HC Deb 08 May 1941 vol 371 cc1004-7
The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 4, line 8, to add new Sub-section: "(3) There shall be paid to liabilities adjustment officers and to any such subordinate officers and servants such salaries or remuneration as the Treasury may determine and the salaries or remuneration and the expenses of any such officers and servants shall be defrayed out of moneys provided by Parliament. This is a Privilege Amendment, which simply provides for payments to the liabilities adjustment officers.

Mr. Garro Jones

The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General will remember that at a former stage of the Bill I raised the question of the costs of liabilities adjustment officers. I think that matter is relevant to the proposed Sub-section (3) of this Clause, and I should like to ask the Attorney-General, who was good enough to promise me that he would look into this matter, whether he is now able to announce any concession to debtors by means of the payment of some of their costs through the channel of the expenses of the liabilities adjustment officers. There are cases in which some small point of law arises as between a very powerful creditor and a very impoverished debtor, and it frequently happens that the debtor is drawn through the courts until he abandons the case altogether, and then has awarded against him enormous sums in costs out of all proportion to his original debt. I think that in such cases, particularly if, for example, the Attorney-General certified that some principle of law arose which ought to be tested, the expenses of testing the point of law ought to be borne on the expenses of the liabilities adjustment officer. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman can make a concession of that sort, or at any rate state that he will look into the matter, it will make an improvement in the Sub-section.

The Attorney-General

I am not sure that this matter really arises on the present Amendment, which provides for the payment of the liabilities adjustment officers and their expenses. I promised to look into the suggestion which the hon. Member made on a former occasion, but I am afraid I cannot give him an answer to-day, although I do not blame him for reminding me of my promise. The question put was whether certain points of law might in form be decided by proceeding against the liabilities adjustment officer. I do not think that would be possible, and I foresee difficulties about it. However, I will look into the matter which the hon. Member has raised and see whether something further can be done with regard to it.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill."

Sir H. Williams

I wish to raise a matter that was raised in another place, namely, the sort of persons who will be appointed as liabilities adjustment officers. As a layman, I was very much encouraged when I heard the speech of the hon. Member for North Battersea (Mr. Douglas), who is, I believe, connected with the legal profession, and who stated what seemed to me to be the broad and high-minded view that in this case we should do all we can to prevent legalism spoiling the working of the scheme, and that the scheme should not be regarded as a device for earning fees. That is the approach we ought to make. If that be the case, what sort of persons are to be appointed? A friend has written me in these terms: There is a feeling abroad that when it comes to these appointments, they will be for some existing court officials, and the whole thing will be linked up with the existing debt procedure. Quite a number of people would much prefer that some ordinary citizens of the chartered accountant type, or anybody qualified, should be brought in. I am ignorant in these matters. I have never had any part in bankruptcy proceedings, either as a debtor or as a creditor, and I hope I never shall. I have been rather lucky. It seems to me that these officers should be essentially conciliators, and I think it would help us if the Attorney-General could give some indication of what is in the mind of the Lord Chancellor in regard to these appointments. Naturally, no-one can tie himself down as to what he will and will not do. It might happen that a legal gentleman would be just the right person for the job in some cases, whereas in other cases it might be somebody else. What we want to keep out of the operation of the Bill, when it becomas an Act, is the outlook of the bankruptcy courts. The scheme is a raft, and not a depth charge. The Bankruptcy Act is a depth charge. We want to make sure that the scheme is run on the right lines and animated by the right spirit.

Mr. Woodburn

With reference to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Sir H. Williams), I wish to make a suggestion. Recently, the Treasury introduced into the Finance Act a Section which gave them power to do away with the assessors under the Income Tax Acts. In future these assesors in various towns will probably find that their work is disappearing. It seems to me that they would be suitable persons to do the type of work that will fall upon the liabilities adjustment officers. They have been, as it were, the go-betweens between the Income Tax payers and the Income Tax authorities. I think they would be acceptable to both sides. They are not in any way connected with debt collecting, which I think it would be a great tragedy to associate in any way with this scheme.

The Attorney-General

Although I agree with the hon. Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn), I would remind him that some people would regard anybody connected with Income Tax as suffering from a certain taint. My Noble Friend is very anxious to get the right type of men for this work. I do not think one can be too dogmatic on the subject. There are some conciliatory lawyers, there are some registrars of county courts who might be available and who might be very good for this work, and solicitors, in spite of the taint of the law, might be found admirably suitable for it. I also agree that chartered accountants might be suitable. I think the right type of man might be found in all these categories. A suggestion was made in another place about Official Receivers, and it might be found that they would be perfectly suitable men, although there is not the slightest intention of appointing Official Receivers en bloc. The whole idea of the Bill is against what one might call the bankruptcy procedure. I think that the men available from those different categories will give complete satisfaction, but one cannot lay down definite rules in the matter. However, I can give this assurance, namely, that my Noble Friend entirely agrees with what has been said as to the desirability of getting men who will deal with this question on broad human lines, and will not approach it from the point of view of debt collecting or with any professional or personal bias. The principle of conciliation is the principle of this part of the Bill.

Sir H. Williams

Are these gentlemen to be paid salaries or fees? I see the word "salaries" is used. Will the work be done on the basis of a time-rate or a piece-rate, if I may use those expressions?

The Attorney-General

We shall have to see as we go along, because in some areas it may be a whole-time job, in which case salaries will be the more appropriate. If it is a question of occasional work, I think a fee would be more appropriate.

Question, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.