HC Deb 18 February 1949 vol 461 cc1534-58

Order, for Second Reading read.

2.35 p.m.

Mr. Monslow (Barrow-in-Furness)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

For some hours the House has been dilating on a great human problem. I wish to direct attention to another great social problem which comes within the ambit of this Bill. It concerns a grave injustice which has lasted for too long. Whatever the House may decide in connection with the subject-matter- we are about to discuss, this Bill will be looked upon by thousands of women and children as one of great and fundamental importance. I have had a great volume of correspondence on the subject, and later I wish to quote two typical examples.

This Bill deals solely with applications made by a married woman to the magistrates on the ground that her husband has been convicted by the magistrates inter alia of aggravated assault on her; been convicted before a jury of an assault on her and been sentenced to more than two months imprisonment or fined more than £5; deserted her; been guilty of persistent cruelty; wilfully neglected to provide reasonable maintenance for her or for her children for whom he is legally liable; or has been guilty of adultery, and that the cruelty or neglect has caused her to live apart from him.

I wish to make it clear that the Bill has no reference to proceedings for divorce, judicial separation or nullity in the High Court. The court may make a separation order, an order for the custody of the children, an order for costs and an order for the payment by the husband of such a weekly sum not exceeding £2 as the court considers reasonable having regard to the means of both husband and wife. Those provisions can be found in the Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act, 1895. The maximum of £2 per week has remained unchanged since that date. In 1920 the Married Women (Maintenance) Act enabled the court to order an additional maximum weekly sum of 10s. to be paid in respect of each child under 16. The latter amount has remained unchanged since 1920. It is a very sad commentary that these scales have remained in operation in the case of the wife for a period of 54 years and in the case of children for a period of 29 years.

I wish to quote one or two typical examples from my correspondence in order to demonstrate my case. I have here a letter from a father who writes about his daughter. He says: My daughter, owing to the terrible conduct of her husband, was obliged to seek a legal separation and an order was granted for the payment of £1 per week for my daughter and 10s. for her child aged four months. This was in October, 1948, and, as the child is still only nine months old, she is still unable to seek employment. The moral obligation naturally falls on myself, and at present I have to find all over and above the 30s. which it takes to keep, feed, house and clothe them both in these difficult times. The irony of it is that I am not even granted any Income Tax Relief, although I have virtually got two children on my hands. On the other hand the eel of a husband is able to walk out without a care in the world for the sum of 30s. a week, and still claim £70 for his wife and £60 for the child in Income Tax Relief. Please ask the House if they think this is fair dealing. I brought up my daughter and a son when I was in receipt of a wage too low in rate to make a claim for either. My son was killed serving with the R.A.F., and my daughter served five years in the W.A.A.F. For myself, I was wounded and discharged from the forces in the 1914–18 war, and my reward for this is that I am now back raising another man's family, because I feel morally responsible, while the man who is legally responsible gets off practically scot free. As matters stand at present, there is every encouragement for a 'no good' husband to give cause for a separation, and what of the wife, when her parents are no longer here? I have here another letter, which is from the south, from which I will make a brief quotation: My own case is an example of injustice, seeing that I am to be penalised for the remainder of my life because I cannot afford to take my case to the High Court. My husband is indeed a wealthy business man, but I have to be content, because of my own financial stringency, to accept £2 per week. I quote from another letter from the Midlands: The allowance I get under a Court Order is £2 per week for myself and 10s. for my child, and, after paying rent, etc., I cannot possibly live on it, with the cost of things as they are today. I cannot get any more, as this is all the law permits. I should like to explain the Bill as briefly as I can, because I am not unmindful of the fact that other hon. Members who are vitally interested in this problem also desire to speak. In Clause 1 (1), it is proposed to increase the maximum payment to the wife from £2 to £5. It may be argued against the proposal to increase the maximum weekly payment for children that the amount of 10s. was fixed in 1920, when the cost of living was higher than it is today. In case there is any dubiety about that matter, I have taken the trouble to ascertain the facts of the changes in the cost of living figures in recent years. Taking the year 1914 as 100, the cost of living index in regard to all items in 1920 was 249, and, in June, 1947, it was 203. The new index started in June, 1947, at 100, and at December, 1948, it was 109, making a total of 221.

It may be suggested further that the 5s. a week family allowance should also be taken into account. I want to reply to both those arguments which may be put. In respect of the 10s. a week for children, my view is that it was too small anyway, especially for the older children. and, as regards family allowances, I would point out that these do not apply to the eldest child, and that, in any case, the scheme was never intended to allow an erring husband to escape from his responsibilities.

Clause 1 (2) enables the court to review and vary the old orders, and to order an increased amount to be payable in future, but, of course, it does not mean that any increased amounts may be recoverable in respect of the past. The figures are maxima and the courts will still have to have regard to the means of both husband and wife. I submit that, while we are endeavouring through the medium of this Bill, to improve the lot of unfortunate women and children, it is undeniable that an even greater injustice exists at present in the practical difficulty of getting anything at all. The Bill does not attempt to deal with this problem.

