§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I move the Second Reading of the Bill with due regard to its contents and I hope also with due regard to brevity.
§ Mr. Butler
I shall not be as brief as all that. It is quite a long Bill and I shall have to explain its points, if the House will permit me to do so. The Bill has appeared before under the aegis of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers). Therefore, some of its contents, Part II in particular, are familiar to the House. That, I think, is an explanation of why it will not be necessary to go into some of the points in Part II as closely as would otherwise be necessary.
I would like, first of all, to consider the general reasons why we want to introduce the Bill and to discuss it this evening. I think that all hon. Members must be aware of the human problems with which this Bill deals. I do not suppose that any hon. Member has not had a letter from a woman entitled to maintenance, who is in despair because she cannot get it and who feels that justice is in some way being withheld because a court who has said that she should have certain payments is unable to see that she receives them.
If we look at the social situation today, we see that one result of the greater ease with which divorces or separations can now, in my view unfortunately, be obtained is that the courts are making a considerable number of orders every year for the payment by a man of money for the maintenance of a wife from whom he is divorced or separated and for the maintenance of their children. Nobody will deny that it is a matter of general interest that there should be available convenient machinery for the enforcement of such orders, and that the courts should be able to see that their intention that the wife and children should be 1541 maintained is, in fact, carried out. So, after the most careful consideration, the Government have come to the conclusion that the machinery to effect what I have just described is not sufficiently good. Certain most undesirable consequences flow—from the point of view not only of the individual woman but of society as a whole—from the inadequacy of the present machinery.
The purpose of this Bill, therefore, is to improve the machinery in two main respects. Part I, which consists of five Clauses, enables maintenance orders made in the High Court to be registered and enforced in a magistrates' court; and orders made in a magistrates' court to be registered and enforced in the High Court or county court. The result will be that it will be possible for a maintenance order, irrespective of the court in which it was made, to be enforced in the court, and by the procedure most suitable to the circumstances of each particular human case. That is the purpose of Part I, to the general details of which I shall revert shortly.
Part II, which stretches over a great deal of the rest of the print, introduces a new method of enforcement which has not hitherto been available in either a magistrates' or the High Court. The orders to which the Bill applies are those made in the interests of a wife or child—maintenance orders, affiliation orders, orders under the Guardianship of Infants Acts, and contribution orders in respect of dependants maintained at public expense. Part I does not apply to Scottish or Northern Ireland orders registered in England or Wales under the Maintenance Orders Act, 1950, but Part II does.
Before I come to consider the Bill, as is suitable in a Second Reading introduction perhaps I may make some general observations. I have given the attachment of earnings a great deal of thought in the light of the discussion of the Bill which, as I said, was so gallantly introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport; and of the representations made to me by those in favour of attachment and by those who are not—because there are both, and I shall refer to both this evening.
Let me outline briefly the principal indications which led me to the conclusion 1542 that it would be right to introduce a system of attachment of earnings in England and Wales. Looking first at the public considerations, I was immediately struck by the fact that something approaching 5,000 men are sent to prison every year for failure to keep up payments under maintenance orders.
That seems to me to be not only a futile operation, but positively harmful. It gets no money for the woman, because the man ceases to earn while in prison. It loses the man his job, and the country his productive capacity. It exposes a defaulter to what I must say, with emphasis, is the contamination of prison—but not to any reformative influences. It occupies time and space in prison—and if anybody had the responsibility that I have for the prisons today they would feel that responsibility very heavily indeed. It takes up space which ought to be devoted to more constructive purposes. It also takes up a considerable amount of public money. I can tell the House that, on average, it costs the taxpayer about £5.15 a week to keep a man in prison at present.
I do not want to over-elaborate or exaggerate the case, because it is a balanced one. I do not suggest that 5,000 men are in prison at any one time. But there are 5,000 committals a year, for an average of about six weeks each, and it is precisely that six weeks which does the harm to the man in going into prison at all. I do not take the view that prison is at all a suitable punishment for a period of that duration.
§ Mr. D. Jones
The right hon. Gentleman referred to 5,000 committals. Is it not the case that some men are committed two or three times in one year, and that the actual number of people in prison is much less than 5,000?
§ Mr. Butler
I am coming to that point.
I was going to explain what I believe the net figure is likely to be as a result of the Bill. Not only are there 5,000 committals, but the conditions of our prisons at present are such that we have no fewer than 3,000 men who are sleeping three in a cell. In envisaging a method of improving the prison system, and in the light of the present system of obtaining public funds for the prison system, I think that I am right in turning to any possible method. Therefore, if we 1543 can make better use of the space which is now being used unnecessarily, we shall be doing the right thing.
In Scotland there is the power to arrest the wages actually owing to a man. That power is used sparingly. I have been into this matter, and I find that it is used in about 1,500 cases a year. Its use has a most remarkable effect. In fact, so successful is the system in Scotland that there are only about 30 committals to prison each year. At present, in England and Wales, magistrates' courts and, in many cases, the High Court and county courts, have no alternative but to send defaulters to prison. No more constructive method of dealing with them is available. The committal can be suspended, on condition that the man makes regular payments, but if he fails there is nothing but prison. That is the law.
The Bill provides a constructive alternative. Instead of sending a man to prison, or holding the threat of prison over his head, the Court can make an order for the employer to make a deduction from the man's salary or wages. In reply to the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), I conclude that the net result of the Bill would be that we might be able to keep 2,000 men out of prison every year. If we can do that, it will be a result well worth achieving, in terms of the benefit to society, to the human happiness of the men themselves, and to the women, who will get the money to which they are entitled.
The number of men who go to prison affects me particularly as Home Secretary, because I hate in my soul the taint and the dour weight of prison upon a man's mind and future. But there is also the plight of the women and children who are dependent upon what they receive under a maintenance order but who are unable to get the money to which they are entitled by the order. I speak of women who are struggling desperately to bring up children single-handed, to keep a decent home for them, and to avoid becoming a charge upon the community. These women cannot understand why the husbands or fathers are not made to meet their obligations.
How many such women are there? I cannot obtain absolutely exact figures, although I have been in touch with the 1544 National Assistance Board and every source that I could possibly find, but I gather that over 25,000 maintenance orders are made every year in the magistrates' courts.
There is another figure to which we should pay some attention; namely, the amount paid annually by the National Assistance Board. I have the Board's Reports for 1955 and 1956. The 1955 Report tells us that the amount paid annually to separated wives alone is about £7½ million. The 1956 Report shows a slightly higher figure. This figure includes a number of women who have not got maintenance orders, because they cannot trace the men or husbands who should be maintaining them. The House, therefore, must not think that we should be saving the whole of that sum by passing the Bill. I am simply indicating the size of the problem that we are dealing with in regard to the separated wives and the amount of money due to them.
I am also aware that, besides some of the arguments which I have put in general in opening these remarks, there are arguments on the other side.
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that point, would he explain a little further the figure to which he thinks he will be able to reduce the number of people going to prison? He said he hoped to reduce it to something like 3,000. Who would they be? Would they be the people who refused to work?
§ Mr. Butler
I do not think I said that I could give any exact figure of the number to which I hope to reduce it. I said "If we could keep 2,000 men out of prison", and that is all I said. I do not think we could give any exact statistics of the number to which we might reduce the figure by the effect of this Bill until we see it in operation. I do not think it would be fair to give any better figure than that. I believe that if this Bill passes we could keep 2,000 men out of prison, and that is as far as I can go.
§ Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)
When the right hon. Gentleman says that he thinks this Bill might keep 2,000 men out of prison, is that figure one which he himself gives as his own opinion, or is it based on statistics prepared for him which might have a certain amount of authenticity?
§ Mr. Butler
It is based on the best figures we can get, and, as a matter of fact, it is a conservative estimate. I referred to 5,000 committals annually. I have reduced it to 2,000 in order not to exaggerate my case, but it might be more. This figure is based on certain inquiries we have made in certain large cities, in magistrates' courts in the country and in some county courts, so that it is based on the best statistical evidence I can get.
§ Mr. Butler
No; it is not a figure at random.
Some people fear that attachment for maintenance purposes is the thin end of a very long wedge. People may ask whether, when we are introducing this Bill for the attachment of wages, we are to extend the principle of attachment to such matters as civil debt, hire-purchase agreements, fines or any other purposes. I have been approached by some hon. Members who are trade unionists, and I have given an answer to them officially, and I now give it in my speech. It is not the intention of the Government to extend attachment to any of these things or any other purposes. I hope that will be an undertaking which will give satisfaction to trade union members.
I should also like to say to the employers—because there have been criticisms from employers and the employers' organisations—that I realise that this Bill involves a considerable departure in the law of the country from the Act of 1870. It is an important departure, and it is for a specific purpose; and all I can do in commending it to the House is to say with the greatest possible emphasis that it is not our intention to extend attachment beyond what broadly is the case in Scotland and what is contained in the Bill before the House today.
§ Mr. Maurice Orbach (Willesden, East)
This is a point of fundamental importance. Could the right hon. Gentleman help the House by saying how many committals have been made in county courts for debt?
§ Mr. Butler
No, I could not give that figure without notice, but my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will be replying, and I will ask him to try to give the figure in the course of his reply.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
The right hon. Gentleman did not make himself clear. Will he say that he is not prepared to extend the law to the extent that it applies in Scotland? He did not make that perfectly clear. He used words indicating that he would equate the position with what it is in Scotland, but that is not my understanding of what he wanted to do. Therefore, for the sake of the record, presumably he is putting the point that he will be satisfied with the purposes in this Bill and no more?
§ Mr. R. W. Sorensen (Leyton)
Could the right hon. Gentleman give a complete assurance that the Government will not at any time introduce a Bill for that purpose?
§ Mr. Butler
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) has done me a service, because there was an inaccuracy in my remarks of which I was at once aware directly I had perpetrated it. The Scottish law, of which I am partially aware, being partially Scottish myself, goes further than the Bill, and it is not the intention of the Government in legislating for England and Wales in the matter of attachment of wages to go further than the Bill. I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. If the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) would kindly repeat his question, I will do my best to answer it.
§ Mr. Sorensen
Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance on behalf of Her Majesty's Government not only that it is not the intention but that, in fact, no Bill of this kind will ever be introduced to cover anything more than the point now covered by this Bill?
§ Mr. Butler
I can give an assurance only for the Government of which I am a member, and that I can give. I cannot give an assurance for Parliament, because Parliament is always free and sovereign to do what it wishes. In so far as I can give an assurance, I have done so privately to trade union Members of the House and to representatives of employers' associations, and I should be very glad to give it now, on behalf of this Government, that we do not intend to go further than this.
We do not intend to go further because we consider that maintenance obligations 1547 are in a class by themselves. We think that because the hardship to the women, the burden throws upon the taxpayer in supporting those who are compelled to apply for National Assistance, and the futility of putting men in prison, constitute a unique combination of circumstances which justifies, in our view, a resort to attachment for the enforcement of maintenance obligations. But those circumstances do not arise in relation to other forms of debts or fines. Perhaps that is the best answer to the hon. Member for Leyton.
