HL Deb 21 June 1985 vol 465 cc488-502

11.43 a.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, it is my privilege to be invited to present for Second Reading a Bill as approved by the Personal Bills Committee intituled, An Act to enable Sonia Ann Billington and Norbury Billington to be married to each other. Sonia Ann Billington is nearly 37 years of age. Norbury Billington, a widower, is aged 63. There is no blood relationship between them. Both are domiciled in England. But there is a technical affinity existing between them: that they are father-in-law and daughter-in-law and, as a result, the desired marriage between them would be void under Section 1(1) of the Marriage Act 1949.

Both of them desire to get married. The children wish them to be married. I shall give details of the children later on. They desire that this impediment should be removed. Accordingly, under the clumsy and expensive procedure now available for such persons, they have to come to your Lordships through procedures which I need not dwell upon in order to deal with these matters.

For your Lordships' convenience I shall refer to the daughter-in-law and the father-in-law by their Christian names. Sonia is the daughter-in-law; and Norbury is the widower father-in-law. Norbury's wife died in January 1978. Sonia was married to one of Norbury's sons, Barry, in June 1969. She was then 21 years of age and he, son of Norbury, was barely 20 years old. It was a marriage, therefore, of young people. There are two children of that marriage: Christopher, now aged 15, and a girl, Cheryl, aged 11. They were living in Cheshire. Norbury, the father-in-law, had always lived and still lives in Penzance, several hundred miles away.

March 1980 is a crucial date in the unhappy circumstances which I have to put to your Lordships. In March 1980, Barry, the husband of Sonia, on the pretext of going for a holiday to Penzance to the father-in-law, left Cheshire and went to see his father, Norbury. On the first day of their arrival, the husband of Sonia disclosed for the first time to his father that he was in love with another woman. He wanted to live with the other woman. But he thought in fairness to Sonia, his wife, that there ought to be a trial period of separation and said "I am going to leave next day and leave my wife and her two children with you".

The next day he rang his girl friend—if I may refer to her like that—to say he was leaving his father's home and would be returning to Cheshire. One can imagine the kind of shock to both Norbury and Sonia at this abrupt leaving of the son. The daughter, Sonia, had nowhere to go. She stayed in her father-in-law's house with the two children and by September—six or seven months after they had come there—the father- in-law and the daughter-in-law became attracted to each other, soon afterwards cohabited, and lived as man and wife in Penzance, she being deserted by her husband, who had gone off with another woman. There has been a child of that cohabitation born about 16 months after September 1980.

Divorce proceedings were instituted before the birth of this child but they dragged on. But on the birth of the child it was not necessary to fight a divorce action and Sonia was divorced by her husband in circumstances that I need not go into in any detail whatsoever.

That is the position. Father-in-law wishes to marry Sonia. There are three children living there, two of them—one aged now 15 and the other aged 11—call Norbury "Father", "Dad". It is a happy menage. They would like Sonia and Norbury to get married. There is also the young child of four years of age.

One can understand a situation like this arising, and I am sure that your Lordships will take a very sympathetic view of the position of this young woman, lured as it were, from her home in Cheshire to her father-in-law's home and left there. It seems to me that this is a proper case for your Lordships to give this Bill a Second Reading so that we can proceed a further step in removing this impediment. I should have said that in the course of the divorce proceedings Sonia was given custody of the children, and they have remained with her ever since.

