HL Deb 10 April 1968 vol 291 cc348-52

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House and of the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, may I intervene here to make a Statement on the age of majority?

As soon as Parliamentary time can be found, I hope to introduce legislation to implement most of the recommendations made by the Latey Committee on the Age of Majority, whose Report (Cmnd. 3342) was presented to Parliament in July, 1967.

The Committee considered the law relating to minors in England and Wales and unanimously recommended that most of the present limits on full capacity in civil law should be removed for persons between the ages of 18 and 21, and 9 out of 11 members of the Committee recommended that all such limits should be removed.

Having carefully considered the Committee's proposals as well as the debates in another place on November 20, 1967, and in your Lordships' House on November 22, 1967, the Government have decided that it would be right to reduce the age of majority to 18, and in general they propose to follow the recommendations of the majority of the Committee.

The legislation to be introduced will reduce from 21 to 18 the age at which a person has full powers to enter into a binding contract, to give a valid receipt and to hold and dispose of property. The minimum age for making a will, for acting as a trustee or personal representative, for acquiring an independent domicile and for consenting to giving of blood will also be 18. The need for parental or court consent to the marriage of a person between the ages of 18 and 21 will also be removed; and the powers of the courts to make adoption orders, to award custody of and access to children and to make them wards of court up to the age of 21 will be similarly curtailed. Certain other amendments to the law affecting minors will also be made, including a statutory power for a minor of 16 or over to consent to medical or dental treatment, including blood tests.

Certain of the recommendations of the Report will not be covered by this legislation: any changes in the law of taxation, for example, will have to be considered for a Finance Bill. Moreover, some of the more detailed recommendations are still being studied. The intended legislation will not affect the age of voting, which was outside the Committee's terms of reference and concerning which the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law has recently reported.

Noble Lords may also wish to know that, in accordance with the recommendations of the Latey Committee, I have asked the Law Commission to consider the Committee's proposals for substantive changes in the law of infants' contracts and the structural changes in the courts which they suggested. These two topics fit conveniently into the Commission's first and second programmes.

The Latey Committee's Inquiry was of course confined to England and Wales: in many respects minors in Scotland are already free from the restrictions which apply to young persons under English law. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is however at present considering whether legislation is required to amend the law of Scotland in relation to minors.


My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware that there will be a widespread welcome for that part of his announcement which relates to property matters, and also for his decision to refer to the Law Commission the Latey Committee's proposals regarding the law on infants' contracts? —though the debate in November showed that there was considerable divergence among your Lordships as to the appropriate minimum age for marriage without the consent of the parents or of the court. There are a number of pertinent questions which I suggest might more appropriately be asked when we see the Bill, rather than this afternoon, but may I ask the noble and learned Lord straight away whether the Government realise that it will be vital to overhaul and develop the curricula of schools if boys and girls in future are to be fitted to carry adult responsibilities in a wide range of matters so much sooner after leaving school than is the case under the law at present?


My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for making his Statement, which I generally welcome. But does not the noble and learned Lord feel that it is slightly, or completely, anomalous to carry through these proposed recommendations and still leave the age of voting where it is? Surely if someone can be a trustee at 18 he should be entrusted with a vote.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Brooke of Cumnor Lind Lord Byers, for what they have said. I remember that in the debate we had the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, intimated that on the age of free marriage his own opinions would be more in line with those of the minority of two on the Committee, rather than with the others. But as he has said, we ought perhaps to debate that if and when the Bill is introduced.

No doubt my right honourable friend the Minister of Education and Science will bear in mind what the noble Lord has said about school curricula. I am not quite clear about this myself. I must not argue it this afternoon, but I have thought for a long time that we do not do enough in the schools to tell young people what marriage really means, emotionally and economically. But those aged 18, 19 and 20 have, after all, been out in the world earning their own living now for three, four and five years. But no doubt the point will be borne in mind.

With reference to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Byers, the age of majority is one thing and voting rights are another, partly because voting rights, by agreement with the Parties, have never been changed without being considered by a Speaker's Conference. It is therefore right and proper that the voting age should have been entirely excluded from the Latey Committee's terms of reference, and they did not deal with it. The Government have thought it right to deal with the recommendations of the Latey Committee on their merits. They will shortly be considering the many recommendations which have been made by the all-Party Speaker's Conference.


My Lords, may I ask my noble and learned friend one question? He made no reference to minors in the Armed Forces. Is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to reconsider this matter, in view of the recommendations of the Latey Committee.


My Lords, the position with regard to those, as my noble friend Lord Brockway may remember, is that there were three recommendations. The first was that all boy entrants should be entitled to be released as of right on application within six months, instead of three months, from the date of their entry. The noble Lord may remember that a Statement made in another place, and repeated here on February 5, said that that recommendation would be acted upon at once, because none of these needs legislation since there is existing legislation under which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State can carry them out by regulation. The second recommendation was that all boy entrants should be entitled to be released as of right on application within three months after their 18th birthday and I think that on the same occasion it was stated that the Government have decided to set up an Inter-Departmental Committee to consider more carefully than has yet been done what would be the precise effect on the Services if the recommendation was implemented. The third was that parental consent to enlistment under the age of 18 instead of 17½, should be required, and it was stated in the House on February 5 that if and when the age of majority was increased to 18, that would be implemented by administrative action.