It may be suggested that to make an increase in the payments to deserted wives when old age pensions are not being increased would be something that we ought not to do. The answer to that is that there has been no increase in maintenance orders since 1895, a period of 54 years, and I think that, with very few exceptions, every section of the community has been able to improve its standard of living. Wages and salaries have been increased, though there may be exceptions in respect of High Court Judges and Cabinet Ministers, and I think we can say that the tendency of the standard of life has been in an upward direction.

There will be no increase in the charge on public funds if anything is done. I want to thank a number of my colleagues for the co-operation they have given me in regard to this Bill, and I commend the Bill to the House, not on compassionate grounds, but on the grounds of equity and justice. I feel that some revision of the existing scales is warranted, because the purchasing value of the pound has fallen considerably and because the sum fixed in 1895 is totally inadequate to meet present needs. This is a great human problem, and, regardless of the political labels which we may carry, I am satisfied that we are all desirous of doing justice to this unfortunate section of the community.

I thank the House for the sympathetic consideration which has been given to me in submitting this Bill. I feel it is a most important Bill, and I commend it to hon. Gentlemen to examine in the light of the facts, and in the knowledge that there has been no change since 1895 in the allowances made to wives, and for children, no change since 1920. We should realise that there are involved in this great human problem 25,000 cases which pass through the magistrates' courts each year, and that it is a situation which we must attempt to relieve in order to improve the lot of these unfortunate folk.

2.49 p.m.

Mrs. Nichol (Bradford, North)

I beg to second the Motion.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) for introducing this Bill in so able a manner and in presenting the facts so clearly. They are sure to have a very great effect on hon. Members, all of whom may not be aware of the gravity of this situation. If this Bill is passed, it will redress an injustice which has persisted since 1895. In 1895, life in England was very different from what it is today. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the value of money was entirely different; and the whole social habits of the people were entirely different. The necessities of today were unheard of in 1895, and even if they had been, they would have been considered luxuries.

It is obvious that the sum of £2 which is the maximum amount that can be allowed by a police court to a wife separated from her husband is much too low in these days and in these entirely changed conditions of living, and that 10s. a week is much too little on which to bring up a child. An hon. Friend said to me that he would not support this Bill because he was afraid it might encourage some women to prefer to live separated from their husbands. One might equally say that the present arrangement might encourage husbands to seek a very inexpensive way out of their marital responsibilities. I think that is the best answer to a criticism of that sort.

Like other hon. Members who have expressed deep interest in this Bill, I have received scores of letters from many parts of the country which are heartbreaking to read. They are similar to those which were quoted to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness. Although overdue, I think this is an appropriate time to bring in a Measure of this kind. It is appropriate because unemployment is very low, and wages are very much improved, though I do not lose sight of the fact that there are also today many more opportunities for women to work, but because a woman separated from her husband very often has a home and a child or children to care for, and with no husband at home to give her a hand, the work she is able to do is usually on a very part-time basis. In any case, the discretion of the court can always be exercised where it might appear that a young childless woman is seeking to exploit her husband. Whilst the proposed maximum of £5 may seem high to some people—indeed, that has been one of the criticisms mentioned to me—it at least serves as a guide, and the maximum figure would obviously only be granted in those cases where, in the opinion of the court, the circumstances justified it.

On the matter of how the weekly allowance is to be extracted from the husband—because many of the letters we receive complain bitterly that although the court has granted 30s. or £2, there is very often great trouble to get it—that is a matter for separate consideration. I shall leave it to hon. Friends who are also hon. and learned Friends to devise a way of making erring husbands come to heel. Our problem at the moment is with the actual fixing of a much higher maximum. I hope that this Bill is accepted, on all sides of the House, and I feel sure that if it is, it will rejoice the hearts of many thousands of unhappy wives all over the country, and will give a feeling of much greater comfort to happily married people and adults who feel that this is a very grievous wrong which should be redressed as speedily as possible.

2.53 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I am glad to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) who has just moved the Second Reading of this important little Bill. It is, indeed, a very simple one, and I think that every hon. Member of this House, and every member of the public, will be Able to understand the way in which it is written. I wish we could say the same about some of the Bills with which we have been dealing lately. It is also a most useful Measure, and it seems to me to be absolutely necessary today that we should give it a Second Reading, and that we should speed it into legislation so that the maintenance awards can be brought more into keeping with present day standards and requirements.

