accepted with no watering-down. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question before he sits down? It is relevant to the opening speech. If, as he says, the young victims of these proposals, the boys of 18, have not demanded that they should have these new responsibilities—marriage at 18, and hire-purchase responsibilities—why is this proposal being brought before the House, and why is the noble Lord simply responding to the pressure of the hire-purchase companies?


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness is perhaps putting too much weight on that point. I myself asked the question where the pressure was coming from, and I put forward one suggestion that possibly some pressure might be coming from the bad side of business; but I do not believe that is really true. I think it is looking at the matter too one-sidedly. That is no answer to the noble Baroness, but I think the answer to her can only come out of the general opinion that is expressed in this debate. I am sorry to be so unhelpful.

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, I hope it will not be thought that, by intervening at this stage, I am in any way wishing to come between the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Henley, though I am bound to say that when the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor decided to appoint the Latey Committee I was not of the impression that he did so under pressure from the hire-purchase companies. I think we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for initiating the debate to-day. This is certainly something which we ought to discuss. I greatly hope that we shall have a no less valuable debate—and may be a more valuable one—than took place on this Report in another place on Monday. I confess that your Lordships seem to me to have shown a better sense of priorities this week by deciding to debate devaluation first and Latey second, whereas in another place the contrary decision was reached.

My Lords, I would suggest that there is no sanctity about any one age of majority. Different people mature very differently; and I should like to pay my tribute to the Latey Committee, both to the majority of nine and to the minority of two, for the amount of care and trouble they have taken to obtain evidence and to set forth their views on what is a difficult subject, hard to measure with any precision. It is a fact that the age of puberty is going down, but there is no proved connection between that and the growth of personal responsibility. By the figures of delinquency there is known to be greater irresponsibility to-day than for many years past among about 3 per cent. of boys and youths under 21, but that is quite compatible with heightened responsibility among the other 90 per cent. or more.

There is to-day a larger proportion of boys and girls with very good education than ever before. Shortly, the school-leaving age is to go up, and one result of that will be a shortened experience of the wider world before the age of legal majority is reached, whatever that age may be. The effect of the majority recommendations would be to reduce that period of experience of the outside world between school-leaving age and the age of majority from six years, as it is at present—that is, from 15 to 21—down to two years, from 16 to 18. That is a very sharp reduction. So, taking all these counterbalancing considerations that I have mentioned, and others which I must pass over, it is not easy to say with any confidence that 21 is the right age for legal majority, or 18, or any other specific age. Your Lordships had discussions last Session about this kind of point in the course of the debates on the Sexual Offences Bill. The age at which that type of sexual behaviour was to cease to be a criminal offence among consenting persons was fixed eventually at 21, despite certain Amendments which were discussed to make that age higher or lower. I suppose that on the Latey Committee's arguments we should have fixed it at 18, but I do not know. I simply use that illustration to show the great difficulty of proving that any particular age is for all purposes right.

Indeed, if your Lordships will forgive me I should like to read a somewhat lengthy passage from the Report which shows the strange reason why, apparently, we have the age of majority at 21 now. The Report says: Roman historians state that the barbarians"— that, of course, means us— reckoned their young were old enough to carry arms and be counted as grown up at 15. And 15 became the general age of majority in Britain and Northern Europe during the 9th, I 10th and 11th centuries, though not specifically linked with fighting ability. But by the time of the Norman Conquest there was a change of emphasis. The role of the mounted knight became more and more important, the armour heavier and heavier and the horses more enormous as time went on. By the time of Magna Carta the age for those holding in knight service had been raised to 21, and there is strong authority for the view that this was directly linked with the ability to hold up a heavy suit of armour and lift a lance or sword at the same time. I will not quote further, but the Report goes on to trace how this knightly age of majority, fixed at 21, came over the centuries to be adopted as the general age of majority for all purposes. I doubt whether any of us would wish to defend it now on the ground that this was the age at which one could carry a heavy lance in the thirteenth century. In fact, what is the right age must be a matter for judgment—not capable of logical or mathematical proof. Those who are rash, perhaps some would say over-rash, will go for a big reduction; those who are cautious, perhaps over-cautious, will go for no reduction at all. The test must surely be: What arrangement will make for the greatest happiness?—not just the greatest happiness for the individual in isolation; not just for the individual at the moment of greatest pleasure; but for the ever-moving, ever-changing, society of which each individual is a component and an important part.

One great virtue of the Report is that it has made a number of unanimous recommendations on what I would call material matters, such as contracts entered into by minors, property owned by minors, the making of wills, the getting of passports, and so forth, most of which seem likely to remove troubles that flow from the present state of the law on these matters, and remove them in a way likely to create greater happiness all round with little, if any accompanying unhappiness. These sections of the Majority Report are drafted with care and thoroughness. Broadly, they are endorsed by the Minority, subject to a difference about the age of contractual capacity.

I hope that all the particular matters recommended to be referred to the Law Commission for detailed attention will be so referred. For example, we must all agree that the Infants Relief Act 1874 cries out for overhaul by now. I trust, too, that the unanimous recommendation on the powers of the various courts will receive attention, and early attention, and that the Law Commission will be invited to consider the case for establishing a Family Division of the High Court, as the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, Sir Jocelyn Simon, far-sightedly suggests. This may be an extension of the original concept of the work of the Law Commission, but if the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor sees no objection to it in principle, I see none, as a practical means of bringing about an important reform in the courts. I warmly welcome also the unanimous recommendation that far more should be available to boys and girls by way of education in social and personal relationships and in preparation for family life, and also that it is in the public interest that much more generous financial assistance should be available to such bodies as the Marriage Guidance Council.

The main cleavage between the Majority and the Minority Reports is on the age of free marriage: that is, marriage without the necessity to obtain the consent of parents or of the court. Tacked on to that is the question of the age of contractual capacity; but in my eyes—and, I think, in the eyes of both the Majority and the Minority—the age of free marriage is the most important issue of all. Here I must say that I find the Minority Report more convincing; though I would not myself go all the way with it. First of all, the Minority Report is much more closely and cogently argued. The Majority Report is delightfully readable, far more so than the average Blue Book. Your Lordships will find a pleasing reference to your forebears in paragraph 113. It reads: As far as the handling of inherited property and substantial estates goes, we have had it pointed out to us that among the caviare-eating, Ferrari-buying minority the tendency of the rich young to squander away their money is as great as it ever was; and that the property laws of the 19th century, how-eves useless for nine-tenths of the population, did at least do something to stop penniless noblemen roaming the streets at the age of 25. Another passage which I particularly enjoyed is on page 54 of the Majority Report:— The argument, in fact, could almost be put the other way round: too many young girls many the boy they chose when they were fifteen, having had no other experience of the male personality at all. We should guess that as many marriages fail through too limited experience of people generally, as through too limited experience of the particular intended. It is a case of 'What can she know of Henry, who only Henry knows?' I am sure that my noble relative would wish me to say that she never met me until she was 20.

The first half at least of the Majority Report is written with journalistic flair. Like much journalism it is persuasive, but it is not always cogent and convincing. It bears traces of the advocate rather than the genuine objective inquirer. One finds slipshod sentences like this: Much of the evidence suggests, first, that where parents withhold their consent they do so for reasons that are not always sound. Analyse this sentence, and it quite fails to disclose what is the weight of evidence showing that parents' reasons are sound and what is the weight of evidence showing that they are not sound. It subtly conveys the impression that the latter outweighs the former.

Let us take another example. When the Majority Report is arguing that the need for consent to marry should cease at the 18th birthday, it quotes the evidence of the Divorce Judges thus: 'Young people between the ages of 16 and 18 … tend to oscillate between adulthood and childhood in a bewildering fashion.' When I read that, I took it that the "…" marked the omission of something irrelevant to the argument. But, no! The words omitted actually were "and even older in some cases". So what the Divorce Judges really said was: Young people between the ages of 16 and 18, and even older in some cases, tend to oscillate between adulthood and childhood in a bewildering fashion. That is not nearly so telling an argument for allowing free marriage at 18 as the abridged form in which, for purposes of advocacy, it was presented.

My Lords, if all boys and girls were equally responsible and experienced from the day they left school, we should hardly need a legal age of majority at all; we could take the school-leaving age. But they are not, and all parents know that, and all who teach in schools know it; and a fixed date for full legal responsibility is necessary, not because of the fully responsible ones, but because of the less responsible ones. What we have to determine is at what age the balance becomes acceptable, the balance between the number fully responsible and the number who are not. That balance clearly is shifting with every additional year of age, and shifting in favour of greater responsibility. I have said "responsible", but I ought not just to say "responsible"; I ought to say "responsible and experienced", for experience in this is all-important. If I may illustrate that, someone may be a thoroughly responsible individual, but until he is experienced in handling a boat he cannot safely go out in a boat by himself. That is the distinction between responsibility and experience.

The Majority Report (I am quoting from paragraph 64) says that they received a most impressive amount of evidence that the young are often a great deal more sensible and level-headed in their dealings than many of the older generation. Of course they are; there are plenty of grown-up "stupids" in this world. But in judging the right age for majority we have to look behind that word "often" in the passage I have quoted. We have to have regard also to all the other young people who are not yet so sensible and level-headed, though we may hope that, with increasing experience, they get wiser every year. The Majority Report seems to think that sort of evidence proves more than it really does.

Again, the Majority Report discloses the flaws in its cogency when it says—I am quoting paragraph 122: We are sure that by 19 the vast majority of young people are ready for the full rights and responsibilities of adulthood. At 18 there must, inevitably, be more who are not yet ready—though admittedly only a minority. First of all, my Lords, what right have the signatories of that Report, more than anybody else, to be so sure of what happens by 19? We can all have our personal opinions: we are all equally entitled to them. The National Opinion Poll, which was conducted at the request of the Committee, showed broadly that two-thirds of those between 21 and 24 thought that 21, and not 19 or 18, was the right age for full adult rights, including getting married without needing to ask consent.

Some of your Lordships may say that those were biased witnesses, because they were past the age of 21 already. But the interesting fact is that the survey disclosed that there was practically the same balance of opinion among those between 16 and 20 as there was among those between 21 and 24. Approximately two-thirds of those questioned in the sample survey between the ages of 16 and 20 thought that 21 should continue as the right age for entering into hire-purchase contracts, buying and selling houses, getting married without consent and so on. So the Majority Report is sure about something on which the people who are themselves concerned are not at all sure; and, indeed, by two to one take the opposite view. I have quoted the further words: At 18 there must, inevitably, be more who are not yet ready—though admittedly only a minority. I can find no evidence in the Report to justify that word "admittedly". It is thrown in as a piece of advocacy to weight the argument. My Lords, I do not question the sincerity of the Majority Report; all I am concerned about is that Parliament should realise that the signatories of the Majority Report have not proved their case.

Let me trouble your Lordships with just one more quotation, a slightly longer one. This is from the Majority Report, paragraph 125: If, as we are convinced, the young on the whole react badly to the feeling that they are being 'protected' past the age at which they think they can look after themselves, then lowering the age to a point which still seemed to them too high would not have the desired effect of putting them on their mettle as adults. The resentments and irritations of feeling that responsibility was denied to them would remain. We think that, given responsibility at 18, they would rise to the occasion; but, as with a soufflé, the results of waiting too long might be as disastrous as acting too soon. I can accept that about the soufflé. But as the survey showed that the young on the whole do not feel that, in the words I have just quoted, they are being 'protected' past the age at which they think they can look after themselves, the argument falls to the ground.

My Lords, as I have said, I do not believe that there is absolute sanctity about 21. It is, as the inquiry of the Latey Committee showed, the general legal age of majority throughout the world; except for Russia, Japan, Alaska, Arkansas and Kentucky. None of those have cultures precisely similar to our own, and I would not wish to draw conclusions either way from the experience of other countries; except to mention that a sudden reduction from 21 to 18 would be a sharp and surprising change in relation not only to what has happened in this country before, but to what is the custom throughout most of the rest of the world. We are very well habituated to 21, in England and Wales, at any rate. Boys and girls now look forward to the party they have on their "twenty-first", and I suppose they would come to look forward just the same to their "eighteenth" or their "nineteenth" or, as in Japan, to their "twentieth". But, put in that way, one does see that there is a bit more to tradition than the Majority Report would readily admit.

I say again that we must go back to forming a judgment on where the greatest happiness lies for society as a whole, as composed of all these millions of individuals. Is there any greater cause of unhappiness than self-made unhappy marriage? We know as a fact that the marriage of a boy and a girl who are both under 21 when they get married is three times more likely to end in divorce than is the average marriage. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, quite correctly said that in Scotland one can get married without anybody's consent at the age of 16; but he did not mention that the divorce rate, as a percentage of all those who are divorced, is markedly higher under the age of 25, both for young men and for young women, in Scotland than it is in England. One must take that fact also into account.

I do not think anyone can dispute that ability to marry at the age of 18 without the consent of parents or of the court would increase the number of marriages that end miserably. Those who sired the Majority Report would, I think, argue that this extra tragedy would be outweighed by the greater sense of responsibility and true freedom that a reduction in the age would bestow on a much larger number. I respect the sincerity of their argument. But I think that is intangible and certainly unprovable, whereas the hundreds, probably thousands, of extra tragedies will remain, if we permit marriage without consent at 18.

This being so, I for one cannot go so far as the majority in thinking that it will conduce to greater all-round happiness if the period of out-in-the-world experience after leaving school before one can get married without having to ask anybody's permission, which is now six years—from 15 to 21—should suddenly be reduced with the raising of the school-leaving age and the implementation of the Latey Majority Report to two years—from 16 to 18. In fact, it would be less than two years, because one does not leave school punctually on one's birthday.

I myself should not wish to stand for 21 against all corners. The education of the young is advancing all the time—that is an established fact, at any rate—and I am among those who believe that the responsibility of young men and women, boys and girls, is advancing, too. If the Government were to bring forward legislation to change the age of majority from the present figure of 21 to 20, I for one would back it, and I believe that the Government would have very little difficulty in getting it accepted, at any rate by the general body of public opinion. In this field, where there can be no certainty, the step-by-step approach is purely the path of wisdom. Here, if anywhere, the proof of the pudding is going to be in the eating. A first helping, taking the age down from 21 to 20, should upset nobody; but nobody can be sure that a sudden reduction by three years would be so easily digested. Indeed, we can be fairly sure that it would not.

If someone demurs that Parliament cannot always be legislating afresh about this matter, if public opinion likes the initial reduction and would wish to carry it forward, I should not object to a Bill providing that, after a certain period of test, the age could be lowered further by Order on an Affirmative Resolution of both Houses, so as to avoid the tedium of wholly fresh legislation.

I hope it will be agreed, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, that these are not Party matters, and that in this debate we shall all say just what we think, in the hope that a sufficient consensus may emerge to support agreed legislation. I have not consulted all my noble friends here before making this speech. Many of them may hold different views. I have been thinking aloud. I am sure that we cannot read off the answer to this important question by reference to Party philosophies. I believe that we have got to use our own personal judgments, and in my judgment a reduction to 18 would be over-rash, a standstill at 21 would be over-cautious, and an experimental reduction to 20 would be sensible and acceptable.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, my first duty on behalf of the Government must be to thank the members of the Latey Committee. Conventions are useful things, but sometimes they may obscure the truth, and, whether the Government thought that this Committee had done a good job or not, as your Lordships know, I should equally be thanking them; but I want to make it plain that on this occasion these thanks are very genuine.