I had the privilege of introducing a Bill some two or three years ago in order to get a simpler procedure for dealing with these difficult personal matters which have arisen several times and which have been presented to your Lordships. But at the request of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury I was asked not to proceed with my Bill because the Archbishop decided to set up a commission in order to investigate these matters. That commission produced a report called No Just Cause, and, if I may, I shall read from the foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury: In recent years there have been suggestions, from a number of quarters, that the law which prevents marriages between those connected through affinity, i.e. by marriage but not by blood, should be changed. The matter received prominence in the years 1979–82 when on four occasions Private Members' Bills were introduced in the House of Lords to amend the present law. It seemed to me that, before the question was further debated, it would be helpful if a thorough study of this matter could be made in which the theological, sociological and legal aspects could be carefully examined and the experience of other countries taken into account". My noble friend Lady Seear chaired that commission and a majority report was eventually produced. That report indicated, first, that, The procedure by Personal Bill in Parliament is unsuitable mechanism to decide whether two people should be allowed marry one another". The whole commission agreed with that and with the second conclusion, as follows: To marry is a fundamental human liberty which should be protected. A couple wishing to marry should not be prevented from doing so unless there is some compelling reason or logical impediment. The many particular theological or doctrinal reasons held by particular religious bodies may not for all time constitute appropriate grounds for restrictions against marriage to be embodied in the general law, except in so far as they bear upon the nature of marriage". The Committee as a whole referred to stepchildren and said that stepchildren below the age of 18 should not be permitted to marry a stepparent

The majority report also said: There are social and psychological reasons for limiting permission to marry in circumstances where the younger person has been a child of the family of the older person. We do not consider that this circumstance warrants a prohibition on marriage for all time but marriage between such persons should be permitted only after the younger party has reached the age of 21". There was a minority report which did not accept that, but it is irrelevant to the case I am presenting to your Lordships because there is no child-of-marriage circumstance involved in this case. It is merely that a widower living in Penzance had the family of his son dumped upon him. I hope that is not too offensive a term to use in these circumstances. His son went away with another lady, and where was Sonia to go but to stay in her father-in-law's house? Sonia was then 32 and Norbury was a widower and it seems to me inevitable that, living together, they should have been attracted. So far as I can see from the papers, there was no question of collusion or financial inducement. There is of course the element that she was in her father-in-law's house and to that extent I suppose she was there without paying any rent, but I do not think that is any real impediment.

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

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran.)

11.55 a.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sure that the House will be indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, for the way in which he has presented this Bill to your Lordships for Second Reading and that Lordships will pay tribute to the kindliness with which he dealt with some quite sad facts. Having said that—and I am merely speaking personally, as one always does on Bills of this nature—there are various factors which trouble me and which, with respect and I hope humility, I wish to bring to your Lordships' attention.

The fact is that we should not be dealing with matters of this kind. I have said this before and I repeat it: we are completely unable to judge the facts. We do not even see the parties. We have not heard the first husband. I do not know what is the situation. I know the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, well enough to be sure that before he made the speech that he did to your Lordships he carried out what investigation he could. But this is not a matter for your Lordships' House—I respectfully say this—with a procedure of this kind. We have previously had a Bill which suggested that with the protection of minors the matter be brought to the summary courts of our land in order that they may be dealt with. I wondered whether summary courts, which normally deal with criminal matters, were suitable courts. Turning my eyes, always respectfully, to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, I wonder, as I stand here, whether the family courts that some of us hope for when they come into existence will not be the proper place for such matters to be dealt with in camera, with the judge seeing all the parties and being able to come to some decision.

Having got in that little bit for the family courts, I move on. The next thing that worries me is that the law at the moment—and we all have respect for the law—is that a marriage between those who are within prohibited degrees cannot take place unless an Act of Parliament decides otherwise. Therefore one would assume that the facts have to be exceptional on the basis of the present law of the land because, if they are not, what we are really doing by an Act of Parliament is saying that we do not agree with the law but nevertheless we have not altered it. Therefore the next point which I respectfully draw to your Lordships' attention is that if we are to go on, especially with this procedure, the sooner we deal with the situation of the law, the better, confirming the law as it is, amending it or fundamentally altering it. But we have at the moment the law as it stands.

Then, from this position, without in any way at all wishing to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, which of course I would not do, I look at the facts, in order to see what they are and whether or not prime facie they show an exceptional position, all of us in your Lordships' House, I believe wishing to preserve the very well-known and sanctified unit in our social life, the family.

