HL Deb 28 January 1969 vol 298 cc1152-60

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The sole purpose of the Bill is to lower to 18 the age at which a person attains majority and ceases to be a minor under Scottish law. I should like first to say something about the background to the Government's decision to introduce this Bill.

Part I of the Family Law Reform Bill implements for England and Wales the principal recommendations of the Latey Committee. Although the Committee were assisted in their consideration of the subject by a factual statement on the relevant law of Scotland, which was provided by the Scottish Law Commission, they were concerned only with the position of the minor under English law. The Committee's terms of reference were: to consider whether any changes are desirable in the law relating to contracts made by persons under 21 and to their power to hold and dispose of property, and in the law relating to marriage by such persons and to the power to make them wards of court. Under Scottish law, a minor already has the legal capacity to enter into binding contracts; he can acquire and dispose of property, both movable and heritable, and (since the passing of the Succession (Scotland) Act 1964) he can make a will dealing with both; he can marry without parental consent provided he is 16 years of age; and, of course, the procedure by which a person can be made a ward of court is unknown to Scottish law. For these reasons, and because there was no apparent demand in Scotland for change nor evidence of any practical difficulties arising under the existing law, we reached the conclusion that it would be inappropriate to extend the Latey inquiry beyond the Border and quite unnecessary to mount a separate inquiry in Scotland. In the event, of course, the Committee's main recommendation was that the age of full legal capacity in England and Wales should be reduced from 21 to 18, and the question which immediately arose was whether, if this particular recommendation were to be implemented for England and Wales, any convincing evidence or arguments could be adduced to justify maintaining the status quo in Scotland.

On the one hand, it could be argued that the considerations which led the Government to exclude Scotland from the scope of the Latey inquiry still held good, and that under existing Scottish law minors, so far from suffering any serious disadvantages, had the best of both worlds: they were free to enter into contracts, but if they were foolish enough to enter into one which was seriously to their detriment they could invoke the protection of the courts and have the contract reduced, and the period during which they could challenge contracts entered into during their minority extended beyond their 21st birthday throughout the period known as the quadriennium utile, the four years immediately following the attainment of their majority.

There were, however, a number of arguments pointing the other way. The age of majority is at present the same on both sides of the Border, and anomalies could arise if young persons in England and Wales achieved full adult status at the age of 18 whilst their contemporaries in Scotland remained technically minors until 21. For example, the law on adoption is at present the same in both countries. If the age of majority were lowered to 18 in England and Wales only and if the maximum age at which a person could be adopted were also lowered to 18 in consequence, practical difficulties might well arise if the latter change did not apply to Scotland also. Furthermore, if young persons in England and Wales were judged to be sufficiently mature and ready to assume adult responsibilities at 18, there could really be no logical justification for withholding a similar recognition from young persons in Scotland. There was the further consideration that the proposed reduction in the voting age to 18 applied to Scotland as well as to England and Wales.

The arguments, therefore, were finely balanced, and in April of last year, following the announcement that the Government intended to implement, for England and Wales, the main recommendations of the Latey Committee, my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland, consulted a number of organisations concerned with both the legal and the social implications of any change in the age of majority in Scotland. The organisations which favoured a change in the law included tie local authority associations, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Church of Scotland, the Scottish N.F.U., the Scottish Landowners' Federation, the Scottish Standing Conference of Voluntary Youth Organisations and the Scottish Marriage Guidance Council. The last organisation made out a particularly convincing case for lowering the age of majority in Scotland in recognition of the sense of responsibility shown by the great majority of young people between the ages of 18 and 21. The faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland questioned the necessity of amending the Scottish law; but they offered a number of helpful and constructive suggestions of which account has been taken in the drafting of the Bill which is now before us. The Government decided therefore that, notwithstanding the benefits enjoyed by minors in Scotland under the existing law, there was a strong case, on broad social grounds, for lowering the age of majority to 18.

Clause 1 of the Bill effects a change corresponding to that effected for England and Wales by Clause 1 of the Family Law Reform Bill. It provides in general terms that a person shall henceforth attain majority at 18 instead of 21, that persons who are already 18 but not yet 21 on the date on which the Act is brought into operation by an Order made under subsection (3) of Clause 2 shall attain majority on that date and that references to such expressions as "full age" and "minority" as they appear in statutory provisions or in deeds executed after the commencement of the Act shall be construed accordingly.