I never know whether we are really grateful enough to Committees of this kind. For example, the members of this Committee are all busy people. They were two Queen's Counsel, both Members of another place of different Parties—it is useful to have someone on the Committee who can explain his own Committee's Report in Parliament; a professor of law, since there was a number of legal questions involved; my noble friend Lady Serota, whose work as Chairman of the Children's Committee of the L.C.C. I much admired for many years; Dr. Barbara Gray, Reader in Sociology at Birmingham University and Chairman of the Solihull Juvenile Court, who had therefore seen young people at some of their worst; a clergyman of the established Church, with a large family of his own and great experience of young people; one young person, a youth leader of South Poplar Youth Club; Mrs. Hume, one of the original founders of the Marriage Guidance Council, who I should think has longer experience of everything to do with marriage guidance work than anyone else in the country; an elderly family solicitor, and Miss Katharine Whitehorn, whose articles we all read, who writes under that name but is in fact a married woman with children; and Mr. Justice Latey, a Judge of the Divorce Division, who was Chairman.

I think that my noble friend Lady Summerskill will not object to the fact that, apart from the Chairman, the Committee was composed of five men and five women, because it seemed to me that as half of our young people are women, mothers probably know as much about children and young people generally as fathers do.

The Committee reported in two years. They held 65 meetings, which is rather more than one meeting a fortnight for two years. They saw 81 witnesses and mastered 100 memoranda. When the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, asked where was the evidence of this or that, I can only say that although I myself was fascinated with the evidence and discussed with the Chairman of the Committee whether we should not publish all the evidence, or at least the written memoranda, it would have been so large that I did not think that it was justifiable as a matter of public expense.

I do not think that we treat these Committees well. Naturally, they are not paid. The members are allowed the cost of travel, but though in London they have to take taxis a grateful Government pay only for Underground or bus. They get 10s. for lunch. It is not very easy to get it for that nowadays, although the professor of law told me that they could get into the L.S.E. for lunch at 7s. 6d. It always seems to me, because of the enormous amount of work people on Royal Commissions and Committees do that they are not treated with as much generosity as they might be.

The Report has had a good reception from the Press and from the public as a whole, and particularly because it is written in a more readable style than any Report of this kind that has been published. In relation to another comment by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, about the omission of some words, perhaps he will allow me to remind him that in paragraph 219 the whole passage is set out.

May I now thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for introducing the debate this afternoon? I cannot state the Government's position better than it was stated in another place by my right honourable friend the First Secretary of State, when he said: The Government as a whole find themselves in broad general sympathy with the recommendations of the Latey Committee, including those which were not made unanimously but only by majority vote. But, clearly, it was desirable to get the opinion of the House first …"—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, Commons, col. 956, 20/11/67.] That is why both Houses are debating the matter. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, that this should not be a Party political question. I am not asking any of my noble friends to express a view in favour of the Report because they support the Government. It ought not to be a matter of that kind. The Government want to know what everybody's views are before coming to a final conclusion. I was glad to see that in another place Mr. Hogg, from the Opposition Front Bench, said that his Party as a Party had no views on the Report.

In any Bill which the Government might introduce, certain things would be excluded. First, the question of the age of voting was excluded from the Committee's terms of reference because, by agreement between the political Parties, as your Lordships know, that is the subject matter of a Speaker's Conference, which is considering it at the moment. Secondly, the question of juries has been considered by the Committee on Juries, over which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, presided, and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will in due course be introducing a Bill to deal with juries. No doubt that will be the appropriate place for dealing with the minimum age of juries.

Then the Committee did not concern themselves with the small section of youth which is criminal, and they have not sought to alter in any way the criminal law. So far as adoption is concerned, I think my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is considering the whole law of adoption. In any case, the Adoption Act applies to Scotland. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, will be able to tell us which matters affecting the Home Office would be likely to be included in legislation. I am sorry to have to say to my noble friend Lord Brockway that I do not think a Bill would cover the question of boy entrants. That is simply because under the Armed Forces Act last year the Secretary of State for Defence has power to change the whole of the conditions about entry by Regulations; therefore there would be no point in asking Parliament to give the Government power to do something which they already have power to do.

My Lords, we are all, I suppose, to some extent affected by our personal experiences in a field of this sort. I must confess that I was affected some nine years ago when, at Mr. Gaitskell's request, I became chairman of a group which was to express views on certain questions affecting youth—education or non-education, apprenticeships, the youth service and matters of that kind. Lady Longford, I remember, was a member of that committee. I was quite ignorant—well, I knew no more about young people than anybody else, and a good deal less than some. The others did. The report itself does not matter, because, as I say, it dealt with those other subjects. But that task left me feeling two or three things. At that time, what one might call our youth were those between school-leaving age and 21. There were 4 million of them. We knew that, owing to the bulge in the post-war birth-rate, within three to five years there would be another 1 million, giving a total of 5 million, and we should have more teenagers in the population than at any time since the First World War.

The next thing that struck me was that one would not gather their character from reading the newspapers, because from the only reference to them in the newspapers it would appear that they were a neglected lot. We as a community look after our children, like most European countries. But these teenagers are not children. Of course, political Parties must have regard to adults, because they have votes; but these young people have no votes, so the political Parties were not interested in them. When one comes to think of it, practically nothing is done, or much less is done, for people between school-leaving age and 21 than for any other section of the community. Well-to-do people naturally think of people of this age as being at universities. But 95 per cent. of them are not. Ninety-five per cent. of them are out in the world earning their own living, maybe at something interesting, like a hospital nurse trainee, but more likely at a dead-end job in a factory. A great many of them are living away from home, hardly ever seeing their parents, knowing about money because they earn it, because they have to live on it and because they spend it.

Another point which struck me very much was that, as I say, they are mentioned in the Press only when some of them get into trouble—it was the "Teddy boys" at that time—and when the annual criminal statistics reveal the increasing delinquency of a small fraction of them. One-and-a-half per cent. per year get involved with the police, which is bad, because before the war it was only 1 per cent. But that still leaves the vast majority of young people, who, as a whole, are hard-working, respectable young citizens.

The other matter which surprised me was one to which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor referred, and that is, as he pointed out, that in the old days—and this may have been very sensible—the age of majority depended entirely on one's social class. Most people came of age at 15. The merchant's son came of age when he could count pence and measure cloth. It was only the knight's son who did not come of age until he was 21, and this was entirely because of the weight of the armour. That was so in the 11th century, when armour was heavier than it had ever been or ever became again, and they came to the conclusion that one could not sit on a horse with all this weight of armour and wield a great lance at the same time until one was 21. Then, as Maitland points out, the tendency of English law being always to assimilate the law to that of the upper classes, in about the 17th century the age became 21 for everybody. And the judges, having decided that, sank back exhausted; and nobody has ever thought about it since.

The extraordinary thing is that, even as regards the voting age, nobody has ever thought about it. Of course, until after the First World War it had to be 21, because there was the property qualification—and, indeed, I think for women it was up to 1938. So it had to be 21, because a person could not own property under 21. But the odd thing is that when Parliament abolished the property qualification they never said: "Well, is 21 the right age? Should it be 23? Ought it to be 19, or what?" Nobody considered it.

So to-day, on the one hand, the general law is that you cannot enter into an enforceable contract under 21 unless it is for what a judge thinks are necessaries. You cannot own any real property under 21. If you want to enter into a hire-purchase contract you will have to get somebody to guarantee it. You cannot give a valid receipt for the payment of money. You cannot get a passport. The position about operations is extremely doubtful. There have been cases in which a mother under 21 could not have an anæsthetic because her father or mother could not be found to give consent, or where something cannot be done for the baby because the mother, being under 21, cannot give consent.

On the other hand, Parliament, when it has had to fix an age for doing something responsible, has usually said 18. When there was conscription, you were conscripted at 18. At 18 you pay adult National Insurance rate. When we had capital punishment, at 18 you could be hanged. The Sovereign is considered sufficiently responsible at 18 to act without a Regent. At 18 you can be in sole charge of an aeroplane as a pilot; but unless you are going to be a pilot you cannot enter into an enforceable contract to take flying lessons until you are 21, because that is Common Law. A contract of a young solicitor of means who wants to learn flying is held to be not enforceable because it is not necessary for him to be able to fly.

My Lords, thinking about all this, it seemed to me that this was not a satisfactory state of affairs, and that there really was a case for a review. What the Committee recommend unanimously, as the House knows—and I doubt whether there is any real difference of opinion about this—is, first of all, that these young people should be able to own property. It seems absurd that a man under 21 who may be earning £15,000 a year as a "pop" singer, with a wife and two children, cannot get a mortgage to buy a family home; he cannot make a will to leave his property to his wife and children; he cannot give a receipt; he cannot be a blood donor; and he cannot bring an action to enforce a legal right without a guardian ad litem. On all these matters the Committee were unanimously in favour of making the age 18. They thought that he should be able to do that at 18, and to get a passport and be a trustee. They do not think that until he is 21 a person should be known, even in law, as an infant—it is really a ridiculous expression—and they recommend that the infancy law, whatever the age limit, should be examined by the Law Commission, because it is in fact full of anomalies.

Another recommendation on which I should have thought we could all agree is the need for marriage guidance. I myself have little doubt that there is as much need for marriage guidance before marriage as there is if things go wrong during marriage. I have no objection at all to young people being taught about the physical side of married life. But what they need even more, perhaps, is to know the emotional content of married life and its economic aspects.

Apart from the 44 unanimous recommendations, three on which the Committee were divided were contract, ward-ships and marriage. The Committee themselves found that this generation is a good deal misrepresented by the Press, even to-day. It is true, I think, of all of us that if we pass a long-haired, peculiarly dressed young man in the street we notice him; if we pass nine short-haired young men, all conventionally dressed, we do not see them at all. It is very much the same, I notice, with television. Some programmes—Mr. Frost's, maybe, in particular—seem to specialise in audiences of young people. But it is perhaps unfortunate, though one can understand its television value, that so high a proportion of the young people he gets on his programme seem to have very long hair and beards. I am not myself put off by long hair and beards, though some are. Of course, Nineveh is a long time ago now, when there were complaints that the young were not what they had been; and the Romans, when they complained that the young were not what they had been, particularly complained of this very effeminate habit of young people being clean-shaven, instead of having proper beards and hair like a manly Roman. But, of course, times change.

As to contracts, I think that what the Committee felt was, first, that generally speaking the volume of evidence from people who could not be regarded as "cranks" or Left-Wing, or anything of that sort was that the age of majority as a whole should be reduced; or they took the view that young people to-day are much more responsible than they were when they were less well educated. The Justices Clerks' Society said: It would be more realistic and more consistent with modern thought if the age of majority for all purposes were reduced to 18 years Justices' clerks, of course, see rather the worst of some young people. The Church of England Board for Social Responsibility, the National Association of Probation Officers, and the teachers seem to be emphatic that those now leaving secondary schools are much the best of those who have ever left them. When one thinks of this, it is not surprising. Not only are a larger proportion going on to university education, but education itself in the schools is undoubtedly better. I think that any parent who has tried to help a 16-year old with his homework realises that he soon gets far beyond the point where we ever got to at school at all. In relation to contracts they point out that, after all, 95 per cent. of young people, or many of them, may be living at home, but there are a great many who are out in the world.

One witness who runs a large secretarial agency, and has been responsible since 1948 for placing more than a quarter of a million young people, mainly young women, in office employment in this country and abroad, observed: There is a new type of employee now emerging who shows every sign of having greater capacity than young people have previously had and is being assigned to increasingly important and responsible secretarial and office positions. It appears unreasonable that this type of responsibility should be given, coupled with independence of decision and display of personal capacity, unless they are in turn given the responsibility that goes with majority. As they earn their own living and regulate their own lives, they should possess contractual capacity and be able to enter into leases to own property and for the power of disposing of property without reference to an older person. The failure to give this responsibility breeds in them the sense of discontent, a feeling that in some way or other society distrusts them. All through the Report, in response to evidence given by the British Medical Association and others, the Committee stress the harm which may be done to those who are capable of taking responsibility but are denied it. In reference to one observation of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, I can understand that it is possible to take the view that if the large majority are capable of taking responsibility at 18, but some are not, we ought to protect those who are not. But this is a view which makes no allowance at all for the harm which we are doing to the majority by denying them a responsibility for which they are fit.

So far as wardship is concerned, this is a matter of which the Judges, particularly those in the Chancery Division, have had so much more experience than anybody else. Their general view, I think, was that up to the age of 18 trying to stop illicit unions and so forth does more good than harm; over 18 it does more harm than good. The Chancery Judges, not notoriously Left-Wing, said, in paragraph 77: Any legal system must lay down some age at which people who are not mentally defective are free to live their own lives at their own risk free, for instance, to associate with whom they please, to live where they please, and, subject to the sanctions of the criminal law, to live how they please. Whatever age is fixed there will inevitably he numbers of people over the age whom many of their fellow citizens will consider to be unfit to enjoy such freedom. The law must, however, choose the age which accords best with the needs of the great majority. Moreover, the age which is appropriate to the conditions obtaining at one period may not be fitted to the conditions obtaining at another … we think that 18 should be substituted for 21 as the age at which a marriage can be contracted without consent and the wardship jurisdiction end. These are, after all, men who have had very big experience of practical problems in this field.

That brings me, lastly, to the question of the age of marriage without consent. Two things have been said to which I desire shortly to reply. First of all, it is said that other countries have not done this. This is quite true, though in Scotland, of course, for generations young people have been free to marry from 16, and the divorce rate. I thought—I must check this point—after five years was just the same in England as it is in Scotland. I say "after five years" because there is a difference between the two countries. In Scotland you can get a divorce at once; in England you cannot do so, without the leave of the court, within the first three years of marriage.


My Lords, if I might be allowed to interrupt the noble and learned Lord, may I say, for the purposes of reference, that I was quoting paragraph 577, where it is said: … in Scotland, where parental consent to marriage is wholly dispensed with, the young divorce rate is markedly higher than it has been in England. In 1964, for example, 8.7 per cent. of male and 15.7 per cent. of female divorces in Scotland took place at under 25 years of age—compared with the corresponding English figures of 3.4 per cent. and 10.4 per cent. respectively.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord. It is taking a particular age limit, of 25, and I will certainly check that. But this is a problem which is causing a great deal of interest in many countries at the same time, and it is indeed quite interesting.

As the House knows, last week I was in Holland. The two things which appeared to be of most interest to people in the Netherlands were, first of all, the dispute which is going on owing to the fact that once Father Christmas has arrived the shops stay open on certain nights in the week. Monday night is one, and on Monday there is a great difficulty. It is no good asking anyone out to dinner on a Monday, I gather, because they do not come, since everybody sits glued to the television for the latest instalment of The Forsyte Saga. Of course, most of them speak English, but in any case there are Dutch sub-titles. But this is all the rage at the moment.

The other thing of interest to people in the Netherlands is the age of majority. I think I am right in saying that under Dutch law, although in general the age of majority is 21, if you get married earlier than 21 you become of full age the moment you get married. But they are a little disturbed at the number of Dutch young people who are going to Gretna Green to get married because otherwise they cannot get married if their parents do not agree.

Everybody would agree—and nobody more so than this Committee, as they say repeatedly—first, that marriage is the most serious event in our lives, and, secondly, that they are against people getting married young and they do not want to facilitate that. It is true that the failure rate for those who marry under 21 is higher than it is for those who marry later, and I do not think anyone wants to encourage young marriages. But we have to be realistic about this matter. I have not checked to-day's figure, but I remember that nine years ago the truth was (and I had no idea of it) that one woman in every four was married by the time she was 19. This was under the law as it then was, and is. We shall not stop early marriage.

