Gifts Between Engaged Couples

Part of Orders of the Day — Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th April 1970.

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Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East 12:00 am, 10th April 1970

My hon. Friend really came up to expectations on the Committee considering the Bill. He is absolutely right to say that an engagement ring is a gift, full stop, with no conditions attached.

From time to time my hon. Friend gives us some interesting and highly-coloured descriptions of what life is like in the Welsh valleys. We had examples of some parts of Britain—I am not sure whether they were in Wales—where rather odd symbols of troth are given, such as bent sixpences. I think that we would have no hesitation in knowing what to do with such symbols, but an engagement ring is something very special. It is a landmark in a girl's life when she receives one, whether it is the first or perhaps one of a succession. It is also a landmark in the life of the young man who gives the ring, because it shows that he has a degree of seriousness in the particular girl, that he regards himself at least for the time being as her plighted troth, and that the intention is that the marriage shall be carried out and eventually consummated in the normal way.

It is possible to receive an engagement ring after marriage and not before. I was not able to receive an engagement ring before marriage simply because my fiancé and I could not afford it. We had both been students, and when we decided that we were meant for each other it was a question of whether we could afford to buy furniture for our flat or an engagement ring. I decided, very nobly, I think, and probably very sensibly, to defer buying the engagement ring to buy the furniture. This meant that probably I eventually got a very much better ring than by fiancé could have afforded before we married, so I think that I got a better deal in the end. A ring given after marriage as an engagement token is no less precious to the recipient.

Rings are given in very different circumstances. In Committee, the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) described how he pushed his engagement ring to his fiancé across the teatable at Fuller's, in Liverpool, one afternoon, and said that she took a rather dim view of this unspectacular offer of the ring.

In many cases the young couple visit several jewellers' shops over a period of time to decide which ring they will buy. Having decided on the financial range in which they will operate, they take quite a long time over choosing it together. It must be a marvellous experience for a girl to be able to choose and not just to have to wear any old ring her fiancé decides to give her, whether across a café table or elsewhere. It is perhaps even more of a personal thing if she has been able to select the ring that she would particularly like to wear. But that makes it an even more bitter situation if the engagement is broken and she is faced with the question of whether to send the ring back or to keep it.

Perhaps because I am a woman, I come down firmly on the side of those who say that the ring should be hers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool said in Committee, she may decide that she wants to do something rather drastic with it after it can no longer sit on the third finger of her left hand as the symbol of her engagement to the man of her choice. He said that she might even want to chuck it in the river.

I believe that if she is jilted she is right to do what she likes with the ring—chuck it in the river, or perhaps sell it. She might feel that she particularly wants to keep it because it is a memento of a period of her life. Not all partings take place in an immense amount of bitterness and unhappiness. They may leave something sweet at the end, something that is to be remembered and valued.

Into the romantic atmosphere created in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool, bless him, the cold voice of male logic was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes), who warned of the machinations of the female gold-digger—a phrase I have not heard for a long time. I think that it dates back to the 1920s. We remember those lush Hollywood musical films. He warned about the gold-digger who acquires a ring, perhaps a very expensive one—good luck to her—and then flagrantly breaks off the engagement and keeps the ring, and who may make this a sort of practice. Having pulled it off once she may think that it is a jolly good thing, and will find a succession of men in a position to buy her equally expensive rings.

This is not a very valid argument. The suggestion does not fit in with female psychology at all. Is it really within the bounds of possibility that one woman could find so many rich men to give her so many expensive rings? Maybe she can do it once, she might even get away with it twice, but this really is not a possibility.

As my hon. Friend has said, I think that if a man gets hooked with that sort of woman then it is really a cheap price to pay—even though he may have spent quite a lot of money on a nice engagement ring—to be rid of her and able to look with a clear conscience for a better sort of fiancée to provide him with a better life in the future.

One ought not to place too much weight on that. I would be very much happier, and here I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), if the Amendment finished at the words "absolute gift" and that the ring should be presumed to be an absolute gift. I can see the point about the family heirloom being handed over as an engagement ring and that if we said that the engagement ring was an absolute gift that would mean that the fiancé had no means of getting the family heirloom back into the family unless the Amendment continued as it does on the Notice Paper.

I should have hoped that in those circumstances, where it was obviously understood that this was the kind of gift which should remain in the family, to be handed down from generation to generation, that the girl would be reasonable and would be willing perhaps to do something that she would not do in normal circumstances.

I do not support at all the idea put forward in Committee that there should be any question of taking the matter to court to decide who broke off the engagement and why and who, therefore, should be entitled to have the ring back or keep the ring. This Amendment, therefore, is an improvement on that. But as I said, I should be happier if the Amendment finished at the words "absolute gift".

This is something which is tremendously important to a girl or a woman who receives a ring. I think that we accept the fact that a ring is a gift and a gift is a gift. It is not something given conditionally, although I understand that that is the position at the moment, and that the Law Commission's report said that there is a presumption that engagement rings are conditional gifts. But it is certainly an improvement to decide that engagement rings should be absolute gifts, and that they should be kept by the fiancée in the circumstances.