The first fact, looking at the Bill before us, is that this unfortunate young lady found herself with her children in the home of her father-in-law and she stayed there because she had no other place to go, as the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, has said. Of course everybody says, "What a dreadful situation!" But she was there because her father-in-law was in loco parentis. He was the grandfather of her children and he was her father-in-law. Are we to take it for granted that it is an exceptional case, and one that we ought to sanction, in which that in loco parentis relationship turned within a matter of months, into another relationship between a gentleman now aged 63 and a lady in her 30s?

There is no lack of sympathy, because in all the cases that we have ever had to deal with since I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House, we have always tried to adopt a sympathetic, humane and understanding attitude. But the other fact to which I draw your Lordships' attention is that I am left with paragraph (6) of the Bill without hearing any other evidence at all. It says that the marriage: was dissolved by a decree of divorce on the 5th May 1982"— and I am assuming that the husband was here the petitioner— it being one of the grounds of such divorce that the said Sonia Ann Billington had a child of a relationship she had then commenced with Norbury Billington". So I have the fact before me, as your Lordships do, that the divorce was granted on the ground of the adultery with the father-in-law and the birth of the child. I do not know any more than that. I am wondering, purely expressing a personal view, not knowing anything other than the court's decree and the ground of this divorce, whether there would have been any chance of a reconciliation but for this relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law. I am most likely wrong in thinking that there was any hope of it, but without looking at those facts and based purely upon what we are told about the divorce and the grounds for the divorce, I wonder if this is one of the exceptional cases which we ought to be approving. I am asking myself questions. I am not giving myself answers, because by this procedure I cannot give myself answers.

12.3 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester

My Lords, I speak in this debate with a considerable degree of reluctance, partly because I have not been present at the debates on previous Bills of this kind, and also because it is not pleasant to have to discuss the personal affairs of individuals, least of all of those whom one does not know. I have tried to study this Bill. I know that the Bill itself, although it is a Private Bill concerning the marriage of two persons, puts the whole matter in the realm of public policy. Paragraph (10) of the Preamble on Page 2, lines 26 to 28 of the Bill, says that the parties: regard the legal impediment … as serving no useful purpose of public policy in the particular circumstances of their case. Therefore, we cannot consider this simply on the grounds of compassion for certain individuals.

I understand that a Bill is in preparation to give effect to certain recommendations of the report called No Just Cause to which the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, has referred—not to the majority recommendations, but to the minority recommendations, which are the only parts of that report which are supported by the House of Bishops. When that Bill comes forward, it will provide an opportunity for a general debate on the principles which should govern public policy on marriage between those connected by affinity, though, if carried, it will not provide for the circumstances of the present case.

Meanwhile, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said, the law is clear and definite, and we are being asked to set it aside in this particular case. I do not deny that there may be exceptions. Without having been able to go very fully into the matter, it appeared to me on first reading that Barry v. Ward in 1980 and Small v. Small in 1982 were such cases. But what we are having to do is to make a judgment about individuals; a judgment not unlike those judgments which the matrimonial courts have to make, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said, without the machinery for checking information, and for obtaining professional advice and so forth which is available to those courts. So we have to do the best we can with the information available to us that is contained in the Bill and the Statement of Reasons. Here, like the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, I have real concern.

In both the cases that I mentioned earlier, the couples lived apart and did not wish to live together unless and until they could be lawfully man and wife. In this case, we not only have a couple who have been living together for some five years and have a child of their union, but also it is stated in the Bill, at page 1, line 21, that that adulterous relationship was one of the grounds for the divorce of Mrs. Sonia Billington from the son of Mr. Norbury Billington, whom she now wishes to marry.

