§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Mr. A. BEVAN
I beg to move, in page 42, line 38, after "person," to insert:or for the purpose of preventing an applicant obtaining such allowance or for the purpose of reducing the amount of the allowance.The Clause provides that, if a person makes a false statement for the purpose of obtaining an allowance, he is liable on conviction to a period of imprisonment not exceeding three months. The purpose of the Amendment is to impose a similar penalty upon anyone who makes a false statement against an applicant for an allowance. If the Government do not accept this Amendment, their refusal will expose them to very unpleasant charges. We do not take great exception to the board protecting itself against false statements by the applicant, but an unemployed person ought to be protected against malicious persons who, merely for the purpose of tormenting him, may lay false charges which may lead to most unpleasant consequences, because he will be brought up before the tribunal and may be subject to civil disabilities. Why should a workman be exposed to a disability from which an employer is exempt? If a workman tells a lie, he is 996 liable to be sent to gaol. If an employer tells a lie, he has not even to answer for it.
It must not be thought for a moment that all who come under Part II will not have left employment. A man can leave employment and immediately come under Part II because he will have exhausted his title to benefit under Part I. So that if, after losing his employment, an employer makes certain statements to the unemployment assistance officer against the person who has lost employment, the man ought to have some protection against a malicious employer. One must assume that in many cases a quarrel has arisen, otherwise the man would not have left his work. We have some experience of this under the present administration. I have known very many instances where employers have made statements on the buff forms. Asked to state why the man has left his employment, the employer says "Misconduct." There is no obligation on him to prove the charge. He has not even to detail it. He merely says the man lost his employment through misconduct. An employer ought to be subject in this case to the same penalties as are imposed upon the applicant for benefit. To carry the point further, a neighbour of the applicant, or any other person, may have his knife in him. Any manager of an Employment Exchange will tell you that week by week he gets shoals of anonymous letters from all sorts of people making all kinds of accusations against unemployed people. Usually he has the good sense not to take any notice of anonymous correspondence. In this case also I assume that no notice will be taken of such correspondence. If a charge is made by any person against an applicant for benefit, he ought to have some protection. There is no redress open to him.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
Is the hon. Member aware that an employer would be liable to an action for damages if he entered the word "misconduct" deliberately?
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
The hon. Member misunderstands me. I was pointing out that he was not accurate when he said that there was no redress against the employer. There is.
§ Mr. CROOM-JOHNSON
Has the hon. Member not heard of the Poor Persons Rules, under which members of the legal profession deal with cases such as this, and are quite ready and willing to lend their services?
§ Mr. BEVAN
I am mindful of what members of the legal profession do under that Act. I am also aware, from personal experience, of the great difficulty sometimes of getting cases taken up. I am very anxious not to traduce the legal profession. They do very useful work, but the ordinary unemployed man knows nothing at all about that. It is too complicated. It is too remote. He has to excite all sort of people's interest before he can get that done. The ordinary man knows nothing at all of what he is entitled to, or lawyers would not get the handsome fees that they do. The ordinary man gains nothing at all by prosecuting. This lays an obligation on the Unemployment Assistance Board to prosecute the applicant. We want to impose an obligation upon the board to prosecute a man who lays a false charge against the applicant. We want to protect the applicant against persecution. A man's relations with his neighbours are not always harmonious. There may be a quarrel, and the other man may send in a letter or make a charge against him.
Unemployment assistance officers will have great powers under the Clause. They need only make a charge against a man who applies for assistance in order to put him to the unpleasant necessity of appearing before the tribunal, and the tribunal is of such a character that he cannot secure adequate defence. He cannot cross-examine and he has no one there to assist him in his defence. It is not a court of law, but a secret tribunal. 998 He has not even the protection of publicity. A man would hesitate to come into a court of law and tell a lie, because he might be exposed, but this is not a public tribunal. A man can tell a lie against another person and escape the consequences even of publicity. This is a narrow point but a very important one, and I urge hon. Members to give it sympathetic consideration and not arm anyone with powers to torment these people, who are already sufficiently tormented by prolonged unemployment.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Mr. DINGLE FOOT
I should like to say one word in support of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. A. Bevan). I do not entirely share his apprehension about employers, but I think there is a great deal in what he says about malicious misrepresentations. He drew an analogy with the manager of an Employment Exchange who receives a large number of malicious communications. I think that this is even more true of public assistance at the present time, and it is much more effective in the case of public assistance, because the public assistance officer has a great deal more discretion than the manager of the Employment Exchange as to the amount to be given to the applicant. Those hon. Members who represent depressed areas where a large number of people are in receipt of public assistance know such cases well, and all of us have had experience of people coming to us who have been denied public assistance, or the usual rate of public assistance, because of anonymous letters or reports that have reached the public assistance officers from an unknown source. It is very difficult to trace such reports, and in some cases it is difficult to know the grounds on which public assistance officers have started to make inquiries.
There is no doubt, however, that this kind of thing exists, and the fact was admitted by the Minister himself, when he introduced this Bill, in a passage which hon. Members will clearly recollect. Speaking about the Poor Law, he used the expression "This whispering-gallery of gossip.' I have always remembered this striking phrase, and there may well be something like a whispering-gallery of gossip in relation to Part II of this Bill, and the public assistance officer. We all know that there are people who 999 make it their business to carry tales about applicants for public assistance, and they may in the future carry tales about applicants for relief under Part II of this Bill. People who spread false rumours in that direction should, in my view—and I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the Amendment—be under exactly the same penalties as those who make false statements in order to get an allowance under the Act.
§ 7.3 p.m.
§ Miss RATHBONE
I rise only to ask one question, and I hope it will be answered either by the learned Attorney-General or by the hon. and learned Member who has reassured the Committee that there is no need for the Amendment because, if the employer or some other person makes a false representation against an unemployed person, the man has his remedy in a civil action for damages. Will one of the hon. and learned Members inform the Committee what such an action, brought in the civil courts, would cost the unemployed person?
§ Miss RATHBONE
Would it cost nothing even if he lost his case? It is not my experience in cases brought under the Poor Persons' Defence Act that they do not cost the poor person nothing, especially if he had any distance to go; or that Poor Persons' Defence is adequate in covering the whole cost of a case. Moreover, the case has to be brought by an unemployed man who, presumably, has not even the means provided by unemployment allowance, because ipso facto and ex hypothesi he has failed to get the unemployment allowance. I only wish to find out—and this is a genuine question, and not a rhetorical one—whether the civil remedy open to these persons is at all equivalent to the remedy which will be open to them under this Amendment.
§ 7.5 p.m.
§ Mr. JANNER
I rise to support the Amendment. I am glad that the hon. Lady raised her question. While we know that the Poor Persons' Rules provide for possibilities of assistance in actions of the description referred to, the fact remains—and I am sure that the hon. and learned Members who are present know 1000 it well—that the average man is not aware of these facilities and the trouble to which he is put in order to obtain them. Far be it from me to suggest that that trouble is being made by the legal profession, for I know that the legal profession is anxious—I say this with full knowledge—to assist in those cases. That is, however, not quite the point. It is not at all a question of the legal profession, but of the approach by the individual himself and his lack of knowledge of the method of approach, which is oft-times so difficult for him that he leaves the case alone entirely. That is an important matter from the point of view of the person who is applying for relief.
I believe that an equivalent punishment to that which is imposed upon the applicant himself in this Bill does not fall, as the law stands at present, upon the person who knowingly lodges false statements to prevent a man from obtaining the relief which is due to him. The whole point is whether the Committee considers it advisable and necessary that a man should be liable to criminal proceedings for a statement that he has knowingly made to prevent an applicant from obtaining relief, or whether hon. Members are satisfied that the civil remedy is sufficient in itself. In my view, with the greatest respect to those hon. Members who feel that it is, the civil remedy is very difficult to obtain, in spite of the generous assistance of the Law Society and of the Poor Persons' Committee in such cases.
§ Mr. JANNER
I do not know what the damages would be in a specific case; no doubt the hon. and learned Members could give an answer to that question, though possibly even they would not be able to agree on the amount which would be given in a specific case. That, however, is not the point. The man may be able to get damages, but his difficulty in obtaining them, with all the assistance that is forthcoming, is so great that, although it has occasionally been done, it is very rare for a man in that position actually to take the step of bringing a civil action. Suppose an ill-disposed person sets himself out deliberately and definitely to prevent an applicant from obtaining relief. He may be a poor man himself and not in a position to pay 1001 damages. Is it fair that the only action which will lie against him should be the ordinary civil remedy?
§ Mr. CROOM-JOHNSON
Has my hon. Friend forgotten that there is such a thing as a criminal prosecution available?
§ Mr. JANNER
It should be made clear in the Act. When an applicant institutes criminal proceedings for libel, he has to take very considerable care what he is doing. According to the Amendment, the duty would lie on the authorities themselves, having satisfied themselves that a man had knowingly given information of that description, to take the steps which are dealt with in the Amendment. If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept the Amendment as it stands, I would respectifully point out to him that he should reconsider the position, or at least give us an assurance now that by the time we reach the Report stage an obligation shall be placed upon the person laying information, and a redress shall be made available against that person—without the necessity for the applicant to take any serious and difficult proceedings—equivalent to the remedy at present given to the board against the applicant.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
I would make a plea to the Minister to see whether nothing can be done in this case. The law as it stands at the moment is, as far as I know, that a person has an action against some other person for a slanderous statement when that slanderous statement has the effect of his being refused benefit, and a case has been decided by the courts. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Sir A. Steel-Maitland), was requested to alter the law, but declined to do so, and said that the aggrieved person should be left to his civil remedy. The same is true in regard to unemployment benefit, but I ask hon. Members to note the difference. At the present time the only case which occurs is that of an employer who gives information about a man. In the great majority of cases the employer has assets, and therefore damages can be obtained from him. Now, however, the law is changed by Part II, 1002 and it is not merely an employer who lodges certain statements against an applicant, but anyone may now lodge them.
I would put it to the hon. and learned Member who interrupted, and who naturally will have regard to law and procedure, that at present when a man has a statement made against him that statement is submitted to him in writing, so that he knows exactly what statement the employer has made against him and has evidence on which to found an action against the employer on that statement. Here, however, he does not get a statement in writing; he has no right to get it in writing. In other words, when he is summoned before the board under this Act, the statement made against him is not necessarily submitted to him before he appears, as is a statement made by an employer under Part I. I submit to the hon. and learned Gentleman that there is a tremendous difference here from the legal point of view. There can always be argument about what a man says, but when the statement is made definitely in writing there can be no argument.
The second important difference, therefore, is that the law is now changed, and anybody may make a statement. At present, roughly speaking, the opportunity is confined to employers, but under this Part a man's wife may make a statement against him; a man's sister, relative, neighbour or anyone can write in and say that he has done certain things or not done other things and that therefore he is not entitled to receive benefit. The hon. and learned Gentleman who interrupted me said that an action can be taken for criminal libel. I do not know much about the English law, and I stand open to correction, but as far as I know, two courses are open to a man. Either the Public Prosecutor has to take up the case on his behalf, or he himself may take it up. If he himself takes it up, he has either to prove that he is a poor person or, if he is not poor enough, he has himself to pay every penny of the cost of the prosecution.
In Scotland it is different. We have no criminal libel. I have often felt at election times that I have been slandered, and that terrible things have been said about me which were not true. In England a person would be criminally prosecuted, and, therefore, 1003 would not dare to do such things. At all events, the fear of being criminally prosecuted is a definite limitation in this country, but in Scotland a person can say what he likes about anybody, and the only recourse one has against him is a civil action for damages. A civil action might not have any effect because, even if you obtained a decree, it might not be enforceable, because there might not be any assets. Consequently, the people concerned in this question are to be left to be slandered by anybody. To such persons the consequences are grave. Such men cannot take criminal action in this country, or civil procedings in Scotland, against the persons uttering the slander, because they usually have no assets. Consequently a man is left open to the most terrible things.