We all know it is the fact that the age of puberty has fallen by five months every ten years for the last hundred years, both for girls and boys. It used to be very much later, but it is now 13, and I think it is only a question of time before it is 12. What I did not know, but what the evidence of the British Medical Association seems to show, is that there is at least a body of evidence which shows that earlier emotional and intellectual development goes with earlier physical development. They have given the same mental tests to some who have developed physically early and to others who have not developed physically so early, and the mental tests were done better by those who had developed physically earlier. Therefore, there would seem to be a good deal of reason to suppose that not only is this generation older physically earlier, but also older emotionally and intellectually.

The question is not, do we want people to marry younger? Many of them will anyhow, but many of them will not. For instance, the university students will not do so because they cannot. They are not out in the world and working; they are living on grants and what their parents give them. They cannot afford to marry; and in any event they want technical qualifications, and they are very wise not to marry. On the other hand, the 95 per cent. who are in "dead-end" jobs and in factories will want to marry young, and we shall not be able to stop them.

The only question, this being the state of things, is: do we do more harm or good by saying "After the age of 18 it is your responsibility", or by enabling parents to refuse their consent? I think the general view of the Committee is that if the relationships between the children and the parents are all right, all will be well. One is really catering only for the cases where these relationships are bad. I think that in the majority of cases where parents refuse their consent and the children go to magistrates the magistrates find that the parents have been unreasonable in refusing. Look at the bitterness this causes between parents and children. I know that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, has the most complete confidence in parents: he thinks that parents always know best. Frankly, I do not. I think it is difficult for the individual to tell whether a particular person is the right one for him to marry, but if people do not know themselves I do not see how anyone can advise them. If they want to ask somebody I should advise a young person to ask a teacher, or somebody who knows them very well. Parents are too emotionally involved.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble and learned Lord? Would he not consider that in England there are millions and millions of happy homes, far more than the discontented and unhappy ones, and that therefore the children of these happy homes are in an advantageous position? He is referring to the unhappy homes, as I understand it.


My Lords, I would entirely agree. I am very glad to say that of course in the vast majority of cases parents and children have perfectly happy relationships and they decide these things among themselves. In the vast majority of marriages which now take place under the age of 21 the parent agrees; the vast majority of these marriages are consensual and everything is all right. I was pointing out that if we alter the law we shall be affecting only those cases—and there are not many, I agree—in which there are differences between parents and children which they have been unable to resolve.

As between parents and children, I would point out that while I agree with the Committee in thinking that marriage is the most important thing in life, a mistake can be made either way. It can be made by marrying somebody whom it would have been wiser not to marry, or by drifting apart because of an inability to marry somebody who would have been the right person. It is not the parents who will suffer from the mistake. If the parents wrongly stop two people who are thoroughly suitable for marriage and as a result one of them drifts away and they never find one another again, it is not the parents who will suffer, it is the young people who will suffer for the rest of their lives. That is one of the reasons why it seems to me that, if we are right in thinking that from the age of 18, with the earlier development and the increased education which our young people now have as compared with fifty years ago, on the whole we should do more good by trusting them as responsible young citizens than by denying them a responsibility which they are fit to take.

I did not mean to speak for so long, and I apologise for detaining your Lordships. We shall wait with great interest to hear what the House says. The Report has had a good Press. With regard to polls, it would be interesting to see the result of a poll taken after a little time. There was a small pressure group on abortion, but there was relatively little discussion when my noble friend Lord Silkin introduced his first Bill. But the fact of the Bill and the discussion in this House led to arguments, newspaper articles and television programmes. Whereas previously everybody—and particularly the Members of another place—all thought there would be an enormously strong body of opinion against altering the law on abortion, by the time your Lordships' House had discussed it and it had been discussed in the Press and on television, the Members of another place suddenly woke up to find that 70 per cent. of the people were in favour of a more liberal abortion law.

Whether or not there was a public demand for this change in the age of majority before, I think there is no doubt that since the publication of this most readable Report the general opinion seems to be that its recommendations ought to be carried out. The Government will only decide after they have considered what has been said, both in another place and in your Lordships' House.


My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor sits down, may I just correct one point on which I think he was labouring under a misapprehension? I do not think that the gentlemen in Whitehall—by which I mean the parents—are right in deciding their children's fate up to all ages; I ant only suggesting that when it is a matter of young people in their teenages, Mum and Dad perhaps stilt know best.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, it fell to my lot to authorise and to sign the evidence submitted to the Latey Committee on behalf of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility. I should first like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for having introduced this subject in a very relaxed manner—and perhaps relaxation is a good thing for our House, as well as others, in these exciting days.

I should also like to express my gratitude to the Latey Committee for a clear, readable, humane, human, and even humorous, Report. But I should particularly wish to associate in these thanks those who signed the Minority Report, because I feel that they have contributed to the possibility of clear thinking on this matter much more by crystallising out their objections than they would have done had they succeeded merely in obtaining a few compromises in the Majority Report, to bring it into line with what they felt they could accept. For that reason I am glad also that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, has elaborated the arguments which they raise in the Minority Report, in so far as that Report differs from the Majority Report. And although in my main contention I shall find myself differing from the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, I must say that I do so with very great diffidence and hesitation. It is not often that I want to do so.

The main point, or at least the point on which I feel it is right for me to say a few things this afternoon, is the question of the age at which parental permission for marriage is required. I would begin by saying that gradualness is inevitable in all matters of age. Although certain anniversaries may be marked by certain ceremonies and celebrations, we all know perfectly well that the day after one of these we do not feel any different from how we felt the day before, although if we look back over our lives we may see certain milestones which did represent some real change in our abilities or feelings and our relationships to our family. But I agree entirely with what has been said this afternoon, that, whatever age is taken for any of these legal abilities or disabilities, it will often be wrong so far as it is applied to any one particular person. But the law, of course, has to provide for the nation as a whole, and we have to look at the whole picture and then make that kind of rough generalisation which will provide, we hope, the greatest happiness, not only for those individuals but for those individuals as members of a society.

The evidence which the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility presented to the Latey Committee was strongly in favour of reducing the age for marriage consent from 21 to 18. I notice we are listed in the Report as one of those bodies not normally likely to favour rapid change, or some such expression: we are put in with the Justices Clerk's Association. I do not always favour rapid change. I could not follow all my episcopal brethren into the avant garde paths into which they were led recently by the noble Earl, Lord Arran. But in this matter I feel quite clear in my own mind that I want to identify myself with the evidence which we gave and which has been accepted almost verbatim (if that is not too strong an expression to use) in the Latey Report.

The reason why I think we were able to give some evidence which was of value to the Committee, as they have been kind enough to say, was because we had an organisation that was in touch with this problem at the coalface, so to speak. We had all over the country, in our various dioceses, social workers, whom we used to describe as moral welfare workers, and together they touch something like 25,000 cases, or are in touch with that number at any one time; so there is a fairly wide spread in the form of actual human contact with people concerned in these problems. I have to admit that most of these are cases in which illegitimate pregnancies are involved, but although we may regret to have to say so, I am sure it is a fact that a large number of very early marriages are marriages in which that is a factor. So the evidence that comes from the field of social work dealing with these problems is, I think, evidence that is strictly relevant to the problems we are considering. We are also fortunate in this particular department of the Church in having as an officer a lady who was an experienced children's officer, who happens also to be highly qualified in academic law, and I think it is fair for me to say that her contribution to our evidence was a very important one.

My Lords, I have come to the conclusion that the real evidence suggests that the parental veto, if we may use that "shorthand" expression, is simply not working. In the first place, quite clearly, in an enormous number of cases it is not exercised at all. Forty per cent. of the brides who were married in the year 1965 were under 21, and I worked it out that that means that permission to marry was given in something like 150,000 cases. If permission is given in any case to a very large number, obviously we have to concentrate our attention on those cases where it was not given or where it is not likely to be given. Here our Church of England social workers were asked to produce concrete evidence as to their experience about how this question of parental consent really worked, and they submitted no fewer than 215 short case-histories where they knew for certain that parental consent had been refused and where a difficult personal and psychological problem had resulted. It would be quite inappropriate to weary the House with any number of these, but I have just marked two, almost at random, and if your Lordships will bear with me I will read them.

In one case the girl co-habited with a young man by whom she had two children. She has now asked that the latter may be taken into care by the local authority. It is alleged that she wishes to form another liaison and feels insecure as a result of the fact that permission to marry was withheld. Here is another case. A young man of 20 years was refused permission to marry by his parents, who did not know that his fiancée was pregnant. He and the girl concerned moved to another area where they live with the child of the union as husband and wife until the boy reaches the age of 21, when the couple intend to marry. I have here in these papers about 30 or 40 similar cases, and the general picture is that when permission is not given the young people, although not married, frequently live together, although some of them wait in sulky petulance for the day when consent will no longer be necessary.

The noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack said that in most of the cases that were brought to them permission to marry was given by magistrates. I have a little evidence of that. In the particular cases about which I have information, there were 77 out of the 215 who in fact appealed to the magistrates, and of those 77 applications 54 were granted. That suggests, as the noble and learned Lord suggested, that when these cases are looked at objectively it appears that refusal, when it is given—if you can give refusal—is often not based on a really wise and complete picture of the situation.

In supporting the reduction of the age from 21 to 18, I should not like to put so much stress on the so-called early maturity of young people, particularly the physical maturity. I find it extremely difficult to understand all this. What I do know for certain is that when I was a theological student, more than forty years ago, having lectures on the psychology of adolescence, I was taught that girls matured approximately at 12 and boys at approximately 14. I was glad to see in this Report precisely the same ages as the ages used in Roman law. It seems to me that if those two ages survived without alteration from the first to the twentieth century, it is rather unlikely that in the few years since there has been such a radical change as many people suggest, although I am not denying the serious medical evidence that can be produced for minor changes. But even if there are minor changes, we still have to face the fact that in any circumstances, in any social system that we can imagine in this country, there will always be a considerable gap between arriving at the age of puberty and the setting up of married life.

If we were in some other parts of the world this might not be so. One might be in some kind of quite remote society, where people live together in clans or tribes and have multi-storeyed families; where marriage at an early age can, and indeed does, take place, and everybody, the young couple and their children, are in fact absorbed into something much larger than a family in the sense that we normally understand it. But there will always be the gap, and I should not like to base the claim for a reduction of the age on this particular matter. Rather would I put the stress on a completely changed social pattern, by which I especially mean that the young people are surrounded with a much wider world than anything that we even remember in our childhood or youth.

I found myself thinking about the great novel Adam Bede. Noble Lords will recall that the whole of that great story turns on the birth of one illegitimate baby, and the storm and stress that surrounded Betty as a result of her adventure with Arthur Donnithorne. The point is that in the rather confined, rural Victorian setting, this was an event around which a whole novel could easily be built. When we read that in a recent year there were 25.000 illegitimate births to women under the age of 21—I think I have the figures correctly—it shows that any arguments based on that kind of world are just out of date.

We notice, too, that most other forms—I think I can say "all other forms"—of family protection cease at the age of 16. It is well known that at the age of 16 young people can leave home if they want to do so, and that their parents can turn them out if they want to do so. When in fact they do leave home, or are turned out, and somehow or other they struggle on for two or three years and then want to get married, it seems quite artificial that they have to resurrect parental authority and go back to the father and mother who either turned them out or upon whom they turned their backs, in order to have a decision on the whole of their future. This depends on what those four comparatively extraneous persons may think.

There are some minor points to which the Report has paid attention which I think are valuable. Something has come out in the Report that I think few people knew before, that is, that if you were married in church after banns of marriage there was some doubt whether the law of parental consent really applied at all. I thought that most people were married after banns in church. It seems to me a rather serious anomaly and I am glad to see that it is proposed that it should be put right.

I have to face the serious fact, about which I know some of my friends in the Church are particularly anxious, that the rate of divorce among those who are married early is three times the rate over the whole range. That is a sad fact, but it seems to me a quite natural fact. Surely, if you take the whole body of people who have been married you would expect those who are only in the early stages of life to be the ones where instability and change, change of mind and heart, are most likely to appear.

In any case, we have no evidence at all that in a large number of cases if parental consent had been refused things would in fact have been any better: in other words, no exact tie-up can be proved between the divorce rate and the question of parental consent. In fact, if anything the evidence points the other way, because under the present law young people cannot be married without parental consent, and with parental consent we get this heavy divorce rate. So it is an extremely doubtful argument whether much can be done about the divorce rate by keeping the present rule of parental consent as it is.

I want to end by saying a few words about the corollary to all this. With this I am sure all noble Lords will agree. As marriage takes place earlier in any case—I do not think there is anything we can do to stop that, and it may well be that boys and girls or young men and women of 18 can marry without parental consent—it becomes more of a duty upon society to do everything that can be done to prepare this rising generation to take their marriage in a responsible way. I feel that the schools will have to do a good deal more than has been done at the moment.

Up to quite recently I have been a keen supporter of the Marriage Guidance Council. I am bound to say that my confidence in that Council has been much shaken by an article in the September number of their journal, in which they presented in a rather more sober form the same kind of thoughts that were presented to the nation in a colour supplement of the Observer a few weeks ago, which had as its cover picture a bride sitting in a dustbin, and in which the idea was put before the country that marriage as an institution was more or less played out. The title on the cover picture was: "Are we the last married generation?" In any case, I do not feel that the Marriage Guidance Council could possibly do anything very much in relation to the task that has to be done, even on grounds of the scale of the job. I think it is in the schools that the work has to be done, and I do not believe it can be done by any voluntary organisation.

On this point I differ a little from the Report. When the Report comes to deal with the importance of education for marriage, it falls back on what I think is the barren and mechanical idea that in order to do this job we have to employ large numbers of selected, highly-trained, specialist teachers supported by enormous sums of money, and that the task can be performed only in this way. I think that is going to be a very artificial venture. I personally cannot see this nation being supplied with a vast army of professional advisers on marriage for the young. I feel that the ordinary teaching staff will have to take a much broader view of their duties to the community, and that in this much more sophisticated and complicated age they will have to try to get back a little of the spirit of the old village schoolmaster or mistress who felt a total pastoral responsibility for the young people.

In this matter, the teachers can only be expected to reflect the general mind and spirit of the country. That is why publications such as those to which I have referred are so extremely harmful, since they cut at the root of confidence in marriage in society as a whole. Somehow or other we have to arrest that trend, and society has to regain a true and realistic picture of marriage. I am glad that the noble Lord on the other side of the House raised the question as to how many marriages are successful. I believe the answer is something like 93 per cent., and that is the picture which somehow or other we have to pass on to the rising generation.

Behind much thought about marriage is the idea that everything depends on the choice of the partner. I hope that it is not heresy, but I am not at all sure that that is the right way to think of marriage. Marriage is something that is created, and it goes on being created after marriage just as much as it does before marriage. We have to help our young people to enter into the adventure realising, of course, as they will be the first to realise, that at that moment choice is the most vital thing, but that long after the choice and long after the marriage there is a lifelong adventure before them. If we can get this idea widely spread throughout the country and in the rising generation, I think that we can dispense with the sanction of the necessity of legal consent at the age of 18.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin by repeating what other speakers have said in gratitude to the Committee. I feel that it is quite extraordinary that in the period of two years they should have made such a thorough examination of the subject and should have made such comprehensive proposals. When one thinks of other Commissions, which have sat year after year, and which have not produced Reports of this thoroughness within such a restricted time, I think that all of us ought to express our gratitude for the devotion with which members of this Committee have gone about their task.