Before I come to the details of the Bill, I should like to give some idea of those who support and those who do not support such a plan. The Fischer Williams Committee in 1934 marshalled the arguments and came down in favour of a plan of this sort. The Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce summarised the arguments of the Fischer Williams Committee but concluded that the introduction of attachment in England and Wales would be inadvisable. For my own part, I am not convinced by the Report of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce because, although it went into the matter, I think that it summarised the argument somewhat summarily, and, although it came down against such a plan, I am not convinced that it was right. I am fortified in this by the fact that the Chairman, Lord Morton of Henryton, has since stated that he is now in favour of trying attachment, and he has been good enough to inform me and to authorise me to say that he thinks the advantages of attachment outweigh its disadvantages.
§ Mr. D. Jones
I do not want to keep on interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but he is misrepresenting the situation a little. What Lord Morton of Henryton said in Australia was that further reflection had made him doubt whether the Royal Commission had been wise to decide as it did. That is rather different from saying that he had now been convinced that it was wrong.
§ Mr. Butler
I am aware of what Lord Morton said in Australia, and that is why I got in touch with him. I thought that a quotation from what he said in Australia would not be sufficient to quote in this debate, and I got in touch with him myself. He has been good 1548 enough to send me a letter authorising me to say that he thinks the advantages of attachment outweigh its disadvantages. I cannot go further than that, but that is what he has said. That represents my opinion the advantages of attachment outweigh its disadvantages, broadly for the reasons I have given.
One can add the views of organisations which support the Bill. Many of them, of course, are women's organisations, which is not suprising. There is the Married Women's Association, the National Association of Probation Officers, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the National Marriage Guidance Council, the National Women Citizens Association, the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, the St. Joan's Social and Political Alliance, the Six Point Group, the Women's Freedom League, etc. I am authorised also to say that the Magistrates' Association, in a message I have also received, considers not only that an inquiry should be set up to see whether this is a good idea, but my message from their official supporters indicates that they also are in favour of a scheme of this sort.
I am putting all this moderately because there are arguments on both sides. It will, however, be seen that this is a change which is not being undertaken by me or by the Government lightly after the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport in bringing in her Bill and in her experience in the Committee upstairs.
I am fortified by an emphatic recommendation in favour of attachment from my own Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders, which has examined this problem and the operation of the Scottish system of arrestment with the greatest possible care. Those are the general reasons why I think it is worth pursuing the Bill and that is why I want, very shortly, to put its details before the House.
Part I deals with the registration of orders. Here I can cite the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, which in paragraph 582 of its Report recommended that maintenance orders made by the High Court should be capable of being registered and enforced in a magistrates' court. The Bill gives effect to this recommendation with only minor modifications.
1549 Now, as regards magistrates' court orders, as far as I know, the Royal Commission did not consider whether a two-way traffic would be desirable We think that it would, and in Clause 1 of the Bill we have provided for the registration in the High Court of an order made by a magistrates' court and its enforcement in the High Court or the county court.
Under Clause 2 (3), registration will be granted as of course on the application of the person entitled to receive payments under the order, who may be the woman or the collecting officer. Registration in the High Court will make available to the woman the enforcement procedures which are available in the High Court but not in the magistrates' court. That was a point which arose in Standing Committee when the previous Bill was discussed. This point may make the Bill more acceptable to some of the critics who considered it before.
At present, for example, if a man runs up arrears on a magistrates' court order, he can be committed to prison, or distress can be levied on his cash or goods, but these methods do not enable the woman to obtain satisfaction from any capital or the sources of any unearned income that the man may have. In the High Court, she can secure payment of the arrears in a variety of ways. That is not exactly an improvement, but is an extra power to the woman which gives greater force to the Bill. There may not be many cases in which a man with a magistrates' court maintenance order against him has property to which High Court procedures are appropriate, but where he has I see no reason why the woman should not be able to recover the money owing to her from this form of property. So much for Part I of the Bill.
Part II deals with the attachment of earnings. It follows broadly the Bill introduced earlier by my hon. Friend. It was not an easy Bill for a private Member to handle and my hon. Friend performed a public service by causing the subject to be discussed in this House and outside. Part II is based, in the main, upon my hon. Friend's Bill, although the new model incorporates features which, I think, she will recognise as improvements. Members will, therefore, be familiar with many of the details and I will sum them up as follows.
1550 Briefly, Part II enables a court by which a maintenance order is enforceable—which may be the High Court, the county court or the magistrates' court—to make an attachment of earnings order if, but only if, payments under the maintenance order are in arrear to the extent of four weekly payments or two payments due at other intervals.
The attachment of earnings order will specify a normal deduction rate and a protected earnings rate. The order will require the employer to make deductions from the man's earnings at the normal deduction rate unless by so doing it would reduce the take-home pay of the man below the protected earnings rate. That, I hope, will work out in a fair, honourable and decent way.
To sum up what it means, I would describe it like this. The normal deduction rate will be the rate at which the court thinks the man's earnings should be applied for the purpose of satisfying the maintenance order and paying off arrears and costs. The protected earnings rate will be the rate below which the court considers the deduction should not be allowed to reduce the man's take-home pay. So in fixing the protected earnings rate, the court must have regard to the man's resources and needs and to the needs of persons for whom he must provide. In other words, if a man has acquired a second family, the court must have regard to the needs of that family as well as to those of the beneficiary under the maintenance order. I do not think, therefore, that in practice this will work out inhumanly or unfairly.
I should like to carry this further by giving an example. Suppose that after deduction of Income Tax, National Insurance and health contributions, a man's take-home pay is £10 a week, and is subject to an attachment order specifying a normal deduction rate of £3 a week and a protected earnings rate minimum of £6 a week, the employer then deducts £3, leaving the man with £7, which is in excess of the protected earnings rate. Supposing the man has a bad week and what the Bill calls his "relevant earnings" fall below £10, say, to £8, the employer must then leave him at least a minimum of £6 specified by the protected earnings rate, and he can deduct only £2. That, I think, explains the generality of the two forms of reduction and also the details of a particular case.
§ Mr. Butler
In that case, if the protected earnings rate is specified at £6, the wife will get only £2. There is an attempt to be fair to both sides.
§ Mr. Robens
Would the right hon. Gentleman elucidate this point? I understand that he said that if the take-home pay were £10 and the order against the man were for £3 a week, the employer would deduct that £3, leaving the man with £7, which would be £1 more than the protected amount that he had to have. In what way are the arrears to be paid if, in fact, the £3 order is deducted on that one occasion and the attachment order is not made until the man is four weeks in arrears? How do the arrears get paid?
§ Mr. Butler
I was coming to that. I was going to say that the sums that I have given must be subject to the observations which I am now going to make, namely, that the scheme is self-adjusting, so that over a period a man will be left with the total protected earnings and the woman with the total deductions to which she is entitled. Therefore, we shall have to look at the scheme over a period to see how it works out.
§ Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)
May we have this point made clear? In relation to the right hon. Gentleman's second example, that £1 would continue to be part of the arrears and would be subject to further adjustment by the magistrates on another occasion.
§ Mr. Butler
That is so.
So much for that sort of case which may arise. I want to deal with the doubts of the employers about attachment. I have referred to some of the doubts of trade unionists. To do them justice, the doubts of the employers reflect the doubts of the trade unionists, and in looking back on British history, especially on the history of British labour, we must respect the traditions that have come down to us.
I think that both employers and trade unionists have an anxiety not to be drawn into the domestic affairs of the men or to have a new and complicated task laid upon them which might mean interfering in the private lives of the men. In reply to that, which is a very genuine fear and which I state because I was 1552 not a member of the Standing Committee, I would make the following answers. First, the number of attachment orders likely to be made will be infinitesimal in relation to the total labour force of the country. The chance of any small or medium-sized employer getting one is pretty slender. Second, we have done our best to draft the Bill so that employers will be put to a minimum of trouble. So far as it is possible in the drafting the employer is insulated from the court proceedings and from the wife. He is not a party to the proceedings. He does not pay the money to the wife, but to an officer of the court. This is done on purpose to keep the employer away as far as possible.
I am looking into the possibility of preparing an explanation in the form of a leaflet, for the assistance of employers who may have to deal with attachment orders, in which the operation will be explained in ordinary language with simple examples. I have taken a test case in one large city, which I have been given permission to mention, namely, Sheffield. I find that there, men who are subject to maintenance orders sometimes arrange voluntarily with their employers to make deductions from their wages and to send them to the collecting officer. The arrangement is said to work well and to be helpful to the men concerned.
If that can be done voluntarily without disaster, I find it difficult to see why it should not be done and be equally helpful to a man under the order of a court. If a man does not want his employer to know that there is a maintenance order against him, he can ensure that no attachment order is made by making regular payments. Under Clause 6 a court cannot make an attachment order unless a man is the equivalent of four weeks' payments in arrears.
It is possible for arguments to be brought forward, and they have been brought forward in our previous discussions, that this Measure will give more publicity to the private affairs of a man or will render his relations with his employer less satisfactory. But I should have thought that the common sense answer to that is that when, under present orders, a man refuses to pay up and is sent to prison, he surely attracts more attention to himself and his job and his relationships with his employer than he 1553 would under the Bill. While I have been trying to treat the anxieties of employers and trade unionists and the feelings of people and families concerned with sympathy, I think that the Bill will be better not only for domestic relations in the family but for relations in industry than the system which we are working at present.
§ Mr. H. Hynd
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not overlook the case of a man who, through illness, has fallen into arrears, quite apart from his own fault. We have many cases like that in our courts.
§ Mr. Butler
That is the sort of case which we must adjust during the passage of the Bill. We are only at the beginning; we must take a human and practical view of these matters when we discuss them in the future.
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
Surely the Bill is permissive in that it enables the court to make an order of attachment if a man is four weeks in arrears? That does not mean that the court will do so automatically and invariably?
§ Mr. Butler
That is so. It is found in Scotland that the fact that a man's wages can be "arrested," as they call it, encourages him powerfully to pay up, and we may find here that the courts do not actually have to make orders in more than a small proportion of the cases. I sincerely hope that will be so.
I should point out also that when the matter was discussed earlier, the position regarding merchant seamen was raised and there was some controversy. We have decided to omit merchant seamen altogether from the scope of the Bill, because it was represented to us that it would be a matter of the greatest practical difficulty to apply a system of attachment to them.
I have been asked by one or two employers whether we can handle this not through a system of attachment, but through the P.A.Y.E. system. I will—I think very wisely as an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer—leave it to my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary to deal with any detailed points which may arise. But I have received from the Revenue a memoranda on the subject which illustrates to me that to use that 1554 system to deal with this matter would be far too complicated and would not, in fact, be possible. I have regretfully come to the conclusion that I cannot adopt that system instead of the one in the Bill.
I am content that any of these matters should be considered by my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary and dealt with in his reply. I should like also to make an offer to discuss our problems with the British Employers' Confederation and the T.U.C. No satisfactory discussions have taken place, and so I wish to make that offer when moving the Second Reading of this Bill. We wish to carry people with us and to let them understand what is happening and precisely what we are doing by this Bill. We shall be glad to consider any criticism of points of detail to see whether we can improve the Bill in Committee.