I do not know whether hon. Members generally realise the kind of thing that goes on. Each morning the manager of an Employment Exchange, or the clerk of a Poor Law authority, opens the post, terrible statements are often found to have been made by some people against others, sometimes arising out of politics, and frequently, in some districts, arising out of religious issues. If action is taken on such evidence, a man's benefit may be stopped, and afterwards it may be found that the information was entirely false. I recall a case of an application for Poor Law relief being made by a woman who was refused certain relief on the ground that she had had an illegitimate child by a man whose position did not entitle her to make the application. We took the matter up, and the Poor Law inspector said that we were right. The Scottish Office appointed one of His Majesty's sheriffs to hold an inquiry, and when the matter was gone into it was found that there was not a shadow of foundation for what had been said about the woman. Yet we had not a vestige of a case against the person who had made the statement because we could not take criminal action. If you are to put terrible penalties upon the recipients of this money, surely those who may make serious charges against them should not merely lay themselves open to a civil action. If you are to see that one class of people are dealt with, at least those 1004 who slander and state untruths should be dealt with.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Mr. LOGAN
I think that the Minister would be well-advised to accept the Amendment. Anyone with a knowledge of Poor Law must be aware of the malicious statements which are often made, and of the fact that there is no redress for the ordinary common folk in the way of going to law in such cases. Poor Law authorities, which often deal with thousands of cases in a week, frequently come across letters which are libellous and do an injustice to the persons about whom they complain. The incorporation of the Amendment would be invaluable, while the hanging up of notices as described under the Clause would also have a good effect. It is not a figment of imagination when I say that I have come across thousands of cases of people who have been anxious to do an injury to really bona fide applicants. Sometimes they go to such lengths that they not only send in a letter, but they give their proper name and address so that one can go and question them. When one discovers that they are liars, it is because there is enmity between families, and one member is trying to injure another. These are the ordinary affairs of life. There is often enmity between parents and children caused by inter-marriage and such-like difficulties.
I am not in favour of a person receiving benefit to which he is not entitled, but where a bona fide person makes a claim there should be no aunt, mother-in-law or father-in-law doing the nosey Parker business by sending a letter, as they sometimes do, to the relieving officer. Sitting on a board I have had as many as 40 or 50 letters, each containing the name of the writer, making charges against particular persons. Such persons ought to be in the asylum. They are very dangerous, and at least there ought to be some power over them which would keep them from making malicious slanders against applicants. If the Minister will look into the matter, he will find that there is a great deal in it. Public assistance authorities throughout the country are often inundated by that kind of letter, and relieving officers, who have great responsibilities and great ability, are out until midnight two or 1005 three times a week trying to verify some of these malicious statements. If there were a penalty, and action could be taken, these cases would not arise. There is something in the Amendment, and, with my experience of the Poor Law, I am convinced that it might do good.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Sir Donald Somervell)
Every Member of the Committee must obviously detest the kind of man with which the Amendment is framed to deal, that is to say, a man, be he an employer or be he a labourer, whatever his motive may be, such as malice based on family or religious differences, as the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) suggested, who knowingly makes a statement which is designed to prevent some one from getting the proper allowance which he should get. But I venture to put before the Committee certain reasons why, in spite of that position, the Amendment is really one which raises very wide issues on our general law, and cannot be accepted. What is in the Bill already is, I think, following on Section 22 of the 1920 Act, and is, of course, in accordance with our general criminal law. People, be they employed persons or employers, or anyone else, who get money by false pretence, commit a crime. This really is a particular example of that general principle of our criminal law. The Amendment would create quite a new type of crime hitherto unknown to our law. It may be—I do not suggest it for a moment—that our criminal law ought to have, in all circumstances of life, very much wider scope than it has at present, but I wish to stress to the Committee that this is introducing a fundamentally new principle into our criminal law.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
The new principle is, that a man who makes a false statement, not on oath, calculated to do someone else damage commits a crime. That is not the position now. My hon. Friend said that a false and defamatory statement might be criminal libel, but I say that a false statement, which may not be defamatory, calculated to damage another person is not at present a crime by the law of this country.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
I do not think so. Telling a lie, even though it damages someone, is not a crime.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
It may or may not be. What I was trying to put before the Committee was the general position in our law, and the fact that the Amendment would introduce into one special set of circumstances, and with regard to one particular inquiry, a new crime. It would raise at once very wide issues. Why stop here? Take the case of a man, the malicious kind of person we are talking about, some malicious neighbour who makes some false statement which prevents a man getting a job, that is perhaps just as damaging as a false statement made in this particular case. He might make a false statement about a man which might prevent his being taken on by a landlord in respect of a house. He might say he was an undesirable tenant and thereby inflict great hardship. One might multiply hundreds of cases of this kind.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
You prosecute a man because he gets benefit by making a false statement, but you do not prosecute in the other case.
§ Mr. A. BEVAN
You are not only punishing the applicant for benefit, but if any person on his behalf makes a statement he is liable to three months' imprisonment. Is not that an extension of the existing position?
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
I think that is the form of the Act of 1920, and that it meets the case where the allowance may be for a son.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
My hon. and learned Friend says that it is a completely new crime. With his great legal knowledge and acumen he will admit that any novelty there might be in introducing that principle is incomparable with the novelty of the principle that would be introduced by this Amendment.
§ Mr. BEVAN
The hon. and learned Member has not met my point. I could understand an applicant for benefit being liable to three months' imprisonment for making a false statement in order to obtain benefit for himself, but any other person giving evidence on his behalf—it may be a trade union official—is also liable to a similar penalty.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
Perhaps I was a little too ready in agreeing with the hon. and learned Member that this constituted a new crime. It would be impossible to conceive of two persons coming along and making false statements one on behalf of the other without there being a conspiracy between them.
§ 7.33 p.m.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
I have been to the court of referees thousands of times. An applicant tells me certain things—sometimes it is a claim in respect of a child—and I have gone to court and stated things which turn out to be wrong. Lawyers go to court and are informed by their clients of certain things which afterwards are found to be wrong. I make such a statement decently in court, and it is proved to be untrue. Although there has been no conspiracy, I am now told that if I do that with the best intention, I am to be guilty of a crime, but if a lawyer does the same for his client he is not so guilty.
§ 7.34 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
The hon. Member has misunderstood the position. The case which he has quoted has nothing whatever to do with the words in the Clause, "knowingly makes a false statement." We all deplore the sort of activity which has been referred to, but on the broad principle that the Amendment would create a new crime it is impossible to accept it. It would raise issues for the general extension of the criminal law. The way in which hon. Members have stressed the extraordinary volume of those anonymous or signed malicious statements which descend on public assistance authorities is in itself a protection. Those responsible for administering public assistance or acting as officers of the Board will not pay the slightest attention to epistles of that kind. There has been no demand so far as I know from local authorities who, 1008 ever since this duty has been placed upon them have been faced with the same problem, for the special criminal power which the Amendment would seek to introduce into our law. I was asked a specific question by the hon. Member for the Combined English Universities (Miss Rathbone) with regard to a case brought within the Poor Person's Rule, and I said I thought the cost to the applicant would be nothing or, at any rate, negligible. If the Rules are not generous enough and if there are difficulties with regard to the applicant getting into touch with the proper people, then the right course to adopt is not to create a new criminal offence but to alter the Rules and to see that those people do get access so that they may have their cases represented.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Sir S. CRIPPS
The hon. and learned Member's argument seems to be an extraordinarily weak one. He started off by admitting the danger and the gravamen of the difficulties which arise.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
The hon. and learned Member misrepresents me by saying that I admitted that there was danger. I said that everybody must be indignant with regard to people who try to do this kind of thing, but it was not in my mind to suggest that there is any special danger.
§ Sir S. CRIPPS
Then the hon. and learned Member denies what is known to everybody to be a fact, and that is, that danger does arise. When action is taken the man is not accused of these things openly and publicly and he has no opportunity of cross-examining anybody who makes the statement. He does not know who has made the statement. He is tried in his absence on the weight of statements of which he has absolutely no knowledge. Anything more completely contrary to one's idea of English justice it is impossible to imagine. There are the circumstances of the trial in which the whole of his livelihood is at issue, a matter which is absolutely vital to him. He is accused, and it is said that if someone makes a false statement he may bring a civil action against him or proceed for criminal libel. So far as criminal libel is concerned I presume that that was put in as a joke. Imagine an unemployed man who has the 1009 resources to start prosecution for criminal libel, out of which he can get no damages, the whole cost of which he has to pay, proceedings which do not come within any poor person's procedure, and in connection with which he is unable to get the assistance of any poor person's rules. If he can get the Director of Public Prosecutions to take up the matter, well and good; he will have no expenses to pay, but let us imagine some unemployed man in a remote district being able to get the Director of Public Prosecutions to take up a criminal libel action on the strength of documents which he has never seen and the existence of which he only suspects. It is perfectly fantastic.
The question of bringing a civil action puts him into the same difficulty, because he does not know what it is. All that he knows is that someone at some time has made a false statement against him by reason of which he has suffered. He has no power of discovery. He cannot get the letter produced. He cannot go to court and get an order for the production of the document. There is absolutely no protection for him of any sort or kind in regard to proceedings in camera, to which he has not access. In these circumstances, the Solicitor-General says that the Amendment will raise a new principle of criminal law which may have wide repercussions and, therefore, we cannot indulge in it. I suggest that the whole method of trying these cases is introducing a completely new principle into the laws of this country. If you are going to choose to introduce new principles of Star Chamber into this procedure—and it is Star Chamber in its worst form—you must also introduce principles Of protection in order that people may not unduly suffer from these Star Chamber proceedings. What is the argument of the hon. and learned Member against the introduction in these cases of a power by which the board, a responsible body, can, if they ascertain that false statements have been made for the purpose of damaging a person who is trying to get assistance, take action? What is the principle that determines that that power shall not be given to the board?
The hon. and learned Member says that it is an extension of the criminal law. It is within the present Clause that a person who attempts to obtain money for himself is liable. The Solicitor-General 1010 may say there was a similar Section in the earlier Act; that is immaterial. Here is a case where the man is not trying to obtain money for himself but where he makes a statement in a case where he is trying to assist someone else to get what he believes he is entitled to. In the course of that proceeding he knowingly makes a false statement, which everybody would reprobate, but that would not be a criminal offence. He is not doing it on oath. He is only telling a lie to try and help a friend. The hon. and learned Member does not suggest that at present it is criminal to tell a lie to help a friend. That is all that the man is doing. What about the other side of the picture, namely, telling a lie to hurt a friend? If you penalise people by making them liable to three months' imprisonment by a court of summary jurisdiction because they tell a lie to help a friend, it should be equally right to penalise a person if he tells a lie to hurt a friend or an enemy. There is no such provision which would save the Clause from appearing entirely one-sided, as it undoubtedly will appear to the unemployed man. The Clause seeks to penalise him and his friends but does not penalise his detractors, whoever they may be. Surely the Minister is not going to allow that impression to get out as regards the enforcement of this Clause. It is important, whether there may or may not be many prosecutions, that every unemployed man should feel that he is being treated justly and that the Whole weight is not being put into one balance of the scale.
This is a matter of vital importance, and I implore the Minister to take steps so that the unemployed man can feel that he is getting protection, and that if people are trying to detract from his benefit there will be power to protect him against it. That is all that we ask. Otherwise, the man is absolutely at the mercy of anyone who likes to make a false statement. It may be said that the board will not pay attention to these statements, as a rule, and in 99 cases out of 100 they will not pay attention to them, but there is always a feeling of danger to the unemployed man, and there is a feeling that unless the Government accept the Amendment they will not be using their influence and power to protect the unemployed man from that danger. I hope that the Minister will accept the Amendment, or some similar words, 1011 which will enable him to say to the unemployed, "We are going to see that you are protected against people making false statements in order to take away your benefit." I think this is more vital to an unemployed man than anything else, because you take away from him his only means of subsistence. It is far more vital to him in many ways than libel or slander. Once it becomes known that a man's benefit has been taken from him he is marked as having done something undesirable, and in the circumstances I hope that the Minister will be prepared to do something and will not make us go to a Division on this point as we otherwise shall do.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
The hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) has expressed his indignation at the contemptible offence of saying something about an unemployed man which will have the effect of preventing him from getting his benefit. That indignation is shared by everybody, and no doubt it is a contemptible offence. But what the hon. and learned Member has not done is to answer any of the arguments advanced by the Solicitor-General. The whole of his remarks were really an attack upon the procedure; he is merely using this Amendment as a peg upon which to hang an attack upon the procedure which takes place when claims are investigated. If it were in order that might be desirable, and I feel strongly that there may be something to be said for a procedure which is more judicial in its nature and which perhaps to some extent would bring in the law of perjury to cover some of the statements which are made in these proceedings. But that is not the present Amendment. The hon. and learned Member is too good a lawyer not to realise that a notable innovation of the law is involved. At the present moment you can say that a man has a venereal disease, and say it falsely, but the person who says so cannot be brought before a criminal court, in the same way as this Amendment would deal with a person who has said something which has prevented a man obtaining unemployment benefit. You can say that a married woman is not chaste without incurring the penalty which this Amendment imposes upon anybody who makes a false statement about an unemployed person. 1012 You may say that an unmarried woman is not chaste, and all kinds of atrocious lies about your political opponent at an election without incurring similar penalties to those imposed by the Amendment. If the Amendment were accepted, it would admit a breach in the existing law of libel and slander so extensive that it would be impossible to allow other anomalies to exist where they are. Obviously, you cannot make a lie a criminal offence by a side-wind in an Unemployment Insurance Act. A far-reaching change of that kind ought to be carried out in a different way and not by an Amendment on a subsidiary Clause in a Bill like this.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Major MILNER
It is astonishing to hear the hon. and learned Member for Nottingham Central (Mr. O'Connor) talk about introducing innovations into our law. The Government have introduced many new offences for which the subject can be fined and imprisoned. For instance, if he sells milk at less than the fixed price. But here the learned Solicitor-General and the hon. and learned Member are protesting against a perfectly proper and reasonable safeguard which it is desired to introduce into the Bill. What remedy has a man who is traduced in this way. I have had some experience of the matters which are dealt with in Part I of the Bill. Some years ago I was interested in a case where the employer had signed the buff form to the effect that an employé had been discharged for misconduct. It was an out-rageous case. A transport driver who had worked between 60 and 70 hours during the week declined, under special circumstances and provocation to continue driving any longer—I forget the precise circumstances—and it was alleged, untruthfully, that he had been guilty of misconduct. He was fortunate in having a trade union behind him, and he was advised by a distinguished ex-Member of this House to bring an action for libel. He did so, and the judge decided that it was a case of qualified privilege, and a special jury, composed for the most part of employers, decided that there was no malice. Costs were awarded against that individual amounting to something like £1,200. He had no remedy, and he has suffered considerably since.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
That man would not have been punished under the Amendment you want to put into the Bill.