The other thing I want to do—and I will do so despite the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor—is to pay tribute to the way in which this Report has been produced. Oh, what a relief it was to read! Bright, attractive language, instead of the old political Whitehall jargon which is generally to be found in the Reports of Commissions. The noble Lord criticised certain sentences in this Report. I wish he would remember all the Reports of Commissions over the last ten years which, in the authoritarian language of the past, have expressed platitudes and generalities without any reference to the evidence which has been brought before them. When criticism is made of this Report, I should like to emphasise what was said by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, that a mass of evidence was brought before this Committee which justifies the statements which they have made. I do not know who is responsible for this splendid departure in the writing of official documents. It may be due to the fact that Katharine Whitehorn was a member of the Committee, and many of us read with pleasure her articles; but, whoever it was, they have created a precedent which I hope will be followed in the future.

I should very much like to follow the speeches of other Members and to discuss the broader issues which are raised in this Report. I would only say about those broader issues that I do not believe any of us who are in close contact with the younger generation can have any doubt that there is a quite extraordinary difference between the younger generation of to-day and that generation when we were young. Many of us are grandfathers; some of us, I suppose, grandmothers; we have had experience not only of our own children but now of our grandchildren. I do not know whether it is the experience of others, but I am astonished when I meet the young generation of, say, 19 years of age and face their knowledge, their experience and the way they belong to the world in which they are growing up. One thinks back to one's own youth and of how inexperienced we were at the same age with little of their knowledge and little of the awareness of the world in which we were living.

It is not only a matter of physical maturity: it is their better education. It is the fact that they have a standard of life which was never ours. It is the fact that a far larger proportion of our population goes to the universities. It is the interest—and one has to acknowledge this—in many issues which television has brought into the home. All this makes the younger generation of to-day far more developed than the generation to which we belong. I hope that when we are facing these questions we shall not be satisfied with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, that the age of majority should be reduced only from 21 to 20. If we accept a suggestion of that meagre kind, we shall justifiably be denounced as "squares". A reduction from 21 to 18 would be a far more true representation of the change which is taking place in the generations.

I apologise for having said even so much about the broader issues, because I want to concentrate on one issue which is raised in this Report. I took the initiative some months ago of raising in this House the position of boys of 15 who become committed to service in the Armed Forces until they are 30 years of age. I am glad to see that the Committee have discussed that matter, although the Crown has suggested that it does not come under the definition of "contract". At the present time, a boy of 15 who is recruited into the Armed Forces has one opportunity to leave the Forces before he is 30 years of age. It must be done within three months of his joining. Otherwise, he can seek to leave the Armed Forces only by purchase, which is in all experience long delayed; on compassionate grounds, which it is very difficult to obtain; or as a conscientious objector which is more rare and is also difficult.

The Report says—and this is undoubtedly the fact—that the great majority of the boys of 15 who join the Armed Forces enjoy their career in the Services. Nevertheless, it says that there is a small minority of cases where there may be severe hardship. I make no apology at all for drawing attention to a grievance and for raising a principle which refers to only a small number. In the last resort the civilised values of a society depend upon the rights of the individual, and the rights of even minorities within its population. I think it can be shown in this case not only that there is hardship, but that fundamental elementary principles of liberty are denied in the way in which these boys are treated.

What do the Committee recommend instead of the present release three months after joining, if the boys so desire? They recommend, in the first instance, that the period of three months should be extended to six months. This is undoubtedly right, from two points of view. Three months is too early, first, because no-one can judge within that short period whether the life will prove to be acceptable; and, secondly, three months is too early as it might exaggerate the number of those dissatisfied, because of the new experience of the discipline which they have to meet. Therefore, I hope there will be no doubt that the Government will accept that proposal.

Secondly, there is the proposal that at 18 years of age these boys shall have the right to decide whether to remain in the Armed Forces for another 12 years. They join at 15, reach the age of 18 and it is suggested that then, before they are committed to remaining in the Armed Forces until they are 30, they shall have the opportunity to make a decision. I regard those two proposals as very moderate and very reasonable, and I hope that the Government will adopt them. May I just say; in reply to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, that I am not demanding legislation on this matter. I want to see changes, and I shall be very glad indeed if they can be brought about more rapidly by administrative methods rather than by legislation.

What are the objections of the Ministry of Defence to these very moderate and reasonable proposals? The objections are that recruitment into the Armed Forces and wastage within the Armed Forces have to be calculated in advance for planning. Therefore, when boys of 15 join one must bear the number in mind for future planning. Another objection of the Ministry of Defence is that public funds have been expended in training these boys and should not be lost. I was a member of an all-Party deputation which waited on Mr. Gerry Reynolds, the Minister of Defence for Administration, last May. That deputation had Conservative Members, Labour Members and Liberal Members, and we had a constructive discussion. The Minister gave us an assurance, which has subsequently been confirmed in writing, that a departmental inquiry was then in progress and that he would announce its findings to Parliament within six or eight weeks after the Committee on the Age of Majority had reported. We accepted that, and I think I may say that when I raised this matter earlier I had a sympathetic reply from the Front Bench.

Unfortunately, the Minister has now gone back on the pledge which he gave to that all-Party deputation. I should like to read a letter from him, dated October 5, which he sent to Mr. Eric Lubbock, M.P., who was the convenor of our deputation. It reads as follows: Thank you for your letter of the 18th September, further to my letter of the 5th May in which I said that I hoped to be able to tell the House the outcome of my examination of the problems of the engagement of young Servicemen some six to eight weeks after the Report of the Latey Committee. I had it in mind that if the Report of the Committee came out before the Summer recess"— which it did— I would make a statement soon after Parliament resumed. I am afraid it will not be possible to fulfil my original intention; as the results of the examination which has been carried out, which had to take into account the Committee's recommendations, require further consideration. While I fully appreciate the force of the views which have been expressed upon this subject, I believe that for your part you will appreciate that they give rise to genuine difficulties from the standpoint of the Services, and that it may not be a quick or easy matter to reach a positive decision as to what might be done".


My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that all that the Minister is saying there is that the announcement of his decision cannot be made quite as soon as he had hoped originally?


My Lords, I would not interpret it quite like that. Our deputation saw the Minister in May, and his statement to that deputation was very definite indeed. The Report was published at the end of July or the beginning of August, which means that four months—August, September, October and November—have passed. That is 16 weeks. Now here the Minister is saying that he has been compelled to change his original intention of giving a decision within six weeks, and that it may not be a quick or easy matter to reach a positive decision … I would therefore put a little more harsh interpretation on what he has written than my noble friend from the Front Bench.

My Lords, I want to ask whether it is really conceivable that the conditions in the Services are such that the number of disillusioned young men would be great enough seriously to hamper those Services if these recommendations were accepted—namely, release on application within six months of joining, instead of three, and at least the right to say when you are 18 whether you shall continue in the Service until you are 30 years of age. I just cannot imagine anything more reasonable than those proposals. The Report refers to "a small minority", and that is very true. The number of boy recruits last year, 1966, was 12,000. The number of known cases of those who have wished to withdraw and who have made their complaints to Members of Parliament and the National Council for Civil Liberties is about 100. I say "about 100"; no doubt the real number is larger, but it would be insignificant compared with the 12,000 who have joined and who everyone agrees enjoy the life of the Forces and do not want to get out. Yet here is the Ministry of Defence seriously trying to say that the administrative problems of this small minority are such that these recommendations should be objected to.

My Lords, again I make no apology for dealing with only a few individuals. I have in my hand a letter received last week from one of these boys, and I propose to read out some of it to the House. It says: I was beginning to think that perhaps nobody in the 'outside world' is interested in our problem. Your council"— that is, the National Council for Civil Liberties— provides a relief for me because if I don't inform somebody of my predicament I'm afraid I will be on the verge of a breakdown. I am very near to it now incidentally. I joined the Royal Navy in 1964 … So now I have been in three years (my age is 18 years now) … The reason why I have stayed in up to now is because of my father's behalf. He was terribly proud of his only son joining up in the Royal Navy. I have never really liked the life, and the past eighteen months have just gone from bad to worse. So acute is my depression that I recently went on a long weekend to my home with the full intention of not returning to the ship, and deserting. On the night I was supposed to return I was that depressed with my life that I felt I just could no go on living so I picked up a razor blade and slashed both my wrists … After seeing a civilian psychiatrist and spending a week in the hospital, a medical escort came to collect me and take me to "— and then there is the name of the ship. I am now back on board. I am still in a state of deep depression and I am afraid if I am not released from the R.N. soon I will desert. In the civilian hospital I was treated like a human being, but when I arrived at"— so and so— I was treated as an animal … The 'doctor' on board treated me for depression and my interview with him lasted no more than three minutes … Surely this is not the state for an 18 year old to be in … I have been denied all the rights of a young person in civilian life. The writer of that letter is obviously in a neurotic condition, and one does not necessarily accept all the charges he makes, but the very fact that he is in that condition, which is typical of some others, and cannot leave the Forces which he agreed to join at 15 years of age, emphasises the point which I have made.

My Lords, I conclude by saying that surely the human considerations should be decisive in this matter. No one of us can justify the commitment by a boy of 15 of his life until he is 30. Sometimes his decision is made as a relief to his then conditions—the discipline in an orphanage or an unhappy home; sometimes it is made under the pressure of a parent. In any case, it cannot be said that he is mature enough to decide to what end he binds himself during all years of his young manhood. Circumstances of marriage may alter his course; he may wish to go to a university, to become a teacher or a doctor. How many of us had planned our future life at 15—where we were going, what we were going to do? How many of us, even when we did plan, in fact lived the life of our earliest expectations? It is impossible to defend this irretrievable commitment of boys at 15. The Committee remark in their Report: In earlier days press-ganging and flogging round the Fleet were thought appropriate. But society evolves. It does, my Lords. Physical imposition has gone, but we still have this imposition, which is a denial of all our conceptions of personal liberty. My Lords, I urge that it is time that it went, too.

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to address your Lordships' House I should like to pay my tribute to the Latey Committee for the Report they have submitted, and I should also like to pay my tribute to the noble and charming Baroness, Lady Serota, who was a member of that Committee. When she has addressed your Lordships she has done so with the greatest of humility and with a great deal of warmth and charm. I think she brightens our deliberations here and that she is a great acquisition to your Lordships' House. I notice that she is to speak later and I hope she will let me off lightly with what I have said. I know that she will disagree with everything I am going to say, and so I thought I should warn your Lordships of what you are about to hear.

The broad picture, as I see it, is that the Government of this country—seeing themselves as a sort of social reforming Government (and I may be wrong, but I think I see the hand of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in this)—have given the Latey Committee Terms of Reference to inquire into the youth of the country whom the Government see as more intelligent than they have ever been, with more money to burn than ever before and coming to physical maturity at an earlier age. The Committee were asked to discover whether it is desirable that people under the age of 21 should now be fully capable of entering into contractual obligations and also into a contract of marriage. The Majority Report is in favour of reducing the age of marriage from 21 to 18, but the Minority Report—which is the one I favour—recommends retaining the present age at 21.

My Lords, there are several reasons why I favour the Minority Report and I should like to give them as they appear to me. First, there has been no popular agitation or demand to reduce the permissible age of marriage to 18. Paragraph 524 of the Report shows the result of various opinion polls. In answer to the question, "Do you consider that 21 is the right age for marriage without parental consent?", 62 per cent. of those in the age group 16 to 20, and 65 per cent. of those in the age group 21 to 24, said "Yes". They were in favour of keeping the majority age at 21.

I read this Report because it is a marvellous Report to read. It is a most interesting document, the sort that one could read at the bedside. But when one looks deeply into it and sees the great number of eminent people, of societies and of associations who have been interviewed, or submitted memoranda, or made statements orally to the Committee (and the number is something like 149, as given in pages 158 to 160 of the Report), one realises that in this great number there is nowhere the voice of any parent speaking. I can understand that it may be difficult to get an association of parents speaking with one voice, but when I look at the people who have been interviewed, I wonder whether a great many of them are not those who have been concerned with people whose lives have gone wrong in some way, or whether they are people who wish to offer opinions about business. For instance, the National Marriage Guidance Council were consulted. I shall not give your Lordships the names of all who were consulted; but, as I say, among them there is not one voice of a parent.

I should like to stress that at the present time there are millions of happy homes in this country, with happy children and a happy association between parent and child. Perhaps it was considered that the parent is too emotionally involved to give an unbiased opinion. But I think the fact that in this Report there is no opinion from any parent is an unfortunate omission. Family life in Great Britain and the United Kingdom is a national asset, and what we are thinking about here is our home life, our marriages and the future of our children. Of course, I am talking about the majority of people in the country with the law as it stands, and not about the minority of people who are unhappy and unstable.

I am the father of three teenage daughters and one son. If I had been asked for my opinion on the proposal to reduce the age of marriage and contractual engagements to 18, I should have been against it. Because children to-day are more intelligent, because they talk more or less the same language as their parents, and the parent-child relationship and confidence are closer than they ever were, I am convinced that class and social consciences throughout the country are getting closer; that we are all getting closer together. I do not want to see any relationship of that sort between the parent and the child destroyed. I think things are extremely happy as they are. As I have said, I have three teenage daughters and a son. It does not worry me in the slightest that some of the boy friends of my daughters have long hair, or that they dress in the clothes of Carnaby Street. This does not appear to be the issue at all. The issue is this: that I am not in favour of pandering to a minority that cannot deny themselves the one or two years necessary—say, the difference between 18 and 20 or 21—to wait for marriage.

In this age of hire-purchase, of cars and of washing machines, things have, in a sense, become too easy for many of us. A little self-denial is not a bad thing. It is certainly not a bad thing in days of financial crisis. What I am concerned about, as the classes of society are growing closer together, is the compatibility of people who want to associate with each other and to make happy marriages. What matters is their compatibility, not the clothes they wear or whether they are teenagers or "pop" fans, or what-have-you. In any case, there is no evidence that the young themselves want any change in the law. The fact that physical maturity now comes earlier than it did, and therefore physical compatibility in marriage is possible at an earlier date, does not sum up to an experience of life to which my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor drew the attention of your Lordships in his speech. I think that what matters in this context is the experience of life, and if there is this close association between parent and child, they are fully capable, more than capable, of giving their children a bit of advice from their own experience.

There is another tendency now, my Lords. It is that as our children are getting more and more intelligent they are tending more and more to stay at school beyond the age of 15, to 16 and 17; and as time progresses I feel that more and more will stay until a greater age. This in itself will reduce the gap between the time when they leave school and get married, say, at 21. I still understand, as the noble and learned Lord and other noble Lords have said, that there is this problem of what to do with children who leave school at 15 and have to wait until 21 to get married. This creates a very difficult situation, but it is more a social situation in which we have to see what we can do. I feel that the children in that age range still have a very close and human relationship—at least the majority of them—with their own parents; and that we are rather inclined (I think the Committee has been rather inclined) to think that children generally between the ages of 15 or 16 up to 21 are rather a problem. This may be so in respect of a minority, but I do not think it applies to the majority.

My Lords, I am not going to say any more. I have covered the points I wanted to make; but it is for these reasons that I should prefer to support the Minority Report, if there is to be eventual legislation, and for the Government to follow the recommendations in the Minority Report as a basis for such legislation.

5.13 p.m.


My Lords, I want to speak on only one aspect of this Report. What I am concerned with, and urgently concerned with, is the proposal to allow the marriage of girls and boys over the age of 18 without parental consent. I use the words "girls and boys" with deliberate intent, for that is what they are. Frankly, my Lords, this seems to me to be an act of unparalleled foolishness. Is it desired and intended to increase the already appalling number of divorces in this country?—for that this will happen is undisputed. The Report makes it unmistakably clear.