In the Church of England we have recently had lengthy discussions about the question of the remarriage of divorced persons in church, and, to the regret of many of us, we were not able to agree on a change from the existing policy. But one thing which seemed to be generally accepted by both sides throughout those discussions was that neither marriage in church nor the use of a service of dedication after a civil marriage would be appropriate when one of the parties had been involved in bringing about the divorce of the other. I believe that to be a sound principle and of wider application than in the particular context in which I have mentioned it.

The general attitude of the Church to the matter of the marriage of those connected by affinity has been expressed in previous debates and will be repeated when the Bill to which I have referred comes before the House, so I will not go into it in detail now. I will say only that, although we must all feel sympathy and compassion for a couple who wish to marry and to legitimise a child born out of wedlock, it seems to me that we have to consider the public policy which is involved. If we pass this Bill, I think we shall appear to be condoning the adultery and its involvement in the divorce, which I have described, and that I believe would be a very serious matter.

12.10 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, before discussing the various factors relevant to this Bill, I should like to make it clear that I do not know either Norbury Billington or Sonia Ann Billington personally. I have obviously studied the various papers made available by the Personal Bills Office in relation to this case and my remarks are therefore based on the facts as presented.

As your Lordships are aware, the law does not permit a man to marry his daughter-in-law and this prohibition is for reasons of affinity. When the last personal Bill of this nature came before your Lordships, I got the firm impression that almost everyone accepted the married prohibitions for reasons of consanguinity or, more simply, of blood, but that there was widespread misunderstanding of the motives for prohibiting marriage for reasons of affinity. Indeed, I suspect that some of your Lordships, and indeed some members of the public at large, may think that the motives for prohibiting marriage for reasons of affinity are archaic, outmoded and no longer relevant to society in Britain in 1985. I shall seek to show that this is very far from the case.

This would not be the time or place for a lengthy explanation into the reasons behind the prohibitions on marriage for reasons of affinity, but The Times leader of 31st May 1984 had this to say on the subject: The cardinal principle is that no individual may look for potential sexual or marriage partners within the family. I should now like to paint a brief picture to demonstrate exactly what this means. Let us take a man aged 60, who has a son aged 25 who marries a girl aged, shall we say, 20. Relations between the son and daughter-in-law deteriorate and the girl begins to form an attachment with the father. Is this not likely to produce sexual pressures within the family of a quite unacceptable nature—without doubt, the strains on the marriage of the son and daughter-in-law would be aggravated—and are not relations between father and son likely to come under considerable pressure also?

There is further important evidence in favour of the retention of the prohibition on marriage for reasons of affinity. On 22nd January this year, the House of Bishops debated this issue and came down in favour of retaining the prohibition preventing parent-in-law from marrying daughter-in-law, by a very substantial majority of 36 votes to one. Thus this well-informed body of Prelates clearly considers the law as it stands to be both relevant and meaningful in today's modern society. Finally, Holy Scripture decrees in Leviticus, Chapter 18 and verse 15, that a man may not marry his daughter-in-law. Furthermore, this is only one of four instances in which the death penalty is ordained for marital offences, thus emphasising the enormity of this proposed marriage.

In conclusion, as I said earlier, I am not personally acquainted with either of the parties involved and my sole motive in arguing against this proposed union is that I am concerned about the effect it will have on the stability of the family if this Bill ever becomes law. Furthermore, it seems to me that the onus is on the noble Lord who introduced this Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, and others in favour of it to demonstrate in incontrovertible terms that very exceptional circumstances exist in this particular case. It is of course for your Lordships to judge in this matter, but for my part I cannot see that there is anything fundamentally exceptional about the case before us today, and consequently I must urge your Lordships not to give this Bill a Second Reading.

12.15 p.m.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, we always listen with the greatest interest, sympathy, and indeed fascination, to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, who this afternoon deployed all his most plausible forensic eloquence in favour of the proposition that a woman should marry the father-in-law who was the co-respondent in her divorce from his son. The noble Lord, who I regard as a great personal though not political friend, gave a rather selective interpretation of the report of the committee of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, No Just Cause, because he quoted from the majority report, whereas it is the minority report that was endorsed by the Bishops.