§ Major MILNER
I am suggesting that he would have been punished. If that employer knowingly made a false statement to the effect that the applicant had been guilty of misconduct, then he would come within the ambit of the Amendment, privilege would not enter into the matter at all, and he would come before a court of summary jurisdiction and be liable to imprisonment.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
The hon. and gallant Member will forgive me. If it could be proved in a criminal court that he knowingly made a false statement then it would be equally possible to prove in a civil court that he had done so maliciously, and the fact that the jury acquitted him and found that he had not made the statement maliciously is absolutely conclusive that he would never have been convicted in a criminal court.
§ Major MILNER
The hon. and learned Member knows quite well that different principles apply in a civil court to those which apply in a criminal court. The question of malice would not enter into this matter at all. It entered into the civil proceedings, and "malice" and "knowingly" are two entirely different things. I submit that there is no other safeguard than a provision of this sort for a man who is dealt with under Part II. He will not even know the statement that has been made unless the information is given him, or he is informed at the exchange that certain statements have been made against him. Suppose he is informed, when his case comes before the tribunal, that a false statement has been made against him and he is in a position to prove that it was made knowingly, he has no remedy of any kind. He cannot get damages against his employer.
I should have thought that the Minister of Labour would accept the Amendment because of the deterrent effect it would have on employers. There are, of course, only a minority of employers who would knowingly make a false statement against an individual applying for relief, but these cases certainly do occur before the public assistance committee, and I suggest that the Amendment would have a deterrent effect on that class of em- 1014 ployer and would be a safeguard to a man against having libellous and untrue statements made against him. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Central Nottingham with regard to the Poor Persons Act and the opportunities which are afforded under it, and while I know that in my part of the country great efforts are made to help poor persons in this respect I am not sure whether applications for libel proceedings are favourably received, involving as they do considerable expense, possibly very difficult proceedings, with small results. However, I suggest that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and that if it is right for an unemployed man to be subjected to this penalty in the event of making a false statement there can be no reasonable objection why the same provision should not be inserted with regard to false statements knowingly made by his employer.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Mr. CROOM-JOHNSON
I feel shocked at some of the statements which have been made with regard to the position of these people. May I deal first with the hon. and gallant Member for South East Leeds (Major Milner), who I believe is a member of my own profession. There is no privilege known to the law in matters of defamation, libel or slander, in making a statement which you know to be untrue, and I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Member for Central Nottingham (Mr. O'Connor) when he stated the situation with regard to statements which are in writing. The hon. and learned Member for Bristol, East (Sir S. Cripps) in the midst of all that he is doing lately has forgotten that there is an action well known to the law under which you may claim damages for a false statement, apart from defamation altogether, which is made maliciously with intent to injure another person, and I cannot conceive a simpler case than that dealt with in this Clause where a person deliberately makes a misstatement of fact which he knows to be untrue with the object of depriving one of these poor applicants of the money which we all desire he should get. I cannot conceive a simpler or easier case.
§ Mr. CROOM-JOHNSON
There is no difficulty about that. Actions of this nature are constantly being taken, and very frequently they are taken by organisations of one sort or another. We know that all you have to do, if you cannot come within that category and cannot get anyone to support you with money, such as a trade union or an unemployed workers' association or any of the societies which exist for the purpose of giving advice and assisting people—all you have to do is to go to the committee which administers the poor persons rules, and they give you a certificate which is easily obtained, as a result of which you get free legal advice and assistance.
§ Mr. CROOM-JOHNSON
No, I shall not give way. This is not question and answer. I am trying to give to the Committee some assistance on these various points. The other question is, what then is to be done? I look at Section 22 of the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920, and I find a provision which is almost similar in words to this. It deals with the question of "knowingly," and is intended to hit people who, in the language of the learned Solicitor-General, are attempting by false pretences—that is what it really comes to—to get money. But is it not very much more to the benefit of the man who has suffered from this sort of thing, not that the individual who is sought to be brought within the Clause by this Amendment should go to prison, should be fined, but that the man who has suffered by his action should bring him before a civil court, where an award may be made in favour of the man who has suffered?
That is the distinction between the civil remedy and the criminal remedy. If he is so fortunate as to find the man concerned is an employer, he may get, and will get, in circumstances such as we are discussing, an award of damages which would amply compensate the individual who has suffered. If the man concerned happens to be someone of less pecuniary position, there are means known to the law by which if you get au order against such a person it can be enforced so that at all events the remedy is no idle one but is really and truly effective. In those circumstances it seems to me 1016 that this Amendment is really aimed at a position which does not arise. It would open the door to all sorts of other questions which would make an extremely difficult situation. As to that I agree entirely with the learned Solicitor-General.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Mr. A. BEVAN
The hon. and learned Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Croom-Johnson) has devoted most of his speech to admitting that it is desirable that an unemployed man should be protected against his traducers, and the other part of his speech he devoted to the contention that there are available to the unemployed man ample opportunities for protecting himself. If that be so the hon. and learned Member will agree with the provision to make it absolutely beyond peradventure that the man is so protected. Why then does he resist the Amendment? The Amendment is that the Unemployment Assistance Board shall prosecute.
§ Mr. CROOM-JOHNSON
The hon. Member has omitted to observe that the word in the Sub-section is not "shall" but "may."
§ Mr. BEVAN
Everyone knows that the Board, if they find that a man has broken the law, would be under an obligation to prosecute. I did accord to the hon. and learned Gentleman a courtesy which he did not accord to me, but he has not added to the position at all by his interruption. The position is that these poor unemployed persons have no protection at all. I do not want to use harsh language, but the hon. and learned Gentleman really is so far remote from the position of an ordinary unemployed man that his observations are not relevant at all. When he talks about an unemployed man prosecuting people in the civil courts or in the criminal courts, he really is wasting the time of the Committee. He is merely drawing a red herring across the trail.
Lawyers have talked on this subject for three-quarters of an hour, and have discussed the various means available to the unemployed man to protect himself against his traducers. Almost all the lay Members of this Committee know very well that such a protection is not worth the breath wasted on it. We are anxious to secure that protection for a 1017 man under the law, but, of course, we know that the Committee are not prepared to concede it. Local assistance officers will be provided with as many spies as possible, and the more spies there are the less chance there is of redress being obtained.
§ Question put, "That those words be there inserted."
§ The Committee divided: Ayes, 62; Noes, 263.1019
|Division No. 136.]||AYES.||[8.8 p.m.|
|Adams, D. M. (Poplar, South)||Greenwood, Rt. Hon. Arthur||Mander, Geoffrey le M.|
|Attlee, Clement Richard||Grenfell, David Rees (Glamorgan)||Maxton, James|
|Banfield, John William||Griffith, F. Kingsley (Middlesbro', W.)||Milner, Major James|
|Batey, Joseph||Griffiths, T. (Monmouth, Pontypool)||Owen, Major Goronwy|
|Bevan, Aneurin (Ebbw Vale)||Groves, Thomas E.||Paling, Wilfred|
|Brown, C. W. E. (Notts., Mansfield)||Grundy, Thomas W.||Parkinson, John Allen|
|Buchanan, George||Hall, George H. (Merthyr Tydvil)||Pickering, Ernest H.|
|Cape, Thomas||Holdsworth, Herbert||Rea, Walter Russell|
|Cocks, Frederick Seymour||Janner, Barnett||Salter, Dr. Alfred|
|Cove, William G.||Jenkins, Sir William||Samuel, Rt. Hon. Sir H. (Darwen)|
|Cripps, Sir Stafford||John, William||Smith, Tom (Normanton)|
|Curry, A. C.||Jones, J. J. (West Ham, Silvertown)||Thorne, William James|
|Dagger, George||Kirkwood, David||Tinker, John Joseph|
|Davies, David L. (Pontypridd)||Lawson, John James||Wedgwood, Rt. Hon. Joslah|
|Davies, Rhys John (Westhoughton)||Leonard, William||White, Henry Graham|
|Dobbie, William||Logan, David Gilbert||Williams, David (Swansea, East)|
|Edwards, Charles||Lunn, William||Williams, Edward John (Ogmore)|
|Evans, David Owen (Cardigan)||McEntee, Valentine L.||Williams, Dr. John H. (Llanelly)|
|Evans, Capt. Ernest (Welsh Univ.)||McGovern, John|
|Evans, R. T. (Carmarthen)||Maclean, Neil (Glasgow, Govan)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Foot, Dingle (Dundee)||Mainwaring, William Henry||Mr. G. Macdonald and Mr. D. Graham.|
|Foot, Isaac (Cornwall, Bodmin)||Mallalieu, Edward Lancelot|
|Acland-Troyte, Lieut.-Colonel||Crookshank, Col. C. de Windt (Bootle)||Henderson, Sir Vivian L. (Chelmsford)|
|Albery, Irving James||Crookshank, Capt. H. C. (Gainsb'ro)||Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel Arthur P.|
|Alexander, Sir William||Croom-Johnson, R. P.||Hepworth, Joseph|
|Allen, Lt.-Col. J. Sandeman (B'k'nh'd.)||Cross, R. H.||Hope, Sydney (Chester, Stalybridge)|
|Allen, William (Stoke-on-Trent)||Davies, Maj. Geo. F. (Somerset, Yeovil)||Hore-Belisha, Leslie|
|Anstruther-Gray, W. J.||Dawson, Sir Philip||Hornby, Frank|
|Applin, Lieut.-Col. Reginald V. K.||Denman, Hon. R. D.||Horne, Rt. Hon. Sir Robert S.|
|Apsley, Lord||Despencer-Robertson, Major J. A. F.||Horsbrugh, Florence|
|Aske, Sir Robert William||Doran, Edward||Hudson, Robert Spear (Southport)|
|Baillie, Sir Adrian W. M.||Drewe, Cedric||Hunter, Dr. Joseph (Dumfries)|
|Baldwin, Rt. Hon. Stanley||Duckworth, George A. V.||Hunter, Capt. M. J. (Brigg)|
|Balfour, George (Hampstead)||Duggan, Hubert John||Hurd, Sir Percy|
|Balfour, Capt. Harold (I. of Thanet)||Duncan, James A. L. (Kensington, N.)||James, Wing-Com. A. W. H.|
|Balniel, Lord||Dunglass, Lord||Jennings, Roland|
|Barclay-Harvey, C. M.||Ellis, Sir R. Geoffrey||Jesson, Major Thomas E.|
|Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'th, C.)||Elliston, Captain George Sampson||Joel, Dudley J. Barnato|
|Beit, Sir Alfred L.||Elmley, Viscount||Jones, Sir G. W. H. (Stoke New'gton)|
