HL Deb 24 May 1971 vol 319 cc767-82

3 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now received.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Lord Stow Hill.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 5 [Abolition of control of widows' damages]:

LORD AIREDALE moved to leave out Clause 5.

The noble Lord said: I beg to move to leave out Clause 5. This clause would repeal Section 19 of the Administration of Justice Act passed as recently as 1965, which provided that in the case of widows receiving damages under the Fatal Accidents Acts, in those cases where the widow had dependent children the damages should not be paid straight to the widow but should remain under the control of the court. In 1965 Parliament had the advantage of having before it the Report of the Committee on Funds in Court which had reported in 1959 and which was chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson. In 1959 that Committee had reported unanimously in favour of widows' damages under the Fatal Accidents Acts in all cases being retained under the control of the court whether or not there were dependent children, this being thought at that time likely to lead to the protection of widows.

In 1965 Parliament no doubt thought that it was anomalous to preserve a distinction between a spinster and a widow having no dependent children, so that in the spinster's case the damages could be handed over to her and in the case of the widow the damages would remain under the control of the court. In 1965 the control of the court was retained only where there were dependent children to be considered as well as the widow; and it is that 1965 provision which this new clause seeks to repeal.

My Lords, this matter came before the Committee of the whole House on the afternoon of last Friday week, after the House had risen at twenty minutes to nine following. an all-night sitting on the Industrial Relations Bill; and therefore perhaps it will not be a surprise to your Lordships to learn that the Committee of the Whole House on that Friday afternoon was not very well attended. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, in moving the Amendment to insert this new Clause 5, expressed the hope that it would prove to be non-contentious, but that hope was not to be fulfilled. The next speaker was the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, who expressed very strong reservations indeed about accepting the new clause, and he summarised the finding on this point of the Pearson Committee in 1959 in these words: They thought it would be wrong to allow a widow with no experience of handling large sums of money to have unfettered control of an award of damages which is meant to take the place over the years of the family wage packet."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14/5/70, col. 1586.]

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, spoke. and although he was by no means an enthusiastic supporter of the new clause, was quite open-minded on the question.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said (at col. 1590): I have absolutely no doubt that this is the right thing to do. If a man is left with infant children to look after as a result of a motor accident and he gets damages, he is allowed to do what he likes with the money. I see absolutely no reason why widows should not be put in the same position. I cannot begin to see what the arguments to the contrary are. With great respect, I think I can see one argument at least to the contrary, which is this: a widower presumably will be able to persuade an aunt or a grandmother to bring up the children. He will contribute to their support, and if he has the misfortune to lose his lump sum damages he will presumably retain his capacity to earn his living and will continue to provide for the dependent children whereas the widow, similarly placed, will be tied to bringing up her children and will have nothing like the same capacity of earning to support them if, by some unwise investment, she has squandered the lump sum damages she has received.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Stow Hill spoke in favour of accepting the new clause, as did the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. The noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, spoke against it. and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson, spoke with the advantage of having studied this matter in very great detail, as Chairman of the 1959 Committee. The noble and learned Lord concluded his speech with this sentence: I urge noble Lords to consider the evidence with some care before deciding to accept the Amendment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th May 1971; c. 1593.] Three noble Baronesses supported the new clause—Lady Wootton of Abinger, Lady Emmet of Amberley and Lady Plummer—and it was agreed to without a Division by this very small Committee of the Whole House.

My Lords, those being the circumstances, it seems to be right to raise the matter again, because, although it proved to be somewhat contentious, it has not received the careful consideration of a representative gathering of your Lordships' House such as it deserves. Having said that, I have no intention at all of pressing this matter if it should appear that the House is agreeable to the new clause, as agreed to by the Committee, remaining in the Bill. I beg to move.


My Lords, I think I ought to say a few words, and I will say them very briefly, in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, has said on this issue. I had the honour to be on the Committee on Funds in Court, which had to deal with several questions, one of which was whether the system of controlling widows' damages awarded under the Fatal Accidents Acts should continue. The Committee included several members who had special information on the subject, and there were two women members also. We considered carefully the evidence given and the advice received from important bodies such as the Law Society and the Trades Union Congress, both being bodies whose members would have special knowledge of the subject. Having regard to the evidence, we decided—and we were all of one mind—that the control should be continued. That was admittedly 12 years ago, but there is an obvious argument and, so far as it goes, a strong argument in favour of controlling widows' damages in suitable cases. I say " in suitable cases ", because in other cases, where it is obvious that the widow will be able to lock after a large sum of money properly, there is a discretion in the court to have the money paid out of court to the widow forthwith.