I should draw your Lordships' attention in passing to the drafting of subsection (2) of Clause 1 which applies the preceding subsection for the purposes of any rule of law". This means that any rule of law the application of which is contingent upon the duration of a person's minority or alternatively upon the attainment of majority must be construed in tie light of the altered circumstances brought about by the preceding subsection. Thus, one effect of this Bill will be that the quadriennium utile which, as I have explained, is the period of four years immediately following the attainment of majority within which under Scottish law a person can challenge a contract entered into during his minority, will henceforth run from age 18 until 22 instead of from 21 to 25.

Schedule 1 reduces to 18 all the statutory age limits which may be said to be derived directly from the Common Law concepts of minority and "full age". There are of course other statutory age limits—for example, the minimum age at which a person can be sentenced to detention in a young offenders' institution (at present 17 years)—which involve different considerations and are not affected in any way by this Bill. The only provision of Clause 2 to which I need draw attention is subsection (3) which empowers the Secretary of State to bring the Act into force by a commencement order. There is a similar provision in the Family Law Reform Bill and the Government's intention is to synchronise the reduction in the age of majority in the two countries.

In conclusion, I should like to emphasise what I said at the beginning: that this Bill does no more than substitute 18 for 21 as the age at which a person attains majority. It does not affect in other respects the law relating to minors. The Scottish Law Commission have included this branch of the law in their Second Programme of Law Reform which was published last year; and it would be wrong to propose any more extensive changes in the law in advance of the Commission's recommendations on this subject. Nor does the Bill affect in any way the law relating to the marriage of young persons. This is a subject outwith the scope of the present Bill, and I would remind the House that these matters are at present under consideration by a Committee on the Marriage Law of Scotland under the Chairmanship of Lord Kilbrandon. I hope your Lordships will agree, however, that young persons in Scotland, whose maturity and sense of responsibility are already given practical recognition by a law which affords them a wide measure of freedom, are fully entitled along with their contemporaries in England and Wales to claim the formal status of majority at 18. I beg to move.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Hughes.)

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, has made out a case for this Bill extremely well. I am bound to say that the chief reason for it seems to be to fit the convenience of the English that our law should not be dissimilar from theirs; and, of course, the existing law in Scotland is not nearly so disabling as it has been in England until now.

I have always felt a little sceptical about the proposal in this Bill. I doubt whether there is any great demand for it among the people who are principally concerned. There is some demand among older people; it gives them a pleasant feeling of generosity in conferring, at no expense to themselves full citizenship on people who have not got it. But I have not found any signs at all among young people between 18 and 21 that they are really panting with eagerness to achieve the advantages which are conferred upon them by this Bill, such as the notoriety of being hypnotised at a public entertainment or the delightful privilege of being placed in charge of an insane relative. But I do not think, unless we are extreme nationalists, we should wish to object to a synchronisation of the position in this respect between us in Scotland and people in England. We must hope that the pride of full citizenship may outweigh the joys of irresponsibility.

I shall certainly not be under any temptation to move the Amendment which was moved on the English Bill by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Cumnor and which your Lordships carried, because, as your Lordships know, marriage without parental consent has always been permitted from the age of 16 in Scotland. Of course it may be a good thing that there should be parental control, and probably it is socially advantageous up to a higher age. But there is a great difference between preserving a parental veto that already exists, which your Lordships have done, or are trying to do, in the case of England, and imposing a veto which has never been there at all before. I do not think that your Lordships need be worried about the possibility of any Amendment of this kind in Committee.

My Lords, there is one point on which I should like to be enlightened by the noble Lord. It concerns the position of people who have attained the age of 18 but not the age of 21. Under the Budget of 1968 it is provided that the incomes of minors, people under age, shall be aggregated with the incomes of their parents in the financial year beginning April, 1969, and thereafter. I should like to make it plain that I am not asking the noble Lord to anticipate the Budget statement of the Chancellor in any way; I am only asking him what would be the position under the present law, assuming that no change is made in the coming Budget, supposing that a person is now just attaining the age of 18.

Let us suppose that this Bill becomes law in June of this year, two months after the beginning of the financial year. What will be the position? Will the person who attains his full majority in June of this year not have his income aggregated with that of his parents for any part of the financial year because he is now no longer a minor? Or will he have it aggregated with that of his parents for the whole year because at the beginning of the year he was still legally a minor; this Bill not having yet reached the Statute Book? Or will he have to go through the process of having his income aggregated only for the first two months of the year but not for the remaining ten months of the financial year—something which, it seems to me, would impose a very heavy burden upon our already seriously overworked Inland Revenue officials? I am of course assuming that the Government will not have the financial unfairness to continue to tax people as is now provided for in aggregation with their parents up to the age of 21 after they have under this Bill attained legal majority at 18. I am asking only what will be the position of these people who do not reach the age of 21 next year but who are or will be 18 during the course of the next financial year. Will they be allowed full independence in the control and non-aggregation of their own incomes with the incomes of somebody else because they have attained the age of majority? It seems to me that they ought to be entitled to this.

