HC Deb 09 October 1946 vol 427 cc256-61
Mr. Maude (Exeter)

I beg to move, in page 23, line 30, to leave out from "recovered," to the end of the line.

Under Clause 34 we find that Any sum recoverable under this Act by the Ministers or either of them may be recoverable as a debt due to the Crown or summarily as a civil debt. What we wish to do is simply to leave the wording "as may be recovered summarily as a civil debt." It is probably within the recollection of the House that when we were discussing the Borrowing (Control and Guarantees) Act, 1946, we raised the question of what are called writs of capias. In the Bill, as it then was, these same words "be recoverable as a debt due to the Crown" were inserted, and we pointed out this to the House, if I may recapitulate the argument. I should like to preface the recapitulation by saying that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) described the modern use of writs of capias as having been hauled out for use by Tory Attorney-Generals. I very much hope that that will make hon. Members on the other side of the House sympathetic with me, because I am in fact condemning them. It is an old procedure whereby the Crown, if they get a judgment for debt, are able to walk along a passage in the High Court of Justice and get a write of capias. This does not apply to Scotland, although why on earth the Scots should be immune and the unfortunate Welsh and more unfortunate English should be subject to writs of capias I do not know.

The effect of a writ of capias is simply this. Instead of a sheriff going along and selling up a hill farmer, he can seize his body and put him in gaol, where he remains at the will of the Treasury. I conceive that to be a really wicked and evil thing which should not be increased in any shape or form. At the time when we were attacking writs of capias we had no assistance from the Law Officers of the Crown, probably because they were busy in other places, but the interesting thing, which no doubt was the result of those attacks, was that in another place these words were taken out. If we look at the Borrowing (Control and Guarantees) Act as it was accepted, the Crown was apparently satisfied that it was not necessary to have these words "recoverable as a debt due to the Crown."

As a result of a question which was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Quintin Hogg), some figures were given which may help to show that this thing really is tiresome. It was stated that the two departments which were using writs of capias were the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. It was pointed out that they were used in respect of fraudulent persons who were trying to defraud the Inland Revenue, for whom no one holds any brief, and by Customs and Excise in respect of Purchase Tax cases. In the year 1942 Customs and Excise took out seven of these writs. In the year 1943 they evidently became keener on them and took out 18. In the year 1944 they took out 21, and in the year 1945 they took out 36, when apparently their appetite had been whetted in some way. The figures for imprisonment are for 1942, three persons; for 1943, two; 1944, two; and for 1945 no less than 14.

Hon. Members will understand that what happens is that it is at the will of the Treasury how long a person stays there. I do not pretend for a moment that they do not inquire carefully into it and try to find whether a man really has the money, and perhaps keep him there a little longer to squeeze the whole amount out of him. Income Tax, Customs and Excise and Purchase Tax offences seem so different from what is happening under this Bill. This Bill deals with hill farmers from whom the Crown wants money. I deplore the idea that you want to pull people out of their homes, under a writ of capias, and put them into prison for debt. I believe that Members on all sides of the House think that imprisonment for debt is thoroughly bad unless carefully guarded by judicial procedure. If a writ of capias is put into execution, and you are imprisoned, it is not possible to appeal. What happens is that the judge gives judgment, the Crown gets its writ of capias, and apparently there is absolutely nothing you can do except pray or, by petition, persuade the Treasury that it would be more humane to let you out. I am not suggesting that this has anything to do with politics; I am trying to argue the matter temperately. Surely, it is sufficient to be able to recover the money under the Act summarily, as a civil debt. The anomaly between Scotland and England and Wales seems to be odious.

7.0 p.m.