After the fullest consideration of this important social problem, and having quoted all the authorities I have mentioned, I find myself led to the same conclusion as my own Advisory Council. The Council said it thought the arguments were decisive and summed up the matter in these words:The social and economic consequences of the present system are so lamentable that we cannot feel it right to deny to the courts an opportunity of making the defaulter pay without sending him to prison.For that reason I recommend this Bill to the House. We are faced with an obvious wrong and a deeply felt grievance for which, I believe, that the Bill will go a long way to provide a remedy. Providing we discuss it together I believe that it should do so without doing any injury or violence to the legitimate interests either of trade unionists or employers.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)
The House would wish to join with me in thanking the Home Secretary for what has been a very fair and clear explanation of a most difficult Bill. It is a difficult Bill not so much for its technicalities as because it involves both our emotion and our reason. Unfortunately, our emotion and our reason do not always lead us in the same direction. That is why many of us are divided in ourselves in our approach to this Bill. That being so, it is not surprising that there should be a quite deep division 1555 inside the ranks of both the main political parties in this House.
Nor is it surprising that, in the early stages at least, the Magistrates' Association was deeply divided upon this issue. Although it has come down in favour of the principle of attachment, as the right hon. Gentleman has told us, it is only just over a year ago that the very proposition that it should set up a committee to investigate this problem was passed by only 219 votes to 209. Some of the speakers in the discussion who supported the setting up of the committee were nevertheless opposed at that time to the principle of attachment. They included, for example, Lady Bragg, who was a member of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, and Lady Artemus Jones. The committee, when it was set up, reported unanimously in favour of the principle. That view was endorsed unanimously by the Council of the Magistrates' Association, and the Report of the Council was accepted at the Annual Conference of the Association, I think last month.
I mention that to emphasise that this is not a clash between men and women, magistrates and others, employers and workers, or trade unionists and non-trade unionists. It is a conflict of very sincere opinion between various groups in our society with regard to issues which some of them regard as matters of principle. The conflict which is raging revolves around the most effective way of tackling a serious social problem. Tonight we have to decide whether the advantage which will be derived from the Bill by society as a whole is such as to compensate for the surrender of principle which is involved for many of my hon. Friends and many members of the public.
As the debate develops, I hope that it will not be suggested that some hon. Members are on the side of the victims and some on the side of the evildoers. All of us are anxious to find the best way of making effective the decisions which have been taken by the courts of the land. I know that many of my hon. Friends, and no doubt many hon. Gentlemen and hon. Ladies on the Government benches, hesitate to say that in every case the moral responsibility for the break-up of a marriage rests with the party on whose 1556 shoulders the legal responsibility has been placed. But that is not the problem to which we have to direct our minds tonight.
The Home Secretary has pleaded persuasively for the Bill. Many of his arguments will be generally accepted in all parts of the House. Because his main emphasis was on the merits of the Bill, I shall lay special emphasis on those aspects which give rise to enxiety on the part of many of my hon. Friends. At this stage, perhaps it is proper that I should reassure the right hon. Gentleman by telling him that we do not propose to divide the House against the Second Reading of the Bill.
The first criticism of the Home Secretary's introduction of the Bill is that he has overthrown the unanimous decision of the Royal Commission. He told us very frankly that that was the position, although the chairman has now changed his point of view, and I thought the interpretation by the Home Secretary of what Lord Morton originally said in Australia was right and that my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) was wrong. Unfortunately, the fact that Lord Morton has changed his mind does not necessarily mean that all the other members of the Commission have departed from the point of view they took up at that time. When recommendation 128 was made, it was made after the most prolonged deliberation, and after the Royal Commission had consulted the British Employers' Confederation, the Trades Union Congress, the nationalised industries and the Cooperative Union. At that stage, only the Co-operative Union was in favour of the principle of attachment. I propose to return a little later, if I may, to the attitude of the Trades Union Congress.
Apart from that major criticism of the right hon. Gentleman, there are other points which are worrying some hon. Members on this side of the House. The first is one to which the Home Secretary referred, and that is the fear that the Bill may lead to attachment for other debts. That is of considerable historical importance, because the trade union movement thought that it had seen the end of attachment and that the inviolability of the pay packet had been secured by two Measures, first the one to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, the 1557 Wages Attachment Abolition Act, 1870, and secondly by Charles Bradlaugh's Act of 1876, amending the Truck Act.
We appreciate the assurance which the right hon. Gentleman has given tonight that it is not the intention of the Government to extend this principle to other debts. He has gone tonight rather further than he did in the Answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs) on 6th December. On that occasion he said:…I have no intention of introducing legislation…".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1957; Vol. 579, c. 83.]What we want to know from the right hon. Gentleman is not that he has no intention, not that the Government have no intention of doing so, but what advice the Government would give to the House if another Private Member's Bill were introduced extending attachment, for example, to debts in respect of hire-purchase agreements. We shall not overlook the fact that the Bill which the Home Secretary has introduced began its career as a Private Member's Bill during the last Session. After all, one could put forward a very plausible case for extending attachment, once it is accepted in principle, to arrears of rates, rent of council houses, or fines and debts of that kind. We have no guarantee that if the right hon. Gentleman should leave office his colleagues would not introduce the principle into another Bill.
§ Mr. Greenwood
My hon. Friend really must not be quite so pessimistic; the right hon. Gentleman may leave office even before the next General Election. I was about to say that Prime Ministers come and go whether they are "the best we have got" or not, and of course Home Secretaries come and go—even if they are the best Home Secretaries since Lord Kilmuir. If at any time a future Government were to introduce such a Bill, the fear in the minds of my hon. Friends is that their opposition to it would be weakened by the fact that they had conceded the precedent on this occasion. That, I think, is a serious apprehension on their part and one to which we should give due weight.
I turn to a second criticism of the Bill. It is said that the proposal will provide 1558 a more effective way of enforcing the orders of the courts. That, of course, is an attractive argument, but I think the case can be over-stated. As I see it, there are three types of defaulters who at present are sent to prison. First, there are the natural "bad hats" who will dodge their obligations under any circumstances and on all occasions. I do not think the Bill will make very much difference to them. Secondly, there are the men who feel so indignant about the way they have been treated by the courts that they are prepared to go to prison rather than to pay. I have no doubt at all that many of them will be prepared to take up a peripatetic mode of living rather than have their wages attached to contribute to the upkeep of somebody for whom their antipathy is so great.
Finally, there are the feckless ones who fall into arrears through carelessness and are never able to catch up. That leads me to a point I should like to bring to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman, a point put by the National Association of Probation Officers which, as the right hon. Gentleman told us, supports the principle of this Bill.
The National Association of Probation Officers tells me that in 1953 it made a survey of 256 courts taken at random throughout the country to see what provision was made for the collection of debts in cases of this kind. That survey revealed that in only six courts was the collecting officer available one evening a week, in only one case was he available on Saturday afternoon, and in only 53 cases out of the 256 did his office remain open during lunch intervals. I do not wish for a moment to criticise the collecting officers who were involved, but I think it might be well for the right hon. Gentleman to consider the possibility of additional collecting officers being appointed in order to allow extra hours of duty or a special rearrangement of hours in order that members of the public could pay or collect their debts at times which did not interfere with their earning capacity.
The National Association of Probation Officers concluded its letter to me by saying:We are of opinion that if the courts make orders they should provide every possible facility to encourage payment, and that enforcement measures should be taken when there is wilful default only, and only as a final resort.1559 The third criticism which I want to stress is one to which the Home Secretary referred. It is that this proposition injects a new, complicating factor into industrial relations. I know that only a comparatively small number of employers are affected. Nevertheless, any hon. Member who refers to the appendix to the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce will see that this is a point of view held by the Trades Union Congress and also by the British Employers' Confederation. Although it appears from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that this is a method which operates perfectly well on a voluntary basis in Sheffield, it did not seem to be the view of the two organisations consulted that it would work on a national scale, and on a basis of compulsion. The two things are, after all, very different.
At the moment we expect employers to make deductions in respect of P.A.Y.E. and also in respect of National Insurance. I should not be surprised if many of them genuinely object to a further complication of this kind, but I do not think that that is an objection of overwhelming importance. We should not forget, however, that, other things being equal, we should probably find that an employer would prefer to employ a man without an attachment order against him rather than a man who has an attachment order against him. Quite part from that, the fact that a man has an attachment order against him may well prejudice his obtaining employment at all.
I notice that Mr. Reginald Pestell, a magistrate in the New River Petty Sessional Division of London and an officer of the National Marriage Guidance Council, addressing the Magistrates' Association a year ago, said that when he was a probation officer he found that even a request for a certificate of earnings sometimes had an adverse effect on a man in times of unemployment. I often feel that we have become so accustomed to full employment since 1945 that we forget the possible implications of some of our legislation during periods of unemployment. It might well be that if we were faced with a serious recession in this country men who had attachment orders against them might find it very difficult indeed to obtain the employment they wanted.
1560 The last criticism which I want to make is one of great importance. It is one which I think the right hon. Gentleman met very effectively indeed, but I want to put it to the Government once again because I do not think that we can afford the slightest scintilla of doubt upon this aspect of the Bill.
Many of my hon. Friends and many members of the public are critical of the fact that the Bill appears to be directed against those people who earn their living as wage earners or as salary earners but apparently does not affect the shopkeeper or the rentier It seems probable, however, that those sources of income can be attached either by a garnishee order or a charging order. If that is not so, it appears to me that Clause 3 (1) makes provision for that procedure to operate in future in such cases.
For the greater accuracy of the record. I should like to bring to the attention of the House four observations which were made at the first sitting of Standing Committee B which was considering in the last Session the Bill introduced by the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers). That was on 16th May. I apologise for quoting rather extensively, but I want there to be no shadow of doubt as to whether or not all forms of income are included. My hon. Friend the Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) said:The Bill provides that the justices can go to a man's employer and ask him to stop from the man's wage each week a certain sum which the court shall lay down Why not go to the employer's bank manager? Suppose the employer has an attachment order against him. Why not go to his bank manager, see what this man's credit balance is and attach it over a certain period until the debt is met? Why should we not sop every week so much from that bank balance and have the amount paid into the court.The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir P. Agnew) said that if the hon. Lady did not accept the extension of the attachment principle to all sources of income it might be regarded as an example of class legislation.
The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department referred to these two points at two stages during the subsequent discussion. He said:There are a number of ways in which High Court orders can be enforced by going against the property or the income of the man who is in default of an order. Two of those 1561 go by the names of a garnishee order and a charging order. By a garnishee order one can attach any debt as it becomes due from a debtor to a creditor. For example, if a man defaults on a money order in the High Court, whether ii be a maintenance order or any other kind of order, and he has a bank balance, that is a debt owing from the banker to the creditor, and can, under the existing law, be attached by garnishee. The same thing applies with all other types of debt.A little later on he explained once again the garnishee and charging orders machinery. He said:…it works in a precisely comparable way with the machinery under this Bill. There is no discrimination at all. From my experience I can tell my hon. and gallant Friend that if there is a defaulter on a money order, and if the sources of his property are unknown, he may be summoned to appear before the court and can be examined by way of judgment summons about what property he has. If, for example, it is discovered that he owns some stocks and shares, one can apply ex parte for a charging order. That establishes a charge on the source of payment and the secretary of the company, unless the charging order is discharged, will pay the dividend to the person in whose favour the charging order was made, and not to the person whose name appears on the register as the owner of the shares."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee B, 16th May, 1957; c. 13–35.]If the hon. and learned Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary can assure us that in consequence of this Bill there would be no difference whatsoever in the treatment of various sources of income, the Bill will be a great deal less offensive than it originally appeared to be in the eyes of my hon. Friends.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, he will appreciate that the Committee quite overwhelmingly carried the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) and added the words "and all other income". Hon. Members were not satisfied generally with the statement of the Joint Under-Secretary of State and they thought it needed emphasising.