|Bennett, Capt. Sir Ernest Nathaniel||Emmott, Charles E. G. C.||Jones, Lewis (Swansea, West)|
|Bernays, Robert||Erskine-Bolst, Capt. C. C. (Blackpool)||Kerr, Lieut.-Col. Charles (Montrose)|
|Betterton, Rt. Hon. Sir Henry B.||Essenhigh, Reginald Clare||Kerr, Hamilton W.|
|Blaker, Sir Reginald||Everard, W. Lindsay||Keyes, Admiral Sir Roger|
|Borodale, Viscount||Fielden, Edward Brocklehurst||Lamb, Sir Joseph Quinton|
|Boulton, W. W.||Fleming, Edward Lascelles||Latham, Sir Herbert Paul|
|Bower, Lieut.-Com. Robert Tatton||Ford, Sir Patrick J.||Law, Sir Alfred|
|Bowyer, Capt. Sir George E. W.||Fox, Sir Gifford||Law, Richard K. (Hull, S. W.)|
|Boyd-Carpenter, Sir Archibald||Galbraith, James Francis Wallace||Leckie, J. A.|
|Braithwaite, J. G. (Hillsborough)||Gilmour, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. Sir John||Leech, Dr. J. W.|
|Brass, Captain Sir William||Glossop, C. W. H.||Levy, Thomas|
|Broadbent, Colonel John||Gluckstein, Louis Halle||Lewis, Oswald|
|Brown, Col. D. C. (N'th'l'd., Hexham)||Goodman, Colonel Albert W.||Liddall, Walter S.|
|Browne, Captain A. C.||Graham, Sir F. Fergus (C'mb'rl'd, N.)||Lindsay, Noel Ker|
|Buchan-Hepburn, P. G. T.||Granville, Edgar||Llewellin, Major John J.|
|Burnett, John George||Grattan-Doyle, Sir Nicholas||Lloyd, Geoffrey|
|Cadogan, Hon. Edward||Greene, William P. C.||Locker-Lampson, Rt. Hn. G. (Wd, Gr'n)|
|Campbell, Vice-Admiral G. (Burnley)||Grimston, R. V.||Locker-Lampson, Com. O. (H'ndsw'th)|
|Campbell-Johnston, Malcolm||Gritten, W. G. Howard||Loder, Captain J. de Vere|
|Caporn, Arthur Cecil||Guinness, Thomas L. E. B.||Loftus, Pierce C.|
|Cayzer, Maj. Sir H. R. (Prtsmth., S.)||Gunston, Captain D. W.||Lovat-Fraser, James Alexander|
|Cazalet, Thelma (Islington, E.)||Guy, J. C. Morrison||Lumley, Captain Lawrence R.|
|Chamberlain, Rt. Hon. Sir J. A. (Birm., W)||Hacking, Rt. Hon. Douglas H.||Lyons, Abraham Montagu|
|Chamberlain, Rt. Hon. N. (Edgbaston)||Hall, Capt. W. D'Arcy (Brecon)||MacAndrew, Lt.-Col. C. G. (Partick)|
|Chapman, Sir Samuel (Edinburgh, S.)||Hanbury, Cecil||MacAndrew, Capt. J. O. (Ayr)|
|Clarke, Frank||Hannon, Patrick Joseph Henry||McCorquodale, M. S.|
|Clarry, Reginald George||Harbord, Arthur||MacDonald, Rt. Hon. J. R. (Seaham)|
|Colfox, Major William Philip||Haslam, Henry (Horncastle)||MacDonald, Malcolm (Bassetlaw)|
|Craven-Ellis, William||Haslam, Sir John (Bolton)||McKie, John Hamilton|
|Crooke, J. Smedley||Heilgers, Captain F. F. A.||McLean, Major Sir Alan|
|McLean, Dr. W. H. (Tradeston)||Ramsay, Alexander (W. Bromwich)||Stanley, Rt. Hon. Lord (Fylde)|
|Macmillan, Maurice Harold||Ramsay, Capt. A. H. M. (Midlothian)||Stanley Hon. O. F. G. (Westmorland)|
|Macquisten, Frederick Alexander||Ramsay, T. B. W. (Western Isles)||Stevenson, James|
|Magnay, Thomas||Ramsden, Sir Eugene||Stewart, J. H. (Fife, E.)|
|Maitland, Adam||Ray, Sir William||Stones, James|
|Makins, Brigadier-General Ernest||Reed, Arthur C. (Exeter)||Stourton, Hon. John J.|
|Manningham-Buller, Lt.-Col. Sir M.||Reid, James S. C. (Stirling)||Strauss, Edward A.|
|Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon. H. D. R.||Reid, William Allan (Derby)||Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir Murray F.|
|Marsden, Commander Arthur||Rhys, Hon. Charles Arthur U.||Summersby, Charles H.|
|Martin, Thomas B.||Roberts, Sir Samuel (Ecclesall)||Sutcliffe, Harold|
|Mason, Col. Glyn K. (Croydon, N.)||Ropner, Colonel L.||Templeton, William P.|
|Mayhew, Lieut.-Colonel John||Rosbotham, Sir Thomas||Thomas, Rt. Hon. J. H. (Derby)|
|Mills, Sir Frederick (Leyton, E.)||Ross, Ronald D.||Thomas, James P. L. (Hereford)|
|Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest)||Rosa Taylor, Walter (Woodbridge)||Thomson, Sir Frederick Charles|
|Milne, Charles||Ruggles-Brise, Colonel E. A.||Thorp, Linton Theodore|
|Mitchell, Harold P. (Br'tf'd & Chisw'k)||Runge, Norah Cecil||Titchfield, Major the Marquess of|
|Mitcheson, G. G.||Russell, Albert (Kirkcaldy)||Todd. A. L. S. (Kingswinford)|
|Molson, A. Hugh Elsdale||Russell, Alexander West (Tynemouth)||Touche, Gordon Cosmo|
|Monsell, Rt. Hon. Sir B. Eyres||Russell, Hamer Field (Shef'ld, B'tside)||Tryon, Rt. Hon. George Clement|
|Moore, Lt.-Col. Thomas C. R. (Ayr)||Rutherford, Sir John Hugo (Liverp'l)||Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.|
|Morgan, Robert H.||Salmon, Sir Isidore||Turton, Robert Hugh|
|Morris-Jones, Dr. J. H. (Denbigh)||Salt, Edward W.||Wallace, Captain D. E. (Hornsey)|
|Morrison, William Shepherd||Samuel, Samuel (W'dsworth, Putney)||Wallace, John (Dunfermline)|
|Moss, Captain H. J.||Sandeman, Sir A. N. Stewart||Ward, Lt.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)|
|Muirhead, Lieut.-Colonel A. J.||Sassoon, Rt. Hon. Sir Philip A. G. D.||Ward, Irene Mary Bewick (Wallsend)|
|Munro, Patrick||Selley, Harry R.||Ward, Sarah Adelaide (Cannock)|
|Nation, Brigadier-General J. J. H.||Shakespeare, Geoffrey H.||Warrender, Sir Victor A. G.|
|Normand, Rt. Hon. Wilfrid||Shaw, Helen B. (Lanark, Bothwell)||Waterhouse, Captain Charles|
|Nunn, William||Shaw, Captain William T. (Forfar)||Wedderburn, Henry James Scrymgeour-|
|O'Connor, Terence James||Shepperson, Sir Ernest W.||Wells, Sydney Richard|
|Oman, Sir Charles William C.||Simmonds, Oliver Edwin||Weymouth, Viscount|
|Palmer, Francis Noel||Skelton, Archibald Noel||Whyte, Jardine Bell|
|Pearson, William G.||Smith, Sir J. Walker- (Barrow-in-F.)||Williams, Herbert G. (Croydon, S.)|
|Penny, Sir George||Smith, Louis W. (Sheffield, Hallam)||Wills, Wilfrid D.|
|Percy, Lord Eustace||Somervell, Sir Donald||Wilson, Clyde T. (West Toxteth)|
|Perkins, Walter R. D.||Somerville, Annesley A. (Windsor)||Wise, Alfred R.|
|Petherick, M.||Somerville, D. G. (Willesden, East)||Withers, Sir John James|
|Powell, Lieut.-Col. Evelyn G. H.||Soper, Richard||Young, Rt. Hon. Sir Hilton (S'v'noaks)|
|Procter, Major Henry Adam||Sotheron-Estcourt, Captain T. E.|
|Pybus, Sir Percy John||Southby, Commander Archibald R. J.||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Radford, E. A.||Spears, Brigadier-General Edward L.||Captain Austin Hudson and Mr. Womersley.|
|Raikes, Henry V. A. M.||Spens, William Patrick|
Motion made, and Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.
§ 8.17 p.m.
§ Major MILNER
I beg to move, in page 43, line 2, to leave out "whether."
It might be convenient for the Committee to take this Amendment in conjunction with the Amendment which follows it on the Paper—in page 43, line 2, to leave out "or otherwise."
§ Major MILNER
The Committee will appreciate the point raised by this Amendment The Sub-section as printed provides:If it is found at any time that an applicant for an allowance has, whether fraudulently or otherwise, procured by the non-disclosure or misrepresentation of a material fact any issue by way of an allowance to himself or any other person in excess of that which would have been made but for the non-disclosure or misrepresentation, a sum equivalent to the excess shall be repaid by him to the board and … shall be recoverable by the board from him summarily as a civil debt.The object of the Amendment is to ensure that that shall only apply where the non-disclosure or the misrepresentation has 1020 been fraudulent. Obviously an applicant may innocently and without any desire to commit a fraud fail to disclose certain information or may unwittingly misrepresent some fact. For example, in filling up a form in connection with the means test an applicant, through ignorance, may fail to disclose some small item of income coming into a household or may unintentionally misrepresent some point. In our view, it would be a great hardship in such cases if any amount which had been drawn in excess of the proper amount, were recoverable from the applicant as a civil debt. Suppose a man obtained £1 or £2 or even £10 in excess of what he would have obtained had he disclosed some fact or other. He spends that money on himself and his family in providing the necessaries of life. Is the board to have the power to proceed against him in the courts for the recovery of that money, even though he may not have a penny in the world, and even though he may be innocent of any desire to deceive?
Already under Sub-section (1) the penalty for fraudulently obtaining an allowance is imprisonment. The board 1021 have that remedy, if it be a remedy, in cases of fraud. It is sought to give them this additional power of recovery in the civil courts whether the excess allowance has been obtained fraudulently or not and is to be presumed that in such a case as I have indicated a man might under the ordinary procedure have to go to prison as a result of failure to pay that sum as a civil debt. Where there is no question of fraud, in our view the board ought not to have the right of recovery. They ought to be content with the power to prosecute in the event of money being obtained fraudulently. The Minister of Labour succumbed to persuasion last night. We hope that in this case in which there is no vital principle involved, although the matter is of considerable importance to the people concerned, he will accept the Amendment either in the form proposed or in some other form. Otherwise, a great hardship will be suffered by many people.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
Words similar to those in the Bill will be found in the analogous provisions, as far as unemployment insurance is concerned, in the Act of 1927. I do not suggest that that fact is conclusive but I would point out that when hon. Gentlemen, now sitting opposite were sitting on this side, they introduced the Act of 1930 and, in considering the terms of that Act, no doubt the Act of 1927 was carefully scrutinised to see what alterations should be made in its terms. Apparently they came to the conclusion, to which the present Government also came, that these words did not inflict any hardship. No complaint has been made of their application in relation to unemployment insurance benefit and the Committee has already, by implication, decided that similar words should apply under Part I of this Bill because the Act of 1927 is still operative so far as Part I is concerned. Perhaps I use the wrong words when I say that the Committee has decided it by implication but in fact Part I of this Bill has been passed without any comment on the fact that the Act of 1927 applies to cases of this kind which arise there. As I say, I do not claim that that is conclusive. A point can be overlooked but it would be curious if different words were made applicable under Part II, from those which are applicable 1022 where unemployment insurance benefit is concerned.
I am afraid I cannot accept the Amendment, but I agree with the spirit behind it, that it is most important that in this last case there should be no question of a man being, as you might say, caught by a misrepresentation. One safeguard against that is, as I think the Committee is entitled to hope and believe, that in such cases the board would not exercise their powers, but there is a further safeguard. I am in a position to assure the Committee that on the form which the applicant will have to fill up his attention will be drawn, and I think I may say that great care will be taken to see that it is drawn, to all material considerations dealing with the two sides of the question, his resources and his needs. Careful consideration will be given to that, and I think it is also important that there should be a warning on the form to the effect that if a man does not know or is not certain of the answer to any question, he should say so; otherwise, the man may fill up what he believes to be, say, his wife's earnings, and afterwards someone may say, "You made a misrepresentation." I think, therefore, it is only fair that the applicant should have a first warning that he is not compelled to answer these questions, and that if he does not know the answer, he should say so, and then no question of misrepresentation would arise. I think in that way it is possible to narrow the area to very small dimensions where, in fact, there can be misrepresentation without fraud.