I remember the Attorney-General once pointing out that penalties and imprisonment are not really important things. I quite agree that some sanction behind legislation is needed, but in matters such as this surely the knowledge that the money can be recovered in the same way that a citizen recovers his money should be sufficient. Members know that if they are owed money they can go to the court and get a judgment and that the debtor can be sold up, if necessary, in order to satisfy the debt. Why should the Crown, in circumstances such as this, have power to hold men and women, and imprison them against their will? I submit that this is really unnecessary. There was a strong precedent in the tremendously important Act, the Borrowing (Control and Guarantees) Act, where the Crown agreed that it was not necessary, and I submit that it is not necessary here.

Mr. Turton

I beg to second the Amendment.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

I hope I shall be able to reassure both the hon. and learned Member for Exeter (Mr. Maude) and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), who, respectively, moved and seconded the Amendment, that the proposal in the Bill involves no risk whatever of increasing the number of persons who may be imprisoned for debt. In so far as the argument of the hon. and learned Member has been directed against the practice of imprisoning persons for debt, I would say at once—if I may use a phrase which is coming into our vocabulary nowadays—that I could not agree with him more. I am so opposed to the practice of imprisoning people for debt as to be almost a crank in the matter, and it was no satisfaction to me to learn that in the last year for which statistics are available nearly 3,000 people were imprisoned for the non-payment of money, although, no doubt, not because they could not pay but because they would not pay. Of those 3,000 less than 0.2 per cent. were Crown debtors, who were proceeded against under the writ of capias,

On another occasion, the hon. and learned Member for Exeter directed some observations against the practice of issuing writs of capias, and drew a very harrowing picture of the position. It was, however, one which was wholly inaccurate and which, in any event, has no application whatever to this Clause in this little Bill. Firstly, debtors are, in practice, very rarely imprisoned under a writ of capias, even when such writs are issued. The proportion, taken over a period of years, in which imprisonment has followed the issue of a writ, is something of the order of two per cent. Secondly, only the two Departments, referred to by the hon. and learned Gentleman, the Commissioners of Inland Revenue and the Commissioners of Customs and Excise, make use of this procedure. I can assure the hon. and learned Member at once that it is not proposed to extend the procedure by way of writs of capias to any other Department. Contrary to the view put forward when the hon. and learned Member last raised this matter, the position is that the writ of capias is one that has been in constant use for a long period, and it has not been recently revived. I think the hon. and learned Member first suggested that it had been revived, and that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) took up that suggestion. It has been used over the last 20 years quite regularly. I have not traced it back further than that. I am assured that there has been no difference in regard to the practice. The only difference is that the extent to which it has been used has varied rather with the incidence of taxation. The Customs and Excise used it in connection with the Betting Tax, and when that went off they no longer had the same occasion to use it. It was used again in connection with the Purchase Tax. The Commissioners of Inland Revenue certainly used it as far back as the end of the last war, and the power to use it has been embodied in literally dozens of Acts of Parliament passed by Conservative Governments between the two wars, and, again, by the Coalition Government in the war period.

There is nothing novel about this. There are two Acts dealing with agriculture in which power of recovery of Crown debts is included, and one finds many Statutes in which what is a Crown debt is described as a Crown debt, and as being recoverable under forms of procedure which are applicable to Crown debts. I hope Members will feel satisfied that the provision that the sums of money should be recoverable as Crown debts is not in any way a novel one, and is in no way a departure from the existing practice.

Mr. Maude

In view of what the right hon. and learned Attorney-General has said, that it is not the intention of the Government to issue writs of capias, or apply such writs, we shall be quite satisfied, although we are not so certain as to what sort of Governments we may have in the future.

The Attorney-General

I am much obliged to the hon. and learned Member. I am not suggesting for a moment that the procedure in regard to the recovery of Crown debts and other matters relating to Crown procedure may not require, at some date, a comprehensive review. I hope we shall have the opportunity of dealing with it some day, not piecemeal, but in a comprehensive manner, which will prevent other Governments from abusing this procedure.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

May I ask the Attorney-General, when that comprehensive review takes place, if he will consult with the Lord Advocate?

Mr. Maude

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.