There are real doubts, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, made so clear, about the facts and we have no means of testing those facts. We are told in the statement in support of the Bill that the obstruction to their marriage is merely "technical". It is not technical at all. It is law, and to treat the law as a mere technicality is itself a debasement of the law. We are told in the statement that they lived as father-in-law and daughter-in-law for the first six months or so that the lady was in the father-in-law's house. But in the Bill they are described as having "lived together" during that period.

We are told that the children want this marriage to happen. But are we to be influenced by the judgment of a child of 15, still less of a child of 11? We are told that the couple, "believe in marriage". I daresay they do, but what kind of marriage do they believe in? Apparently they do not believe in marriage as defined and established by the law of this country, and as protected by the law of this country.

Finally, we are told that there is "hardship". I am not quite clear where. They will no doubt continue this relationship of living together, if they want to. So far as I am aware, nobody can stop them. Where the hardship comes in is difficult to see, unless it is that, for the sake of legitimising the third child the other two are to be faced in after-life with the taunt: "Your mum married your grandad". Hardship is not, in my view, proven.

The critical question, however, to which we must address ourselves is that raised in the preamble to the Bill, where we are told that the legal impediment serves, no useful purpose of public policy". This is the point to which your Lordships are in duty bound to address yourselves. The Marriage Act 1949 confirmed, once again, that our society, whatever our religious convictions may be, treats the family circle as desexualised and that was the purpose of that Bill. Here is a proposition which would contribute to the undermining of family stability in general. The question of hardship, I submit, is unreal and, with regard to the adultery continuing, I am not sure that there is anything useful to be said about that. This Bill would be more suitable for the advice columns of a rootless society and might be better described as an exercise in the law of triviality.

I would remind your Lordships that back in the 17th century Lord Halifax reminded us that "All irregularity is catching." Man is a beast when shame stands off from him. I beg your Lordships to support the negative approach to this Bill to be determined presently in the Lobbies.

12.20 p.m.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, I had no intention of speaking today, and in fact I am only here by accident as it were. I noticed that no other noble Lord of my own religious persuasion is here to say anything, and I thought I would just say that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester in what they said.

I should like first to say, if I may—I do not often speak in your Lordships' House—a word of congratulation to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, on the absolutely clear way in which he put the case. I do not think it could have been done better and it enables us very easily to make up our minds about what we should do. There are two aspects of this problem. One is the great matter of public policy which is infringed by this Bill. I say that because there is a tendency these days to ignore the sanctity—I use that word here in a general sense and not in a sacramental sense—of marriage and thus break up the family, which is the most important unit of society. Therefore I feel that I must say that I would not wish to support the Bill on those grounds and could not do so.

More particularly, I was fascinated by what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, had to say about the ins and outs of the particular case. One can see all kinds of reasons why people in this situation should bring forward a Bill. One does not like to talk in this House about the private affairs of any family, but how do we know, for example, that there was not something going on between the father and the daughter-in-law long before this ever happened? We know nothing about all that. That is just one thing. There are so many other things which, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, rightly said, are so difficult for us to decide upon. One comes back to the old adage that hard cases make bad law. One will not rectify any scandal by doing this, because the whole world knows exactly what is the position. People make their beds and then they must lie on them. That is really all there is to be said about it.

12.22 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I should like permission to speak although I have not put down my name, because I am deeply concerned about the way in which this discussion is going. We have on several occasions passed Bills which, if we were to examine them in detail, would make it very difficult to say that this case is any less acceptable than other cases that have previously been accepted. I agree that we are in a difficulty in that the Bill to be brought forward as a result of the revision of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, will not come forward until the autumn. Therefore, as has been said today, the law is exactly as it has always been and this is technically contrary to the law. Of course on previous occasions we have taken no notice of that and I think it would be extremely difficult to establish that the case before your Lordships' House today is any less acceptable than other cases which we have accepted.