§ Mr. Greenwood
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, as I always am. What I have tried to do is to put very fairly before the House the two points of view expressed in the Standing Committee, so that we can have an authoritative and, I hope, final judgment of the matter in the hon. and learned Gentleman's reply.
I have outlined the apprehension that many of us feel about the Bill, and now I will, if I may, turn to the reasons that 1562 lead us not to oppose its Second Reading. One argument, in particular, should, I think, weigh very heavily with those who believe in the rule of law and in an ordered society. We cannot allow people indefinitely to dodge their responsibilities, and to defy the law of the land. That is what is happening at present. I have no doubt that it will continue to happen, in some measure, but it is a duty for all of us to do everything we can to reduce it to the very minimum. Unless we do so, not only will injustice continue but—and perhaps more serious—contempt for the law will grow.
There are two other considerations that appeal to me, and the first is this. We have tried to look at this from the point of view of the Home Secretary and of the Home Office. And on this side we are looking at the matter, too, from the point of view of a party that has always worked for penal reform, and that has complimented the right hon. Gentleman on the way that he has embarked on a programme of reform. But it does seem to me that that reform will be indefinitely postponed if, every year, we continue to imprison, and I quote the right hon. Gentleman's words, "something approaching 5,000 men" who could be dealt with in some other way. Even if the Bill reduces that number by only the figure of 2,000 that the right hon. Gentleman threw in, without his being too positive about it, it would be a welcome contribution towards relieving overcrowding in our prisons.
The last argument that influences me is one that we cannot ignore. We cannot really welcome the financial results of the present system, which involve us in finding £7½ million a year for the care of the 25,000 mothers to whom the Home Secretary referred and, I suppose, the approximately 50,000 dependants who are also a charge upon public funds—
§ Mr. Greenwood
Yes, and also their dependants—a figure altogether, I suppose, of about 70,000 people, who cost us £7½ million a year.
It is because the Bill has in view, I think, these three ends to which I have referred—and they are ends in which all of us concur—that we shall not oppose 1563 its Second Reading, although we dislike the principle of attachment. We still have misgivings about it. We appreciate the way in which the right hon. Gentleman presented this Measure to us, and we shall have, I hope, a profitable, useful and constructive discussion tonight. We still hope for further reassurances from the Joint Under-Secretary when he replies. If, unfortunately, those are not forthcoming, we shall seek to amend the Bill during subsequent stages, and we reserve our right to accept or oppose its Third Reading.
§ 9.40 p.m.
§ Miss Joan Vickers (Devonport)
I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for letting me catch your eye in order that I may say "thank you" to my right hon. Friend, and also, I think, to the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood), who, if I may say so, has made a most helpful speech. I also want to express the thanks of the thousands of women and children who, in the period since the Bill was first moved, have been in touch with me by post.
Since I started the campaign on behalf of the Bill, I have received many letters saying how grateful women would be if some measure of this kind could be taken. Not only women will be pleased with the Bill; quite a number of men will also be pleased. Since it has been discussed in this House and in the Press, many men have written to me—and I have also seen quite a number—asking how they could do what has been mentioned by my right hon. Friend, namely, make voluntary arrangements with their employers. I am hoping that the Bill will also help in that way.
Some men find things rather difficult at times. They may miss paying for one week, then they get into debt and find that the next week they have not enough money to pay for the two weeks. These people are not genuinely bad but sometimes rather feckless. By taking something from them each week their housekeeping will be facilitated and they will feel happier in their minds, as well as more able to get on with their day-to-day lives.
§ Mr. Robens
I take it that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that the Bill provides for the collection of maintenance orders. As I understand it, it provides 1564 only for the collection of arrears. The matter to which she is now referring is outside the terms of the Bill.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
I think the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Is it not the case that the Bill does provide for the collection of maintenance orders, as well as arrears?
§ Miss Vickers
Only if a person defaults. A person can make a voluntary arrangement. The Bill deals only with defaulters. Many people have been in touch with me telling me that they have been paying instalments quite happily and have started a new life in a new town, and asking whether they would have to tell their employers about the arrangements they have made. I made it clear to them that the Bill dealt only with defaulters. The magistrate can tell the woman when the man concerned is in arrears to the extent of four weeks, and as the law stands at the moment she can then go to the court and put in another order against him.
I should like to add my thanks to the various organisations which have supported the Bill, besides those mentioned by my right hon. Friend. I should like to mention the Marriage Guidance Council and the Howard League for Penal Reform. Support has also come from many social workers who are in contact with these people, and we are very grateful for their support. Since the First Reading of the Bill there has been a great deal of discussion on this matter in the Press. Support has been forthcoming from the Manchester Guardian, the Daily Sketch, the News Chronicle, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening News, to mention a few.
Finally, I should like to thank the Members of the Committee who gave me magnificent support during very many protracted hours upstairs in Committee. I should specially like to thank the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) and the hon. Member for Peckham (Mrs. Corbet), who were indefatigable in their aid in Committee. My Bill had a very good Second Reading. In fact, sixteen people spoke and only one voice was raised against it. Unfortunately, however, owing to the late date at which it reached its Committee stage—which was not until May—only two of the original supporters were available to sit on the Committee. Therefore, we got on the Committee 1565 people who were either against the Bill or who had no real knowledge or interest in it. I think that that is why the Bill fell by the wayside.
I suggest that that time was not wasted. During the Committee stage we were able to sound public opinion. I consider that we were perhaps lucky to have had these protracted meetings in Committee, because we now have a much better Bill, and I should like to thank my right hon. Friend for introducing a Bill which, I think, is much more satisfactory to most hon. Members of the Committee. One hon. Gentleman opposite mentioned the subject of Lord Morton having changed his mind. It may be that a little Commonwealth co-operation came into it, because I have had 17 letters from various people in different States in Australia who were also anxious to have a similar Bill. That may have been one of the things that influenced Lord Morton to conic down on the side of this Bill.
One realises that many doubts have been expressed by both employers and trade unionists, but I should like to pay a tribute to the help given by the Cooperative Union, which has been very staunch all the way through in its evidence in supporting a Bill of this kind. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the fears of the employers have not been fully allayed. I think that employers imagine that affected persons are likely to be found in their own factories, and that it will make a little difference in the relations between them and their employees. I should like to remind hon. Members who feel this way that for many years this method of attachment from the pay packet has been going on in the Services. If we take the case of a ship, and there are no people who live more close together than the men in the Royal Navy, I am quite certain that it has not made any difference to them in any way.
I should like to say also that I realise the fears of a great many trade unionists in regard to this Bill. I study the opinions of various trade unionists, and, as some hon. Members will realise, I take a particular interest in Tribune. I have read various opinions expressed there, and I think there is at present a change of thought in regard to this matter. There was an article by Mr. Harry Knight, General Secretary of the A.S.S.E.T., headed "My Proposal: No More 'Fares, please'". In this article, he says that his 1566 proposal is that passenger transport fares be abolished, and that instead a direct tax of 2s. 6d. per week should be imposed on both employers and employees to be collected with the usual National Health Insurance contributions. There may well be some difference of opinion on this matter among trade unionists, but the article concludes by saying:Here is a chance for the Labour Party to do something really revolutionary. Will it? Can it? Dare it? I leave it to you, chums; your answer is as good as mine.I feel that, even among trade unionists, there are some differences of opinion as to what can be done in this regard.
I wish also to refer to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Moody) who was a member of the Standing Committee, and who has written in the Woodworkers' Journal certain remarks concerning this Bill. He ends his article by saying:All women are not angels.We should have some time to wait before this Bill goes on the Statute Book. He praises the Bill, and ends his article by saying:In the meantime, some other Member may be lucky in the ballot to produce a better Bill to deal with an undesirable situation.I think that tonight we have a better Bill, and I hope that it will deal with the undesirable situation in the way he wishes.
I would also point out that we are apt to think only of the weekly wage earner who is in difficulties concerning maintenance. I am not going to take up the time of the House by quoting from many letters which I have here, but I should like to mention one. This is from a woman who says:I have a great struggle to bring up my two children. My ex-husband never gave me a penny to clothe me or help with my daughters' education. He already owes me nine years' maintenance. He is very comfortably off. He has a good job as a petroleum chemist, and he must be earning £2,000 a year. He also has a pension of £400 a year, perhaps more, from his old firm.He was due to give her under the maintenance order £104 a year, and he has not paid her anything in nine years. It is that type of person we wish to get at as well.
As I mentioned earlier, I have myself been able to assist in the making of a number of voluntary arrangements. A 1567 man came to me the other day, having been given permission to come to me after being warned by the police that he would have to be arrested for owing the sum of £30. I found out what his firm was, and I asked if I might go down and see them. They agreed to lend him the money; it was at the police station by 12 o'clock that day, and he is now able to live happily with his family. The firm agreed to take off 7s. a week.
Quite the contrary kind of case is that of a man who owed £120. He had a divorced wife, with two children, and a wife to whom he was presently married with whom he was living. He had a job at which he earned £12 a week, an occupational job, that is to say, a job and a flat going with it. He was arrested for owing £120, as a result of which his wife lost her home, both women lost their maintenance, the upshot being that two women and four children had to apply for National Assistance. That kind of thing could perfectly well be avoided if the action suggested in the Bill could have been taken.
The Bill is a preventive Measure. I hope that it will act as a deterrent and make people realise that there is some action which may be taken to enforce the law as it stands. It will come into operation only as regards defaulters. Only when a person is in arrears will it come into effect, and, therefore, it will never come into effect at all if people pay up as they should.
It may be said, perhaps, that this chap is a bad hat, but I have taken the details of the next case from the newspaper, the case of a man now undergoing his thirteenth sentence, having been gaoled in Dorchester yesterday for the thirteenth time in six years. He has spent two years and eight months in prison, the sentence yesterday being two months. He must have been earning sufficient money to have paid up during all that time; otherwise, he would not have had these continual imprisonments. The Bill is designed to stop this kind of thing, when a defaulter goes back periodically to prison. It will be of great help in that respect, and I hope that hon. Members, especially those who have supported me in the past, and those who, perhaps, have yet to make up their minds what they will do about the Bill in the future, 1568 will give it a Second Reading now so that we can go a step towards bringing a great deal of happiness to many people and stability to the lives of thousands of children.
§ 9.54 p.m.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
I congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) on having won over the Home Secretary to her side, and I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary for the Home Department on being able to stand on two feet now and not having to adopt a neutral attitude, backing the Bill one way. Of course, it is perfectly obvious that, when there are some 8 million trade unionists in the country, there must be differences of opinion. Harry Knight may think that what he suggested would solve the problem of travel in this country, but many of us ask to be excused from believing that that is possible.
I wish to make quite clear at the start that those of us who oppose the Bill do so not out of any lack of sympathy for the unfortunate women. Some of us in our public work have met this problem and if the method proposed in the Bill for solving it would do so, we should be very happy about it; but we have fears, based on experience, that the method proposed in the Bill will not do anything of the kind.
