Liberal Reforming Legislation (Wilson 1964-70)


Private members' bills

The labour government did not set out with a 'liberalising' agenda; their manifestos made no mention of moral issues. Labour leaders such as Wilson and Brown, were conservative on moral issues and many W/C Labour MPs remained suspicious of change. But laws on what are considered moral questions are usually free votes (individual MPs can vote according to their own conscience rather than following an official party).

Althought the vast majority of proposed legislation passing through Parliament is government bills, there is also the provision for backbench MPs to propose legislation through private members' bills. The 1960s saw a number of reforms through this mechinism. They were successful as Jenkins was sympathetic and so enabled enough paliamentary time to be available for the reforms to be passed.

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The end of capital punishment

Arguments against the death penalty had advanced in the 1950s and although public opinion remained sharply divided, the anti-hanging campaign had recieved a particular boost from the case of Ruth Ellis, a young mother who had murdered her unfaithful lover in 1955. In 1957, the Tories had reduced the number of offences carrying the death penalty, but the Labour backbencher Sydney Silverman continued to campaing to support for a total abolition. In 1965, on a free vote, hanging was abolished for a trial period of 5 years and was made permanent in 1969.

Jenkins also refused to authorise the beating of prisoners, which ceased after 1967, and he brought in 'majority' verdicts for English juries rather than demanding unanimity (all 12 jurors had to agree on the verdict; with a majority verdict it meant a decision could be made if at least 10 jurors agreed). This helped to convict many dangerous and professional criminals, though the abolition of hanging did not significantly reduce the number of murders or violent crimes, as its supporters had hoped.

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Divorce Reform 1969

Until the 1960s, divorce law demanded evidence that one person had committed adultery. To gain this, the rich used cameras and had private detectives, for others this was near impossible. Jenkins believed that the laws were out of date, and the Divorce Reform Act was passed in 1969. Couples could now divorce if:

  • they had lived apart for 2 years and both partners agreed to divorce
  • they had lived apart for 5 years and one partner wanted to divorce

However, not all MPs were in favour. Following the reform there was a huge increase in the number of divorces. In 1950 there had been fewer than 2 divorce decrees per 1000 married couples in England and Wales, but by mid-1970s nearly 10 in every 1000 marriages ended this way. This could be parlty because of the growth in female independence as well as the reform.

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The legislation of abortion 1967

Until 1967, abortion (except on strict medical grounds) was illegal. The only way of termanating a pregnancy was to find a private clinic, if you could not afford these fees, or search out a backstreet abortionist. Between 100,000 and 200,000 illegal abortions were performed each year and around 35,000 women were admitted to hospitals with complications. Between 1958 and 1960, 82 women died from backstreet abortions

The liberal MP David Steel led the reform campaign in parliament, supported by the Labour government and also a number of Conservatives. The Thalidomide disaster during the 1960s was where a drug (thalidomide) was prescribed to women with morning sickness and was found to produce congenital deformaties in children when taken in early pregnancy. Children were commonly born without the long bones of the arms and/or legs. In reaction to this, opinion polls showed a majority in favour of abortions when an abnormality had been detected in a foetus.

The Abortion Act permitted legal termination within the first 28 weeks, under medical supervision and with the written consent of 2 doctors. There were hopes for more effective contraceptives and better education would limit the need for abortion proved false. The number of abortions increased from 4 per 100  live births in 1958 (35,000) to 17.6 (141,000) in 1975

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The legalisation of homosexual relations 1967

Up until the 1960s men could be imprisoned for 2 years for participating in homosexual acts. The Conservative government had rejected the Wolfenden recommendation to decriminalise (remove an action or behaviour from the scope of the law) homosexuality and the Labour government of 1964 was divided over it. 

It was left to a Labour backbencher, Leo Abse, to take up the cause, thanks to Jenkins' support he was able to get enough parliamentary time for his private members' bill to become law as the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. Although this did not legalise homosexual acts it decriminalised them where 3 conditions were met:

  • both partners had consent
  • both had to be over the age of 21
  • it had to be private
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Educational Reform

The development of Comprehensive schools:

By the 1960s the idea that different types of secondary school in the tripartite system were equal in status had long since passed. The secondary modern pupils were seen as 11+ exam failures and the whole system seemed socially divisive, with the majority of grammar school places going to those of M/C backgrounds.

Local Education Authorities (LEA) were responsable for schools and in some areas, they had established comprehensive schools. In a comprehensive, every child would have the same opportunities to learn at their own pace and sit exams according to their own abilities in each subject. By 1964, 1 in 10 pupils were being educated in a comprehensive. In 1965, Tony Crosland, a leading supporter of the comprehensive system, became minister of education which accelerated this process. 

By 1970 there were 1145 comprehensive schools catering for 1 in 3 of all state-educated secondary school pupils. 

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Educational Reform

The expansion of higher education and the inaugration of the Open University:

Fears that Britain was slipping behind in science and technological education had already led to the establishment of the Robbins Committee in 1961. The Robbins Report found that Britain lagged behind France, Germany and the USA. They also found that too many students followed arts-related courses to the exclusion of science and technology. The government responded by extending higher education:

  • Polytechnics replaced Colleges of Technology. Their focus was to be on applied education for work and science and they would concentrate on teaching rather than research.
  • Nine Colleges of Advanced Technology became full universities and the Royal College of Science in Scotland became Strathclyde University.
  • 'New' universities were to be founded.

By 1968, there were 30 polytechnics and 56 universities. New institutions brought new courses and it became possible, for example, to take a degree in town planning and architecture. The new polytechnics and universities opened up higher education to families who had never attended a university, although M/C children still dominated the old universities.

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Educational Reform

The Open University:

Wilson was later to say that he wanted to be remembered for the creation of the Open University. It combined his enthusiasms for equal opportunity in education, modernisation and 'the white heat of technology'. 

In September 1969, the Open University headquarters was established in Milton Keynes and by mid 1970 there had been enough applications for the first students to begin their studies in January 1971. It became a rapid success. 

It attracted the mature, women and the disadvantaged, and it helped to raise the esteem of those who had regarded themselves as educational failures. By 1980, the Open University had 70,000 students and was awarding more degrees than Oxford and Cambridge combined.

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