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Marriage By Proxy

Volume 390: debated on Wednesday 30 June 1943

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Major Sir James Edmondson.]

I hope the House will be patient with me, because I must detain it to-day, but this is the first time since I have been a Member of Parliament that I have asked for and received the opportunity of raising a question on the Motion for the Adjourment. I feel very strongly about the subject I wish to raise, following a Question I first put to the Home Secretary last July, with regard to the great human problem of marriage by proxy, and I make no apology for raising it to-day. When I put a Question to the Home Secretary last July the answer did not take us very far. Later I asked another Question as to the countries which recognised marriage by proxy in civil and canon law, and to my surprise the Home Office did not have that information; at least, I did not receive it. But within 24 hours of my putting the Question I received the information from one of the leading newspapers of this country. Later, I interviewed the Home Secretary and placed before him all the evidence as to the urgent necessity for facilities for marriage by proxy. Along with Lord Gorell, President of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, we interviewed the Leader of the House. On both occa- sions we were received with great courtesy and consideration, and then we waited until Easter for a definite decision from the Government. That decision was unsatisfactory.

There was no real reason for the refusal to provide facilities for marriage by proxy or, as I prefer to call it, marriage by statutory declaration. There was simply an expression from the Home Secretary of fears of abuse. But we must face the facts. What is the position? There are two sections of the community that earnestly desire these facilities. We have young people who possibly expected to get married, and then the man was automatically called up for the Services, had no embarkation leave and, consequently, had no opportunity for marriage. Some of these men have been in the thick of the fighting in various theatres of war and have asked themselves whether they will ever come back. They have expressed the desire to marry their sweethearts and to have the satisfaction of knowing that they have been able to honour the pledges of marriage which they have made. If this request were granted, it would give satisfaction to the man and the girl. We also have the position of girls who are expectant mothers. I have had letters from many hundreds of Service men in various theatres of war who have told me of their distress, men who have been conscripted and who are quite willing and able to play their part in winning this war, but who resent the fact that this country, the Government, do not give them the right to marriage and, with that right, the legitimisation of their child. What usually happens is that a girl writes to her sweetheart, informing him of her condition, and he is desperately anxious to return to this country in order to marry her and to give his baby a name and a place in the world for which he is fighting. Because of military reasons the Government are unable to accede to that request. In many cases the man sends the girl money for her maintenance or to assist her during the last months of her pregnancy, or during her confinement and after the baby is born.

Suddenly the money stops. Why? Because the man may be killed or is posted as missing. Think of the plight of that girl. Even if her sweetheart has admitted paternity, even if he has been desirous of marrying her, she has no claim on the Government. If he is killed, she cannot receive a pension or an allowance for herself or for the child, and we have had to extend a helping hand to many of these young women to enable them to get over that pitiful time in their life till the birth of the baby. We must compare the position in which we place these young women with the treatment that has been meted out to other sections. If these young folks had gone to live together for six months before the man was called up the woman would have been treated as a dependant, living as an unmarried wife, and would have received a Government allowance, and the baby would have received an allowance, and if anything happened to the man, the woman would receive a modified pension, and the baby would receive a pension also. We punish young couples who have been swept away by their emotions, and we inflict punishment, on the woman particularly, with a savagery which is unworthy of a Christian civilisation. I have been extremely distressed at the callous indifference of the Government and their complete inability to face up to the realities of the situation. I am not here to argue about the morals of the position. I am only here to tell the facts as to the realities. I laid the facts before the Home Secretary, and I put some very distressing cases to him where quite decent girls were in this plight. I have a letter from the Home Secretary, in which he said:
"I have no doubt you know that by Section i of the Legitimacy Act an illegitimate child is made legitimate by the subsequent marriage of the parents, provided neither of them was married to a third party when the child was born. I am afraid, however, this is rather cold comfort,"
Indeed, it is rather cold comfort, because in thousands of cases the man never comes back, and the woman is left to bear the shame, the sorrow and the suffering. She may be financially distressed, and she is left also to go through life with a child which has the stigma on it of illegitimacy. We feel that these men who are defending our country, these mighty men of Great Britain, ought to have facilities to marry by proxy or by statutory declaration. Other countries have given these facilities in war-time. They did so in the last war—Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Czechoslovakia and Italy. Many countries have also given these facilities in peace-time. We are not asking for that. We are asking for facilities for the legalisation of marriage by proxy as a war-time or emergency measure. Portugal and many of the Latin-American States have recognised this system, both under canon and civil law in peace-time.