I think it is true to say that there are many people today who are separated from their wives who could afford to pay much more than they are compelled to pay, and who are undoubtedly escaping their responsibilities and liabilities. When doing a little research into this matter the other day, I came across a question asked by a Mr. Newbould. He asked the Prime Minister: Whether maintenance orders for separated wives are still limited to £2; whether this limit is irrespective of the means of the husband and father and the size of the family; and whether, in view of the rise of the cost of living and the hardship consequently inflicted on separated wives and their children, he will consider the desirability of entirely removing the limit of £2 to be paid under these orders and substituting an arrangement whereby the sum granted should be such as the court, having regard to the means both of the husband and wife, consider reasonable. That might be a very modern instance; in fact, it could have been tabled at the present time. The actual date of that Question was 28th October, 1920, and the Secretary of State for the Home Department in reply, said: My right hon. Friend has asked me to reply to this Question. £2 is the most a defendant can be ordered to pay in the cases in question. I hope it may be possible to amend the law in this respect, and a Bill for that purpose has been prepared and is ready to be introduced.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October, 1920; Vol. 133; c. 1935–6.] That was said in 1920, and it has taken all this time—until 1949—to get a Bill. Even then, it is not introduced by the Home Secretary, but by a Private Member which is, I think, a sad commentary on the vigilance of some of our predecessors. Looking a little later at the Married Women (Maintenance) Bill, which was discussed in this House on 16th December, 1920, I was appalled to see what scant consideration was given to it. The whole thing received a formal Second Reading; in Committee stage it occupied only one and three-quarter columns of HANSARD, and it was reported with Amendment, read the Third time and passed without further discussion. The name of the Home Secretary at that time was Mr. Shortt, and his Bill seemed to follow his name. In reading that Debate, it is interesting to see that precisely the same questions were asked then as my hon. Friends have been asking today. Why is it that a maintenance order against a wealthy man should only be made for a maximum of £2, and, under the Bill as it was, 10s. for a child? They asked that that limit should be entirely removed, and that discretion should be left to the magistrates. We are not being quite so revolutionary as that. We are asking for maximum of £5 and 20s., respectively. The Home Secretary at that time gave the reason why he could not allow this figure to be increased when he was asked about it by a certain Sir Robert Newman, who said: There are a great number of working people who are getting very high wages indeed—£6, £7, and £8 a week. It would not be compulsory to give a sum of £1 if the father could not afford it, but if the magistrate did discover that he was earning high wages I think he should have this discretionary power. The Home Secretary replied: Again I hope my hon. Friend will not press the Amendment. Ten shillings has only lately been the amount. Formerly it was only 5s. We must have some limit to the amount. The woman gets her own £2 quite independent of the 10s. for each child, and that is certainly much more generous than it used to be."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1920; Vol. 136, cc. 980–81.] Again those seem to be familiar arguments to turn down an attempt in this House to secure an increase.

As has been pointed out, this proposal does not impose any charge whatever upon the Exchequer. It gives the magistrates full discretion to award up to a maximum of £5. The point has been made that if we agreed to the Measure it might give an incentive to certain women to seek a separation rather than try to make the best of what to them is a bad job. We can have our own views as to whether it is better to live together, even though it is a cat and dog life, or seek a separation, but my view is that apart from the odd person here and there, the bulk of people applying for separation orders are not trying to exploit their husbands. I think they are doing it because it is clearly impossible for them, after many efforts to get together, properly to make a go of it.

The magistrates who deal with these cases are men and women of very wide experience, who have dealt with these cases very frequently, and I think they can tell who these people are. In some cases it would probably be their duty to refuse a separation. If they thought that a woman was trying to exploit her husband and live on the separation order for the rest of her life as a pension, they would have the right and the discretion under this Bill not to give the maximum amount. After all, the final decision rests with the magistrates. They can make an assessment on all the known facts.

One other point which has been touched upon is one which gives me great anxiety; I confess that I do not know the answer to it, and I do not think my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary knows the answer. The problem is: assuming that these orders of £5 and 20s. for each child are made, what can we do to make certain that the woman gets that money? I think the Home Secretary, replying to a question yesterday hinted that in some cases the amount has been reduced from the present sum of £2 to ensure payment on the argument, I suppose, that it is better to have half a loaf than no bread at all. When asked if any legislation can be brought in to enforce the payment of maintenance orders, his answer has always been that it is a very controversial matter. It is for that reason, I suppose, that the provision relating to that point has been omitted from this Bill, but it is something which we shall have to consider at a future date and, as I say, I do not know quite what the answer will be.

The question of wrecked marriages and the need for separation allowances is not a very happy thing to be discussing, but at least I think we ought to ensure by accepting this Measure, by giving it a very speedy Second Reading and passing it through all its stages, that wives and children who are deprived of a husband or a father and who undergo all the difficulties entailed, should have the fullest opportunity of maintaining themselves and of getting as much out of life as they possibly can. We shall enable this to be done more decently and more adequately than in the past, by giving powers to make these more reasonable and more adequate financial provision for them.