There is the other class of cases. Fatal accidents happen not only on the roads but also in factories, mines, ships, and so on, and frequently the widow is the widow of a weekly wage earner. She has never had to look further ahead, in financial terms, than one week. She has no experience of handling a large sum of money, and she may well not be able to manage it with skill and wisdom. Also, as has been pointed out, she may fall victim to the sort of person who was described in the former debate as the " smooth tongued predatory gentleman ". She may be persuaded by indigent friends and relatives to part with her money.

It was on that sort of evidence—and it was strong evidence at the time—that we made our recommendation in 1959. It may be that the situation has changed. It may be that full investigation and consultation would reveal a change in the situation, but I do not quite know why, and I should like to be sure, at any rate, that this matter has been investigated with some care before the whole system of control is at one swoop swept overboard in this way. I would ask that full and careful consideration should be given to this matter, because it may inflict great hardship on some widow if this safeguard, which has previously been provided for their benefit, is suddenly done away with.

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to speak against the Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, and to support the clause added in Committee by the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor. What is it we are discussing? We are discussing whether an adult woman should have control of her own funds. Where there are infant children, then the money allocated to the children still comes within the control of the court. If she wishes her own compensation to be subject to a court's control, she still has that right. She has the opportunity of obtaining a great amount of advice from voluntary organisations, and if her solicitor does his job properly he will advise her. There is a considerable waiting period between the time of the accident and the time that the case comes to court and she receives compensation.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson, pointed out that there may have been changes since his Committee reported. I think that that is so. Over the last 12 years there has been a tremendous change in the pattern of the lives of modern women, in the role they play outside the home and in the number of women who go to work and have a great deal more to do with financial administration and dealing with their own money and other people's money than before. I took the trouble to discuss this particular matter with one of the largest welfare organisations dealing with aid and help to widows. Their view is that while many widows require advice as to how they should deal with their money, they do not think that they need it still to be kept within the control of the court if the widow is not willing. I find this proposal—as I think they do as well, if I may translate rather liberally—an indignity to a woman. It is a way of saying that she is really—however one wraps it up—incapable of dealing with her own affairs. There are a certain number of people, both men and women, who will deal in an irresponsible manner with any money that comes their way and lose it, but that is not just the prerogative of women..

There is a strong case for saying that one should see that advice is available, and one hopes that solicitors and voluntary organisations will give it, but to me it seems quite out of keeping with what we are talking about in 1971 and with the whole pattern of women's lives to take out this clause, which was put into the Bill at Committee stage. I hope that the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, will be turned down and that the clause, which I think makes far better sense and ties up with what is in the rest of the Bill, will be retained.


My Lords, I think we ought to be clear exactly what we are proposing. 1 would certainly agree that there may be grounds for protecting the interests of infant children, but what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is proposing in his Amendment is that a woman who receives damages for the benefit of her children should not be allowed control of them and a man, in exactly similar circumstances, should. I think that is a proposition that this House will find it very difficult to agree to in the year 1971.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, prefaced this by a most extraordinary argument. He said that both the woman and the man may be irresponsible and " blue the money ", and I agree; but that the man might be able to get it back and the woman would not. It was rather significant that the word " presumably " appeared twice in the noble Lord's speech. These are astonishing presumptions. Either party might be able to get it back, but neither party has a right to " blue it ". Certainly the male party has no greater right to " blue it " than the female. I think that is the heart of the matter. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson, I have no doubt with the most admirable intentions, says that these things happen to people who live on weekly wages and have perhaps not been in the habit of looking more than a week ahead. That is indeed true of many working class widows; but if it is true of working class widows, it is 101 per cent. true of working class widowers, who have probably never handled the money at all.