I do not know why the Government have hesitated on this question. I have addressed a large number of meetings of all parties in the community, and I have yet to find a fundamental objection or opposition to these facilities. It is true that there are some old-fashioned people who do not quite like the idea but, like the Government, fear abuse and are apprehensive as to the effects, but the majority of people feel that we are inflicting an injustice on the fighting men and that, after having conscripted them, we deny them the right to marry the women of their choice and in many cases to legitimise their children. I have received letters galore from all parts of the world, from men in the Fighting Services, from their sweethearts and from the parents both of the men and of the girls, and they cannot understand the hesitation or reluctance of the Government to deal with the situation. Important organisations like the National Council of Women and the National Union for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child have passed resolutions.

Some of my friends have been at great pains to find out what the attitude of the Churches is to this proposal. There has been an erroneous impression that the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to the legalisation of a marriage by proxy. That is not so. The hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan) took the matter up with the Archbishop of Liverpool, Dr. Downey. He replied:
"A special mandate is required which must be signed by the one for whom the proxy acts and by the parish priest or the local ordinary of the place where the mandate is given, or by a priest delegated by either or by two witnesses to the valid exercise of the office of proxy."
To the question whether the Catholic Church would support marriage by proxy the answer was, "Yes," provided their exists a just reason such as a soldier fighting outside the country. All we ask is that facilities should be given to bring them into line with those afforded by other countries, that it should apply as a war-time measure and that there should be proper legal safeguards. Surely it is not outside the wit of the Law Officers of the Crown to bring forward a scheme that would prevent abuse and give the necessary facilities. I conclude by appealing for justice and fair play for the men and women in the Services during this national emergency. I want also earnestly to appeal for justice and fair play for the children of the men who are standing by the country during its hour of need. I am an old-fashioned woman who believes in the sanctity of marriage, and I would not defend any proposal which in my judgment would lower the status of marriage. I believe that we ought to grant these facilities as speedily as possible in order to give an opportunity to a section of our community to have the right of marriage and to prevent thousands of children from going through life with the stigma of illegitimacy about them.

I wish to say only a few sentences, because time is short and we want to hear the Minister. I wholeheartedly support the hon. Lady the Member for Dartford (Mrs. Adamson), who is urging marriage by proxy. I am fully aware of what those who oppose this humane reform feel. They say that if a Measure of this kind is introduced, it will be abused by certain designing women. I think that puts the case of the opposition in a nutshell. I only want to tell the House what I find from my practical experience as a practising doctor, one who sees many women who come to me with many of their troubles, including many young women who are pregnant. They come alone sometimes, but very often, in these days, with their mothers.

I assure the Minister that if a Measure of this kind were introduced, it would not be abused by designing women, because the designing, wicked woman does not bear an illegitimate child. It is my own experience, and it is borne out by doctors with whom I have discussed the matter, that it is the simple, stupid girl who becomes pregnant. During this war I have come across many, many pathetic cases of stupid girls of 18, 19 and 20 who have become pregnant and whose young men, their fiancés, have gone away, perhaps on the high seas or somewhere abroad, and it has been sheer cruelty for me to have to tell those girls that they have got to bear those children, that the children will be illegitimate and that there is no chance of their marrying the father until probably after the war. I want to remind the Minister that the majority of men are not foolish, that every man is not easily deceived, and that he must realise that if a woman writes to a man and suggests marriage by proxy, the man himself could find out whether it would be wise or not. He can also get the advice of his commanding officer. I beg of the right hon. Gentleman not to think of all single women as being designing hussies or of all men as being bereft of common sense.

I usually make a practice of agreeing with ladies as far as I can, but on this occasion I am definitely against them. The case has been put very fairly, and I am anxious to hear the reply, so I will not take up many minutes. To hear some people talking, one would think there is nothing in the world to-day except illegitimate babies. I do not think anything of the sort. I have no idea of what the number may be, but I do not think there are any more now than there have been all the way through. Girls are capable of looking after themselves as well as ever they were, and I think they are doing so. It is a reflection on girls to bring forward a proposal of this sort. The war is made an excuse for almost anything. All sort of things crop up during the war. We are in the greatest war we have ever seen and the greatest, I hope, we ever shall see, but I do not think even this great war should compel a Government to bring in this legislation, which will affect the lives of the people for very many years afterwards. It is no good talking about designing women who would not do this or that; they would do it, and if a girl found herself in a certain condition, there would be all sorts of influences to bear on the young chap, who might be abroad. The colonel would be written to, the padre would be written to, and if anybody happened to know the sergeant-major in the regiment, somebody would also write to him. There would be all sorts of influences.

Some men who are abroad fighting would, I think, treat the matter as a joke and say, "All right, let it go." I look upon marriage as a very sacred thing. Happy married life is one of the nicest things, and I cannot imagine a happy married life being brought about, generally speaking, in this way. I do not think it could be. I believe we are going to have a lot of trouble in the world after the war through people who get married to-day and go abroad to-morrow and do not see one another again for a year or two, with all sorts of things happening in the interval. There will be enough troubles of that sort without bringing in what I would call a silly and mad proposition such as we are discussing now. I have heard odd proposals brought before this House, but this, to my mind, is about the worst of the lot. I am definitely against it, and I hope the Home Secretary will, without any compunction whatever, put an end to this thing. Even the war is not sufficient justification for bringing in a proposal of this character.