The Act of 1920 to which I refer received the Royal Assent on 23rd December, and it was a very welcome Christmas present to many children who were then enabled to get 10s. maintenance a week instead of the previous 5s., as I think it was. I hope that this Bill will receive the Royal Assent by Easter so that many wives and children can have a very acceptable Easter present.

3.5 p.m.

Mr. Royle (Salford, West)

Whilst my three hon. Friends have very largely covered the various aspects of the Bill and have adduced all the arguments which it is possible to advance, I am glad of the opportunity of making a few remarks as a result of my humble experience in domestic court work. It is because of that experience that I am impelled to support my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) in moving the Second Reading. The Bill is very simple, brief and concise. It is overdue to such an extent that I regard its need as obvious, so obvious, in fact, that it would be a very good thing if we could complete its Second Reading this afternoon by 3.45 p.m., proceed immediately to the Committee stage and, possibly, get it to another place by Monday of next week.

The Bill is an easy way of righting a great wrong which has existed for very many years. In 1895 a £2 allowance to a wife accomplished something which it does not accomplish today: in those days it guaranteed to her complete freedom from want. Similarly, in 1920, the sums then payable for the maintenance of children appeared to be fairly adequate. In fact, Governments after 1920 actually said that 2s. or 3s. a week was sufficient on which to keep a child. Although our predecessors on this side, however, contested that view very strongly, it was adhered to for a long time and allowances of only 2s. or 3s. a week continued to be made. Whilst, therefore, in 1920, 10s. was a reasonable sum the situation has altered so completely that in 1949 an allowance of 10s. a week for the upbringing of a child is utterly ridiculous.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness referred to family allowances. I assure him that in all cases before our domestic courts when the time comes for the magistrates to decide what the amount of the payment is to be, the family allowance is always taken into consideration, a factor which will be in no way altered by the passage of The Bill. The need for an increase in the amount of payments is due to causes over which the country and Parliament have had little control, and because of the fact that there have been two wars in the lifetime of most of us present the situation as it exists is out of all proportion. We have today an estimation of responsibility altogether different and much keener, I hope, than it was at the end of the last century. Because of this sense of responsibilty some of us are extremely anxious that alterations to our existing legislation should be made. For a long time magistrates have been completely hamstrung by Section 5 of the 1895 Act. In making orders they have known full well that the payments they were ordering were totally inadequate.

It has been suggested that wives might take advantage of this Bill and unreasonably make applications for separation. I cannot see the possibility of that, because at the commencement of every hearing conciliation can be attempted, and I am certain that magistrates, with their experience and knowledge, would very soon see through such an application. That argument is one which I think we can forget almost immediately. We can think, out of our own experiences, of scores and scores of cases where men with incomes of £15 to £20 a week, utter rotters, who have deserted their wives and accepted no responsibility, have appeared before the court and admitted their desertion, but the magistrates have been hamstrung and compelled to make allowances of not more than £2 a week and 10s. for each child. This has to some degree almost broken the hearts of magistrates who have had to deal with such cases.

I know I can speak for my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness when I assure the House that there is no question of forcing up an allowance when the income of the husband would not justify the increase. This is purely and simply a question of extending the discretion of magistrates who hear these cases so that they may be empowered by Act of Parliament to give larger allowances than in the past. I do not want to say anything else, except to plead with the House and the Under-Secretary, who, I hope, will shortly be telling us the view of the Home Office, to say that this Bill shall have the opportunity of going to a Standing Committee, so that ultimately it will come on the Statute Book and very quickly right what has been for many years a wrong.

3.12 p.m.

Mrs. Castle (Blackburn)

After the very moving speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow), I think the feeling we have this afternoon is not only that we ought to agree on the urgent necessity for this Bill, but also some doubt whether the Bill goes far enough. Indeed, the remedy proposed to deal with the present situation, to increase the allowance from £2 to £5 per week, is not very logical. Probably the only logical way of dealing with this problem is by allocating to the wife—particularly when children are involved—a percentage of the man's income. After all, it is the children who suffer particularly from the breaking up of home life, through no fault of their own, and find themselves dependent on a mother who is struggling against great financial difficulties, and who will not he exactly on Easy street on even £5 a week. This Bill is at any rate a step forward; it does remove the worst of the difficulties.

I am very glad that the Bill has been introduced by a member of the opposite sex. The Bill does not stem out of fanatical feminism. I, for one, would not be prepared to say that men are naturally the errant sex, given to misdemeanours on a large scale, who have to be frightened into virtue by the fear of very heavy financial penalties. I am perfectly prepared to admit that there may be cases in which marriages go wrong when the wife is the exploiting party, or attempts to be. I believe that there are instances in our law in which men, in their relationship to women, are themselves unfairly penalised, and I should be prepared to support at any time legislation to remove from the unfortunate men of this country any heavy legal disability under which they may be suffering. It is not a question of attempting to wrest a little bit more from a hostile sex, but an attempt to get a reasonable solution of a problem which may crop up anywhere at any time, when the relationships between two human beings go wrong, particularly when there are children who may suffer from that break-up.