I listened to the Home Secretary and I thought that he introduced the Bill in a very fair way. I should myself have liked to accept his assurance, which he gave in answer to a Written Question last Friday, and repeated tonight, that, so far as he is concerned, this is not the beginning of the attachment of income in England and Wales for all civil debts.
One cannot help reminding the Home Secretary—and I am sorry he is not here to hear me say this—that his record on promises of social legislation in his present and past offices is not one that we can admire too much. Let me remind him that on 14th July, 1955, Lord Monckton, as he now is, then Minister of Labour told my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Monslow) that as soon as Parliamentary time would permit and the Bill had been completed, there would be an implementation of the Gowers Report concerning 1569 amenities on the railways. Nobody will convince me at this stage that no Parliamentary opportunity has arisen between then and today to introduce provision to implement the findings of the Gowers Report. In his past office and in his present office, the right hon. Gentleman was responsible for arranging the business of the House and, therefore, he must accept the major share of the responsibility for that legislation not having been introduced.
Earlier this year, the right hon. Gentleman came down to the House and explained that the Shops Bill was being dropped because there was a lack of Parliamentary time; but we have had a Gracious Speech since then and nothing has been mentioned about the Shops Bill. On two or three occasions in past years, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) has asked the right hon. Gentleman to introduce legislation to clear up the problems of gambling and betting and he has promised so to do. We still have to await that legislation. Much as I should like to accept the right hon. Gentleman's assurance today, his record over the past two or three years in introducing social legislation of the kind I have described has not been too good. Therefore, I have my doubts.
In any case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman can commit only the present Parliament. It may very well be that the Bill is the beginning of an attempt to introduce legislation to provide for the arrestment of wages, as is done in Scotland. The Joint Under-Secretary will know perfectly well that under Scottish law it is possible to arrest a man's income for any debt whatever. Indeed, there are examples in recent months of railwaymen in Dumfriesshire who had difficulties with their landlords—the Dumfries County Council—going home with less than £2 because the remainder of their money had been arrested for arrears of rent.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)
The hon. Member knows, I am sure, that the system in Scotland is different from the one we have devised under the Bill.
§ Mr. Jones
I agree. At the moment, it is proposed to attach incomes for only one specific purpose. I am pointing out that it is not under a special law of Scotland that income is attached for the claiming of maintenance arrears. It is the general law of Scotland that earnings can be arrested for any civil debt and it is under that provision that the arrears of maintenance are collected.
In introducing the Bill, the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to mention that he had the 1955 Report of the National Assistance Board concerning the problem faced by the Board. The 1956 Report, however, points out thatIn November, 1956, about 71,000 women receiving assistance described themselves as married but living apart from their husbands. This was very close to the figure (70,800) in November, 1955. The number of such women over the age of 60 remained unaltered at 28,900. Many women who are living apart from their husbands have long since lost all trace of them, and particularly among the over-60-age-group (over 40 per cent. of the total), it can be assumed that a high proportion of the husbands either are dead or have reached an age when they are no longer able to work and contribute to the support of their wives.So, whatever is done in this Bill, that £7½ million which is now having to be paid out will not be diminished very considerably, because a large proportion of these people will still be subject to payments from the National Assistance Board.
Is there any guarantee that the Bill is likely to do the job it is designed to do? I do not want to repeat something which I said in Standing Committee and which my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) said on the Second Reading of the hon. Lady's Bill. I do not propose to sit in judgment on whether it is one party or the other who is the guilty party. I should like to think that the breach in the first place comes with responsibility equally on both sides.
Large numbers of these men, as a result of what they conceive to be unfair treatment by the courts, decline to pay, and as a consequence they are summoned before the courts and sent to prison. The hon. Lady read out details about a man who had gone to prison thirteen times in two-and-a-half years. Earlier in the debate, I interjected when the right hon. Gentleman was speaking to get the figures, as nearly as I could, of the number of people concerned. The 1571 5,000 are committals and if there are many cases of the type of which the hon. Lady spoke the figure will be much less than 2,000.
A man who occupies a decent position and who feels so strongly on this matter that he is prepared to sacrifice his job and go to prison rather than pay is not likely to remain in his job in order that his income can be attached. Does the House really believe that if men feel so strongly about this that they are prepared to go to prison they will want to remain in jobs in order to have their incomes attached? They will become what the National Assistance Board describe as people of no settled way of life. Anyone who knows anything about the National Assistance Act, 1948, knows perfectly well that the National Assistance Board has power in the last analysis to send people to prison because they will persist in conducting themselves without reasonable means of subsistence.
They will go to prison because they are not prepared to work and feel so strongly about what they conceive to be a miscarriage of justice that they are not prepared to be subjected to it. This Bill will not reach them. The Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce went into this matter very fully. I should like to give some of the reasons which it gave in page 283 of the Report for coming down, in spite of what the chairman subsequently said, against the attachment of income. The Report said:An employer would be more likely to dismiss a man than be put to the trouble of making deductions from his wages and paying the amount deducted to the court collecting officer; or the employer might object on principle to continuing to employ a man against whom such an order had been made. Any system of attachment of wages would tend to upset generally the relations between employers and employees.These are not my words. They are the words of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce. Does anyone believe that in the present precarious state of industry in this country we ought to run the risk of poisoning industrial relations to get this thing to work? The Report adds:Since any such system could be applied to the regular wage earner only, it would discriminate unfairly against him as compared with the casual labourer or the man working on his own account. Attachment of wages 1572 would be of no help where the man was out of work and it was usually because he was out of work that he failed to pay. There was a general predisposition to regard with suspicion or even hostility anything which seemed to savour of an attack on the income of the wage earner.In spite of what was said by the Home Secretary, the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce made a very careful examination of this and these are its considered proposals. In March, 1952, the Royal Commission submitted a long communication to three important organisations. It is to be found in the appendix to minutes of evidence taken before the Commission. It asked the British Employers' Confederation and the Trades Union Congress for their views and for the views of the nationalised industries. The Confederation went to some length in its reply in which it stated:It would appear that attachment of debts has never been part of the common law of England and the practice was first introduced by the Common Law Procedure Act, 1834…But it was abolished by the Wages Attachment Abolition Act of 1870. The Confederation continues:It is clear that the procedure for the attachment of wages could not be operated without the reason becoming known to the employer, and while it is impossible to say how far such knowledge might react detrimentally on the worker's employment—which would no doubt vary in individual cases—the Confederation has no hesitation in saying that, in so far as such reactions should arise, they would constitute a real element of discord in industrial relations.These views are not those of the Trades Union Congress but of the British Employers' Confederation—It would also appear to the Confederation that the principle of the attachment of wages would not be acceptable to the workers themselves, and it is clear that to make the employer the instrument in the enforcement of a measure to which the workers themselves object would of itself inevitably be a source of constant friction.It is true that was written in 1952. But, thanks to the good offices of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), I have a communication dated 17th April, 1957, from the Derby and Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce. It states:This Chamber of Commerce has given most careful consideration to the implications of this Bill"—the Chamber was referring to the Maintenance Orders (Attachment of Income) Bill—and is of the opinion that it is a thoroughly bad Bill and should be opposed in the strongest 1573 possible way. Already employers are saddled with the collection of National Insurance and P.A.Y.E. which compulsory deductions have led to the deduction from wages of trades union dues, but it is accepted that these deductions have some bearing upon a person's employment and therefore are not restricted.That point ought to be noted. Where the deductions have a direct connection with a person's employment and where the deductions are made from the wages of all employees in a factory or in an industry the problem does not arise in quite the same way.
The Chamber of Commerce adds:However, it is considered that legalisation of compulsory deductions for extraneous dues such as are envisaged in the Bill and which have no connection with a person's employment, will be a gross interference in personal liberty, will open the way to deductions for all manner of debts and will adversely affect industrial relations.Here we have local employers in Derby and Derbyshire taking precisely the same view as the British Employers' Confederation took five years ago—that this kind of thing is likely to damage and poison industrial relation. The statement continues:My Chamber seeks your support in registering vigorous opposition to the Bill.The Trade Union Congress, with its 8 million members, received the same communication and it says:The General Council discussed your letter at their meeting last week and I have been asked to tell you that they are opposed to the proposal in so far as it relates to deductions from earnings. In coming to this decision the General Council are aware of the difficulty which wives and ex-wives have in many cases of obtaining the moneys due to them. We have no sympathy whatever with the men who default in this way, and we would have liked to have been able to come to another conclusion on the proposal put to you. It would, however, in our view be wrong to impose upon an employer an obligation to make a deduction from the wages of any of his employees in respect of a matter which does not arise from and has no obvious relationship to the man's employment. The Royal Commission will no doubt be aware that deductions from wages have often been a source of industrial unrest and Acts of Parliament have had to be passed to impose strict limits on the kind of deductions which can legally be made. It is because of the effect the proposal would have upon relationships between employers and workmen and not from any desire to ignore the difficulties which have led to the proposal that we are compelled to oppose it.That is a very fair and reasonable statement on the objections of organised trade unions. We have it from both the trade 1574 union and the employers' side that this kind of thing will be likely to poison industrial relations.
We could go further and say that in many cases, rather than be bothered with this kind of deduction which conceivably would have to be altered from week to week in respect of an insignificant number of their employees, many employers will get rid of the men. The Bill will then become inoperative, unless and until a man can get another job. Does anybody believe that, having been subjected to the humiliation of a dismissal for this reason, it is likely to make that individual any more amenable to an attachment of income if he should be able to get another job?
I have no sympathy with the individual. If that were the only difficulty, and if the only person who would suffer would be the individual and it would be possible to collect the money in this way, I should be perfectly happy. But can we afford—or dare we run the risk at this stage—to poison industrial relations in order to pass a Bill and introduce into the law a system which, in my view, because of its complications, is not likely to achieve the purpose which it sets out to achieve?
Finally, the nationalised industries were invited to speak. They said:This would be regarded by employees as an interference in their private affairs, and there is a tradition in British industry that the private affairs of an employee are of no concern to the employer unless an action of the employee is detrimental to the business of the employer.For all these reasons, I do not think the Bill is likely to work. This is precisely the argument which I advanced on the Bill which was sponsored last Session by the hon. Lady the Member for Devon-port, and which may have been a bit more extensive. I do not believe that it is possible to work it. There may be some other way. I heard the right hon. Gentleman say that he had had a long memorandum from the Inland Revenue saying that it was quite impossible to achieve this object through that Department. I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman might have examined that proposal a little further to see whether it was not possible to do it that way. If it were, the right hon. Gentleman would avoid the risk of poisoning industrial relations. Goodness knows, the economic position of the country depends on our having 1575 the very best industrial relations. It is because I believe that the Bill will poison industrial relations and will not do the job that is intended that I oppose it.
I would make one little explanation as a result of something that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale. When I interrupted the right hon. Gentleman in regard to what Lord Morton said, it was because I held in my hand a communication sent to me by the Married Women's Association in which they quoted what Lord Morton had said on this matter. I have a good deal of respect for the objectives which the Married Women's Association are trying to secure. I do not agree with all the things it does. When it sent me this document I did believe it would have correctly quoted Lord Morton. I am left in doubt whether the objectives of the Association are as pure as I thought they were originally.