It is difficult to reject any plea put before the House by the hon. Lady the Member for Dartford (Mrs. Adamson), because she is equipped with kindliness and courtesy, and possesses more than her share of human goodness of heart. I apologise to the House for the absence of the Home Secretary, who has, as hon. Members know, had a heavy day and has other matters to attend to.

The hon. Lady proposes a very far-reaching change in our marriage law. It is true, as she stated, that this change which she desires is the law already in many foreign countries—which are for the most part Roman Catholic in their religious outlook. This proposal raises considerations of broad public policy of the greatest importance, but I feel certain that the instinct of our people would be overwhelmingly against a change of this character. The essence of our marriage ceremony, whether religious or civil, is the simultaneous exchange of vows between the parties, in the presence of each other and in the presence of their friends and, in the case of those who are married in church, in the presence of God. It is not a state to be lightly entered into. When the hon. and gallant Member the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty Officer A. Herbert) brought in his Bill for easier divorce some years ago, I think he suggested that we ought to make marriage not easier but, if anything, more difficult. The sort of case which the hon. Member has in mind arises from war circumstances. There are undoubtedly some hard cases. She thinks of a man, let us say in the Middle East on the eve of battle, who would like to marry a girl in this country. I am not at all sure that the state of mind of a young man in the Middle East who is going into battle on the following day is the right state of mind in which a man ought to enter the state of matrimony. After all, these young men are full of chivalry. They hear from a girl at home whom they have seen for a few weeks or months before they went overseas, that she is in what is known as the family way, and I have not much doubt that in those circumstances those young men would enter marriage very lightheartedly, and would do so out of a sense of chivalry. I am not at all sure that, as a result, we should not get a number marriages which were doomed to disaster from the outset.

Of course, there are difficult practical questions. There is the question of whether the party who signs first is to be bound by the promise until the other person has signed also, and whether there is to be an opportunity, as there is in the case of an ordinary marriage, of either party changing their mind up to the very last moment. You have also to consider the case where the man may be wounded, taken prisoner or even killed, after the girl has signed the necessary documents. Is she, if he is killed, a widow or is she still unmarried?

If you were to have proxy marriage, you would obviously have to have it not only where the girl is pregnant, but you would have to have it in all cases. I do not think you could confine it to members of His Majesty's Forces. There are many people compulsorily separated in time of war from the girls they want to marry, in the Colonial service, and in the Indian Civil Service, and so forth. I think you would have to extend this matter to very large classes of persons. The hon. Lady referred, perfectly fairly, to the Legitimacy Act, 1926, which enables a subsequent marriage to remove the stigma of illegitimacy from the child. It is perfectly true that there will be some hard cases. There are bound to be at any rate a few cases where subsequent marriage is impossible owing to the father of the child being killed in battle. But I think this is a further consideration that we ought to have in mind, that if we were to admit proxy marriage, I think there would be some stigma attaching to the persons who were married by proxy. It would be said that you were only married by proxy because circumstances compelled you to do so, and I think that in the case of everybody who married by proxy it would be assumed that the girl had got into trouble.

In my view and in the view of His Majesty's Government, the projected change would be open to abuse, would lead to many cases of uncertain status where the parties would not know in fact whether they were married or not, and would lead to the contraction of a number of marriages which would be doomed to disaster from the outset. There is no evidence which we have been able to obtain from the Service Departments that this change is desired in the Services themselves. Any change in the law could, I think, only be made by Act of Parliament. This is not the sort of change which could be undertaken by Defence Regulation as a matter arising out of the war, and in my view we should have to have a much more forceful expression of public opinion before we undertook a change of such a very far reaching and very drastic character.

I listened to the hon. Members who spoke first, and I wish in one moment to support them. I hope they will not give up this desire to help those in distress. What are we all out for? To prevent the bastardisation of our children. The Government, by refusing any action, are merely conniving at it.

What we are out for is not to prevent the bastardisation of our children but to promote happy marriages.

I do not think this has been argued nearly as fundamentally as it ought to have been. Obviously I cannot cover the ground in a minute, but I would like to suggest that in canon law and civil law a marriage is not valid until it is consummated. If the hon. Lady's scheme were adopted, many benefits would flow in the matter of pensions, legitimacy, etc., but if there should not be cohabitation after the war, as is feared, that would be a valid ground for nullity.

There was one point on which the Minister laid a certain amount of emphasis, that if such marriages as suggested were permitted, they would carry with them repercussions that there was something wrong between the parties. Is it not frankly admitted on all hands that that is the reason why the suggestion is made, that there is something we want to cover by marriage by proxy, and that that is the only means whereby it can be achieved?

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.