Then, the hon. and gallant Member may say, "If it is as small as that, why not accept the Amendment?" The answer, I think, is that if the Amendment is accepted, you can only deal with cases where fraud can be proved before a court. It is in the Act of 1927, it has been thought right, and I do not think any complaint of hardship has been raised by it. The wider words are used which I agree give a wider latitude to the board, otherwise you would have definitely to prove fraud. With these words, if it is a proper case, it is sufficient to say, "Here is a misrepresentation." To some extent it leaves the thing at large, and the man does not actually have the stigma of fraud against him.
§ Mr. T. SMITH
Will the board have power to excuse a case if they are satisfied that the circumstances warrant it?
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
There is no question about that. That is the first safeguard which I intended to put forward. The board need never take this action, and I have suggested to the Committee that they are entitled to believe that in such a case no such action would be taken. May I add this further point with regard to the case of the poor man who is still in need of assistance, which was put by the hon. and gallant Member? It is clear that in that case this remedy would never be resorted to, because the board would be merely going to certain legal expenses in order to get with one hand what they would have to give back with the other. If the man is still in need under Part II, while proceeding against him for, say, 30s., assuming you get it, you increase his need to the extent of 30s., and if he had to pay 5s. a week as a result of these proceedings, the board would have to give him 5s. a week more in order to make up the sum which they would already have determined was the proper sum for him to receive.
Therefore, the case which we are considering, which is the only case entitled to consideration, where there has been misrepresentation which was not in fact fraudulent, the only case in which proceedings would be taken, as a matter of practical business, is the case where the man has surplus funds and where the board could proceed against him and recover the sum in question without bringing him below the level which would bring him back again to the position of a person in need under Part II. I hope, with those assurances that every care will be taken to see that a man thoroughly understands what he is being asked to state, and on the other points, the hon. and gallant Member will not press his Amendment.
§ 8.32 p.m.
§ Mr. LAWSON
The difference between this Amendment and the case under Part I ought to be borne in mind. Under Part I the matter is administered by the Minister and his staff, and it is far more open to be dealt with in the House than it is in this case, where we contend that the board is scarcely under the influence of the House of Commons. I must say 1024 that I thought, from that point of view, the hon. and learned Gentleman's case was rather weak when he talked about the fact that the Labour Government had administered the previous Act. There is sometimes force in what the Members of the Government say when they draw our attention to these little past experiences, but I think the learned Solicitor-General was rather hard put to it to-night when he tried to link us to an administration of this kind. We are not interfering with the fraudulent action—we do not dispute that at all—but there are good people who get into trouble quite innocently.
We have been very pleased to have legal guidance to-night, but I am sure that those who speak in legal terms, but who have no direct experience of the administration and of the outlook of some people who have to make application, would be astonished at the difficulty that even some intelligent people have in filling up some of the forms that are put before them. Like many other hon. Members, I have had many years of experience in public life, and I should not be surprised if I myself, as a Member of the Government on two occasions, had been a party to framing some forms for people to fill in, but I must say that when I look at some of the forms that are sent out, and people ask me how they should fill them in, what this means and what that means, I confess that I am very innocent about the matter. Anyone who has seen the form which people have had to fill up during the past two years in connection with transitional payment must have been equally puzzled. It strikes me as a sort of combination of census paper and Income Tax return, and it would be very difficult for the average sensible person, looking at it in a humane way, to charge a person with giving false information if such a form was not filled up properly. The Solicitor-General says that the words "or otherwise" are intended to give some sort of margin to members of the board to enable them to use their judgment so that they need not necessarily prosecute in every case.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
They give a wider field for the board, so that they do not have to be actually satisfied that there is fraud; they can, if they think it a proper case, treat it as a 1025 case of misrepresentation. The words spread the net wider in which the board can exercise their discretion.
§ Mr. LAWSON
They can exercise their discretion for the benefit of the person concerned. I gather that it may work either way. It gives them latitude to decide whether there has been fraud or not. We want to emphasise that this board is not under the control of the House and everything depends upon the spirit in which this kind of thing is administered. We do not want to cover people who are guilty of deliberate fraud, and we want to use this opportunity of impressing upon the Government and asking the Government to impress upon the members of this board that a mere mistake or merely filling up a form wrongly is not to be regarded as fraud in the light of the experience in these matters. We do not want to be too stiff about the matter, but we hope that the Government will bear in mind the points that have been put when the regulations are made.
§ 8.39 p.m.
§ Major MILNER
I am bound to recognise the sympathetic attitude of the Parliamentary Secretary and the Solicitor-General to this Amendment, but I am not in the least happy about the matter, because I know, as perhaps the Solicitor-General does not, how many hundreds and thousands of cases there are every month in the courts of this country where, in circumstances precisely like the individuals concerned here, people who have drawn benefit on misrepresentations of one sort or another are prosecuted and fined and sent to prison. I do not know what the numbers are, but on the few occasions when I have gone into a police court there has rarely been one where I have not found the Ministry of Labour prosecuting in cases of this sort. They become so numerous that, although I should not like to cast any aspersions on the magistrates, I am afraid they are dealt with as a matter of course; and nowadays, if money is obtained like that, severe penalties are inflicted. However, I understand that the Government are willing to give some instructions to the board or to point out to the board the desirability of taking these steps only in proper cases, and that where an apparently innocent non-disclosure or misrepresentation has been 1026 made they must exercise their discretion reasonably and only prosecute in extreme cases. I hope that attention will be drawn on the forms to the penalties under Clause 47 (1) for knowingly making any false statement or false representation, and under Clause 47 (2) for non-disclosure or misrepresentation, whether fraudulently or otherwise, and that it will be expressly stated that if an applicant is not clear as to an answer or certain what he should put, he should say so.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of LABOUR (Mr. R. S. Hudson)
The hon. and gallant Member referred to the prosecutions which he had seen in the courts. Of course, those were all fraudulent cases. The comparable case to those we are considering here is that of the recovery of overpayments of transitional payments. I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member will be relieved to know that, in spite of the millions of determinations that have been made, there has been only one case where we have had to institute legal proceedings for the recovery of overpayment, and in that case the money was paid into court before the proceedings. I hope that will relieve the minds of hon. Members opposite of any idea that we shall resort to large numbers of legal proceedings.
§ Major MILNER
I entirely accept what the Parliamentary Secretary says, and we are relieved to hear it. It is a great tribute to the unemployed that that should be the situation, and they deserve rather better treatment than the Government are giving to them in other parts of the Bill. On the understanding that the undertakings of the Solicitor-General are carried out—I am not trying to pin him down precisely to my wording—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Mr. HUDSON
I beg to move, in page 43, line 10, to leave out from "if" to the end of line 11.
This Amendment is really to get over a technical difficulty which we discovered after the Bill had been printed. The amount of an excess is not determined by the board's officers, but by the appeal tribunal. We think it is very desirable 1027 that, where any question arises, that excess should be determined by the tribunal right away before there is any question of recovery or proceedings. We are advised that under the Bill as it stands it would be possible to ask the tribunal to determine the excess only after proceedings had been started. Judging by the experience of transitional payments which I have quoted, it will be a rare exception for proceedings to be started, and we are desirous of getting power to ask the tribunal to determine the excess in any case, even if proceedings are not started. It is purely a technical Amendment.
§ Amendment agreed to.
Further Amendment made: In page 43, line 12, after "arises," insert:
(whether in or in connection with any legal proceedings or otherwise)."—[Mr. Hudson.]
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Mr. PALING
I beg to move, in page 43, line 19, at the end to insert:(3) If it is found at any time that an application for an allowance has been rejected or a reduced amount has been fixed by the non-disclosure or misrepresentation of a material fact, the applicant shall be entitled to recover from the board summarily as a civil debt either the allowance or the difference between the allowance which would otherwise have been determined and the amount he actually received, as the case may be, from the date of the original application, and if any question arises as to the amount to which the applicant is entitled, the question shall be referred in the prescribed manner to the appeal tribunal, and a certificate signed by the clerk of that tribunal, setting forth the decision of the tribunal upon the question, shall be conclusive evidence of the amount to which the applicant is entitled, and any certificate purporting to be signed by the clerk shall be deemed to be so signed unless the contrary is proved..This Amendment, standing in the name of my hon. Friends, which I am moving, is an addition to Sub-section (2) of this Clause. The Clause gives power to the Minister or to the board to recover any moneys which may have been paid in excess through non-disclosure or misrepresentation of material facts, whether done fraudulently or otherwise. We ask for the insertion of this Amendment so that if under any circumstances, by misrepresentation or the non-disclosure of material facts, fraudulently or otherwise, a person has been paid less than the 1028 sum to which he is entitled he shall have the same right to recover the balance. I think this Amendment bears some similarity to the one on which we divided a few minutes ago. There the board was asking for certain powers to take legal action to protect itself but was not prepared to give the same rights to the applicant. If the board claims that an excess payment, which may have been claimed quite innocently, shall be repaid, surely it is not too much to ask that the applicant shall have similar facilities extended to him to recover money in cases where he has been underpaid. I have had some experience in a court of referees during the last two years and know how easy it is for mistakes to arise, not through fraud or misrepresentation, but quite innocently.
What strikes me about the Bill is that the board, with all the power which it has behind it to protect itself, a power such as an applicant cannot hope to have, has taken every step which it can to secure itself. If such protection is necessary for the board, with that enormous power, surely it is more than necessary for the applicant. Personally I think that all the way through the Bill is weighted in favour of the board and the fund, and that powers which the board is taking to itself it is not prepared to give to an applicant. We say if protection is needed for either side it should be given to the applicant, who is in the weaker position.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Mr. JANNER
I rise to suport this Amendment and to say one or two words upon it. If there is to be a regulation under which the board will receive protection we ought to have some information from the Parliamentary Secretary as to what will happen in the event of an injustice having been done to an applicant whose relief has been reduced. It appears to me that at present he has no remedy at all, or is left entirely in the hands of the board, and I am doubtful whether the board could take any retrospective action in respect of a mistake made on its part even if it wished to rectify it. If the position is that the board has no right to rectify a mistake it is clear that something must be inserted in the Bill to enable that position to be put right, and in my view this Amendment is a very reasonable one. It 1029 provides precisely the same remedy in a case of that description as the one which the Bill affords to the board itself. I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary and every other Member of this Committee will agree that it would not be fair or just that a person wrongfully deprived of money should be permanently deprived of it, and I hope that if my fears, and the fears of the Mover are correct, and the position is such as we have described it, the Parliamentary Secretary will see his way clear to accept the Amendment. If the Government regard the Clause as it stands as reasonable for the protection of the board there can be no substantial grounds on which they can regard this Amendment as unreasonable.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Mr. TINKER
I wish to add my support to this Amendment and to put forward arguments to support the arguments used by my two hon. Friends. Just now we withdrew an Amendment on representations made by the Government that money ought to be repaid where it has been obtained in a manner in which it ought not to have been obtained. One could see the force of that argument, and I did not feel able to speak on that Amendment because I could see how strong the argument was on the other side. If, however, we protect the board in cases where money has been overpaid, similar protection should be given to the poor applicant. He may have been underpaid not as a result of some misrepresentation for which he was responsible, but through some mistake for which the authorities who paid him the money were responsible. If the Government think the board ought to have a fair deal and be able to recover from the applicant money to which he is not entitled, the applicant has an equal right to say, "I have not done anything wrong, but I have been deprived of a certain amount of money, and I am entitled to claim it."
Some time ago a case was brought to my notice in the neighbourhood in which I live in which a person had not been treated properly as regards transitional payments. I took the matter up, and the thing was put right from the time I did so. Ten days had elapsed prior to my taking the case up, and we could not get payment for that period. I was told that it was only from the point where I took it up that they made pay- 1030 ment. They realised that a mistake had been made, and they would do all that they could to make it right, but they could not pay any back money. Though they admitted that a mistake had been made, the man lost 10 days' pay to which he was entitled. I was amazed to think that that was so.