The attempt to increase the allowance is not an attempt to make a vindictive levy on the husband, but an effort to salvage for the wife and children a home life which will still keep its dignity and its reasonable comfort, something which we have so far failed to do. When we are encouraging by every means in our power as a Government a rise in our birthrate, and when we want to see women go into motherhood with self-confidence, I say that it is essential to the security which we should offer to women as mothers that they should feel that if, through no fault of their own, their marriage should go wrong, motherhood can still be exercised against a background of reasonable security.

There is one objection to the Bill which is given considerable weight in certain quarters and with which I want to deal. It is the point whether or not collection will become more difficult and the income more hazardous if we increase the maximum allowance, and that the wife will suffer as a result. We are all aware that the present machinery for enabling the wife to collect the allowance which has been duly allotted to her, is inadequate. We have all had cases of this character from our constituencies. I had the case of a woman—she was receiving not a maintenance allowance but alimony, but the problem was the same—who was actually paying Income Tax under P.A.Y.E. on her alimony although she never received the alimony. That was a heavy miscarriage of justice which I had to take steps to remedy. The sympathetic reactions of our Front Bench showed again how human our Ministers are at heart.

This objection has been advanced, but it is an extremely astonishing argument, when you come to analyse it. What it says in effect is that when justice can be evaded we should make no attempt to do justice. The strict logic of that argument is that the maintenance allowance should be progressively reduced, perhaps to vanishing point, because then there could be no evasion of collection at all. We must face the argument about collection, not under the Bill but in another context. In the meantime, it is impossible for the House to accept the argument that we should not attempt to get an adequate allowance for a woman just because there have been, and will continue to be, evasions of obligations by the husband.

There is this practical point that what seems to happen rather frequently is that husbands who do not intend to pay regularly know, none the less, that they have to be on the right side of the court by not being too openly evasive and defiant. They therefore pay a bit on account. Looking at the matter from a mathematical point of view, if we make the allowance higher probably what the husband will pay on account will work out to be a little bit more than the wife would have got if the allowance had not been increased.

From the points of view of justice and practical administration and all other points of view, I hope we shall have wholehearted acceptance of the Bill by the Under-Secretary. I hope it will not be another case of the Under-Secretary versus the rest. I hope that we shall have him on our side this time and that we shall get the Bill through speedily. If by taking this step towards a juster administration we find that we bring more vividly into the forefront the necessity for improving the machinery for the collection of these allowances, we shall have done good on a double front.

3.21 p.m.

Mr. Asterley Jones (Hitchin)

I join other hon. Members who have supported the Bill, but I want to make certain comments about it. Many people will take the view—wrongly, I think—that when weekly amounts which are ordered to be paid to a wife exceed £2 or £3, the matter should be one for the High Court. That subject has been put to me on a number of occasions. I am not aware that That criticism has yet been voiced in this House, although it is one which requires an answer.

In the first place, the disadvantage of limiting persons who are above a certain standard of living to the High Court is that it is not possible to make an application to the High Court merely for an order for maintenance. There must be an application for a judicial separation, divorce or a decree of nullity. It therefore adds unnecessarily to the difficulties to go to the High Court. Secondly, there is the question of expense. Even at present, in spite of the improvements which have been made, the expense of petitioning the High Court for a decree in matrimonial matters is very high, and although the persons concerned may be of a fairly high standard of living the cost is quite unnecessary and unjustifiable.

On the other hand, it might be argued that next year, when the Rushcliffe scheme comes into operation, the cost will be borne, to some extent at any rate, by public funds. That is not a valid argument because if the parties do not pay the costs, the taxpayer will pay them, and there does not seem to be any real reason why the taxpayer should pay costs which need not be incurred if the matter can easily and simply be dealt with in the magistrates' courts. It is also undesirable that the High Court should be overloaded with a large number of matters of this kind. Clearly, matters of outstanding importance, where the status of the parties is concerned in such things as divorce, must be subjects for a court higher than the magistrates' court, but where it is simply a matter of assessing whether a husband should maintain his wife, I believe that the magistrates can deal with it up to a relatively high amount.

I sympathise with hon. Members in this House and in a previous Parliament who have asked why there should be any limit at all. I suppose that, in logic, there need not be any limit, but for many years we have accepted the principle that there should be a limit to the jurisdiction of magistrates. While I should have no objection whatever to putting in a figure of £10 rather than £5 in order to enable more people to apply to the courts, nevertheless I fully understand the reasons which have induced the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) and others to adhere to the lower limit.