The statistics show—and I repeat them again—that marriages between the under 20s are three times more likely to end in divorce than those between older partners. Nor is this surprising. Just because a boy is better educated than he was thirty years ago; just because he may also be more physically mature through better and more suitable nutrition, does this mean that he is emotionally more mature—and nine out of ten marriages are based on emotion—than we were at his age, or more ready for what we have all agreed is the most important step in the life of a man or woman?

Where is the evidence of this new maturity? The Majority Report produces little or none, for the very good reason that there is none. It talks merely of the increasing self-reliance the young feel in conducting their own affairs. Does this include love affairs? And as for physical development, were the young men and women who were bred up in Hitler's stud farms any more mature than any other men and women, except in purely animal capacities? What evidence there is in the matter of emotional maturity seems surely to point in the opposite direction. When one listens to all the mush and slush pumped out from the radio, and samples the romantic twaddle in the paperbacks put out by the publishers, who, presumably, know their market, it would seem that human nature—by which I mean human emotions—have not changed at all in recent years.

These considerations are serious enough, but they are not my primary anxiety. As a good Liberal I should, I suppose, endorse the right of any individual to go to heaven, or to hell, in his own way so long as he or she is not behaving anti-socially—though in this particular case I do not. But what I cannot endorse is the right of a couple, married or unmarried, to bring children into the world when they are little more than children themselves, and with the odds loaded against them of remaining together as parents. The noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack spoke of the rights of the children. I speak of the rights of the children's children.

My Lords, I believe that those of your Lordships who are practised in social work will agree that there is nothing so dreadful as a broken home. I hope that I may have the noble Baroness, Lady Swanborough, with me in this. I speak with some knowledge, because for 20 years I have been Chairman of an organisation called the Children's Country Holidays Fund, and we of the Fund know this evil for what it is. Before the war we used to send London children away for country holidays because their parents could not afford to do so. Today we send them not so often for this reason, but because, quite simply, the child needs a holiday. And why?—because in most cases the child comes from a broken home; because it lacks the affection which only the family can give, and because in consequence it is emotionally disturbed and unhappy.

Admittedly, not all very young couples who get married immediately have babies. Some are wise enough to realise the risk they have taken, and they purposely forgo procreation until they feel more secure financially and emotionally. But I would say that the conventional sequel to marriage is still to have a baby — like having a wedding cake or a honeymoon. Sometimes, of course, this has the effect of binding a couple more closely together, but all too often it has the effect of driving the adolescent father away from the home in search of the freedom and the youthful enjoyments he never fully had, leaving his family cares behind him. And thereafter the same dreary pattern. The boy, fed up with the responsibilities of marriage, nagged by the wife for leaving her alone and "proper choked"—as he would put it—with pram-pushing and helping to change nappies, spends more and more time away from his home, in the evenings particularly, until sooner or later he meets someone else, married or unmarried, with the seemingly inevitable consequence.

My Lords, I am not being cynical or defeatist about these things. In many instances, in most instances, the story is a different one and a happier one. But how many cases have we known of men and women who have married for the second time and for keeps? Could they not have got it right the first time? And would they not, if only they had waited for a few years?

Next there is the point particularly emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, that with the increase in the school age, the time between leaving school and the age for marriage is becoming perilously narrow. In the words of the Majority Report (which, incidentally, is full of felicitious phrases), it will soon be a matter of "from school to the altar." In a few years' time, it is estimated, half the nation's children will remain at school until 17. Is one year really enough in which to change from a schoolboy into a husband? I beg leave to doubt it. To take my own experience—and perhaps others may share it—I left school at 17½, and if I had married all the girls I was in love with at 18, I should have a whole harem to-day. Perhaps I was a late developer: it may be so. But there were, and I venture to think still are, thousands of late developers who—and whose unborn children—need to be protected from themselves.

Now let me take the argument of the Majority Report that the threat of legal sanctions is a knuckle-duster, liable to increase defiance, whereas Good parents know that the way to help their sons and daughters of any age is to hold tight with loose hands. Like riding a horse, I presume. What a noble high-minded sentiment! What sententious poppycock! The truth is that when you get adolescents insanely—and I use the word advisedly—in love, no amount of wise advice based on parental affection and experience is going to make the slightest difference. Have any of your Lordships ever tried it successfully? It is like crying to the moon.

The point of the present law is surely not that it is often had recourse to, but that it is there. It is like the Fleet in being which may never have to fire its guns. To quote the Majority Report again: The knowledge that parental consent is actually required seems to give them a kind of 'long-stop' which they are glad to have available as a safeguard against their own unwisdom. I believe that it prevents a lot of misalliances and unhappiness. How many, it is of course impossible to tell, but we could find out quickly enough if we were so minded, by accepting the Majority Report and seeing what happens.

Personally, I am convinced that the more difficulties put in the way of young people marrying, the less likely they are to do it. And my good parent, as opposed to that of the Majority Report, by which I mean the parent who is concerned with his or her child's happiness and is prepared to incur even his hatred if necessary, can at present at least, like your Lordships, gain time for wiser counsels to prevail and passionate emotions to simmer down. For I fervently believe that in the case of what I would call child marriage, the gentlemen in Whitehall—by which I mean Mum and Dad—really do know best. For those parents who say, "I brought my children up in a decent home and gave them a good education, now let them get on with it", I have nothing but sadness. They have abdicated their responsibilities, and all too often they reap the consequences of their abdication. I see it again and again among my friends, and I am saddened.

Here, if I am not speaking too long, I beg to make a little deviation. Your Lordships may have noticed that I have spoken mostly of boys and not of girls in deploring the Majority recommendations. This has not been by accident. It is because I believe that girls mature emotionally far earlier than boys. Why it should be so I cannot say, but I think that it is generally accepted. Frankly, I would not mind so much if marriage at the age of 18 without consent were made permissible for girls only. Once again one is tempted to quote one's personal experience rather than the views of those innumerable bodies who have given evidence so contradictory that one can prove almost anything one likes by quoting from one and not another. The grandmother I share with my cousin, the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, married at 16. But the point is that our mutual grandfather was 26. My own wife was 17, but I was 27. We were grown-up men, not moon-struck hobbledehoys. We knew what life was about, and if our wives did not, at any rate they knew what they felt and what they wanted, and they were prepared to learn from their husbands.

Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, asked, who wants these changes? Are we to make them in response to a public demand? I know of no such demand. Quite the contrary. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Gridley, a national opinion poll showed that among people of all age groups between 21 and 65, roughly twice the number of those asked were in favour of keeping the age of marriage without parental consent to 21 as those in favour of 18. While, most amazing of all, those young people of between 16 and 24, for whom we are attempting to legislate, when asked their view on this point in another poll, favoured 21 to 18 by two to one. To quote again the words of the Report—and as I have said it is usually impossible to improve upon them: It is hard to see any reason why teenagers should be dragged kicking and screaming into the permissive atmosphere of the 21st century if they have no burning desire to come along. The questions we have to ask ourselves are surely these; and I would humbly and particularly ask the Lords Spiritual to consider them. Do we regard marriage as the hub of a Christian society and the home as the basis on which Christian life should be built? Incidentally, I was just as shocked as the right reverend Prelate by the article in the Observer which suggested that marriage had "had" it. Are we in favour of an increased rate of divorce?—for that is what a reduction from 21 to 18 must inevitably mean. Do we believe that the procreation of children within wedlock, if there is a likelihood that such children will not for long enjoy the blessing of a happy home, is preferable to teenage promiscuity? Lastly, do we believe it to be right to foist upon young people a right and a privilege which they themselves do not want? It is upon the answers to these questions, I suggest, that this particular proposal should be judged.

5.28 p.m.


My Lords, as one who was privileged to serve as a member of the Committee on the Age of Majority, under the distinguished chairmanship of Mr. Justice Latey, it would perhaps be inappropriate for me to comment on the shape, the form, the character or the quality of the Report which your Lordships are debating today. In so far as some of your Lordships have found it readable, and at times enjoyable, I can only sit here and bask in the reflected glory of the able colleagues with whom I served.

But I felt at times during the debate that some noble Lords thought that the language and style in which it was written were perhaps inclined to invalidate some of the recommendations resulting from it. What the Latey Committee had in mind when we took a positive decision to produce a readable Report, was not to enter the market of easy "pop" journalism, but to produce a Report about the everyday things of life which were of deep concern to parents and young people, which they could read, understand and discuss among themselves. I can assure your Lordships that it was far more difficult, even with the skills of a Miss Whitehorn at the disposal of the Committee, to produce a Report of that kind than it would have been to churn out the usual dry, turgid and legalistic departmental committee report on an Inquiry of this kind.

Let me assure the noble Lord, Lord Gridley, straight away that, like him, I am a parent; and I often had the greatest difficulty during the deliberations of the Committee, especially as we met on Monday mornings, after having spent the week-end with young people who were either just in or coming into the period under consideration, in thinking that anything could come ever out of the long and detailed deliberations of the Latey Committee except advice to parents of girls to "lock up their daughters" and to those of sons who still had money or property to "disinherit them as quickly as possible." Perhaps the day on which we met, Mondays, and the location, the Royal Courts of Justice, were deliberately selected to ensure that the Committee did not take too rosy a view of young people to-day! But we genuinely tried as a group to set aside our strong personal reactions to the psychedelic fringe and the more irresponsible elements of young people in our community to-day and look at them as the majority really are and as they see themselves.

I should be less than human if I refrained to-day from making a few comments on some of the remarks that have been made in the course of this debate, but I mainly wish to stress what I see as the two main areas of action and thought which arise from the recommendations of the Latey Committee. One requires legislation, and the second, just as important, if not more so, requires development, with the support and help of the schools and certain voluntary organisations throughout the country. In the field of legislative action there has been general agreement in the debate to-day that any age of majority must represent an arbitrary moment of time at which young people accept and assume the full responsibilities as well as the rights of adult status. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack entertained us with an amusing catalogue of the inconsistencies, sometimes archaic and sometimes almost comic, that arise in any age-related legislation. The one that came as the greatest shock to me when I became a member of the Latey Committee was to learn that any child, from birth, can be a director of a limited company. But this is the outcome of the situation where, at certain ages and at certain stages, society decides in legislative terms what are the legal and social norms of the community in which young people are living and growing up.

Possibly I take an optimistic view of this debate, but there seems to me to be running through most of it general agreement that young people today are physically more mature at an earlier age as compared with previous generations; that they are more intelligent and better educated, having spent a longer period of their lives in full-time education; that at the age of 17 the vast majority of them are economically self-supporting; and that overall and converging together this general group of tendencies is forming a social pattern which makes one—and I think quite rightly—stop to consider whether the existing arbitrary age of 21 arrived at for what we now know to be irrelevant, historical and out-dated purposes should stay as it is.

There has been criticism to-day that we should attempt, anticipate, or even consider, any change at all, in that there has been no general demand for it. One of the most refreshing things about this Inquiry was that for once, perhaps, we were a little in advance of pressing social needs. Changes in social policy are normally motivated by social needs, often waiting until changing social needs are quite out of control. Certainly there have in the past been glaring examples and perhaps glaring tragedies before society has accepted the need for social change. But if changes in social policy are motivated by changing human needs and are derived from calculations by people, then the Latey Committee genuinely, sincerely, and I hope thoroughly, tried to make some of the necessary calculations on the basis of the existing data in this field. Above all, however, changes in social policy are determined by values and by attitudes.

It is here, I think, that there is some division among those who have spoken in the debate to-day. The majority of the members of the Latey Committee, and the majority of your Lordships who have spoken in this debate to-day, accept the general convergence of the elements making for an increase of maturity among the young as a whole, physical, psychological, economic and educational. Others, like the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, for whose views we all have the greatest respect, seemed to imply that even allowing for this increase in general maturity we should continue to sustain, support and protect the young because of the increasing complexities of life in modern society. It is here that we have to find our balance.

The area which has been discussed most in this debate, because it is one of the greatest concern to us all, is the age of free marriage. Figures have been quoted to show that early marriages are more at risk than those contracted at a later age—and no one would deny these facts. It would be strange, my Lords, if one of Her Majesty's High Court Judges who sits in the Divorce Division had not been continuously and consistently aware of the tragedy and human unhappiness, both for parents and for children, resulting from the incidence of divorce, particularly among the young. The whole of the Latey Committee were unanimously against early marriage, for the very reasons that your Lordships have given. But whether we adults like it or not, early marriage is a fact.

Since the war the continuous trend has been to earlier marriage, and I have no doubt that those noble Lords who have spoken to-day and who are opposed to it—and most of us are—would say: "Do not do anything which would accelerate that change." That, I think, is a legitimate point of view to hold. What the majority of the members of the Committee concluded was that the need for parents to give consent to marriage to those young people under the age of 21 was not effective in holding back this trend. The right reverend Prelate has already quoted the figures. We know that the number of young people who wish to marry, in spite of their parents' objection, and who go to court each year for consent, has remained relatively static over the last ten years at a figure of something like between 500 and 600 cases. So one has to accept, whether one likes it or not, that the majority of parents are accepting the earlier marriage of their children.

No-one here would deny that the really decisive factor that enables parents to influence the lives and wellbeing of their children is the quality of the child/parent relationship; and after long and serious discussion we concluded—and I believe rightly concluded—that it is the quality of this relationship between parent and child, something which can only be built up throughout the child's life from birth onwards, that will decide whether young people listen to their parents' advice or not.

The right to go to law, the sanction of the law, the actual discussion of the case in an open court of law (and if this is to continue I only hope that our recommendations that the proceedings should be held in camera will be carried through), this conflict between a parent and child in a court of law, which many of us have seen in the juvenile courts, where parents have brought their children as being being beyond their control, is one of the most tragic experiences that one can encounter. The majority felt that the use of the existing sanction of the law was not effective and not desirable in the close and intimate relationship between parents and child.

If we are to accept early marriage and if the other recommendations of the majority of the Latey Committee are carried through by the Government, a great deal of legislation will be involved. But, just as important, we have to develop a field of work which is already, I am glad to say, beginning to develop in our schools. This development does not require legislation, but requires public support, social support and also, where voluntary assistance is involved, financial support.

The Crowther and the Newsom Reports have given great impetus to the development of education in personal and social relationships in schools; and it is very pleasing for those of us who are privileged to visit schools from time to time to go in to see the work that is being done by teachers with young people in the field of social studies and to know that the relatively new Certificate of Secondary Education now provides examination papers and courses relating to the field of personal and social relationships. Only some two weeks ago I was privileged to visit a school prize-giving, where for the first time girls were taking "A" level in sociology.

It is the responsibility of schools—I agree here with the right reverend Prelate—to develop education for life. It is the responsibility of the schools to recognise the earlier maturity of the pupils in their care and recognise and accept their growing adult status—something which it is not always easy for teachers to do. And it is also of importance for staff in schools to recognise the changing social situation in which their pupils are growing up.

These are the fields of development which I hope the Government, the Department of Education and Science and teachers' organisations will be encouraging in the future, although a great deal has already begun in this field. I believe that the projects of the Schools Council and the development in some five of our universities of the training of counsellors and the extension of teacher-training courses to include a much wider social content in their training than in the past are all developments we should encourage, in the belief that our task as a society and the task before teachers in schools, is to educate children, as Kathleen Whitehorn put in her own inimitable way, for " life, liberty and the pursuit of married happiness"; and not, I would add, in the pursuit of "hippiness". This is the real issue before adult society to-day, and I hope that possibly after thinking over this debate some of your Lordships may come to agree with the majority view of the Latey Committee and with what I believe to be the majority view of this House.