I would also remind your Lordships' House that although, as many speakers have said today, the law does not permit of the marriage of affines, nonetheless the law does permit a man to marry his brother's divorced wife. If one can marry one's brother's divorced wife, it seems extraordinary to be taking exception to the fact that one might be allowed to marry one's son's divorced wife. The fact of the matter is that once that was permitted by law the question of marriage between people who have been related in the family, though not related by blood, has been settled. It has been accepted that it is possible so to do. It has not been extended by law to daughters-in-law or sons-in-law, but it has been for brothers-in-law.

The logic of the position is one of the reasons that we urged so strongly in the committee to which reference has been made, and which produced the report No Just Cause, that the law urgently needs to be changed. It is regrettable that it has so far not been changed. We are in a difficult position, but I would remind your Lordships very strongly that with the law as it is you have previously accepted cases which you would find it very difficult to say were more acceptable than the case now before your Lordships' House.

In regard to the position of this woman, whom I have never seen and whom I do not know, I would remind your Lordships that she was not aware, according to what we have been told by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, why she was taken from Cheshire to her father-in-law's house. Her husband then left her to go to somebody else and she stayed with her children in that house. It was not a position of her choosing. What developed since then surely merits a consideration and compassion from your Lordships' House no less than the compassion you showed in the case of the Hills earlier this year.

12.26 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, I do not know at all whether it is proper for me to say anything on this occasion. I have only two qualifications to do so. The first is that I think I have been present at every one of the previous discussions either on Private Bills which fall into this category or on a Public Bill which failed, I think, to be passed to alter the law—

A noble Lord

My Lords, it was withdrawn.

The Lord Chancellor

It was withdrawn, my Lords. That is what the effect was. There are things I should rather like to say to the House about this matter. I do not want to say much about the merits of this case, which I have not studied. I would point out, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has just done, that the original act of adultery in this case was not that of the proposed bride, if this marriage were to take place. One has to view the subsequent adulterous association which took place between the father-in-law and the lady in the light of that fact and in the light of the divorce law as it is, about which I have probably a good deal of professional experience both before and after the new system of divorce was introduced.

I can only infer from what I have read, because we have not gone into the facts, that it was probably the result of an arrangement between the parties which is now perfectly proper that the original petition, which was that of the former wife of the son, should be compromised on the basis that a new petition based upon the wife's adulterous association with her father-in-law should proceed instead. I feel sure from a very considerable experience of family law, that that was the case. Therefore, that is a mitigating factor if it be true, which I feel confident it is.

What I really got up to say is that I think the House is being put in an impossible position this morning.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not want to say a word about the convictions, religious or moral, of anyone who has spoken, but I am concerned about the procedure and the fact of this House being in the position in which it finds itself. I absolutely agree that it would be highly desirable if a general law which commanded sufficient support to get through Parliament should be passed, but the more I have heard of these private Bills the more unacceptable I find it that the House should be asked on Second Reading either to reject, as it were, the petition or to admit the petition.

To begin with, the House has behaved with the utmost sensitivity. There is no reproach to he levelled at anyone who has spoken, but it really is not possible to discuss this matter without offending against human decency on the Second Reading of a Bill. This is a private Bill. It is not opposed, but it will go to the Private Bill Committee, an Unopposed Bill Committee, I understand. I see that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees so indicates, and that is the information I have.

The facts, then, can be ascertained. We are asked to decide this question without evidence, and that offends me. It offends my sense of justice. It offends also my sense of public decency—that these discussions have to take place in public if we are to decide upon them at Second Reading. My own very strong conviction is this. I see before me perfectly well-filled Benches, but still that a very small number of Peers who have a right to attend and consider matters of this kind are present in the Chamber and have heard the debate. Many of them may have come for reasons totally different from any to do with the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran.