3.18 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord was quite right in saying that when we debated this subject the other day the Committee was really not in a condition to debate it. It was at about a quarter past or half past two, and I think they were all faint through lack of sustenance and lack of sleep. I confess that this Amendment came rather suddenly upon the Committee. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson, who has just spoken, cannot charge me with not being a feminist, hut, as a feminist, I have sought throughout the debate on this Bill to protect the widow, because I believe that she is particularly vulnerable. I think that the smooth, predatory male who has been mentioned is looked upon by most women with some trepidation, even when they arc not widows. Undoubtedly the widow with a lump sum is vulnerable to his approach. She is distressed and distraught, in the early stages, and later, particularly if she has dependent children, she is longing for somebody in whom she can confide, somebody on whom she can depend. and who will care for her. Then along comes a delightful looking man who is fully aware of her bank balance, and it is inevitable, of course, that she will be attracted by him. If we did not accept this, we would not be realistic.

The question is whether that woman should have special protection? To argue with me that a woman is quite as capable of investing her money as a man is nonsense. We all know that there is no argument about it. We accept that. But nobody can say that a widow with dependent children, perhaps small children—almost certainly small, because we are told that the typical widow is 35 with two children—tied to the house, can be equated with a man who is free to earn a wage or a salary, without any domestic responsibilities. My attitude in this matter, therefore, was to consider whether we should continue to give this woman special protection when she was awarded a large lump sum.

However, having said that, I listened to the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack and I was extremely impressed by what he said. He said that in his long experience he had observed that many women who had had their damages paid into court had had full confidence in the investing ability of the gentleman in whom they had trusted—I am glad to see that the noble and learned Lord nods his agreement—to whom they had left their money. Then, to their horror, after a few years they had discovered that that man had betrayed them. He had no more knowledge of how to invest money than had the widow herself. Therefore, far from receiving the protection which they thought they had, they were left without their money.

It was that which convinced me that one cannot just argue from the point of view that this is a woman who is vulnerable and who must be protected. She was not protected by the courts. No one cared tuppence, apparently, when she got her damages and the money was paid into court. No one worried about the poor little woman living in a small house in Wigan, about whether she had any protection, and her money was lost. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, was quite right in saying that I had put the case against it—not completely against, for I said I had reservations. I thought that we should be guided in this matter by what we had been told by the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack. Of course there are reactionary organisations such as the Stock Exchange who would not agree with us. Nevertheless, when we consider carefully, we must admit that the woman in the home who manages to remain solvent although her husband may spend an amount of money not commensurate with his wages on tobacco and beer, is nevertheless the person who keeps the home solvent. She is shrewd and has common sense, and I think that her maternal instinct will direct her activities.

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, I listened with very great care and interest to the argument put by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, in moving this Amendment. He began by describing in some detail—I thought he was of great assistance to the House in so doing—the very careful consideration which had been given to this problem. First, it was exhaustively considered by the Committee over which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson, presided. His Committee reported in 1959. Then there was a full debate in 1965 in this House, and noble Lords divided upon this precise issue. Finally, after mature and careful consideration, they arrived at what was in effect a compromise solution which is contained in the 1965 Act.

Then the matter came to this House. The Bill which your Lordships are considering, the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, I should have thought, is precisely the instrument in which there can properly be introduced, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has done, a change of this sort in the law. If we do not do it in a Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, where are we to do it? That is precisely what the noble and learned Lord has done.

Having listened so far with attention to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, I wondered how it was that at the end of his argument he was able to come to the conclusion that, nevertheless, this addition by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor should be left out of the Bill. I think the only reason he gave us was that when the Committee stage of the Bill was taken last Friday week we were rather tired. I am not sure that we were. I thought we had had a refreshing and delightful night. discussing fascinating aspects of the Industrial Relations Bill, and I thought we were all eager for action. I may be wrong. What is the logic of the noble Lord's argument? If the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is right in that submission, I suppose the logic is that we should put a pen right through the Committee proceedings. He should have moved that the Committee proceedings on that Friday should be treated as not having taken place at all, because we were no less and no more too tired when those proceedings began as we were when they ended.


It was not that we were tired. What I meant was that we were few.


We were few? After all, it is not the case that in every debate on a measure of this sort that there are three noble and learned Lords present who have held or hold the office of Lord Chancellor and take part. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, spoke. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, spoke. The noble and learned Lord who now sits on the Woolsack spoke. Certainly rich and learned speeches were addressed to the Committee. I thought that they were listened to attentively by those who were present. In addition, two noble and learned Lords, and other noble Lords and noble Baroness spoke, and the matter excited keen interest.