We have to make our minds up whether we wish to integrate young people into adult society or to segregate them. We are all concerned with the growth of what has been termed the new "youth" culture, where young people are inclined to turn in on themselves and reject the values of our adult society. One element of this rejection occurs, I believe, because adult society has rejected them in the sense that we do not give them the responsibilities, the duties and the rights of full adult citizens at the age of 18, when physically, psychologically, economically and socially they are ready for it.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, at 22, a comparatively tender age in your Lordships' House, I feel reasonably well equipped to consider the age of majority and whether or not it should be lowered from its present position at 21. I am comforted to know that at least the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is not going to spring with horror from his Woolsack at the sight of my beard. I should like to join with other noble Lords who have gone before me in paying tribute to the Latey Committee for the hard work they have put in; and I should like to express gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for introducing a debate on this topic.

At the same time, I must be grateful to the hereditary system. However difficult it may be to defend such a system in contributing to the content of this Chamber, without its existence certainly I should not have the opportunity of speaking in this debate. With the reform of your Lordships' House pending, I recognise with some grief that perhaps I shall not be able to take advantage of this kind of opportunity for much longer.

The Report of the Committee on the Age of Majority landed with a dull thud upon my doormat some months ago. First glance revealed a tome the length of a novel, with a multitude of headings and sub-headings and a wodge of appendices, about ten altogether. It hardly presented the anticipation of "a light and undemanding read". However, once into the thick of it, the text revealed a fascinating inquiry into the age of majority, tempered, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, suggested, with a steady and gentle wit by the reporting Committee. This has already been remarked upon by several noble Lords who have gone before me. We are given one or two examples of this scintillating and flashing wit. We are told of the communication from a London Club, reading in its entirety: Sir, re Age of Majority. Twenty-one is wrong. Fifty is right. Verb sap. Yours faithfully. We learn of the witness who listed his Friday night hobby as "snogging in the bus shelter". We are reminded that an 18-year-old may apply for a licence to pilot a commercial balloon. There is some splendid imagery, too. At one point the actions of wardship are likened to those of a good foundation garment.

Now, my Lords, to a certain extent we are debating on a debate, because although most of the Committee favour lowering the age of majority to 18 in their Report, there is this Minority Report of Mr. Geoffrey Howe and Mr. John Stebbings. The majority loftily declare in their Report that they are Not engaged in a game of tennis with the two dissentients, driving the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility across the net at them as they lob the Free Church Federal Council back. It soon becomes crystal clear that this is just the game they are playing. The result is as brisk a game of tennis as ever I saw—with the various witnesses winging back and forth between players. The Chancery Court Judges, served by the majority as pillars of wisdom, make a bonny set of tennis balls and are returned with vim by Messrs. Howe and Stabbings, who remark: There remain, of course, the Chancery Judges. Few people would instinctively turn to them for advice upon the problems or behaviour of the younger generation. "Thwok, thwok, love fifteen"; and so it goes on. The Official Solicitor survives a hectic set particularly well.

In the Report, my Lords, we have a game of tennis. The question is, who has won? In the Report we have a debate, and the decision is whether to vote "Aye" with the Majority of the Committee, or "No" with Mr. Howe and Mr. Stebbings. One of the arguments of the latter in their plea to retain the age of majority at 21 is that young people themselves do not support any change overwhelmingly. My Lords, I am a young person; so it will not come as a surprise to Mr. Howe or Mr. Stebbings that it is their case that I support. I do not believe that the age of majority should be lowered from 21 to 18. Nor will Mr. Howe and Mr. Stebbings be surprised to hear that all those whom I have asked, at or below my own age group, and from most, though not all, stratas of society, have agreed with me. To a man they say, "Keep the age at 21". Of course, I cannot claim to have executed an exhaustive inquiry, as has been achieved in the Report. Nevertheless, my own quick sally to interview the man in the street seems to uphold the suggestions of the two dissentients.

However, it is not from my own little inquiry that I take my standpoint against lowering the age of majority. The Committee put forward basically two arguments for reducing this age to 18. The first argument claims that the young between 18 and 21 are more responsible and mature than their predecessors; the second that the existing laws governing majority are ineffective and harmful.

As to the first argument, I am not convinced. It is pure conjecture to claim that the young might or might not be more responsible. Personally, I do not believe that there has been much change in either direction. Youth maintains its level of responsibility to meet the demands of the age it lives in. In so much as those demands have increased, then the level of responsibility has risen to meet it. Victorian youth was equipped to meet the demands made upon it by the Victorian Age. Nuclear youth puts up a creditable performance in meeting the demands of a Nuclear Age, but it has become a struggle. The demands on a young person's responsibility are greater now than ever. To increase the burden could be dangerous. I catch a sense of this even from those members of the Committee in favour of lowering the age. In one breath (page 50, paragraph 161) they say: There is an age below which you have to make a child obey you, an age above which it is fruitless to try. This seems to say, "We can't control the little beggars any more; bring down the age". Ah well! in another breath, on page 41, at paragraph 130, they say: But we feel it is essential that the schools should do more. The young, advanced as they are, need far more training in human relations. That point was brought out by the noble Baroness, Lady Serota. They say this as if to console themselves that now that they have been forced to lower the age, then at least an educational programme will lessen the blow. I am all for such a programme right here and right now. When that programme of education bears fruit, then will be the time to lower the age of majority.

Here is another statement which seems rash but nevertheless has been produced by the majority as evidence. It originates from the Marriage Guidance Council: No harm", they say, would result if the age for free marriage came down. On the contrary, much good might follow. This is a wheedling sort of an argument which implies that the dissentients might just as well agree to lower the age for free marriage because such action could not be harmful. Yet Mr. Howe and Mr. Stebbings quote the evidence of a 21-year-old girl, grateful to her parents for saving her from a disastrous teenage match. She says: I shudder each time I think of what might have happened if I had been able to marry that 'monster' when I wanted to. I agree with Mr. Howe and Mr. Stebbings that such as this girl value the veto of their parents, and I agree that parents in their place value the power of the courts behind them. In this respect I believe that lowering the age of free marriage would prove harmful. I do not believe that this girl is alone in her judgment. There are many who would support her.

We come to tackle the whole question of whether legislation to lower the age of majority to 18 would serve the interests of most young people or merely a minority. The Committee expend much effort to laud the good behaviour of most young people. Firmly they denounce the idea that all young 'uns are wrong 'uns. Without slipping back on to the tennis court, I must say that after reading this Report I feel that the well-behaved, responsible sector are quite happy with the present situation and that any move to reduce the age of majority tends, perhaps unintentionally, to favour an unruly, irresponsible sector.


My Lords, would it not occur to the noble Lord that if they were unruly and irresponsible they would not bother about parental control at all?


My Lords, I think the unruly, irresponsible sector tends to be the sector that becomes involved in the cases of wardship in the Chancery Division of the High Court. I think that any lowering of the age and the effect of the wardship law would favour those people over 18 but under 21, who would then be able to get married without the permission of their parents and without there being this long-stop action of the courts behind the parents. I think it would favour those people; but in fact, of course, it would be against their best interests.

Finally, we arrive at the law and everybody seems to be agreed (myself included) that the law needs certain revision. Here I side with Mr. Howe and Mr. Stebbings, because they seem to face up to the question. They suggest changes in the law where the rest of the Committee claim that there is no other way than to cease applying that law above the age of 18. There is an air of retreat about this. To take the question of ward-ship as an example, the dissentients advocate, on the advice of the Official Solicitor: de-warding at an early stage if there is prima facie evidence that wardship proceedings are unsuitable. The Committee, of course, maintain that this is not practicable as proof of unsuitability appears when a case has proceeded too far for retraction. There are problems, and it must be left to the legal bodies to sort them out; but it seems of prime importance somehow to increase the effectiveness of a law which by no means stands on untenable ground. To shirk such a responsibility means retreat. The whole aspect of the Majority Report seems to be one of retreat: legislate before, education afterwards. By all means revise the law so that it becomes more effective; by all means start an education programme to prepare for a lowering in the age of majority at a more appropriate time.

I support the dissentients where they agree with their colleagues over the reduction in age concerning contracts and property. I endorse their wish to preserve some protection in this sphere for those under 21, as set down in their summary of recommendations (paragraph 599, sub-paragraph (5), on page 157). In fact I go all the way with Mr. Howe and Mr. Stebbings, except when they feel that they may be dubbed as "squares"—something of which the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, also seems to be frightened—and they begin to muster such fortitude as they can to face the prospect. I do not join them there at all, and I hope to maintain my reputation as an "absolute swinger" for a year or two to come. I shall be very cross if I am dubbed a "square" for supporting what seems to be the substantial case in this Report.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for being the third speaker from these Benches, which is a politically disproportionate representation, but our contributions at least are not uniform. I should like to say something—but not very much, in view of the gratifyingly large amount of ground already covered and the endorsements already given to the recommendations of the Latey Report—about the main subject of disagreement.

I will take first the question of free marriage. It seems clear that the divorce rate is much higher among those who married when they were under 20: it is three times more than the average, and I think this is regrettable. One might therefore be justified in hoping that people would marry later. However, I see no means of legal restraint suitable for raising the average age of marriage, and certainly not parental consent. I emphatically disagree with the assumption of the Minority Report, and of my noble colleague, Lord Arran, that parents are proper judges in this respect for their children. As the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, said, they are likely to be emotionally too involved.

I should like at this point to read a quotation from an authority not often quoted in your Lordships' House—Freud. In his essay on Narcissism he says this: If we look at the attitude of fond parents towards their children, we cannot but perceive it as a revival and reproduction of their own, long since abandoned narcissism. By that he means self-love, self-concern and so on. They are inclined … to renew in his person"— that is to say, the child— the claims for privileges which were long ago given up by themselves. The child shall have things better than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities which they have recognised as dominating life. … He is to fulfil those dreams and wishes of his parents which they never carried out, to become a great man and a hero in his father's stead or to marry a prince as a tardy compensation to the mother. … Parental love, which is so touching and at bottom so childish, is nothing but parental narcissism born again and, transformed though it be into object love,"— that is to say love of the child— it reveals its former character infallibly. The point about parents is that they are not disinterested. When it comes to a child wishing to marry, they may wish the child to remain at home, or to marry in the same sort of way as they would have liked to marry but did not, or to marry as they did. They may be influenced by considerations of class which are now antiquated. They may consider their child to be immature because in fact they just wish to consider it so, or because they appear to themselves, in retrospect, to have been immature at the same age. They may be right; their conclusion may be more sensible than their child's, but for reasons which are more likely to be the product of their own particular predicament, past and present, than that of their child.

If they are unsuccessful in their attempts to dissuade, the child may marry, no longer certain whether he is doing so for reasons of defiance or reasons of conviction in the validity of his or her choice. If the parents are successful in attempting to dissuade the child, then it is quite probable, as the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, has said, that they will be preventing a marriage which would have been successful.

If the age at which people marry ought to rise, then let the facts of greater risk become more generally known to a generation of younger people who themselves realise their complete responsibility in this field and in other fields, and let the factor of parental consent, which I think is so emotionally confusing an element in the decision, be removed from those between the ages of 16 and 18.

To turn to wardship for a moment, I think it would clearly be absurd to retain this up to the age of 21 if you lower the age of free marriage to 18, simply because in cases where a ward has been refused permission to associate with someone they could turn up before the court married. I think it would also be an absurdity to keep wardship beyond the age of 18 even if the age of free marriage is not reduced. I think it is very difficult to view a child above 18 as being physically controllable. There is a sentence in the Minority Report, in paragraph 582, where it says: Wardship offers the only way of preventing the removal of children from the country". This is fine, and I am sure this is correct up to a certain age; but as a description of what one can do with a child between 18 and 20 it seems to me extremely unrealistic. How do you remove a 20-year old from the country, and if you do, is it not kidnapping? Wardship is very infrequently used for those over 18 and I think it should be reduced to that age.

On the question of contracts, there seems to be a feeling prevalent in certain circles that the change in the age of majority is wanted only by hire-purchase companies. I do not see why hire-purchase companies should not want this change; indeed they would be commercially incompetent if they did not do so. Quite rightly, there would be more business for them, and I say "quite rightly" because I suspect that low wages are very much responsible for the difficulties and failure of young marriages—that is to say, low wages earned by young people, because I think that the inability of those under 21 to buy, for example, household items for their married homes on hire purchase is much more likely a hindrance than a help at a very difficult time. However, it seems to be an assumption that the hire- purchase companies are waiting for the opportunity of this new prey of the gullible and unwitting youths. I suggest that the way to deal with that is that there should be further methods of universal protection for the consumer.

There has been much reference to the fact that in the Gallup Poll commissioned by the Report a majority of those between the ages of 16 and 21—a majority of two to one—did not appear to favour a reduction of the age of majority. I think this was striking. It did not, incidentally, say how many of those who voted had had reason themselves to come up against the particular restrictions. I believe also that the majority of those whose views were taken were living at home. However, a third of them did want change, and of those who wrote individually to members of the Committee a proportion of two to one did want change. In any case, I think a substantial demand, not at all necessarily a majority, is sufficient for us to consider that it would be quite appropriate to change the law. Moreover, the community might very well benefit very much more than it thinks it would by the effect of further integrating into adult society this potentially disruptive age group.

I should like finally to refer to something the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said earlier. It seems to me that responsibility as a moral characteristic will surely only appear when actual responsibilities are given to people. If people between the ages of 18 and 21 are not treated as adults, if they are not trusted to form the associations they choose for themselves, if they are not trusted to own property or make valid contracts, then I do not see how one can expect them to behave as if they were the adults we deny they are and to make the associations, to respect the property and to honour contracts in the way we should like them to do. I feel sure that you do not create an adult by pretending he is a child. I therefore entirely support the view that the age of majority, certainly in the private civic field, possibly in the civil field also, should be reduced to 18

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, I have not been listening to the whole debate and therefore I feel very diffident about intervening even for two minutes, but from what I have heard I cannot resist intervening on one small point. My experience—and I have more experience than some of your Lordships on the subject of bringing up girl children—is that girls have an inevitable predilection for falling in love with glamorous cads, and the parents are the only people who can recognise the caddishness beneath the glamour; and very often after a time the girls are thankful that they have been disentangled by the wisdom of their parents from those particular people who would otherwise prey upon them.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, will be none the less effective for its brevity. I have three regrets with which I must begin this speech. The first is not to have been here to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, or my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor, or all but the last few minutes of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. I apologise for this, but I will repair the damage by making sure that I see what they said in the OFFICIAL REPORT to-morrow. Secondly, I fear that it is unlikely that my speech will contain a quarter of the sparkle, of the style, of the Latey Report, or a half of the originality of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, who introduced at least two entirely novel points into the debate, which is no small achievement towards the end of a discussion which has gone on in both Houses over a fairly long period.

My third regret is that I find it—and I am sure it is right that I should speak purely personally on this matter—quite impossible to be as definite in my opinions either as, for example, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, on the one hand, or the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, on the other hand. I simply cannot see this matter in nearly such terms of black and white as appears to have been the fortune of some other noble Lords who have spoken this evening. But there are a few things about which I do feel fairly certain, and perhaps I could begin with those.