One feels that in a case like that protection ought to be given, and we want words inserted that will give to applicants the money to which they are entitled, if a mistake happens. Although money may be given which may look as though it were double payment and be overmuch, yet the money is due to the man who has had to live on a short allowance the week before. No argument can shift my conviction as to the justice of this Amendment. We withdrew the last Amendment on the strength of the Government's argument that money given in mistake ought to be recoverable. On the other hand, we say that money to which a man is entitled, and which has not been paid to him for some reason, ought to be paid. I hope the Government will see our point of view, and will give way on this Amendment.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Mr. GORDON MACDONALD
Being under the impression that the Parliamentary Secretary intends to make a concession, I want to give him a little assistance. He must know that this Amendment will not cost very much. When applicants answer questions, they do so in a way which will get the maximum amount, but should it happen that a man makes a mistake against himself, or that the board in making an award should make a mistake, we suggest that the money should be repaid in that case. It is a very small matter. The Clause now is exceptionally one-sided, because it seems to give to the board the power that they require, but none in defence of the applicant. We are asking that the applicant should be considered. Furthermore, it should be remembered that even though the amount involved is only a shilling or two shillings, or some other small amount which the applicant has not received, it is a relatively big amount to the person in question. It has been said that this may be only a matter of a shilling over one or two weeks, but that is a great amount in these cases. I hope that, if 1031 at all possible, the Parliamentary Secretary will make a concession upon this small point.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Mr. HUDSON
I cannot do less than pay a tribute to the very reasonable way in which the case for this Amendment has been put. Before I sit down I hope that hon. Members will realise how reasonable I am also. There is a real distinction between the two cases of the overpaid and the underpaid man. If the board over-pay a man, that over-payment goes on continuously until the board happen to discover it, and as the normal determination is for a fortnight or four or eight weeks, the over-payment may well run on for a matter of eight weeks before the board discover that there is anything wrong. The man will suffer in no wise as the result of the overpayment. In the case with which this Amendment deals, that of under-payment, the applicant will suffer at once, except in the case where there are other resources. There will be no failure to disclose the under-payment.
Perhaps I may make my meaning most clear if I take a concrete but imaginary case of a man assessed at 30s. The board imagines that the man has 10s. per week pension and they deduct 10s. from 30s., and so make the assessment £1. If the board do not correct their mistake by the following Tuesday at the very latest, the man's money will have run out, and, although the determination may have been for four weeks, the man will go to the officer of the board and will say, "Look here, there is no bread, no sugar and no tea in my cupboard. My money has run out." He will automatically be able to secure a reconsideration of his case. [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh!"] Yes, certainly. The man will be in need and his immediate need will have to be relieved. That will automatically mean a reopening of the determination.
I can certainly give an assurance that the rules that will be produced will provide that where a man has to run into debt at the end of one week in order to enable him to live to the end of the period, the debt will be taken into account and will be considered by the board in the following week as being included in his needs, and as requiring an extra allowance in order to allow the man to 1032 pay off the debt. Although hon. Members were perfectly justified in putting the Amendment down, my own view is that in practice they are wrong. It will be perfectly possible for the board to discover its mistake inside the first week of the determination. We shall see that the rules are drawn so that the board will be enabled to treat any underpayment in the previous week as coming within the need for consideration in the following week. With that explanation, I hope that hon. Members will see that it is not unreasonable that the Government should say that the Amendment is unnecessary.
§ 9.2 p.m.
§ Mr. K. GRIFFITH
I am not sure that the remedy proposed by the Parliamentary Secretary is the proper one. It means that these people have to be driven back on to absolute destitution before they can get a mistake put right. Many of these people, when a decision given by a local tribunal is a mistaken one, put up with it for week after week and month after month. If they are able to go to somebody for advice they get mistakes put right earlier, but I have known people drag on for an enormous time under what was really an imposition put upon them by an official mistake which was never put right because it never occurred to the people concerned that they had any remedy.
I am not sure that the Amendment, as proposed, gives sufficient powers. I should like to see it made clear that if the officials of the board find out that a man is underpaid it is their duty, of their own accord, to reconsider the matter. This Amendment, which is very aptly and cleverly chosen because it reproduces the language of the original Clause, does not go far enough. It might suggest that, without actually taking civil proceedings, there will be no power for the authorities to repay the money. I would like to make perfectly clear that, as soon as the board know they have underpaid, it should be their duty to pay it back in subsequent weeks. I would much rather have this language, however, than nothing, because if the language is inserted in the Bill, it will at least show that the Government are playing the game with both sides, and are not trying to claim all the advantages for their officials.
1033 I appreciate that the Parliamentary Secretary believes that he made a satisfactory answer, but I am speaking from my own knowledge of the extraordinary way in which people who have been, I will not say defrauded, but deprived of their rights go on putting up with it week after week. When they find out eventually, and go to the authorities, they are told: "I am afraid that it is too late to raise that now. If you had told us about that weeks ago, we might have done something." I think that a real point is raised here and if the Parliamentary Secretary cannot concede these words, he ought to provide some words that would make it perfectly clear that his officials are going to do the same as he expects the people on the other side to do. If the applicant has received too much, he has to pay it back, and, if the Government, through this board, have given too little, they should have to make it up. That is all that is asked, and it ought to be given.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Mr. McGOVERN
I want to appeal to the hon. Gentleman to reconsider his attitude towards this Amendment. I fail to see what prevents him from accepting the Amendment if the object of the Clause is to do justice to the applicant as well as to the State. I have repeatedly come across people who have been underpaid, as well as people who have been overpaid, and there is always the tendency in almost every case, where an applicant has been overpaid, to suggest fraud, when in many cases there was no fraud at all; while, on the other hand, when the applicant has been deprived of the amount to which he was entitled, he has simply been told that the fault was his, and therefore the difference could not be made good. To give an example, I have discovered cases where a father and mother in their home, in giving a return of the earnings coming into the house, have given what has been handed to them by their son or daughter, who sometimes have been concealing a portion of their earnings. When that has been discovered, the father and mother have been accused of defrauding the authorities. I have also met with cases where a boy or girl has been paid, in a normal week, 30s., but where in some weeks, having gone on short time, they have drawn only 12s. or 14s., and the people were so simple that they thought 1034 their case had been decided for as long a period as a year, and that therefore they were not entitled to any more when the wage was 12s. or 14s. than they were when it was 30s.
I have discovered cases where the applicants have been eking out a most meagre existence because they were people of a decent type. The people for whom this Amendment pleads are of the most decent type, and are very chary of going to the authorities at all. They are timorous in approaching officials and authorities, and, once a determination is made, they sometimes think it is a permanent determination with no elasticity at all. On the other hand, the cute and cunning type of applicant, the man or woman of the world, is up to all the ebb and flow of transitional payments, and descends immediately upon the office and notifies any change that has taken place. When people have been deprived for four or five months of these sums of money, they are compelled to get behind with their rent, or to get in arrears with payments for furniture, clothing and so on, or with payments to the dairyman, grocer or butcher, and on such occasions, when I have gone to the authority, they have always said that they should only pay the increase for the coming fortnight—that, as the fault had been the applicant's, they could not remedy it. If it is desired that the State should be protected against fraud, it is equally desirable that protection should be given to the individual against any form of injustice. God knows, the methods of dealing with applicants is brutal and harsh enough, without depriving people of anything to which they are entitled.
When I am at home I repeatedly discover week by week cases of that kind—cases that I could put my finger on at this moment—where people in a home where £3 10s. a week has been coming in from five or six individuals have been deprived of as much as 22s. 6d. a week for 5½ months owing to their timidity or ignorance. Therefore, I think the Parliamentary Secretary ought to see the justice of this Amendment and concede it. Unless something in the nature of a reasonable concession can be granted for the protection of people in circumstances such as these, discussion in the House of Commons is a farce, and ought not to take place at all. If there is simply a blank refusal on every occasion, parlia- 1035 mentary democracy is a farce, and not worth taking part in. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to give that protection in this Clause, on the ground that it is very reasonable.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Mr. HUDSON
I think that perhaps the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) does not fully appreciate the powers and duties of the board under Part II, and the powers and duties of the appeal tribunals. He suggested the case of a man who for a long period of weeks—
§ Mr. HUDSON
Months, if you like—had failed to disclose material figures which, if they had been disclosed, would have resulted in his being given an increased amount per week; and the hon. Member said that, as the result of such people getting less for continuing periods of weeks or months than they would have got if the whole of their needs had been known, they had accumulated large debts for rent and so on. It is quite clear that, under the Bill as it stands and under the powers of the tribunals, it would be the duty of a tribunal and the duty of the board's officers to regard that accumulated debt hanging over a man's head as a current need, and, where the man could show good cause, it would be the duty of the officer and of the tribunal to make a grant for the payment of the debt, either in a lump sum or by means of an increased determination for the following four weeks. It is, therefore, quite clear that that matter is already provided for.
In discussing the last Amendment but one, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General promised that, in order to meet some of the apprehensions, he would see that there was inserted on the form which a man had to fill up a warning that, if by any chance he did not know the answer to a particular question, he should either put down the reply that he was not certain or leave the space blank. If the Committee, and especially hon. Members opposite, think it would in any way meet the case which has been put by the hon. Member for Shettleston, that there are many people who do not realise that if circumstances change a [...] is entitled to another determination, 1036 it might possibly answer their purpose if we inserted in the form a warning or a word of advice to the effect that, as soon as his personal circumstances changed, he ought to let the officer know, so that the desirability of a new determination might be looked into.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ Mr. G. MACDONALD
This is not a question merely of change. We are asking that, where it is found by the board that they have made a mistake, they should have power to correct that mistake retrospectively from the time at which they made the award. Honestly, I cannot see why the hon. Gentleman should not accept the Amendment. If he refuses to do so, we shall be bound to press it.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. HUDSON
It is not a question of refusing it. I made the last suggestion in answer to a specific difficulty raised by the hon. Member that a man had been given a determination in the light of all the circumstances of the case, that the circumstances had changed, and that the man had not reported the change. I was asked if I would meet that particular case, and I was trying to explain that there are full powers in the Act now.
§ 9.16 p.m.
§ Mr. PALING
If "being reasonable" does not mean getting any more than we have got from the hon. Gentleman on this occasion, we shall have to change our tactics. I do not think he has answered the case. We have had two points: first that the applicant is better able to know that he is underpaid than the board that he is overpaid. I disagree. I think the evidence is to the contrary. The people who are making the determination make so many that they will know almost to a penny, and at a glance, what ought to be paid in every case that comes before them, and, if any single case varies in any single week, I guarantee that before the day is out they will find it out. The contrary is true of the applicant. He does not know what is the usual amount paid to the thousands of people in the neighbourhood. He merely knows what is paid to him, and he will not have any means of knowing what is the usual amount paid to other people, and until he gets to know he will not know that he has the right to appeal 1037 for more. The board has all the facilities on its side in that direction.
Let me put another case. The hon. Gentleman says if a man is underpaid it is only for seven days. He buys so much bread, tea and bacon for the week. If he is underpaid, it only lasts for six days and there will be none on the seventh and, therefore, he will know that he is underpaid and will go back and say there has been a mistake. Does he really think that will happen? When the determination is made the man will think he has got all he can get and he will spread the money over the seven days and will go with a little less bacon, bread and tea on the six days in order to spread it over the seven. What is the converse? If he is paid 5s. too much he is not only reduced, when it is discovered, by that 5s., but by another 5s., because he has to refund it. If his determination was 30s. and he was paid 35s. for four weeks, he would owe £1, and it is safe to assume that for the next four weeks he would be paid 25s. instead of 30s.
§ Mr. PALING
If there is anything in the hon. Gentleman's argument, the man may find himself on the sixth and seventh day without tea, bread or anything else.
§ Mr. HUDSON
No, because if he finds himself without any bread or tea on the sixth day it would be an argument to come up for the next determination to have the 5s. restored.
§ Mr. PALING
That may be so, but we cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's argument as to what would happen. He has not put up any evidence against the Amendment. Is it asking too much that the applicant himself, who has none of the facilities for protecting himself that the board has, should be placed in a worse position than the board, which has all the facilities to protect itself in any circumstances? I hope the hon. Gentleman will alter his mind and accept the Amendment.
§ Mr. HUDSON
I cannot accept the Amendment, but I will certainly see whether it is possible to devise words which will make it clear that the board and the tribunal are to have power to make a repayment where, for a short period, there has been an obvious mistake 1038 which can be corrected in the following week. What I cannot do is to suggest that, where there has been under-payment for four or five months, he can reclaim a lump sum. I will see whether I can put in words to make sure that the ordinary mistake which we all have in mind shall be corrected as soon as it is discovered.
§ Mr. TINKER
The hon. Gentleman is meeting us on the case where there has been a simple mistake found out before too much time has elapsed.