It gives me no pleasure or satisfaction to oppose the Bill. I come from a working-class family and I have seen this kind of thing in action. I would like to help the poor unfortunate women, particularly those who have young children to bring up. Because I believe that the Bill will poison industrial relations and will not achieve the object which it sets out to reach, I would like very much to go into the Lobby against it. Unfortunately, there is a division of opinion on this side of the House, as there is on the Government side. Therefore, I shall not vote against the Bill.
§ 10.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
I could say a great deal about this Bill, and on various occasions in the past I have expressed my view upon similar proposals which have been put forward in preceding Sessions of Parliament, but on this occasion I am going to be very short, because I have addressed the House on a number of occasions in past years on this proposal; I also addressed the Standing Committee in the last Session of Parliament on a very considerable number of occasions and fully explained my attitude to the Measure which was then before us.
I do not wish to repeat what I have said in previous Sessions, however much in order that might be. My view on the Bill we have before us today is unchanged 1576 from that which I entertained about previous Bills moved by unofficial Members to the same effect. I personally am not an employer of men and, therefore, I shall not be affected by the provisions of this Bill, but I think those who employ men and wage earners themselves, because, of course, the Bill is primarily concerned with wages—other forms of income have long been attachable—will be deceiving themselves if they think the number of orders made under this Measure will be infinitesimal. It will be very substantial, because collecting officers will use this Measure whenever they can.
I do not know in what shape the Bill will finally leave this House, but I shall be very surprised if it is not the case that an application for payment of arrears is always treated, on the initiative, usually, of the clerk, as an application for an attachment order under this Measure provided there are four weeks in arrear. So this will become a very common procedure. I am no expert in the law of Scotland, but I am told that the procedure there is different and much less convenient and that is the reason why there are few attachment orders in respect of maintenance made in that country. I believe they have to be renewed very frequently, whereas here orders made will continue to run as long as the man remains in the same job.
Even in the case of a large employer that would lead to serious inconvenience, but in the case of a smaller employer, a shopkeeper employing one man, it would be a great inconvenience, because he would have to make the deduction every week—which is rather an unpleasant matter in itself—and send it to the collecting officer. He has not merely got to comply with a straightforward order telling him to deduct 15s. 6d., 30s. or whatever the sum is each week and to send it to the collecting officer, but to do a calculation, because there are two alternative methods of assessing the sum to be sent. The sum to be sent may easily be different every week. That is quite possible. In many cases it will change frequently. He has to do that calculation, which may be simple enough for those skilled in such matters, but I am bound to say that although I gave plenty of attention to the Bill introduced in the last Session I was not sure at the end how that sum was worked out.
1577 My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said he was hoping to prepare an explanatory leaflet. He had better put in a good stock of them, for I am afraid that many quite sensible people will find it very confusing to work out that calculation. If we do not have the calculation, we are reduced to the position the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) mentioned, where one could have a man going home with only £2 in wages because of deductions taken from his wages under this Measure. That is the purpose of the alternative assessment, to safeguard the minimum amount.
§ Mr. Sorensen
Does not the hon. Member realise that even if part of the man's money were not deducted in this way he would still suffer in exactly the same fashion and have £2 left if he simply paid up?
§ Mr. Bell
The hon. Member misses the point. I was saying that in order to avoid a position in which a man would have only £2 of his wages left the Bill contains machinery to ensure that if his wages fall below a certain point the amount to be deducted will be reduced proportionately each week. The hon. Member's intervention could have only the meaning that he thinks that the machinery should not be in the Bill. I do not know. I am not expressing an opinion about that. The machinery is in the Bill. All I am saying is that the employer, large or small, wise or foolish, has to work that out every week and that it is a considerable burden for some men, even if not for all.
An assurance was given, as it had to be given, that this was not the beginning of a long process. I have not been in the House for many years—seven or eight—and what I say is without reference to persons at all. Looking back over the past, my experience is that Ministerial assurances are short-lived compared with the life of a law once it has left the House and been put into operation. One classical Ministerial assurance was given in the 19th century about the counterfeiting of stamps. The Minister who introduced the Bill into the House gave his assurance that it would strike only at the man who was a fraudulent counterfeiter of stamps. Only a few years later a printer of stamp albums was prosecuted successfully under that Act because he had made reproductions of the stamps for the public, 1578 and the Divisional Court, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice, expressed the opinion that the constable who had brought the exhibits to the court to prove the offence was himself guilty of the offence for having them in his possession. That is a mild illustration of the value of Ministerial assurances in these matters. I am sure that they are given in the best of faith and that the intention is to observe them, but the fact is that as time passes one thing leads to another.
We have been invited to accept this proposal with open arms because this practice is adopted in Scotland. It is not used very much in Scotland because of the inconvenience of the procedure there, which is a little different from that in the Bill. Furthermore, as has been said, in Scotland they also attach wages for everything else, and I do not think many hon. Members would like to see that in England.
I have heard it said that the prohibition of the attachment of wages is an anachronism in the present system of society. Perhaps it is when we have full employment, but it would not look much of an anachronism if economic circumstances changed, as they do from time to time, and this protection against the attachment of wages had been swept away.
What is proposed in the Bill is merely that wages should be attached for a wife's maintenance, but in the last century another Bill was introduced to make it possible to attach wages for debt. It was said, "Salaries are attached, and savings and bank balances are attached. Why not wages? It is difficult to see any sensible reason why wages should not be included." After thirty-six years, however, the Government introduced the Wages Attachment Abolition Act, 1870, which said, in the recital, that whereas inconveniences had arisen as a result of this practice, it was enacted that the practice should no longer take place. In other words, we have tried the attachment of wages within relatively modern times. After being tried for a generation, it was abolished because it was found to be too dangerous, too damaging.
So I would say to the House it is all very well, and we can take these limited steps, we can support ourselves with assurances, we can be quite confident that we are going just so far and are not going too far, but it will not be easy when today 1579 has gone, when this Session of Parliament has gone and this Bill is on the Statute Book and perhaps some years later some other proposal, a plausible one doubtless, is put forward which will take us farther, perhaps not very much farther, along this road.
Say council house rents are in arrear. A man earning good money owes a debt to a public authority. We already take from his wages Income Tax, National Insurance contributions, his wife's maintenance. Why not arrears of rent owed to a public authority? Is that unreasonable? Why not arrears of rates? How much are rates different from tax which we deduct? So once we depart from the clear line we embark upon a very serious course of conduct. There I leave that.
So much for the danger which, I think, is clearly apprehended on both sides of the House. What are the advantages of this Bill? The figure of £7½ million was mentioned, and I must in fairness say that I was not here at that part of my right hon. Friend's speech, and so I do not know what qualifications he mentioned.
§ Mr. Bell
I must be careful not to say anything which would be unfair. But I have had an estimate, the source of which I cannot disclose, but which I think is a reliable one, that the possible saving from a Bill like this would be about £500,000 a year, and the rest of the £7½ million is to be applied to different matters, such as when a husband is dead or is lost sight of, and so on. If that financial aspect of the matter has affected the minds of hon. Members, I should like them to have in mind that figure of £500,000 as well as the one of £7½ million.
What sort of people is the Bill to catch? It will not catch, as has been pointed out, the really rebellious man. It is a much smaller thing to change one's job than it is to go to prison. I know that now my own argument that economic circumstances may change can be taken against me on this score, but let us accept things as they are for the time being, and changing a job is a small matter nowadays. It is easy.
§ Mrs. Jeger
Will the hon. Gentleman explain why a man does not change his job rather than go to prison now?
§ Mrs. Corbet
But if a man changes his job he does not necessarily disappear, and if he is in employment he can be discovered and be held liable once more.
§ Mr. Bell
Yes, but I was just about to say that under this Bill, as under previous Bills, an order is not transferable if a specific order is addressed by the court to a specific employer. It must be so, as otherwise he could not be punished for disobedience. We cannot make a court order transferable like 10s. notes, and if the man changed his job the order would die. It is true that the procedure could then be started all over again and a new order obtained, but I am quite sure that the hon. Lady will see that the man would not have to change his job unduly frequently before the wife abandoned that particular procedure.
Therefore, I think it fair to say that this Bill will catch only the man who is in regular employment. Indeed, when this proposal first came before the House, introduced by the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill), she did put in her Bill the express words that it should apply only to those men who were in regular employment. Although those words have been left out of subsequent drafts they are, nevertheless, implicit in the nature of the Measure.
I cannot help feeling that this Bill will primarily catch the man who, through sickness or inadvertence, falls four weeks 1581 in arrears. I know that it is a Committee point, but I think that four weeks is a drastically short time and quite unsuitable as the qualifying period to launch this procedure on a man. I know that the Bill is discretionary here and that the magistrates need not make one of these orders, but I strongly suspect, not being without some knowledge of these things, that when there are four weeks' arrears the order will he made in almost every case. In my opinion, it is just one of those things that will happen.
If, in fact, the Bill is to attach only the earnings of the man in regular employment—and primarily the man who is inadvertent or sick—then the merit that we have to weigh against the disadvantage is not very high. When I spoke during the Second Reading debate on the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) and during the Second Reading of the right hon. Lady's Bill, I pitched my case no higher than I do now.
I said then, and I say now, that there is a clear balance of advantages here. There is real hardship in the case of the women who are left without maintenance. There is some advantage—some to be derived on their side from the Bill. There is also a considerable detriment—a possible detriment, perhaps—on the grounds I described in my opening remarks.
Each hon. Member has to weigh that balance of advantage for himself, as I certainly have. Naturally, I have not changed my views just because this is now a Government Bill. I hold the same view, for the same reasons. Obviously, had there been a Division I could not have given my support, and it is right that I should take the opportunity of telling the House where I stand. It is a serious matter; not one that the House should embark on lightly. I can only offer the House my own view, which is that this will turn out badly and that we shall regret having done it—if, in fact, we do it.
§ 10.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire. South (Mr. Ronald Bell) can claim complete consistency. I have heard his earlier speeches on this subject, and I might say that in conversation with him—and I know that he will not mind my saying this—he has echoed some of his own misgivings. To that I ally the fact 1582 that I have this year been 39 years a member of my own trade union. That trade union has a unique experience with regard to the Truck Act, and certain provisions of the 1897 Act still apply.
As a shop steward, I can remember cases of apprentices being charged for breaking drills and the like. That still applies. So long as a notice is prominently displayed the pay packet can be breached. Because of all that sort of thing, I might say that initially, all my prejudices were against this Bill. But the hon. Gentleman is on weak ground, though I respect his general argument, when he refers to extension of the principle to council house rents. I should have thought that a tenant in possession of property to whom an order could be given to vacate that property is in a weak enough position under the present law and there would be no need to extend it there at all.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), whose service to the trade union movement I very much respect, was on weak ground, I thought, when he spoke about worsening industrial relations because 2,000 people under the present law may go to prison. I do not think this Bill is needed in that respect. In any case, when I consider the upset in a big engineering factory today over the question of the pricing of a job and the enthusiasm of wage fixers, to say nothing of the enthusiasms of foremen, this is really nothing at all.
Before I proceed, I should like to say that I think we should be grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) for what she did and for her enthusiasm, if I may say so, without any wish to be patronising to a comparatively new Member. She was pitched in at the deep end. I do not think she received all the support she might, not thinking so much of the support of the Joint Under-Secretary but rather of the support she might have had from the Patronage Secretary in looking after her fortunes a little better. It was rumoured that she had picked her Bill instead of moving a Measure to abolish capital punishment, and she landed herself in a great deal of punishment. She ran into some difficulty on her own Front Bench and, as a simple act of justice, the Home Office should have taken the Bill off her hands.