On the other hand, it is sometimes suggested—with less justice today than in the past—that the powers of the magistrates should be very closely confined indeed. It is suggested that the magistrates are hardly to be trusted with the very wide powers which an increased maximum limit would give them. Against that, even if it is not possible to trust these courts, and I believe that it is—after all they have the power to send men and women to prison for six, or even 12 months in certain circumstances—there is a right of appeal. However, that right of appeal is not by way of re-hearing, but is based on certain grounds, such as that the order made by the court was against the weight of the evidence. And it is, of course, an appeal to the High Court with all the attendant costs which follow from such an appeal.

Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)

Which can be recovered from the husband.

Mr. Jones

The husband, in the long run, if he can be found and if he has any property, will have to pay, so that it falls severely upon the private person. I would suggest to the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness that it might be possible to introduce in Committee a provision whereby there should be an appeal to quarter sessions by way of re-hearing a case, rather than limiting it to an appeal to the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division, with all the attendant cost and inconvenience such an appeal entails.

My final point arises on the difficulty of collection. I am only too familiar with the difference between the law and the practice. One may march triumphantly out of the court having obtained an order for the maximum amount, knowing full well that not only will it be difficult to get the money out of the husband but that the prospect of getting one's own costs is rather problematical if one has not been particularly wise and managed to get the costs before going into court.

May I make a suggestion which might commend itself to those who have charge of this Bill in Committee? Supposing a wife finds that her husband is not keeping up his payments. The present system is that she has to go to the court and take out a summons which is in due course served on the husband, who may or may not appear. If he does not, then the case may be adjourned for it to be re-served or, more likely, for a warrant to be issued and the husband brought in on warrant. Those persons, like myself, who at some point in their lives have spent a little time in the London police courts and have seen the pathetic procession of women coming into the court perhaps week after week and being told, "I am afraid your husband is not here this week; you will have to come back next week," will understand it when I say that I think it is possible to devise some other means than this.

The woman who finds that she is not getting her money must inevitably go round to the Assistance Board. I suggest that in those cases where a husband persistently defaults on his maintenance order, it would be a matter of simplicity if the court were to order that the Assistance Board should pay at any rate part of the payments which the court itself has ordered the husband to pay, leaving it to the Assistance Board— which has many more resources than the wife or even than the police courts—to get the husband and to recover not only the payments made by the Assistance Board to the wife, but also anything further that the Assistance Board can recover from the husband up to the maximum amount of the order. That would appear to be a practicable way of bringing more pressure than is at present available to bear on a defaulting husband. I hope some examination of that proposal will be made, in order to deal with what my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness quite rightly referred to as one of the biggest difficulties in the administration of this legislation.

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Solley (Thurrock)

I should like to add my voice to those of my hon. Friends who have spoken in support of this Bill. I was very interested in the argument which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) advanced. She quite rightly voiced her apprehension of the possibility of a number of husbands against whom orders for maintenance were made, avoiding by devious means their obligation to pay under those orders. She suggested the possibility of having an order made based on some percentage of the earnings of the husband, as against the fixing of a maximum sum, which is suggested in the Bill. I think that argument is based on a misapprehension of what happens in practice.

In practice, the magistrates, when assessing the quantum of an order, having found against the husband on liability, do take into account the joint incomes of both parties. They do, or should, take into account the possibility of the wife earning something towards keeping herself or her children, and accordingly make an order which, if the magistrates are exercising common sense, is one which could be reasonably carried out by the husband. I do not want to be taken as criticising the system of lay magistrates, but I suggest that in a number of cases where husbands do not obey orders made against them, it is manifestly because those orders are in excess of the capacity of the husband to pay.

If the Bill becomes law the fact that the magistrates will have the opportunity of increasing the order to a maximum of £5 ought not to result in practice in an automatic increase of the amount which the magistrates order, but will enable magistrates in appropriate cases— probably in most cases—to exceed what was previously the maximum order, namely, £2. But they ought to do so after a consideration of the financial circumstances of the husband. Therefore, I do not think that an increase in the amount of an order against the husband will necessarily result in any increase in the number of cases of husbands attempting, without any moral justification, to avoid their liability under the order.

A point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mr. Asterley Jones) about the question of appeals. This is a most important question, which should be met if the Bill obtains a Second Reading—as I think it is certain to do, for no reasonable argument has been advanced against it. As my hon. Friend said, an appeal lies to the High Court on a question of law. Most of the grievances are to be found not in relation to questions of law but in relation to determinations of fact. In my experience of these matters in a professional capacity, I have from time to time felt the desirability, from the point of view of the public, of having a court of appeal such as quarter sessions where questions of fact could be determined so that either husbands or wives who feel aggrieved at the decision of the magistrates could have a re-hearing before a court of higher instance. In view of the suggested increase of the possible amount of an order from £2 to £5, I would particularly suggest to the sponsors of the Bill that there should be an accompanying right of appeal to quarter sessions.