§ Mr. TINKER
I understood that where there had been a mistake not covering too long a period—a week or two—the hon. Gentleman was prepared to give powers to the board to pay the money back, and I am satisfied with that.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ Mr. JANNER
I am not at all sure that the concession that the hon. Gentleman proposes to consider will cover the case that we put forward. Does the Parliamentary Secretary say that, where a mistake has been made, the right of recovery shall exist for the person against whom this has acted? I appreciate the point of view that he has put that, when a man, by virtue of a mistake, has been compelled to incur debt, that would naturally be taken into consideration at a later stage, but he has not dealt with the point of a person who by mistake or otherwise has been prepared to accept for his subsistence an amount which is really less than is necessary for him to keep body and soul together in a reasonable manner. If the Parliamentary Secretary accepts the fact that a mistake can be made and that it may continue for a matter of weeks, or possibly months, it stands to reason that not only should the board be in a position to repay but that the applicants themselves should be entitled to recover the amount if the board does not repay it. If the intention is to introduce an Amendment to the effect that the board shall not only be entitled to be paid but shall also be compelled to repay, I assume that that will be acceptable to anyone who is in favour of the Amendment, but, if it only means that it will be entirely in the discretion of the board if it goes on for four or five months, in my view that will not be satisfactory to those who moved the 1039 Amendment. I am not clear about the position.
§ Mr. PALING
I am not sure that we are going to get all that we want. I hope the hon. Gentleman will find words which will give us, if not all, the greater part of what we want. I am content to wait for that.
§ Mr. HUDSON
We both want to see justice done. I will try to find a form of words which will make it clear that the board has full power to do justice.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 9.25 p.m.
§ Mr. BATEY
I beg to move, in page 43, line 25, at the end, to insert:and any defendant in such proceedings may similarly be represented by any person duly nominated by him notwithstanding that such person is not of counsel or a solicitor.This Amendment would follow at the end of the Sub-section, which is very short:(3) Proceedings under this section before a court of summary jurisdiction may be instituted, prosecuted or conducted on behalf of the board by any officer authorised in that behalf by a special or general direction of the board, notwithstanding that he is not of counsel or a solicitor.Our aim is to give the man the same right of representation as is given to the board. We move this Amendment from a rather long experience. We find that there are a great many men who cannot state a case. If they are left to themselves, they are at a loss to state their case, with the result that most of the trade unions have had to appoint an official to go with the man to the court of referees to state his case. They have even had to go farther, and appoint an official to go with him to the umpire. Just after the commissioners' courts were established to decide on applications for transitional payment, the Minister of Labour helped us to obtain the right to send a trade union official along with the man when he went before the commissioners. It is impossible for a man who is in receipt of relief from the board to go to court and pay a solicitor, and, if the trade union had to pay a solicitor every time a man went before the court, they might have to spend a great deal of money. We ask 1040 that the man shall be given the same right as the board to be represented in court by someone who is neither of counsel nor a solicitor.
§ 9.28 p.m.
§ Mr. MARTIN
I should like to associate myself with the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey). I have found in Durham exactly the same thing that he has found. Many people find it very difficult indeed to put their case, and I have in the past often been able to help them, or my friend has been able to help them, to state a case which has been sound and has, owing to our help, been accepted by the court hearing the appeal. There is no reason, to my mind, why a man who is appealing should not be represented before the court in exactly the same way as the officers of the board. Particularly in the cases where there are points of difficulty not understood by the applicant, it is just as well that somebody who does understand them shall be present to put them before the court. In Durham, particularly, that has been done before the commissioners, and in many cases the application has been granted.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Mr. TINKER
I should like to support the Amendment, to which my name also is down. We shall probably be running contrary to the lawyers, so we had better meet their arguments before they begin to put them. They are the men who stand to benefit by the Amendment. Lawyers as a rule do not like to work for nothing, and we are attempting to relieve them of that necessity. In a sense we are doing them a good turn by trying to get them to see our point of view, because, if we are not able to carry this Amendment, I can see many lawyers whom I know being called upon to defend the poor applicant under the Poor Persons' Procedure.
The Government have seen fit, first of all, to say that an officer of the board is capable of prosecuting or taking part in proceedings before a court of summary jurisdiction. They say that, though he may not be of counsel or a solicitor, he may go and institute proceedings. If this be good enough for the Government, then it ought equally to be open to the man himself to be represented by someone other than a lawyer. In our own ranks there are men who are capable, in 1041 these matters, of putting the point of view of the working man much better than lawyers. We have men who are in intimate contact with the workmen; who know their work and conditions more closely than any lawyers can. The same applies to cases under the Workmen's Compensation Acts where a man is injured; we often instruct the lawyer on points of law and give him the idea of how to proceed. We have not been able to go into court to put our case, but the lawyer has depended upon us to put the position more clearly than he understood it. On matters concerning the man's conditions, I claim that the ordinary layman can leave the lawyer far behind. The applicant would not therefore be suffering an injustice if he were represented by his friend or by a trade union official in a court of summary jurisdiction. I am asking the Government, if they think it wise to break through the necessity for having lawyers to represent the board, to admit that it is equally wise and good to allow the man to have the same privilege. That is why we press this Amendment, hoping that the Minister will be able to accept it.
§ Mr. K. GRIFFITH
Perhaps the last hon. Member will be satisfied—and I share with him and every other Member of the Committee the desire to give the applicant fair treatment—if the Government leave out Sub-section (3), so that both sides shall have an equal advantage.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
I apologise to the hon. Member who moved the Amendment if I was not here when he actually moved it, but I have been told the substance of what he said. This Amendment is, of course, drawn in very wide terms. I will, first of all, say a word on the Section to which it would add a further sentence. The Section entitles officers of the board to appear in certain cases before a court of summary jurisdiction. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Martin) referred to the court of referees. As the Committee will appreciate, there is a distinction, and one which can properly be drawn, between proceedings before the court of referees and proceedings before a court of law. This House has in cer- 1042 tainly three previous Acts entitled official persons to appear before courts of summary jurisdiction although they were not barristers or solicitors.
The Trade Boards Act, 1909, and the National Health Insurance Act, 1924, contain similar provisions to that which is proposed in Sub-section (3) of the Clause which we are discussing. Parliament in making those exemptions did something which was wise. The officials of the respective Ministries are obviously qualified by their official duties to speak as to the legal effect of the particular provisions of the Act which they are administering from day to day. They are persons whom this House can trust to instruct a court of summary jurisdiction by the fact of their official duties, and the experience they get in that capacity. Apart, however, from exceptions of that kind, the general position in this country—and here I can easily be accused of taking an orthodox trade union attitude—is that, apart from the litigant, the only persons who have right of audience as representatives are solicitors or counsel.
That is a general principle, and, although there may be differences of opinion about it, there are certain obvious advantages in the interests both of litigants or persons charged. Solicitors are officers of the Court, and barristers are subject to disciplinary action by their Inns, and there is a certain control exercised in that way over those who represent either litigants or persons charged. There is control, for instance, exercised over the bargain that a qualified representative, solicitor or barrister, can make with his client. Unlike some countries, we in this country have the salutary rule in force, that the representative shall not have a direct financial interest in the result of the proceedings. It is a principle which, I think, we all regard as very important. If you make an inroad before the Courts upon that principle, you are doing something which raises a very serious and a very wide issue.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
The Amendment makes very serious inroads because the Amendment entitles anyone, with or without qualifications, to make representations.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
I was saying that it was not a new point. There is, I agree, an exception from the general principle. Parliament made an innovation in 1901, which was followed in 1909, and again in 1924, with regard to a special and designated class of persons, namely, officials of the Ministry who during their daily duties are dealing with the administration of the Act concerned. Parliament wisely decided, and it is a good precedent to follow in the present Bill, that those persons are the proper persons to be authorised to appear in a court of summary jurisdiction. None of the evils which might result from departing from our general rules that those who appear must be either solicitors or counsel apply to that class of person in the case of the previous Acts which I have mentioned, and in this Bill. The Amendment would, without any restriction on anybody, however undesirable, give persons the right to appear before a court, however little qualified they were to instruct the court. They might easily get hold of in this way, for no good reason, a person charged. In fact it would be the last thing which would be desirable in many cases in the interests of the person. It is a principle on the whole which, I suggest, cannot be embodied in this Bill.
On the whole, the disadvantages and drawbacks of lawyers being what they may be, there are advantages that litigants or charged persons know that those who are entitled to represent them will be subjected to discipline and control. On this matter, that to which I referred in an earlier Amendment is germane, namely, power of getting legal assistance under the Poor Persons' Rules. The last Act which dealt with that matter was one passed in 1930 when hon. Gentlemen opposite were sitting on these benches, and which made provision for assistance to be granted by magistrates in cases where serious questions arise, and which the magistrates think proper for that assistance to be given. On this Amendment I will repeat what I have already said, that if those provisions are not adequate, and if they can be improved, I think that the right course is not the one proposed by the Amendment. Let us improve the 1044 Poor Persons' Procedure so that they can get what, I am sure, all Members of the Committee would expect, and what the legal profession are anxious to give, namely, real and proper assistance for those not able to afford to pay the ordinary charges.
§ Mr. MARTIN
Is there any machinery whereby it is pointed out to the applicant that he can apply for assistance? The ignorance which very often causes the injustice, probably may also be the cause of not knowing where or how to apply for poor persons' assistance.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
I think that the hon. Member has raised a point of great importance, and possibly of some practical difficulty. I do what I can, and I am sure we all do what we can, to get people outside the House to try to make poor persons realise the opportunities which they have of getting advice and assistance. That can be done to some extent under the present position voluntarily, and if, in fact, the existing legislative machinery is inadequate, the proper course would be to alter it so as to make it adequate. I suggest to the Committee that the wise course is not that which is suggested by the Amendment, which, as I have already said more than once, would throw it open to anyone uncontrolled to appear as a representative, and the possible evils of that course lead me to say that I am unable to accept the Amendment Anxious as the Government are and as every Member of the Committee must be that in these cases the poor person should be properly represented before the court and should have as good an opportunity as anybody else to have his case put by those who are qualified to put it, we feel that the Amendment cannot be accepted and that this is not the right approach to the problem which the promoters of the Measure have in mind.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Mr. T. SMITH
I agree that the Solicitor-General has explained the position very clearly, and that if the Amendment were carried it would lead to a sensation in legal circles. Although the Solicitor-General has pointed out the disadvantages of the Amendment, he must agree with the main contention of the hon. Member for Spennymoor (Mr. Batey) that this Clause will make it possible for one more layman to practise 1045 in court. The only reason why I can see that that has been put in the Bill is on the ground of cost or because the officer himself is more conversant with the details of the case that would have to be discussed before a court of summary jurisdiction. I appreciate that the lawyers do exceptionally good work in the courts, but I think the Solicitor-General will agree with me that there are cases which come before the courts where the solicitor or barrister gets confused because of their lack of knowledge of the industry with which the case is concerned. I have been in court many times as a witness in compensation cases and I have heard able barristers arguing compensation cases on the points of law and doing it very well, but not when they have been trying to put before the learned judge the situation underground where the accident happened. I have heard them talking about putting the packing on top of the ripping, and saying that in the full belief that they were describing the position properly.
The main point of the hon. Member for Spennymoor was not merely to try and get some blackleg representatives in court but to bring before the Committee the position that is likely to arise in thousands of cases when Part II comes into operation. The men who will be affected by this Clause have been out of work for a long time. The mere fact that they have come under Part II means that they have been out of work for a long time. They are unused to the ways of courts of summary jurisdiction, they are not practised in law and they are almost afraid, because of their poverty, of facing anyone when law is suggested. There may be complaints against a man and the case for the prosecution may be put into the hands of a skilled officer or, if the board think fit, into the hands of a skilled lawyer, who will go into court and tell the magistrates that the man has done something or omitted to do something that he ought to have done. The underlying idea of the Amendment is that the man shall have some right to nominate someone to represent him who is not of necessity a lawyer.
I could quote several precedents in Acts of Parliament bearing on this point. In the Coal Mines (Minimum Wages) Act, 1912, an applicant for a minimum wage has the right by law to nominate someone to represent him before the em- 1046 ployer. It may be said there is considerable difference between a colliery office and a court of law. All that we desire is that when any man is taken to court he shall have someone who can put his case. These men are entitled to have someone to speak for them. In the ordinary run of things you may have a type of man who has never been inside a court before and the very moment that he is compelled to go into court, either as a witness or as a defendant his inferiority complex comes out on top. There are men not of the working class who fear cross-examination by a skilled lawyer. Let the Committee remember that the unemployed men affected will have been out of work and in poverty for a long time, they are ill-nourished and they know very little about law. What we want is a guarantee that when they are taken to court there will be someone to speak on their behalf. The Solicitor-General mentioned the Poor Persons' Defence Act. I realise that the fact of a layman going to court with a man may win the case for him and that, on the other hand, it may lose the case for him. What we want to ensure is that the men shall know when they are going to be taken into court, to be faced with an officer of the board who knows all the details, all the regulations and the law on the subject, or faced by a solicitor, if the board think ft, that they can have someone to represent them and to put his case. If the Government cannot accept the Amendment, we expect that, through the Department, they will make the men aware of the possibilities of getting someone to speak on their behalf if they are taken to court.