1583 I represent West Leeds, and in West Leeds we have the Armley Gaol. As a matter of fact, the inmates there are some of my most grateful constituents. I have looked at some of these characters whom this Bill is supposed to disadvantage. On 9th December, which is the last date for which I could get figures, 58 men were in prison in that gaol serving terms of imprisonment in default of payments under maintenance orders made by magistrates as defined in the Bill. I find that, during the twelve months ended 8th December, 709 such men were received and a further 54 had a warrant of committal for default lodged against them while in prison for some other reason. These figures do not include those who have been committed on default of maintenance payments by the High Court. If the figure is rather small, that is because, for sentences in excess of 28 days prisoners are taken to another prison, namely Wakefield Prison, in the constituency which used to be represented so illustriously by the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood). That figure of 709 in the one gaol can be set against the daily average in that prison, according to the last figures I can obtain, of 810.
I have been round Armley Gaol, and I have noted the number of men, three, in a cell. Nobody entering that gaol will be elevated. [Laughter.] I can honestly say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens), who is an ebullient personality, that even he would be depressed by it. Despite all the schemes which have been put forward, such as painting the cells in different colours and all that sort of thing, I cannot really say that Armley Gaol is the sort of place I should want to go to. A man must hate his wife pretty much if he is prepared to go there. I would like to add a provision to the Bill to the effect that anyone before the courts should be taken round on a visit to the place and told—"Or else…" [Laughter.] Speaking seriously, the idea that people should go into gaol at all is frightening, and anything that the Home Secretary can do to keep people outside those places is to be commended.
I come to the trade union attitude to this question, about which I had to search my conscience more than somewhat. First, I should state that trade unions are 1584 not ends in themselves, any more than the Labour Party is an end in itself. It is a means to an end. It serves certain mighty purposes. There is a tendency among bodies like the Trades Union Congress to defend an ancient heritage rather than look towards a more glorious future. They probably play for safety. I remember that the Trades Union Congress dragged their feet on the question of family allowances, but they accept the idea today.
There is nothing infallible about the Trades Union Congress, and I do not believe in infallibility anyway. But, at any rate, the ends that the trade union movement serves are the ends of human dignity, the security of family life and the protection of the weak. In effect, the trade union movement serves to extend the principle of the preservation of family life. Here I am inclined to agree with the Roman Catholics, in that the preservation of family life is rather more sacred than the State itself because the family is older than the State.
The people who are disadvantaged by this Bill are not the sort of people who join the trade union movement anyway. Trade unionists pay their dues in order to extend the standards of decency, and I have defended the principle of the closed shop simply because I believe that people should pay their dues into a trade union week by week in order to maintain decent standards. What do we do when a man does not pay his trade union dues? We say, "You either pay them, or you get out.' In exactly the same way, I believe that what we do in order to get our hard-earned cash is a fairly good principle to apply to our own society—namely, that a man should face up to his obligations and should be made to pay if possible.
I am not satisfied that all these side issues which have been put in to show why this Bill would not work are necessarily relevant. I think that in our British way of trial and error we will make this Bill work as the years go on. Of course, there will be case law. Of course, there will be stupid people who will appeal as far as the House of Lords. Of course, there will be judgments which will make us scratch our heads from time to time, but I think the effect of the Bill, generally speaking, will be a reasonable threat or promise to defaulters—"Armley Gaol or else."
1585 This Bill will deal with the non-unionists in our society—the defaulters, the escapists and, if I may use phraseology which some of my hon. Friends will recognise in ancient trade union practice, the people whom we call the knob-sticks, the black legs, the rats and the scabs, the sort of people who were defined by Jack London as the products of that fifth day creation on which the Lord made all creeping and crawling things.
The principle of our trade union movement is that every man should safeguard his own interest in safeguarding that of his fellow. We are dealing here with the type who believes in every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost, which is the philosophy of rank capitalism and has still a hangover on the other side of the House. These are defaulters on orders already made by magistrates. Nobody need be put in the position of having his wages attached. Only when other resources have failed are the provisions of this Bill brought into force. No one need come within its scope, except by his own neglect of his family and his failure to comply with the elementary decencies of life.
Have hon. Members ever been in the vicinity of a police court on a Friday and seen that pathetic procession of women who come and say, "Is there something for me?", hoping that money will have been paid into court? What happens if it has not? These wives abandon a proposed shopping tour for just the elementary necessities of life. They go round the corner for National Assistance, and we, from taxation, meet an obligation which somebody else should have met. That is what we are dealing with in the Bill. What right has any man to heap this sort of indignity on someone else? I have met trade unionists who have spoken against this sort of proposal but who, when faced with the hard fact of having a daughter up against this difficulty tell a different story altogether.
Those members of the trade union movement who can claim the greatest degree of knowledge of the problem are on the side of the Bill. He is not here now, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs) is an ex-chairman of the T.U.C. and has been a magistrate for 25 or 30 years. He is a well-respected chairman of the bench. 1586 He must have been placed in that office because of his character, since that bench has a majority of people who support the party opposite. He is wholeheartedly behind the Bill, subject to certain assurances. One does not forget also my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Viant).
§ Mr. Ronald Bell rose—
§ Mr. Bell
I have the utmost admiration for the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs), but the hon. Member will recall that that bench made an order against a husband without any ground at all, as a result of which members of the bench were defendants in an action which they successfully defended by pleading the Statute of Limitations.
§ Mr. Bell indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Pannell
My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West was a Labour candidate in his constituency as far back as 1918. Nobody on this side of the House would doubt his sagacity and experience and his lifelong devotion to the trade union movement at terrific sacrifice to himself.
Another point about the Bill in relation to deduction from wages is that the integrity of the wage packet has already been breached by P.A.Y.E. and by social insurance. And the next Labour Government will breach it for superannuation. Whatever the merits of these proposals may be, I should put the needs of a wife and children above the needs of the Income Tax man.
What is the experience of the trade unions? The other evening I spoke to the top official in Scotland of my union, the A.E.U., which has 240 branches and 90,000 members in Scotland. He told me that he had never had one letter on the subject of attachment, although he had held the job for many years. This matter had never been an issue. In fact, people had got used to the idea. Hon. Members may go round talking to women at the trade union branches, but let them go and talk to our women's sections and see what those women will tell them. That is another thing altogether.
1587 It is easy to prate about principles and to forget about people. We have to con-skier people. I was associated with a Motion which was carried unanimously in this House on Friday, 16th May, 1952, on the subject of equal pay as between men and women in the public service and the rate for the job, irrespective of sex. The Resolution contained the words:…recognising however that the position of those with family responsibilities must be assured.That is the basis of our thinking. We may ask for men the rate for the job, and for women an equal rate for equal work, but normally the average man is married. We tend to think that, with marriage, rights disappear; but they do not. When we speak of standards for men as trade unionists we speak of the standards of women too. We should not allow the status of the married woman to drop below that of the woman in industry. As we get the emancipation of women, to which I have devoted a lifetime, we must think of the status of the married woman and not make it rather less than that of the single woman.
For all these reasons, I shall support the Bill. Together with my colleagues I shall ask for as many guarantees as we can possibly get in Committee, and shall see that the position of income as well as of wages is fully dealt with, if necessary by Amendments. In the last resort, we must trust during the lifetime of this Parliament to the assurance of the Home Secretary that this Bill will never, never be extended to anything else. Beyond that time I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman or the Government will have the job.
§ 10.58 p.m.
§ Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)
I congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) on the big fight she put up in the Standing Committee for her Bill last Session, and the Home Secretary upon introducing the present Bill, which is a very big step forward indeed. Most hon. Members have had experience in their "surgeries" of cases that will be covered by the Bill and will be aware that here is one of the most serious gaps in our social services. I am pleased that we are to try to close it.
Several arguments which have been advanced require answer. I fully appreciate the point that none of us wants his 1588 private affairs known to other people, particularly to his employer. I would remind my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) that if a man goes to gaol it causes far more trouble between himself and his employer than is likely under this Bill. Even under present arrangements when settling maintenance payments it is usual to ask the employer the income of the man concerned, so that the employer knows in most cases what is happening.
The private affairs of the wife have also to be considered. If she has to go for National Assistance her private affairs are certainly gone into in a way that is often more unpleasant than the proposed revelation of private affairs between employee and employer at the present time.
§ Mr. D. Jones
Surely they have already been revealed to the court and going to National Assistance will not make any difference?
§ Mr. Parker
In either case her private affairs have been gone into very fully and made public. I think the woman suffers rather more than the man in that instance.
I should like to see the Bill carried further in a number of ways, and I wish to ask a number of questions of the Joint Under-Secretary who is to reply to the debate. I understand that wages and salaries are covered by the Bill and also pensions, but what exactly does "pensions" mean? Does it mean only State pensions? Does it mean annuities if a man has made arrangements for an annuity? What exactly can be brought into the picture under pensions—a private pension scheme as well as a State pension? I take the view that all kinds of income should as far as possible be included.
I cannot understand why merchant seamen are left out of the scheme. Some years ago I worked on the Merseyside Social Survey. It was in the middle of the depression when more than half the seamen were out of work. The various shipping companies allowed the wives, by an arrangement with the Seamen's Union, to collect a regular part of their men's wages each week. If there were questions of a maintenance order in those days arrangements could be made for that to be collected by the wife from the shipping company's office. That was an arrangement between the union and the 1589 companies, and I believe it still continues in the industry. I should think it would be an advantage to bring that into the law and not merely to have an arrangement between the union and the employers. I ask that that point be looked at and some reasons given why seamen are not at present to be included.
I realise the difficulty about including the self-employed, but I think an investigation ought to take place to see whether they can be brought in in some way. I should have thought this was a case in which Income Tax information might he collected. Most self-employed pay Income Tax and the information could be obtained from the collectors. I agree that a self-employed man, whether a professional man or a shopkeeper, is least likely to go to prison and more likely to be affected than anyone else if he did. Probably at the moment the threat of jail keeps him up to the mark more than other people. It is felt to be unfair if a certain class is thought to get away with it. Although there may be difficulties about that group, if it can be covered it is better that it should be done.
I should like an addition to the Bill to the effect, that if a man goes to prison that does not cancel the debt. If even under the new arrangements a man goes to prison, that still cancels the debt so far owing. It would be an advantage if it did not cancel the debt. If that works in Scotland, why should it not work here? I should like that question looked at as well.
Then there is the question of "flitting" even between England and Scotland and Wales. What happens if a person ordered to pay under this Bill in England moves to Scotland? What happens if someone covered by the present Scottish law comes from Scotland to England? Does he still have to pay? I would have thought some mutual arrangement could be made to cover that kind of case. I am told that in Northern Ireland it is possible to collect maintenance orders which have originally been ordered by the courts here.
It is provided under the Bill that Northern Ireland shall not be precluded from passing a Bill to cover similar purposes. I would have thought it desirable that if that happens there should be an arrangement whereby if a man "flits" to Northern Ireland or vice versa all such orders should be mutually enforceable. 1590 What about the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands? If a person wants to be awkward he can go there. We are seeing it in other connections in Scotland at present, and I would have thought there was a case generally for sorting out the arrangements for enforcing the law in the different parts of the British Isles.