At the end of it all, when all the arguments had been deployed on both sides, what did the Committee do? Those who opposed what the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack had done did not think it right to take the matter to a Division. If now we arc to be asked to disregard what happened, where are we to get to? Which of our proceedings in this House are to be regarded as valid and which are to be regarded as a mere waste of time? That is what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is asking us to say about what I thought was an extremely valuable and interesting discussion. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack made, I should have thought, on the merits of the argument a case which does not admit of answer. He added that if it should transpire that the proposal he had introduced into the Bill was controversial, in that it might risk the life of the Bill, he would not press it. What more he could do I do not know.

I should like the House to consider the merits of this, and if I may say so with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, to disregard considerations which I do not think should carry very much influence. What are the merits? When are we males at long last going to be honest and sincere when we say that we want to treat women as our companions and not as our inferiors? They are not our inferiors. They are in every way up to us in intellect, understanding and feeling.


Hear, hear!


It is very rare that I receive approbation from my noble friend Baroness Summerskill.



My noble friend Baroness Summerskill talked about the predatory male. I do not know how one recognises a predatory male. Perhaps it is by over-developed jaws. What would apply to predatory females I do not know. I do not know why we should be taken back to the days before Mrs. Gaskell and Jane Austen. In 1971, my Lords, let us realise that women play foremost roles in this country, in this House, in the other House and outside both Houses, in every field of activity. They excel us in one hundred dozen different ways. I hope that I do not exaggerate, but I find it rather offensive if I am told in this particular context that a widow, who has undergone the appalling tragedy of having her husband taken from her by a malign fate through the action of some other person. is not to be treated as being capable of looking after a sum which may run into some thousands of pounds. I find that a repulsive suggestion, and I do not for a second think that it is true.

If one were considering the attitude of women against that of men—and I loathe these generalisations as they are so unreliable—as to the custody of money, one should say to oneself that unhappily it is the case that the economic condition of women is still not as secure as that of men. They do not find it so easy to get jobs as men do—I wish they did, I am speaking in these days of unemployment —but I think that in due course this will happen. If that influences the situation, it influences it in this way: that women are rather more careful about the custody of money. They do not think that money hangs on trees, and they do not say airily, " I can spend what I want because I can always earn it back ". They are much more careful. On the whole, I should have thought they are much more careful than men. I therefore beg this House to say (a) that the reasons why we should now re-open this question. on which your Lordships' Committee has already pronounced, are inadequate; and (b) that even if we do reopen it surely the logic, the feeling, the tempo, the emotion of 1971 tells us that rejecting this Amendment is a step that we ought to take in courtesy to women, in chivalry to them and in recognition of the plain, obvious fact that the sexes are equal.


My Lords, this has been a fascinating discussion in which my noble friend Lord Stow Hill has been rather more feminist than my noble friend Baroness Summerskill, which I never expected to hear. Like her, I have some reservations. In Committee, I explained that this was not a point on which I had ever had, or had then, any strong view. I reminded the Committee of the contents of the Report of the Committee of which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson. was chairman, which had unanimously recommended that both where there were dependent children and where there were not, the practice of the law as to the payment of the widow's damages into court should be continued, and that most of those who gave evidence before that Committee and who had contacts with widows—the solicitors, the T.U.C. the High Court masters, the county court registrars, working women's organisations and so on—shared that view.