This Bill touches the majority of cases in which husband and wife separate and the wife desires some form of maintenance. Broadly speaking, cases of that kind can be put into three categories. There is the category of the majority, in which the only avenue of relief is via the magistrates' court. The second avenue of relief, which applies, broadly speaking, only to the higher income groups, is the application to the Divorce Division of the High Court of Justice. The third avenue of approach, which is likewise the approach of the middle classes and the upper income groups, is the voluntary entering into of an agreement between both parties, which is drawn up by a solicitor.

While we on these benches are not unconcerned with the higher income groups, we have a primary loyalty to the majority of the people of this country, namely, those in the lower income groups. This Bill touches that section of the population more than the higher income groups. It enables substantial justice to be done to the vast majority of tragic couples who find their married lives wrecked, and enables wives in those cases to have an easy means of access to justice and a substantial rendering of justice. Like my hon. Friend, I visualise an increase in the near future in the applications to the higher court for larger sums of maintenance, based upon the present divorce practice, where by virtue of legislation which will come into operation it will be possible for working-class women to short-circuit the approach to the local magistrates' court and to go for, if I may use a vulgarism, really big money by way of the Divorce Division of the High Court of Justice. I, for one, can see no objection in principle to this Bill, and I certainly support it most heartily.

3.39 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton (Brixton)

This Bill will give a ray of hope to thousands of people in this country who at the present time are adversely affected by the law as it operates in respect of maintenance. I fully realise that the Home Secretary is alive to the importance of this problem, because only yesterday in the House, in reply to a Question which I put to him, he expressed the opinion that there was no doubt that a very large number of innocent parties were adversely affected under the present arrangements. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) quoted some very hard cases which have been brought to his notice. Since it was announced in the Press a little time ago that I would have the honour of introducing a deputation to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in the near future, on this and kindred topics, I have been inundated with letters from all over the country which unfortunately indicate that there is at the present moment what can only be described as a vast mound of human misery which we, as Members of this House of Commons, ought to make some attempt to remove.

While there can be no objection to the Bill as it stands, the fear that I have in my mind is that the Bill may break down, if it ever gets on to the Statute Book, because of the inability of the legal machine to ensure that decisions arrived at by the magistrates' courts under the proposed Bill are likely to be carried out. The other day I had a letter from a lady who said that she had obtained a court order as recently as 1946. It was for an amount of 30s. a week. Since that time two warrants have been issued and six summonses, all in relation to that one order. Despite the fact that all these legal operations had taken place, there is at the present moment no less a sum than £100 due by way of arrears under that order. In another case, where an order was made in 1947, arrears began to accumulate within eight weeks of the making of the order. The unfortunate wife has been to court 15 times since then and the arrears now amount to £40. It is quite true, as has been stated, that women who have obtained court orders go along to the courts week after week without having the slightest idea or assurance that there is any money awaiting them.

I wish to support one suggestion which has already been made. There is no particular reason why there should be any income limit at all in this Bill. It is right and proper that we should endeavour to relieve the High Court of as much litigation as we possibly can. Subject to the proviso that we have adequately manned magistrates' courts up and down the country, there is no reason why the amount awarded under a separation order should not be entirely within the discretion of the magistrates. How are we to make sure that whatever orders are made they will be enforced? A correspondent who wrote to me mentioned that in Canada—I have had no opportunity of verifying this—court orders for maintenance are deducted from source, namely, from the husband's wages. I know that that is a very arguable proposition. There is this, however, to be said for it, that deductions would be made only in the limited class of case where the husband is deliberately trying to avoid his responsibility under a court order. That procedure also may have an additional inducement for payment. because husbands may not like it to be known at their place of work that they have domestic trouble and would therefore be at pains not to subject themselves to this liability. I ask the promoters of this Bill to consider that possibility.

The other point I wish to raise is a matter of co-operation between Government Departments in assuring that justice is effectively carried out. A correspondent wrote to me from a large provincial town complaining that she could not secure justice in respect of proceedings she wished to institute for maintenance against her husband. She has been married for twenty years. Her husband left her four and a half years ago. Since then she has been left entirely to her own resources. All that she knows about her husband is that he is working somewhere in London. She went to court and succeeded in obtaining a warrant for the arrest of her husband. In their endeavours to enforce the warrant, the police made inquiries of the Ministry of National Insurance on the strength of information that the missing man was employed somewhere in London. The Ministry refused the information to the police authorities.

I know that it is the custom of Government Departments not to disclose the addresses of people to other persons for the purpose of civil litigation, but when a warrant has been issued for a man's arrest, I cannot understand why a Government Department should refuse information to enable the police authorities to give effect to the warrant. I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to take up this matter with his right hon. Friend in order to ensure that this monstrous perversion of justice is not continued as a result of the deliberate refusal of a Government Department to co-operate with the police in the carrying out of their duties and responsibilities. We know that the police authorities are very much overburdened. I cannot understand how it comes about that Government Departments deliberately or obstructively add to the already heavy burdens imposed on the police in connection with the enforcement of these orders.