I would hate to see a Division on this Second Reading. That is not because I necessarily do not agree with the right reverend Prelate: it is simply that I do not think that on Second Reading we have the material before us that would enable this House to form a judgment finally on this matter. In the procedure to which we are condemned by reason of the state of the law as it now is, we must have a Second Reading. I believe that the Procedure Committee ought in future to consider what is the proper course to take on the Second Reading of Bills of this kind. I say that in the knowledge that general legislation might overtake the Procedure Committee in those circumstances. But I also feel that if we are to be condemned to go through this experience from time to time, then we ought to know what the will of the House is as to how we should proceed. I hope that the Procedure Committee will consider this matter on the basis that in the absence of general law we must try to preserve human decencies, which the present procedure does not.

Having said that, my own strong conviction is that a Division on this matter at this stage of the Bill would not be a very desirable way of deciding a question of human relationships. I should like to see a Committee stage, when these matters could be discussed more or less in private and on evidence. I understand that the procedure would be that the two parties most affected by this Bill would have to give evidence on oath; at any rate, it would be possible to ask questions.

I may be wrong, but my own conviction is that if we are to undergo this experience at regular intervals of about six months then we must devise a procedure that is acceptable in this House. My strong conviction, having listened to all these debates, is that the merits or otherwise of what is proposed, in the light of the fact that we have allowed a number of these unions to take place, ought to be discussed in Committee and not on the Floor of this House on a Friday morning. I feel this very strongly.

My name was not down to speak; my noble friend Lady Cox was to speak on behalf of the Government. The Government must be neutral in a matter of this kind, and perhaps my noble friend would like to say so formally afterwards. I felt very much, simply as a Member of this House, and with rather considerable experience of it, that we were being asked to take a most distasteful decision, in a way that really is incompatible with human dignity on evidence that is unsatisfactory, and in a House that is not altogether representative.

I would myself say, therefore, that, if left to myself, and without prejudice, what I might do after this stage may very well depend on factors such as those mentioned by my noble friend Lord Lauderdale. This morning, I think that this matter ought to go to a Committee and not continue to be laundered in public. Whatever may be the moral or theological values involved in this debate, the moral and theological values of what we have been doing are very much more questionable than anything which this unfortunate couple have done or might do in the future.

12.35 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, perhaps I may at once say how much I believe the House will follow him in his remarks and will agree with so much of what he has said. I tried in language that was not as clear or as eloquent to say rather the same things. The reason for my intervention is that I believe the House is faced with a procedural difficulty, and I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord can help.

As I understand the matter, if this Bill goes to an Unopposed Bill Committee for private Bills in the normal way, then that committee will not be in a position to go into the merits of the case at all. Therefore, referring the Bill to that committee would not do what any of us would want it to do. I have taken certain advice, and what I hope to do is to move that this Bill be referred to a Select Committee of this House, for that Select Committee to look into the matter in the way the noble and learned Lord indicated. Obviously, I have not had an opportunity to put down such a Motion in a formal way, but if the House will allow me to do so I shall certainly undertake to put down such a Motion in the course of this morning.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am really in the hands of my noble friend on the Front Bench and of the Lord Chairman of Committees, who might like to explain to the House with more authority than myself what is proper. Certainly I would favour a committee discussion rather than a public discussion of this highly distasteful matter.

12.37 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, perhaps I may say just a few words. This is a personal Bill, but it follows the same procedure as a private Bill. Normally speaking, with a private Bill, when your Lordships receive it for a Second Reading you are not asked to approve the content of the Bill. In fact, in giving a Second Reading earlier today to the Plymouth Marine Events Base Bill your Lordships were not approving what was in that Bill but were merely saying that it should go to a committee and there be examined. In this case, therefore, I would go along very much with what the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has said—that it would be highly desirable that this Bill should proceed to a Committee stage.

We are, though, in a procedural difficulty, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said, in respect of an Unopposed Bill Committee. There is no petition against the Bill. In fact, apart from the former husband I imagine that there are very few people who could establish a locus standi to make a petition. So the Bill would go to an Unopposed Bill Committee and that committee would hear only what the promoters have to say on oath.