I also reminded the Committee that we discussed this fully when the matter came before Parliament in the 1964/65 Session and that what I had recommended was that where the widow had no children the money should be paid to her direct but where there were dependent children it should be paid into court. I agreed that there had probably been some change in public opinion in the last six or seven years, and that I thought that to-day it was probably more generally the view that women should be treated the same as men. I explained that my sole concern personally was that this should not stop the Bill going through by making it run into difficulties in the other place; and I said that so far as I was aware it was practically without precedent for the Government to " muscle in " on a Private Member's Bill with an Amendment which raised an entirely new topic for the first time in the Second Chamber. I concluded by saying: I am anxious to see the Bill go through. I should not, therefore, oppose the Amendment if we could obtain some assurance from the noble and learned Lord that if this part of the Bill runs into trouble in the other place he will consider withdrawing this part of the Bill in order that the rest of the Bill may go through ".— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 14 /5 / 71, col. 1590.] The noble and learned Lord was good enough at once to say: I think I can answer that straight away. I will not risk the Bill anywhere for the sake of this, because it is a relatively small matter". My Lords, I was content before the Committee with that assurance, and I am equally content to leave the matter to the House now.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to obstruct my own business, but I should like to add just a word to the many speeches which have been properly made on this subject. I should like to point out to what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, is committing himself. It is not only true that if a man is left with young children—in some ways a more difficult position than if it were a woman, because in that case the children have no mother when they are young—he is absolutely free to deal with the damages awarded to him as he wishes, but apparently not in the case of a widow, according to the noble Lord. But suppose the man dies of cancer of the lung at 35 and leaves the "typical" widow with two young children. She is absolutely free; but not, apparently, according to Lord Airedale, if he dies as a result of somebodys else's negligence. Where is the sense of that? Nor is it a provision of the law of Scotland. Scottish widows are absolutely free to deal with their money now. Are English widows so much more improvident than Scottish widows? It may be they are, but so far nobody has suggested it.

Then the noble and learned Lord on the Cross-Benches says that most of them are wage-earners. So are the men; so are the Scottish widows; so are the widows whose husbands die of cancer, who may get some money from insurance. They are vulnerable, says he, to the predatory male; but are not men vulnerable to predatory females? I am. Where are we really getting to? It is said that women are apt to make unwise investments. Are not men? Can men do without advice about their investments? I will tell the House something about women: I think they are not so apt to drink it away, and they are not so apt to bet it away. I regard this as a straight issue of public policy, and I ask the House to reject the Amendment.


My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, in the absence of the right reverend Prelate who was here at the beginning of this debate, may I ask him a question? This is only in defence of the case made by my noble friend Lord Airedale, because it was rather a thin Committee and it was also rather a tired Committee, because I for one had sat through all the previous night and also attended this debate. What I would ask is: might it be advisable to revise the Prayer Book? I think it is the Prayer Book of the Anglican Church which asks us to look after the fatherless and the widows. Should we not make it that it also asks us to look after the motherless and the widowers, for whom the noble Lord made a very strong case? I am all for it. This case did not receive a great deal of discussion in Committee. It has now been discussed, and I will sit down and say no more.


I am always in favour of prayer for whomsoever it is offered, but not if the meaning of the prayer is that we put the money in the county court and leave it there subject to the discretion of the judge.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate, and I do not propose to keep the House any longer on this. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, at the end of his main speech, said that men are more likely to drink the money away than women are, and that they are more likely to bet it away, but I think that perhaps the women are more likely to bingo it away; but I dare say this does not happen in a very great number of cases. I am extremely grateful to the three noble Baronesses who intervened in the debate; and, having regard to the rather rough time that I came in for at the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Stow Hill, I am all the more grateful for having had the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearson, who has studied this matter in very great detail and, I imagine, knows more about this subject than anybody else in the House. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, thought I was suggesting that a man, having "blued" his damages, would be able to put the money back. I did not suggest that. What I suggested was that, having "blued" the damages, he would have a rather better chance than a widow to go out to work and earn money with which to support the children.

My Lords, it seems to me that the House is satisfied that the Committee came to a proper decision on this matter. I would finally say to the noble Lord, Lord Stow Hill, that I am quite unrepentant about this. My private belief is that if the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor had realised that this matter was not going to be non-contentious on that Friday afternoon a week ago last Friday, this new clause would not even have been moved on that occasion. I do not believe it would have been right. I believe the proper thing would have been to have said, " This is a contentious matter and something which ought to be discussed on Report ". For that reason, my Lords, I thought it right that it should be discussed on Report. Having said all that, 1 beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to acquaint the House that they, having been informed of the purport of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, have consented to place their interests, so far as they are concerned on behalf of the Crown and the Duchy of Cornwall, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Then, Standing Order No. 42 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of May 20, 1971):


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)


My Lords, I am sorry to intervene at this stage. I do so simply for the purpose of saying in two sentences how extremely grateful I am to noble Lords and to noble and learned Lords for the obvious care and attention that they have given to the consideration of this small Bill, and the anxiety with which they have approached it. I am deeply grateful to them. I do not think I would be justified in taking up the time of the House any more on this Bill, which has been very thoroughly considered.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and returned to the Commons.