I commend this Bill to the sympathetic consideration of the House and in particular to the sympathetic consideration of the Under Secretary. There are a great number of other points to which reference could be made were time available. I will content myself with expressing my gratitude that at least in this one limited field there is an indication that some of us are getting on with the job of dealing with what is a most distressing problem.

3.49 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Younger)

On behalf of the Government I should like to welcome this Bill as a useful Measure and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) on having introduced it and on the manner in which he explained its purpose. The Government recognise that there certainly is a case for increasing the maximum figure which can be ordered in the summary courts in these cases.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd), who gave us a little bit of history, showed quite clearly that in principle this need has been recognised for a long time and that there have been Members of this House for at least 25 years or so who have wished to see this figure raised. Reference has been made to the change in the value of money as between the years before the First World War and the years after the First World War, when the figure relating to children was fixed, compared with today. I think that, on this alone, a change in the present maximum would be justified, but there is just one word I should like to say about the question of the exact maximum figure which has been chosen in this Bill.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees said during the Debate on an earlier Bill, it was suggested, at any rate by one hon. Member, that there need not be any limit at all, and that point was very well dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mr. Asterley Jones) subsequently. I think that, from the purely logical point of view, one might say that there was no case for a limit at all, and if we do decide to place a limit upon the discretion of the Summary Court, it is really justified simply on general grounds that the jurisdiction of the Summary Court, in almost all branches of its work, is limited either as to the sums of money, the nature of the issues which they can try or the penalties which they can impose, and it is in line with that general conception of the function of the Summary Court rather than on account of anything in the nature of what comes before them, which justifies the imposition of the maximum figure.

If there is to be a limit imposed, where are we to place it and what are to be our grounds for placing it at any particular figure? Is it to be purely an arbitrary matter, or something for which we can find some criteria? I doubt whether anyone will quarrel with the figure proposed for the payment in respect of children, which is, I think, the figure already provided under the Guardianship of Infants Act. As regards the figure of £5, I do not know exactly why it was chosen, and I am not saying that I necessarily quarrel with it, but I think the House might have to consider in Committee upon what grounds that sum has been chosen. As the House knows, there was another proposal before the House which is no longer before it for a lower figure of £4.

On the other hand, it has been suggested today that there might well be an even higher figure, and one of my hon. Friends has mentioned the sum of £10. Clearly, whether we choose £4, £5 or even £10 as a maximum, that certainly would not be a maximum in the sense that we think there would never be a case where a higher sum could not properly be awarded. Obviously, if the husband has a very high income, it may be proper to go well above even the figure of £10, and that, therefore, clearly cannot be the criterion.

The question really is at what point do we think it right that claims of this kind should be made in the High Court rather than in the summary courts? It is a more cumbersome and more expensive procedure to bring a claim in the High Court. On the other hand, under the Legal Aid Bill which we hope will shortly become an Act, the burden, from that point of view, will be very much reduced to all litigants of moderate means. I think that perhaps a more useful way to tackle it is to consider in what types of case and for what section of the community it might be necessary to make orders beyond a certain figure, and to consider in particular the average resources of the type of people who most commonly make these applications.

I have here some fairly recent figures relating to 1948 which we think are worth considering, though I do not, at the moment, propose to draw deductions from them. I find that in April last, the average earnings for male manual workers over 21 in all employments, skilled and unskilled, was £6 14s. per week, and that they varied from the highest paid, where the average was £7 4s., down to a group of trades in the lowest paid class, which was as low, in the average, as £5 17s. I should imagine that the vast majority of the applications with which we are dealing today would be applications from people in those categories, that is to say, people whose total incomes would not normally be higher than the highest of those averages, namely, £7 4s.

Therefore, in fixing the maximum, I think it is appropriate to consider what are the present average rates of wages, and what are the sums which could be awarded under any given maximum. The House will appreciate that, as the Bill is drawn, if there were a wife and two children, as much as £7 a week could be awarded. I think one might consider from what sort of total income it would be fair to make a deduction of that kind. I do not wish to draw any conclusions from these observations at this stage, but only to say that in approving this Bill in principle and welcoming it, the Government are not committing themselves to any precise figure which may be suggested.

There is one other matter to which reference has been made, but to which, I think, I should only refer in order to say that I do not think it would be appropriate to discuss it in detail on this Bill, and that is the question of collection. We all know that the question of collecting the money after it has been awarded is a very difficult one. Of course, any amendment of the law which might be required to improve that situation would inevitably put further burdens—possibly very considerable further burdens—on the public authorities. From the point of view of the Government spokesman it is certainly one of the great merits of this Bill that it does not propose to put any great burdens on the public authorities, or to make any claim upon public money. If one were to introduce the question of collection, one would be introducing an entirely different matter; it would be inappropriate and might make it more difficult to achieve the object which the promoters of the Bill desire.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.