I should therefore like to suggest that we give this Bill a Second Reading and then give further thought as to whether the correct procedure should not be to set up a Select Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, indicated. I know that it would be possible to do so now, but I thought we could possibly merely undertake that the Bill will go to a committee. If an Unopposed Bill Committee is in a position to give proper consideration to what has been said here, that will be all right. Otherwise, perhaps a Select Committee would be a preferable move.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, with the leave of the House, and before the noble Lord sits down, I believe that many of us would be content not to divide—and I have already indicated my neutral position from a personal point of view. But I believe that the House would want to know with some certainty that this matter will be looked at by a committee, that such a procedure will be followed. That is why I asked whether my notice of Motion, that it be referred to a Committee so that the matter could be dealt with in that way, was acceptable to the House at this moment rather than leave it, as it were, in limbo. Therefore, with the permission of the House, I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the Question is—

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I interrupt the proceedings again, if I may, with the leave of the House. I think that the noble Lord has to give notice of such a Motion. Therefore, it would be better, I suggest, if he followed my advice that in due course we proceed to give the Bill a Second Reading on the undertaking, which I readily give, that we will see that it is referred to a proper committee. If the Unopposed Bills Committee is not the correct committee and cannot deal with the points raised today, I will come forward, or the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, will come forward, with a proposal in due course that it be referred to a Select Committee.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down will he clarify this point? Are we to understand that if we give the Bill a Second Reading now, it will go to a committee which can test the evidence and, if necessary, cross-examine the petitioners, because that is what bothers us?

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I certainly give the undertaking to arrange for the Bill to go to a suitable committee which can, in due course, report to the House when the Bill comes back on Third Reading.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, but will it be a committee that can question and cross-examine the petitioners?

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, it would have the normal powers of a Select Committee.

12.41 p.m.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, as my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor suggested, it may be helpful to put the Government's position, which I shall do very briefly. It has for some time been the policy of successive Governments not to seek to advance a view in debating personal Bills such as the one before us today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, reminded us, since 1979 Parliament has passed four such Bills and the Government have consistently and collectively adopted a neutral position on the merits of each individual case.

Such Bills always bring to the fore the much more general question of the principles which should govern marriage between affines Indeed, these have been raised in this morning's debate. While the Government follow closely the learned and informed debates that arise on these issues of principle and have taken note of the differing views expressed in the report published in May 1984 by the group appointed by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, to which reference has been made, the Government remain reluctant to depart from their neutral position in regard to Bills which concern individual cases. The Government have not found any special features which persuade them to offer any advice to your Lordships regarding this personal Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, introduced the Bill with great sensitivity and any decision must be a matter for the judgment of individual Members of your Lordships' House.

12.43 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, one thing that this interesting debate on this Friday morning has shown is how totally unsatisfactory are the present procedures for dealing with these sensitive and emotional matters involving such human misery as has occurred in this case.

I shall not make a long speech in summing up, but I should like to say how grateful I am to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chichester for having indicated that as a result of the decisions of the commission, of which my noble friend Baroness Seear was chairman, discussions are going forward to reach a procedural and an administrative position which will avoid personal Bills coming before the House in this way.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that the procedure is incompatible with human dignity, and he referred to the human decencies of life not being properly looked after by this procedure. As my noble friend Baroness Seear indicated, there have been four very difficult cases which have come before this House and which have led to Bills being given Second Readings. I have regard to the sensitive summary of the position given by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, when he put forward his personal view to the House and advised your Lordships that he will not be pressing this matter to a Division. I also have regard to what was said by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and also the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, as chairman of the Personal Bills Committee, who have considered this matter as a preliminary affair. In those circumstances I hope that it will not be pressed to a Division and that your Lordships will agree that the Bill should be read a second time.

On Question, Bill read a second time.