§ 9.52 p.m.
§ Lord EUSTACE PERCY
Can the Solicitor-General help me? We are all anxious that the legislation of this country should not become less liberal on this subject than it has been in the past. The Solicitor-General mentioned several Acts under which official bodies are entitled to appear by their officers, but he did not mention the Education Act of 1921. In this respect I think the Education Act of 1921 embodies a very old provision which dates back to 1902, if not to 1870. Under that Act, Section 145,a local education authority may appear in all legal proceedings by their clerk, or by some member of the authority authorised by resolution of the authority.1047 Then there follows this remarkable Section:Any person may appear in any proceeding under Part IV or Part V of this Actwhich includes actions in regard to school attendanceby any member of his family or any other person authorised by him in that behalf.If a parent summoned by a school attendance officer may appear by any person authorised by him in that behalf, and if that is an old provision of the law, are we not going back and becoming retrograde by refusing such an opportunity for representation under this Bill? I know that I have put a point unfamiliar to the Solicitor-General and I do not expect him to give me a detailed and final reply now, but perhaps he will look into the point between now and the Report stage and see whether we cannot bring this Bill into line with other legislation.
§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Mr. CAPE
In supporting the Amendment I must remind the Solicitor-General that this is not an innovation in the law. In the case of a coroner's court the relatives of a man who may have been killed in a mining accident can nominate someone to represent them at the inquiry, and in 95 per cent. of the cases they are not represented by a lawyer. That does not cast any reflection on lawyers, nor do I want to do anything of the kind. They have certain virtues and many vices, but there are other things which make it impossible for the ordinary working man to employ a skilled lawyer. There is the ground of expense. The Amendment is so fair that I cannot understand what objection there can be to it. The Clause says that the board may get someone to appear for them in any prosecution although he may not be counsel or a solicitor. The Amendment only asks that the same right shall be given the defendant. You have two parties going to court, one to prosecute and the other to defend. The prosecuting party has the right to choose a legal gentleman or an ordinary officer of the board to prosecute, and it cannot be unfair to give the defendant the same right. The Clause as it stands favours the official side. Surely, there is nothing wrong in asking the Committee to say that both contending parties shall have an equal right in 1048 this respect? I hope the Minister will accept the Amendment.
§ 9.57 p.m.
§ Mr. LAWSON
We do not want to prolong the Debate, and the suggestion has already been made that the Government might reconsider this matter between now and Report stage and, if they are not satisfied with the actual terms of the Amendment, suggest some alternative form. This point has been reinforced by the statement made by the Noble Lord the right hon. Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) and it seems to me that the Government should be able to give the guarantee for which we are asking. We are not concerned about the words of the Amendment, we are concerned about the principle, and I hope that the Solicitor-General will reconsider the matter.
§ 9.58 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
The Noble Lord the right hoe. Member for Hastings (Lord E. Percy) has pointed out a provision in a previous Act of Parliament which certainly was not present to my mind, where a general authority is given authorising representation before the court. That is an important point in the argument. I cannot give an undertaking any higher than this, that we will certainly look into the matter and particularly into the working of the provision in the Education Act. There are, I think, obvious possible evils in allowing an unlimited right, evils to the man himself, and our present feeling is that these evils outweigh the advantages. However, we will consider the various points which have been made in the Debate and, as long as it is quite clear that the undertaking does not go any farther than I have expressed, we will certainly reconsider the matter in the light of what hon. Members have said.
§ 10.0 p.m.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
May I ask the Solicitor-General to consider this point in consultation with the Solicitor-General for Scotland, because the Scottish practice is somewhat different. For some time it has been the practice in Scotland not to allow unlicensed people to appear, but the sheriff has the right if he thinks fit to grant a right of appearance, and it is frequently done, to someone of standing in the locality. I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman will consult the Solicitor-General for Scotland.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 10.2 p.m.
§ Mr. T. SMITH
I beg to move, in page 43, line 35, at the end, to insert:Provided that the proposed defendant has been given notice of the charge within seven days of the evidence coming to the knowledge of the board.We think that if a man is to be charged he has a right to have a reasonable notice of the charge and also when the case is going to be heard. The suggestion in the Amendment is one which I think the Government will see is very necessary and I hope they will accept it.
§ 10.3 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
I am afraid that we cannot accept the Amendment as there are certain undesirable results which may follow from it, which I hope the hon. Member will appreciate. The object of this Sub-section is to give an extended time for proceedings to be taken. There is a maximum of 12 months after the commission of the offence or three months from the date on which evidence, in the opinion of the judge sufficient to justify a prosecution, came within the knowledge of the board. This Amendment will compel the board as soon as it has got evidence to give notice within seven days. It looks quite simple but, obviously, difficult questions may arise as to when the evidence was sufficiently completed to justify the board in giving notice. If the Amendment was accepted there might be cases where the board will say that they had a completed case and must give notice to the man, otherwise the seven days will run out.
It is much better to have the rather wider period of three months, which will make it not so necessary to decide whether the evidence was completed on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, and really might obviate the bringing of a case where the board, in order to comply with the Amendment, gave notice of the charge because they wanted to safeguard themselves and subsequently found that it was not a proper case with which to proceed. In such an event the man would be subject to a certain amount of pain and would be very indignant, and a very 1050 undesirable state of affairs would arise. So far as protecting the man is concerned, I agree that he must have reasonable notice of any charge. If the case comes on for hearing and there is any suggestion that the man has not had time to prepare his evidence, he asks and is granted an adjournment. The courts are always very ready to see that no man is prejudiced by having a case brought on against him too soon, and that is particularly so where there is a poor man on the one side and a Government Department on the other.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 10.8 p.m.
§ Major MILNER
I beg to move, in page 43, line 43, to leave out "three years," and to insert "one year."
The committee is very fortunate in having the learned Solicitor-General here to assist in our proceedings. He has been most helpful and reasonable, and sympathetic for the most part. I much hope that he may see the reasonableness of this Amendment. The position under Sub-section (5) of the Clause is that proceedings for summary recovery of sums drawn in excess of those properly due may be brought at any time within three years from the time when the matter complained of arose. The purpose of the Amendment is to limit that time to one year. I submit that it is not desirable to hold over a matter of this sort for so long a period as three years. I appreciate that the matter complained of may not have come to the notice of the authorities perhaps in much less than a year, but surely it should not be possible, in the case of an unemployed man who, perhaps innocently, makes a non-disclosure or a misrepresentation, to bring that matter against him within so long a period as three years.
We were given to understand earlier to-day by the Parliamentary Secretary that under a somewhat similar provision in existing legislation only one case had been brought against a man who had drawn sums in excess of the amount that he should have drawn. That being so, the matter cannot be of very serious moment to the Ministry or to the Public Assistance Board. Under the penal Clause of the Bill prosecutions for an offence have to be taken within 12 months from the 1051 commission of the offence. A similar provision should apply in the case of a summary recovery. I hope the learned Solicitor-General will again show his reasonableness by accepting this Amendment.
§ 10.12 p.m.
§ Mr. TINKER
I wish to support the Amendment. The Clause deals with the recovery of money paid under a misapprehension, through a mistake, or obtained fraudulently. If a man gets hold of money to which he is not entitled, it has to be recovered within three years' time. On an earlier Amendment we dealt with the case of a man who sought to get back money that ought to have been paid to him but which he had not been paid owing to some misunderstanding. We got from the Parliamentary Secretary the statement that for a short period, although a mistake had been made, the money would be retained. The period mentioned was a week or two. If that contention was right for the Government in the case of a mistake made by Government officials, surely we have a right to ask, on behalf of a man, that such a long period as three years should not exist in his case. According to figures given to us earlier, very few cases to recover these moneys have been taken into court. I cannot imagine many cases extending over 12 months. Anything beyond the 12 months ought to be passed by.
§ 10.14 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
Everyone feels that, save in exceptional cases, it is desirable that these matters should be dealt with promptly or not at all. This period of three years appears also in Clause 24 (1) of the Bill, and it also appears in the Widows' and Orphans' (Contributory Pensions) Act. That is its origin and it is to some extent desirable that these things should be uniform. The Mover, by the kind words which he used about myself, makes it very difficult for me to oppose the Amendment which he moved with such reasonableness and a good deal of substance, and with the object of which we must all have some sympathy. But in a certain sense this Amendment is rather academic. This Sub-section only refers to proceedings for summary recovery. The hon. Member, I have no doubt, realises, however, that that particular method of recovery is not the 1052 only method to which the board could resort if they thought fit. They could recover the money as a civil debt by ordinary civil proceedings. One believes that in ordinary cases the board would not contemplate action after a year, but there might be a special case of aggravated fraud which they thought should be brought to the public notice and receive public condemnation although the offence had been committed more than a year before.
If this Amendment were passed forbidding them to take summary proceedings after a year and if after a year a case arose in which—having regard to the considerations which one hopes and believes will animate them—they still felt they should exact the penalty of the recovery of the money, they could well do so by the other method which I have indicated. That other method would obviously be more expensive and would involve the defendant in the ordinary costs of civil proceedings which would be greater than the cost of the summary procedure provided for in the Bill. The Amendment would still leave the board with the right to proceed by ordinary civil process within six years, which is the ordinary period. It would not, therefore, effect the object which the Mover intends, namely to prevent the possibility of a man being harassed by proceedings after one year. One hopes that only in exceptional cases would the board think proper to take proceedings after a year but if they did think proper to do so, even with this Amendment they would still, as I have pointed out, have a power which would be exerciseable at greater expense to the defendant than that involved in the summary procedure. I suggest for that reason that the Mover might consider withdrawing this Amendment. I do not go into the general question of whether the period in the Statute of Limitations dealing with this and other matters is too long or not, but as far as this particular Amendment is concerned, it would not affect the position in the way hon. Members desire.
§ 10.19 p.m.
§ Mr. PALING
This discussion seems to provide the answer to the Government's case on a previous Amendment. We tried to ascertain, among other things, how far debts contracted in the matter of 1053 excess payments were to date back but we did not get an answer to our point. It now appears that they may date back as far as three years. I protest against the tendency which is shown throughout this Clause, for the Government to weight the scales in favour of the board and against the applicant. If a debt is incurred by way of excess payments it can be claimed on behalf of the Government after three years but if an applicant has been underpaid, he, apparently, is not to have a corresponding right. The Government are not prepared to give to the applicant the right which they ask for the board. We protest vigorously against the Government doing this kind of thing for themselves and not giving the same right to the person who needs it most. Is there any sound reason why, if a debt of this kind has been contracted, it should hang over for as long a time as three years? Is not a year good enough? Moreover, is it not a fact that the kind of people who will contract these debts are the very people who, by virtue of the fact that they are receiving assistance, will have no resources whatever to pay back anything?
§ 10.21 p.m.
§ Major MILNER
There is a good deal of justification for the position that my hon. Friend takes up in his point as to the difference in the treatment meted out by the Government to the unemployed man on the one hand and the employer on the other. I appreciate what the Solicitor-General has said, though I had not previously appreciated it, that in addition to the remedy provided under this Bill, there would be the ordinary remedy through the county court or elsewhere. I had assumed, no doubt erroneously, that this would be the only civil remedy.
Will the learned Solicitor-General or the Government be good enough to consider what I regard as an even more important matter than this, though I think it arises in this connection, namely, whether they would insert a similar provision to that in Sub-section (4), immediately preceding, whereby proceedings would be taken within three months from the date of information coming to the knowledge of the Unemployment Assistance Board? Obviously it ought not to be possible for the Board, so to speak, 1054 to sit on information for a period of three years, as they might conceivably do under the Bill as at present drawn, and then, for other reasons altogether, take proceedings against an applicant. If the Solicitor-General would consider between now and the Report stage inserting a provision whereby proceedings would be taken within three months of information coming to the knowledge of the Board, that would possibly be something in the nature of a safeguard at any rate, and if he would agree to that, I would, with the permission of my hon. Friend, ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ 10.23 p.m.
§ The SOLICITOR-GENERAL
I will certainly undertake to consider what for the moment I cannot see any objection to, namely, that there should be this limitation of three months from the time the board get their information. It is already for certain purposes in the Bill, and I appreciate the case put forward. I cannot go further than promise to consider the point, and we will do what we can in the matter.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 48 (Provisions as to allowances paid to persons entitled to old age pensions) ordered to stand part of the Bill.