4.44 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, replies, I wonder whether he could explain what exactly is meant by Clause 1(6)? So far as I can understand, it means that if you have made your will before this date, and for some unknown reason you mention the age of majority or the age of 21 in it, that continues to stand even if you make a codicil to your will after the date when this Bill becomes law. Could the noble Lord please explain whether my reading of that is correct? I do not think that he mentioned it in his original explanation. I also wonder whether he could go into slightly more detail about how the tax position of minors who are about to cease to become minors will be affected by the Bill. So far as I can make out, the tax position remains unaltered because it is in the third part of Schedule 2; but perhaps the noble Lord would confirm this.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for the general welcome he gave to the Bill, although perhaps it was expressed in somewhat muted terms. I should like to make perfectly clear that the Government do not consider that this Bill is being brought in for the benefit of the English. It is not any special part of the remit of the Secretary of State for Scotland to legislate for the benefit of the English. One would almost gather from certain remarks made in recent years that in fact the contrary is the case and that the Secretary of State is regularly legislating not for anybody's benefit but against the interests of the Scots.

The whole purpose of this Bill is to confer benefits on the Scots between the ages of 18 and 21 and remove the difficulties in which they might find themselves and the disadvantages which might accrue to them if the legal age of majority remained at 21 after it had been reduced to 18 South of the Border. It is perfectly true, as the noble Earl has said, that there has been no great expression of delight on the part of young people at the prospect that they are to attain their majority at the age of 18. That is as true as it is not surprising, because I think the noble Earl will probably have shared with me the experience over many years in public life that one never receives any expression of gratitude for benefits conferred; one merely receives protests if they are not to be conferred. If we had not sought to bring forward a Bill of this kind I have no doubt that we should have been inundated with protests, violent or otherwise, with the removal of property or otherwise, as appeared to be appropriate, because we were not doing it. So it may be that the state of comparative quiescence which exists in Scotland exists not as a tangible expression of generosity but simply because we have acted in time.

My Lords, the question which has been asked by the noble Earl and by the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, on the subject of taxation is, as the noble Duke pointed out, answered by the reference at the end of the Bill that taxation proposals are not affected by this Bill. The noble Earl pointed out that the Finance Act 1968 introduced a provision, which will operate for the first time in the 1969–70 financial year, under which the investment income of young persons under 21 who are not regularly working will be aggregated with those of their parents for tax purposes. My Lords, that provision is unaffected by the Bill now before us. Earlier in his remarks the noble Earl said that he would not expect me to anticipate the Budget. He went on to take it for granted that in the Finance Act the Chancellor would alter the age for these purposes from 21 to 18. My Lords, the noble Earl is freer to speculate or guess in public about what the Chancellor may do in these matters than I am; so he will forgive me if I do not follow him into that particular field.

Reference was made by the noble Duke to Clause 1(6). This subsection sets aside, for the purpose of this Bill only, a general rule of law to the effect that a will or codicil, if confirmed by a later codicil, is regarded as having been, in effect, made on the date of the latter. If this rule were to apply, the intention of subsection (2)(b) would be frustrated in cases where a codicil is made after the appointed day, because that subsection is designed to ensure that the Act does not alter the meaning of pre-Act deeds. I think that that is about as near as I can get to translating this from legal language into a language reasonably intelligible to laymen like the noble Duke and myself, although it is still difficult. I come back to what I said in the beginning. This is about as simple a provision as your Lordships have ever been asked to implement and its purpose is achieved in comparatively few words—your Lordships will notice that I say "comparatively few" words.


My Lords, I just want to make sure about this point. It means that the Finance Act does not use "majority" as a criterion, but the age of twenty-one?


My Lords, the noble Earl will recollect that when referring to the changes, I pointed out that where the age of majority was referred to, that would be changed automatically from twenty-one to eighteen. There is a whole list of provisions in Schedule I where the age of twenty-one, and in some cases the age of twenty-five, is referred to. In all these cases the age of eighteen will be substituted for twenty-one or twenty-five, but taxation proposals are specifically excluded from this. If there is to be a change from twenty-one to eighteen for tax purposes, this will be given effect to in a Finance Act.

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

House adjourned at eight minutes before five o'clock.