Even before I read the speech of the honourable gentleman the Solicitor General in another place on Monday, I had come to the conclusion that the debate we were having this afternoon was really only half a debate. I do not say that in any way as a rebuke to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, at all, nor do I suggest that the Government should not take note of what we say. But I find the proposition that one can separate the proper age at which a person should undertake full private civil capacity and the age at which he should start undertaking public civic responsibility, the concept that you can divorce those two, to be quite untenable. I know that there may be academic arguments for it, and they are set out in the majority part of the Latey Committee Report. But in practice I should have thought that inevitably the two were completely intertwined together and, therefore, whatever else I may say, I hope that no action on this Committee's Report will be taken by the Government until we also have had a chance to consider the civic responsibility angle. To that extent, I understand, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henley. One can also take the point that if the age of 21 is, as it has now been demonstrated to be, cut loose from its historic origins in the medieval period of armour and knights, nevertheless that does not establish that it is wrong.

Just as a footnote, there is a third field in which this age is, I think, of importance, and one which I know will interest the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, though I am not proposing to tempt him too far. It was mentioned in the Report. It is of course the correct age for the termination of the penal treatment of young offenders. I would suspect that this assumption, over all the field, that 21 is the age of responsibility and of majority, may have had something to do with the choice of that age as the end of the period, for instance, of borstal training, except on rare occasions; and I think that possibly the research that has been done by the Latey Committee may have some reference (although obviously there are a large number of other points involved) in reconsidering the proper ages for the penal treatment of young offenders. It may be that this also involves reconsideration of the borstal system as a whole. But this is not really the time for that. I think, however, that the moment one starts on any of these fields the inquiry tends to spread out and to broaden the more one thinks about it.

Going on with the matters which I think are fairly clear, I would not suppose that the evidence that has been put forward on this subject, either by the Report or, I think, in the speeches in either House, indicate that this subject is one for urgent legislative attention by Government. Indeed, I am not in the least scared of the scorn of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, if I am a little hesitant in making any positive recommendations at all. There are other urgent things for Parliament to do, and there are one or two urgent things, I think, in the Report, quite apart from the main issue. I suspect that all noble Lords will have looked with great disfavour upon the diagnosis of the Infant Relief Act of 1874, and there is probably little in principle to distinguish the Majority's view about what ought to replace it—the code of restitution, which is in paragraph 300 onwards of the Report—and the concept of residual protection for which the Minority are responsible in paragraph 598. I think they are both really on the same general point, that what is needed is adequate protection, and no more, without undue restriction.

I would therefore agree that the Law Commission, as part of its codification of the law of contract, perhaps ought to look at this matter and advise Parliament, as it has done before, upon alternative methods whereby we could achieve something of that nature. I suspect that it would be possible that if we have not by then decided on the age of majority itself, to introduce a reform of the protection afforded to infants, which would be valid whether we decided that the age should remain at 21 or whether it should be reduced to 18, because I think the principle is universal in its application. So that is something, at least, which the Law Commission might, if it has time, be getting on with.

Then again, I was struck by what I do not think has been mentioned in the House this afternoon, the passage in the Report dealing with the consent which has to be given for medical treatment. In paragraph 479 the Report says that the law on this matter is obscure. On the other hand, some hospitals have found practical methods by which the difficulties, which seem to me to be quite real, can be overcome. I hope, perhaps, that for people of 16 and over it may be that the Minister of Health and his Department may be able to produce an administrative solution to this problem; or, if the lawyers advise that this cannot be done without legislation, that one of those remarkably inspired Private Members' Bills might deal with this as its subject matter. But that, I should have thought, would have been agreed by everyone as being a matter for immediate consideration.

Before I heard the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, I had it in mind to say that it would clearly be essential to discuss any decision on the question of boy service in the Armed Forces as soon as the much-awaited Report from the Minister of Defence for Administration appears. But I think that would be a separate matter which ought to be taken on its own merits. The noble Lord's views, and those of the honourable Member for Aberdeenshire, West in another place, will no doubt add to the information and the various impressions that have been given to the Department about what is thought on the matter.

So far as most of the rest of the recommendations are concerned—I think they are really the main ones—they should be dealt with, together with the general consideration of the acceptance or undertaking of civic responsibility, the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, before any action is taken on this Report alone. It is not a matter of rebuke of the Latey Committee, because their terms of reference were fairly strict. But Parliament and the country, I should think, ought not to prescribe its terms of reference in considering this matter.

The National Opinion Poll, about which I wish to express no other opinion myself, at least suggests (and this has been referred to by many noble Lords) that there is not any urgent requirement for a change at this moment. Therefore, I should have thought that there is time for the noble and learned Lord and his colleagues to take note and to consider, quite carefully, whether we have got this right.

I come now to my main point. Perhaps before doing so I ought to say one more thing upon the question of the other two considerations. When the Government are thinking about these matters, as I hope they will, all together—we shall of course have to await the Speaker's Conference on votes at 18—I hope that they will also look again at the Morris Report on the Age for Jury Service where, as I understand it, it was being considered that 21 was likely to be the absolute minimum which would be proper for this service. I do not know what arguments there may be in this civic field which have not been adduced in the Latey Report, but I suspect that although there will be special ones the main issues will boil down to the three that have been so in evidence this afternoon: the maturity, the good sense, and the adequate experience of life of people at whatever age one chooses to consider.

Of the two major fields which are dealt with in the Latey Committee Report (your Lordships may choose, for this purpose, 21 or 18, or any age in between) I suspect that, as so many speakers this afternoon have demonstrated, the age of free marriage is the more important. As everyone has said, marriage is a vital decision and one involving the happiness not only of the couple but also of their children. But if young people are to be free to marry at any age without consent, I doubt whether those people could justifiably say that from this age onward they require any protection in the law of contract which would enable those with whom they contract to be prevented from taking advantage of a minor's contract.

That was very obscure, but the present law of contract is one whereby the minor—or the infant, as he is now called—is able to prevent himself from being sued. It does not prevent him from entering into a contract; it merely gives him protection, if he chooses to use it, against the other person with whom he has contracted. There can be no argument that if a person is old enough to marry without asking anyone, then he is also old enough to contract as well without needing any further protection. Therefore, I would think that the age for free marriage is probably the one which will be conclusive in choosing an age for protection in contract as well.

This seems to be the experience abroad too. Although there has been perhaps a sense of regret that it has not been possible to learn more from experience abroad, what is quite clear from Appendix 7 to the Report is that in France, in Sweden and in a fair number of the United States of America marriage gives full contractual capacity to people even if they are below the ordinary age of majority.

I do not think that wardship is the crux of the matter, though it is an interesting problem. If 18 is to be the age of free marriage, then I would certainly agree that it is quite obvious that ward-ship jurisdiction should cease at that age. But I do not think that the converse is true. There has been no dispute in the Latey Report that there is a useful role for wardship jurisdiction under 18. If the age remains at 21, I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, who suggested that there must be suitable machinery for deciding which are and which are not suitable cases. But I find it difficult wholly to ignore the view of the Official Solicitor, that there are in fact cases, where people are between the age of 18 and 21, where wardship is useful. I therefore venture to suggest that we can find a workable solution at whatever age we fix the age of majority, and if it remains at 21 we shall not be putting the courts into a position where they are inevitably going to be flouted, with their jurisdiction undermined or ignored, and they being in a position where they can impose no useful penalty at all. Therefore, again I do not think that this particular matter is the crux at all. So far as this half of the problem is concerned, it revolves around the age of free marriage.

I remember that when I was sitting on the Committee which eventually produced the Report called, Putting As-sunder, there was a great deal of discussion about what effect upon individual social behaviour was to be derived from the general underlying law. I think that we all agreed that there was a direct connection. If the law in that particular instance was such that it was quite plain that society envisaged a monogamous marriage for the life of the parties, then people were inclined to enter into marriage with that in mind. If the law were such that divorce was so easy as not to be worth troubling about, it might be that they would not marry in quite the same frame of mind. That may or may not be so.

But I believe, with the noble Earl, Lord Arran, that the background effect of the requirement of parents' consent may have been underestimated in this matter. Perhaps it is important to remember that in regard to the 215 cases quoted by the right reverend Prelate as those which went wrong, we shall, of course, never know how many went right. Equally, when the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, interrupted the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, with the suggestion that it was the unruly minority—




—the unruly and irresponsible minority who did not bother about getting their parents' consent who caused the trouble, I expect that is right. But again I do not believe one can dissect the entire youthful population in quite so clear-cut a way. The people whom I should expect to be affected by this were neither those who were so straightforward that they have never thought of "kicking over the traces", nor those who are so unruly and irresponsible that they have never thought of anything else. It is those in between upon whom this sort of thing may, for all I know, have some effect. And if there is a person who is on the fringe of the unruly and irresponsible minority, may it not be that the requirement to take his girl friend home to meet his parents, which he would have to do in many cases, is something which will give him cause to think whether or not she is the right girl? I do not wish to overlabour this, but I would have suspected that this aspect has been very much underestimated and it would affect precisely the people who are capable of being affected by any such thing.

I do not want to go through all the arguments which are set out in the Report one way or the other on this, but I will try to produce one or two new ideas and comment on what has been said. What about this point in regard to the number of people who go to the courts to ask them to give consent to their marriage when their parents have refused? It was just as I came into the Chamber that I think I heard the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor say that in the majority of cases they succeeded, and the right reverend Prelate quoted what I imagine was a local instance where it was a great deal more than the majority.

If one looks at paragraph 571 of the Latey Report and does some subtraction, it will be found that not only are the figures consistent over a long period but the cases where consent was given by the courts, against the parents' opinion, are only a bare majority and there is a very substantial number where, as it appears to me, the courts have upheld the parents. Therefore, I should have thought that, if this is an indication of anything, it looks as though, where there has been the courage to go to the courts, in quite a substantial number of cases the courts, in their wisdom, have agreed with the parents. I find it difficult when we have this small sample—which is all that is available to us—wholly to ignore that indication that the parents' power to say, "Yes" or "No" is apparently a quite useful and not wholly invalid consideration.

I also considered the question of the school-leaving age, which was dealt with by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor earlier in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Serota, emphasised this point so clearly when she said that she went to give prizes to schoolgirls of 18 who had just done their "A" levels. This is not a rare thing now, but I believe that it will become even commoner in the future. I have done little research into this matter, since I have not had the time, but I have spoken to any American I have been able to find anywhere—in fact, I was fortunate in meeting two pleasant young Americans on the train. I asked both whether they came from Kentucky. Unfortunately, neither of them did. One of them did not know anything about Kentucky and had never been there.

But I met one who came from California, and he said that in America now—at any rate, in California—practically everybody stays in education until the age of 18, and then one of two things happens. They either continue in further education, in which case for the most part they do not get married until they are some way through, or finished with that, or (and this, of course, is a generalisation) they do not continue with further education but go into a job, in which case they frequently marry straight away, usually somebody with whom they have been at school. He also said that the divorce rate in California is very high, though, not unnaturally, he did not know what were the figures for those who had married under any given age. If that is the sort of thing we can anticipate happening in this country, are we really wise to suggest that the age when people should be free to marry without consent should be reduced?

There is one thing in the majority Report which I think is enlightening on this aspect. Referring to the comment of the National Union of Teachers, the Report says, at paragraph 156: But if the N.U.T. is right in its view that most students and teachers in colleges think that the need for consent should go on till 21, this surely reflects the fact that seeking the consent of a parent makes a great deal more sense when the parent is still directly concerned with the child's support and welfare than it does when the young person has been out in the world for some time. It must be the ambition of Government, and of all those in Parliament, to see young people better educated, and it seems that that is also their ambition. Ought we to base our consideration of this matter of the age of majority on the wishes and suitability of those who are not going to be further educated, or should we try to tailor it to those who are? t think I should have very little difficulty in answering this problem myself, and I think I should come down in favour of saying that if the National Union of Teachers' views are to be interpreted as the majority have interpreted them, then this is in itself a fairly strong indication, with the educational trends that are going on, that we ought to be very careful indeed about this.

I come to the last thing I want to say, and in this I am only echoing what my noble friend, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, have already said before me. It is quite essential, whatever age for majority we choose, that the education for life in all aspects in the schools should be improved and intensified. I do not know whether it is right, as somebody suggested, that specialist voluntary bodies are unsuitable for this. I rather suspect that we need everybody we can get, whether a voluntary body or a trained teacher; and it is not only the National Marriage Guidance Council who are concerned: there are other bodies concerned. I know that there is one in the diocese of London, a church organisation, which does a substantial amount of lecturing, particularly in the field of sex education.

I agree with all those who have spoken that, whatever we do, the world and its mysteries and complexities need a more general explanation to children in school. And of course in this nuclear age, as the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, has reminded us, it gets more complex every day, so the need becomes greater. I would therefore add my plea to that of other noble Lords who have spoken on this matter, and ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any prospects of being able to do something not only about increasing education in personal relationships, but also about a broad range of useful knowledge for people who will be going out into the world at the end of their schooldays, to equip them not only for personal, but also for contractual and other difficulties into which they may get.

We shall also be very interested to see whether the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, brings the score to six-all, or whether those in favour of the majority are going to win seven-five. But this is a matter for me to leave until the noble Lords speaks in a moment. Meanwhile, I would plead that there is no cogent argument for a general implementation of this Report until we can deal with it in a broader context, except that there are two or three matters which need separate consideration now.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am quite sure that we are very pleased that on the first occasion when we had two noble Brookes on the Front Bench opposite the debate was started at Henley. We are all very much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for giving us the opportunity to debate this very interesting subject. Yesterday we had 18 speakers in a long and, at times, heated debate on the nation's money assets. To-day there have been 12 speakers in a much shorter, very much more peaceful discussion on the nation's most important capital asset—our young people. I think the disparity in the time devoted to these subjects denotes not lesser importance, but greater general agreement on the subject of young people. I think this is underlined by the fact that of the Latey Committee's 52 recommendations, 44 were unanimous and the other eight were carried by a healthy majority of nine to two.

Whatever the differences of opinion about details in the Report, I think it is true that your Lordships have generally heaped encomiums on the Committee's work. But I think my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor deserves a special bouquet for some really inspired picking, because it was he who picked this quite remarkable Committee. Apart from its clinical analysis—what I regard as sound judgments and valuable proposals—it is so studded with gems of terse but vivid expression that it might well become known as the "Racey" Report. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, quite properly appropriated it to himself.

I have one or two favourite gems—and other noble Lords have mentioned them—and one which I think epitomises everything that this Report is about is telling parents The way to help sons and daughters of any age is to hold tight with loose hands. In one phrase it conveys a whole world of meaning, and that is a great art. Then there is the advice to the worried grandmother: The baby was on time, the wedding was late, forget it. Finally there is: Give the couple time to get the moonshine out of their eyes and save up for a few down-payments. I may be wrong in attributing great value to this way of expression, but I must say that I have never found a Report so readable and so very interesting. It is one which deals, in a wholly admirable and enlightened way on the basis of the evidence which the Committee found, with matters of the very greatest importance to the future of this country.

As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor mentioned at the outset of his speech, Her Majesty's Government are seeking your Lordships' views on this Report, and everything which has been said will be given full weight in arriving at our eventual decisions. This is all to the good. This is Parliament, and this is marvellous. But it has a great disadvantage from my point of view, because in winding-up I can say neither "Yea" nor "Nay", but only "Perhaps", and that is never a very happy position. Indeed, I feel almost worse off than the Israelites, because all that they lacked in ancient Egypt was straw. I feel that I am almost completely devoid of clay. I am in still greater difficulty because, to my surprise and somewhat to my astonishment, except for my noble friend Lord Brockway, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, almost everyone apart from the opening speakers has virtually ignored 51 out of the 52 recommendations and concentrated the whole debate on Recommendation (3), which is that the date of free marriage should be 18.

My Lords, I do not want to speak for too long. I hope it will meet your Lordships' convenience, therefore, if I leave until last the only subject your Lordships are interested in and deal, perhaps briefly, but I think quite properly, with the other points that have been raised, some of which do not require legislation and some of which are not dependent on whether the age of free marriage is 18 or not, though they are very valuable reforms. If I might first deal with those other points there was, first of all, the point raised by my noble friend Lord Brockway, on which he spoke with such understanding and feeling. At the time I felt like interrupting my noble friend, but I thought I had better not, in regard to the moving letter from the boy of 18 which he read out. As he said, the boy was in a neurotic condition and, even according to his own account, was near to suicide. I must emphasise that all the cases sent to my honourable friend's Department by the National Council for Civil Liberties have been dealt with, and that if there are compassionate grounds for release from obligation then that can occur at any time. In such a case there is no question of waiting for the age of 18, or for three years after completion of training. Such a boy could be released on compassionate grounds at any time; and certainly the kind of health grounds my noble friend mentioned would unquestionably have been sufficient.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that releases on compassionate grounds are very rare indeed?


No, my Lords, I would not. Last year alone there were no fewer than 8,000 Servicemen released prematurely; and, in addition, 1,000 Servicemen received their release on compassionate grounds. I would not agree that 1,000 cases in a single year constitute a great rarity. These regulations are applied with understanding and compassion.

Finally to my noble friend I would say that when he saw my honourable friend Mr. Reynolds, the Minister of Defence for Administration, in April (I think it was) my honourable friend had no idea whatever what the recommendations of the Latey Committee were going to be on these three points. Their Report was not published in April; he did not know. Of course, as with many other Departments, they had given evidence. All I can say on this issue is that it is a very complex matter. There is no question of any lack of good will by the Government here. My honourable friend the Minister is considering it most closely and urgently, and as soon as he is in a position to make a statement he will do so.

My Lords, I should like to deal now with a series of questions or points which were put to me by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. He mentioned the question of the criminal law, the criminal age. He is quite right: we in the Home Office agree with the Committee's view that there would be no inconsistency in retaining the existing special penal provisions for offenders under 21—borstal, and so on. The Committee were concerned with removing restrictions not needed for young people; but, as I hope the noble Viscount will agree, the special penal provisions are to a large extent for the benefit of young offenders, since they keep them out of prison.


My Lords, I appreciate that point. What I was suggesting to the noble Lord was this. Are there criteria which relate solely to penal codes, methods of penal treatment and remedial treatment which indicate 21 as being a good stopping age for the youthful offender but which are quite different from any of the points that we have been dealing with to-day? Otherwise, I would suggest that 21 may itself be an invalid age.


My Lords, this is a matter for consideration. I should have thought that the present age of majority had a great deal to do with this, as it has with many other things. The matter can be rethought. The point I am trying to make is that a change in the age of majority will not necessarily call for any radical change with regard to the provisions of the criminal law.

The noble Viscount asked me about jury service, which is a matter that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor mentioned. On that point I would merely say that on the recommendations of the Morris Committee—and we hope to bring in legislation to implement the recommendations of the Morris Committee—jury service will be dependent on inclusion in the register of electors, and it would not therefore be practicable to bring down the age limit for jury service unless and until it has been decided that the voting age should be lowered. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, and other speakers have said, we shall have to wait for that until we get the Report of the Speaker's Conference.

My noble and learned friend mentioned, but left to me, the question of adoption, which was referred to by the Latey Committee. As noble Lords will know, the Adoption Act 1958 enables any infant to be adopted, and if the legal connotation of "infant" or "minor" is altered to mean under 18, in accordance with the general recommendations of the Committee, it would follow (the Committee did not deal with this point) that it would cease to be possible to adopt a person aged 18 or over. There are in any case, of course, few adoptions of persons over 18, as adoption is concerned essentially with the care of young children and not with the legal recognition of relationships formed with those who have reached adulthood. But if the Government finally accept the view of the Latey Committee that the age of majority should be 18, then the Government could accept the view that the Adoption Act 1958 should be amended accordingly, at any rate in England and Wales. To forestall the noble Viscount asking me about Scotland, I am hound to say that the Act also applies in Scotland, but it is not yet known whether any amendment would in fact apply to Scotland.

In case I forget to say it every time, perhaps I may say now that almost all these points are dependent on the acceptance or otherwise of the first proposal, that as to the age of majority. If that is accepted—I am not now talking about 18 being the age of free marriage, but about the age of majority—then many other things flow from it, even the question of nationality, for example. If the age of majority were brought down, a consequence would be to bring down the age of majority for the purposes of applications for citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies, and that would again have repercussions on the dependencies. The repercussions are very far-reaching indeed.

The noble Viscount also mentioned wardship and recommendations (14) and (26). In the main, they are the responsibility of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, but my Department agree that it would be very useful, as an interim measure, to enable the Divorce Division to take adoption and guardianship cases, which are recommendations (17) and (18) in the Latey Report.

The noble Viscount raised several points which come under Part VI, the miscellaneous section, of the Latey Committee recommendations: consent to medical treatment, blood donation, passports, and so on. There is not likely to be either controversy or difficulty about any of these recommendations. Those concerned with consent to medical treatment and blood donation would require legislation; those concerned with passports do not require legislation. But domicile at the age of 18 is a recommendation which will stand or fall with the rest of the Report and would require legislation. A change in the rules concerning representation in litigation will also stand or fall with the main part of the Report and could be implemented by Rule. The Committee recommend a minor change in the Friendly Societies Act of 1896 which again would cause no difficulty. It is desirable, if there should be legislation to reduce the age of majority, that the present variations in the moment of attaining an age by Statute and by Common Law, should be rationalised.

My Lords, except for a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Reay, I think that I have dealt with the outside questions. The noble Lord spoke about contracts and the failures of young people in marriage being perhaps largely attributable to the low wages they earn. I do not remember that point being made by any other noble Lord, but I think it an extremely valid and important point, and one which illustrates how misleading statistics can be if the other factors are ignored. I think it has an important bearing.

I come now to the main argument, the one main subject for discussion in which I think all noble Lords who spoke have taken part, and from which it appears that they believe it to be the crucial and all-important issue. I am not going to express an opinion one way or the other about what is most important, but I am a little disappointed—and I think the members of the Latey Committee must feel a little disappointed—that there has been so much concentration on one point when so many other recommendations, quite valuable, in my view, have been ignored—unless it be that they were so manifestly right that nobody thought it necessary to say anything about them. I hope that that may be the case.


My Lords, I sought to say at the beginning of the debate that I favoured all the unanimous recommendations by the Committee; that I hoped action would be taken to refer matters to the Law Commission when that was the course suggested, and I thought it wrong to take up your Lordships' time merely to repeat each of them seriatim and say, "Agreed!".


My Lords, I am glad if to some extent I misunderstood the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, because it enabled him to reaffirm. I am glad that he has given his support to the major part of the Committee's Report. Before I read the Report I had a completely open mind on this issue, because although I had subscribed, as one must, to accepting the fact—I think it is a fact—that to-day's teenagers are physically very much more mature than the generation of thirty or forty years ago, I have held the view that, because in the main they had a different life to the teenagers of thirty or forty years ago, the youngsters of to-day are less emotionally mature, less knowledgeable and experienced inside than we were in my time. But I confess, having very carefully read the Report, that I have changed my mind, and I accept the Report's view that the youngsters of to-day—and the evidence for it in the Report is overwhelming—are both physically and emotionally more mature and that they can accept the responsibility which this Report, if it should be implemented by legislation, would place on them.

So it comes to a question of who is right. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, said, I think, that "Mum and dad really do know best". There were five women members of the Committee. All of them formed part of the majority of nine. So the "Mums" on the Committee spoke with one voice, and they spoke in favour of 8 being the age—




Yes, my Lords, 18. Perhaps 8 in the year 2500. They spoke in favour of 18 being the free marriage age. I think that that is significant.


My Lords, the children themselves said "No". The children themselves, the 16 to 20 group, disagreed with the "mums and dads" about it; and they are the people, after all, who are affected.


My Lords, I almost always agree with the noble Earl, Lord Arran, on almost everything; but in this particular case I can neither agree nor disagree. I have not seen the Gallup Poll. I am going only by the Report. I must say I was a little disturbed by the noble Earl's speech to-day. It is the first time he has disturbed me for a long time. He said that, as a good Liberal, he supported the right of every individual to go to Heaven in his own way, provided he did not behave antisocially. I have always understood that one's chances of Heaven would be affected by anti-social behaviour. It seems extraordinary that the noble Earl should have this sort of divided idea. In one sentence he referred to a statement by the Committee as "noble, high-minded sentiments, pretentious poppycock". He really cannot have it both ways.

My Lords, I am very much impressed by the fact that all the women members of the Committee, who I think would know about teenage sons and daughters—who would know far more, generally speaking, than almost any one of us would know; and particularly these five women—are unanimous about this after considering all the evidence, a great deal of evidence. I think it is most impressive. But I have been most impressed in this debate by the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. This was the speech which I thought was "the clincher". The right reverend Prelate referred to the fact that in a single year permission to marry was given in 150,000 cases. He mentioned also that the Church moral welfare workers have, in their care at any one time, or are in touch with, 25,000 cases, and that most of them are cases of illegitimate pregnancies. If there are 150,000 cases with parental consent and we have so many young marriages which go wrong (I think it is an exaggeration to say "so many": I should say "a higher proportion" of young marriages, for the actual number is not so very high), surely that is evidence that if parental consent is working, it is not working very well.

When we come to the refusal of consent (and this is where I interrupted the noble Lord, Lord Feversham; and I was tempted to interrupt the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, when he was on the same point) I would only say this. The noble Lord, Lord Feversham, said—and I agree—that the majority of young people are all right and they are happy not to get married without parental consent before they are 21—that is fine—but the troublesome ones are the unruly and irresponsible minority. My Lords, if the minority are unruly and irresponsible; if they ask for parental consent and do not get it, they will have a union outside marriage; they will have an irregular relationship because they are irresponsible and because they are unruly. They will not be affected one iota by the fact that parental consent is at 21. They might be affected favourably if parental consent were at 18. The Report said, and I quote it: Hold tight with loose hands". I think this is of tremendous significance.

My Lords, I was very glad to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fever-sham, but it struck me that he was quite passionate in the defence of the parental bond. It seemed so much out of character. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, mentioned that he had married at the age, I think, of 27 and his wife at 17. Obviously, it was unthinkable that the noble Earl—or rather his wife—did not have parental consent, but what rather staggered me was the attitude that, even if in that case Mum did not know, he, Lord Arran, did. It was an extraordinary kind of attitude which then emerged.

The noble Lord, Lord Gridley, favoured 21 because, in the main, there was no popular demand to reduce the age to 18; and there was no parents' evidence—that I think was another point which the noble Lord made. I must agree that these are two significant points. It is a valid point that apparently there is no great demand, but I felt, when the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, spoke and said that he was 22, that the noble Lord is not involved. It does not matter to him, now, whether the age is 21 or 18. He is not involved, and I do not think that we can take quite so much notice of the views of people who are not involved. It is the younger generation who are involved.


My Lords, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, that although I am 22 now, it is a pretty recent occasion when this vexed question of the age of majority was hampering me; and that the gap between my direct contact with the question, if I may say so, is rather smaller than the gap in Lord Stonham's situation.


My Lords, I think that over this we ought to draw a kindly veil. I do not think we should probe any deeper. But it would be fair to say of this debate that we all agree that this is an absolutely first-class and valuable Report. We are all agreed—I think I am right in saying—in supporting the Majority decisions; and that the only decision, the only proposal almost, on which there appears to be a sharp difference of opinion is the one about freedom to marry without parental consent at 18. On this, my summary of the debate is that the speeches have been about 50–50, for and against. But, speaking as one who had an open mind when he read the Report, I am bound to say that the arguments appear to have been all on one side.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, I do not know how far the Government will find what we have said to-day very useful. I am afraid that I feel a little disappointed. I had hoped, as the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, said, that we should have ranged over some of the other aspects of those eight recommendations which are not unanimous. First, I had hoped for some guidance, as it were, on the subject of the running together of the civic field and the recommendations on marriage and contracts. The only person who mentioned that at all was the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, and I am glad to hear that he agrees with me. I feel that you cannot have the one without the other following more or less automatically. I cannot believe that this is accepted by all noble Lords. It was not accepted by the Latey Report, and the only two people who have spoken about it, myself and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, disagreed with them. How is it that we have not heard from anybody else among the dozen or so speakers who have spoken? I think that very disappointing.

I feel the same about the matter of contracts. One or two people to whom I spoke before the debate said the thing that worried them as much as marriage was the question of the protection of young people against entering into unwise contracts. We have heard very little about that to-day. I do not know whether everybody takes the same view as I did, and which I mentioned at the beginning, which is that in Scotland this arrangement has gone on for quite a long time and there appears to be no evidence of pressure to change it to give more protection to young people. Again, I can only suppose that noble Lords agree with me. But in view of the number of noble Lords to whom I talked on this subject before the debate began, I am very surprised that it has not been aired.

I knew, of course, that there would be a great deal of talk about marriage, and I said so when I started the ball rolling; but I did not expect it to be the case that virtually nobody would talk about anything else. Nor did I expect, as I feel is the case, that those people who disagreed with me would get hold of the wrong end of the stick. Noble Lords, like my noble friend Lord Arran, seemed to be talking as if this last resort of parental control through the courts was going to get rid of all the other problems of marriage. I reviewed the whole lot and said these came under the grounds of marrying before your real true education is finished. These are problems which are quite outside the question of whether free marriage should be allowed below 21 or not. They have nothing to do with it. Noble Lords, and particularly my noble friend Lord Arran, talked as if this was one of the main things, and that keeping the age of free marriage at 21 was one of the real safeguards to prevent all these other disasters in marriage from taking place. Really this is nonsense; the two have nothing whatever to do with each other.


My Lords, I did not say anything of the sort. I just said that if you want to increase the divorce rate by three times, then reduce the age from 21 to 18. Of course there are other problems, and very grave problems—there always will be—but they are not the subject of the debate to-day.


My Lords, I still think that my noble friend has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The parental veto is not working, if I may quote the right reverend Prelate, in the completely changed social pattern. That is the best reason for making an alteration, if I may quote the right reverend Prelate again. All other parental controls cease at 16, to quote the right reverend Prelate a third time. If this does not add up to saying the two things are separate, I do not know what does. There it is. We have talked a great deal about marriage, but I do not think we have added anything really valuable to what the Report has to say on this subject.

It remains for me to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, with the proviso that I am disappointed in what they have extracted from this splendid Report. I do not think that our debate has been up to the level of the Report. Looking down my list quickly, I find that the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, asked me at the end of my opening speech where I thought the pressure to make this change had come from. The implication of the question was: Is this not a sinister machination of wicked hire-purchase people, who wish to get hold more quickly of young people who have lots of money? I suggested that this question would be aired during the course of the debate, because I really did not know where the pressure had come from, but nobody said anything about this point.

The only relevant remark was made by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, who said that there does not seem to be any great urgency about this matter. He may be right. I do not know how much business the Government have, although obviously it is an enormous amount. Again, if my middle daughter is right, there is no pressure from the girls. But I should have liked to hear of any urgency. I am sorry that I still cannot answer the noble Lady as to where the pressure arises. I do not think that there are any other questions which have not been already touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, speaking from the Government Front Bench. Therefore it only remains for me to beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.