Finally, there is a question about the Republic of Ireland. Many of my constituents come from there, but I do not think many of them would go back to try to avoid their obligations because the difficulty of finding work there is so great. But it might well be that one could have people coming here from Southern Ireland and leaving their families there, or coming here and raising a family and then going to some other part of the British Isles and leaving the family. I would have thought that once we had this Bill working in this country it would be possible to have some arrangement about it with Southern Ireland, and that might be extended to other social services. It might well be an important point in the years to come. I would like to ask the Under-Secretary to look into the whole question of possibly "flitting" to some other part of the British Isles in order to avoid obligations.
It is a fact that in both the United States and Canada the law varies on this question in all the different States and provinces, and it certainly leads to quite a lot of "flitting" to avoid obligations. With the ease of travel that has now come along there is a danger of the same kind of thing happening within the British Isles, and we should see whether some arrangements could be made to cut out that difficulty.
In conclusion, I hope the Bill becomes law. I am sure the House will do its best to try to get it into law as soon as possible.
§ 11.9 p.m.
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
I should like briefly to pay tribute to the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) to whom the House and the country are indebted for the great efforts she has made which have resulted in this Measure being brought forward. I am sure the Bill we are considering is all the better for the time and thought that was given to the earlier Measure which was introduced as 1591 a Private Member's Bill. I think, too, that we all appreciate the exquisite sense of equilibrium with which the two Front Bench speakers tackled the difficult job of recommending this Bill.
It is right that Parliament should approach this Bill with some hesitation, because, after all, we are legislating about something which touches people's deepest emotional lives, on the one hand, and affects their money on the other. When one has both those considerations in one piece of legislation it is obvious that we have real dynamite to deal with, But it has been very interesting that no Member who has dealt with this Bill tonight, whether supporting or attacking it, has expressed complacency or any satisfaction with the position as it is at present. Therefore, we must start from the point that we cannot go on as we are.
A reason which has not been mentioned is that the present situation is grossly unfair to the thousands of men who make a big struggle to keep up their maintenance payments and who make payments regularly, often by great self-sacrifice. They accept their responsibilities, but they see other men avoiding them and getting away with it, and they have a deep sense of social injustice.
I must emphasise the complete bankruptcy of a system which sends men to prison for debt. The Home Secretary referred with great emphasis, which we all appreciated, to the eroding effect of prison life on these people. I say to my friends and colleagues in the trade union movement that if they are concerned with the status and welfare of the worker, surely the biggest contribution which they can make is to keep him out of prison, because nothing destroys a man's self-respect and his employability more than a prison sentence. Often an employer does not stop to ask for what offence the man went to prison; the fact that he has been in prison is enough to bar him from employment by many firms.
As I said, we are trying to legislate about affairs which concern people's emotional lives fundamentally, and that is one of the big difficulties. A happy marriage is a supreme human experience. I only wish that by legislation we could do something to make it a more widely shared experience. When a marriage breaks down, however, it is not the job 1592 of Parliament to apportion the blame. Often the breakdown is not due to specific faults on one side or the other. Whatever the reason for the failure, I do not believe that the breakdown of the marriage gives either party the right to transfer privately contracted responsibilities to the community.
There may be many measures which we should consider about our marriage laws, particularly about the administration of matrimonial jurisdiction in the lower courts. Many constructive social measures could be taken to prevent some of these marriages from breaking down.
We are here considering the casualties, however, and I think it is Parliament's responsibility to try to deal constructively with those casualties. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) that it would be an improvement if a prison sentence did not cancel out the debt, but that is beyond the scope of the Bill because it would have to apply to debts in general. While under present legislation debt is cleared by a prison sentence, we cannot make exceptions for debts of this kind.
In looking at the present situation and the difficulties with which we have to deal, we have not so far mentioned the loss of time from work of men who are summoned and the amount of time which is spent in the courts by professional people, by probation officers and others in trying to sort these cases out, nor have we mentioned the fact that it costs a woman £1 to take out a summons. When that has to be paid at a difficult time for her, it is often a serious matter.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) that there are men who feel so bitter about the breakdown of their marriages that they will go to any length rather than support their wives and families, and I think we must accept it that the Bill cannot be 100 per cent. successful. The fact that it will not be 100 per cent. successful, however, seems to be a very poor reason for not trying to do anything to help in certain cases. I believe that we shall find the Bill helpful in a larger number of cases than some of my hon. Friends suggest.
When a man says that he would rather go to prison than pay, because of his sense of grievance and bitterness, we must ask ourselves whether a citizen should have the right to opt to go to prison 1593 and to be kept at the expense of the country rather than shoulder his personal and voluntarily accepted responsibilities. I think we need a completely fresh approach which will destroy the right of the citizen to opt to go to prison for a period of his life, however uncomfortable it may be, at the country's expense, leaving his family to be a burden on the community.
This debate has reminded me of the fact that in the days when some of us were struggling for equal pay it was always said by our opponents that men had to keep their families and, consequently, they should receive more than women. Those who put forward that theory should be consistent. They should look upon the man's wage as the family's wage; as the pool upon which the whole of the family has a right to draw.
A point has been made about the amount of money spent by the country in keeping these wives and children. I understand that there are 70,000 women separated from their husbands and maintained at £7½ million a year. It is also contended that many of these women are elderly and that there will therefore be no sizeable reduction as a result of this Bill. But 26,000 of them have small children, which is a large proportion. Moreover, the figure of £7½ million refers only to married women and does not include unmarried mothers who are being maintained, with their children, on National Assistance payments. I am informed that the total figure is about £10 millions.
§ Mr. D. Jones
I was quoting from the 1956 Report of the National Assistance Board, which states that 40 per cent. of the total have husbands who are dead or are on retirement pensions. So the figure may be less than £7½ million.
§ Mrs. Jeger
My point was that 26,000 of these women have children of school age. My hon. Friend made a very sincere speech about interference with the rights of the workers, but I think one must ask him and those of his colleagues who share his views to bear in mind that this Bill is not in any way intended to be used for the collection of maintenance money. Many of the speeches to which we have listened tonight seemed to suggest that the purpose of the Bill was to enable maintenance money to be deducted from wages. That is not so. As I understand 1594 it, the Bill is only for the collection of maintenance arrears. Until a man falls into arrear this Bill will not affect him in any way at all. I do think we must have that absolutely clear.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
Once he has fallen into arrear this Bill becomes an instrument for collecting maintenance money, as well as the arrears.
§ Mrs. Jeger
Yes, I think that it would help the debate if I accepted the assistance which the hon. Gentleman has given me. I read the Bill as meaning that the man who has fallen into arrear will come within its scope. It then "stays on his tail", but he can, as I understand it, apply after a period of regular payments for discharge. He can avoid ever being caught by the operation of the Bill by making his payments regularly. It is that incentive which is the most important advantage of the Bill. We want it to be a deterrent. I do not look upon it as a trap to embroil innocent people.
§ Mr. Niall MacDermot (Lewisham, North)
There is a provision in Clause 8 entitling the husband to apply for the discharge of the order, but how is he to be able to satisfy the magistrates that in future he will be a good payer when all his payments up to then will have been made as the result of the order by deductions by his employer from his wages?
§ Mrs. Jeger
That is a question which, I hope, my hon. Friend will put in Committee if he has the honour to be asked to serve on the Committee.
I was about to say that because of these difficulties and the very fine balance of judgment on the Bill, a very heavy responsibility will fall on the Committee considering the Bill. A number of us on this side have certain doubts about various Clauses. I myself am particularly concerned whether four weeks is the ideal period, but all these things can be considered in Committee, and the House will be making a real contribution to social justice by giving the Bill a Second Reading tonight.
We have so far debated the Bill upon an assumption that it is the husbands who must always pay. I would remind the House that in the Annual Report of the National Assistance Board for last year there was one case—it is true there was only one—in which the Board sued a wife for maintenance of her husband The wife had a private income and her 1595 husband had no money. She had deserted him and the National Assistance Board took the case to court and a maintenance order was made against the wife. I mention it because I should not like hon. Members to think this is in any way at all a feminist issue. I hope that the wives who hold the purse strings will have to face their responsibilities equally with the husbands whom we wish to face theirs.
In spite of the reservations and doubts which have been expressed, I hope the Bill, after the further careful consideration which I know it will have in Committee, will without long delay become part of the law of the land.
§ 11.23 p.m.
§ Mrs. Freda Corbet (Peckham)
The hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) thanked me for the part I played in Committee on her Bill. I must confess that it was a part of almost complete silence. I was actuated by the motive which often induces me to advise my friends in our work in another assembly to say nothing in order that business should proceed more swiftly and valuable decisions may be more swiftly effected. That policy did not succeed in Committee on the Bill in the last Session, but not because of the silence of my hon. Friends, and I regret, having heard some of them speak on this subject tonight, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), that they did not take a more vocal part in Committee on that other Bill, for had they done so we should have had a much livelier and merrier time in the Committee than we did.
I must say that all my precautions did not enable us to withstand the magnificent exertions of my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), whose ability to speak went to enormous lengths. They produced great powers of oratory, often, I thought, about nothing. I was looking forward to an opportunity of using the same tactics on them in any Bill they might bring forward, but it may be that if the Standing Orders are changed I shall not have that pleasure.
Having listened to the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South this evening, I must say that I feel that this step we are taking is a very serious one. Although I 1596 have been convinced of the rightness of this for perhaps 23 or 24 years—and in that time have run against precisely the same kind of objections from the same quarters—I still feel that it is right that the House should take this matter into its very serious consideration.
Let me give one example of how this could spread. It is perfectly true that for arrears of rent a landlord, whether a private landlord or a local authority, can turn out the tenant. That usually has a very salutary effect on tenants, but there is a small, hard core of what are called "problem" families. They do not pay their rent and are eventually turned out. There is no alternative. It must be a great temptation indeed for the social worker and all those with feelings of humanity to try to prevent that family—and it is not the man, but the wife and children—from being turned out of a happy home and put into an institution. We shall, therefore, have to be very careful to see that the humane instincts of the social worker do not take us further than we ought to go.
As for creditors, the business man can take care of himself. He knows well enough when he has a bad customer, and he will refuse to supply the goods. He knows, too, that bad debts are a part of business expenses. That being so, the kind of things for which the Scottish law provides in relation to debts would not normally worry most of us in this House.
I say to those who have expressed their fears, that those of us who have for many years advocated attachment would stand most firmly and resolutely against any extension of that principle. We stand by the principle of saving men from prison and of helping the unfortunate families concerned. On the other hand, we want to see that men do not fail in the obligations of family life which the laws of society place upon them.
I have come across quite a number of men who have been very bitter about having to pay. I think they have been very rightly and justly bitter, and the reason for it is something which should be looked at. It is that in the original proceedings in the courts the man's case has not been made, and should have been made. I hope that we will pay some attention to the possibility of seeing that, when the original order is made, it is a just and a fair order; one that a man 1597 can feel is reasonable and which he can afford to pay.
I think we can discount the points that have been made about employment. From the figures that have been quoted tonight, it is quite obvious that any one employer would have only very few cases to deal with. In these days, I do not believe that any employer will mind. We all know of the expensive welfare work which is done among employers today. I talk very often to employers who tell me of very intimate details concerning the lives of their employees and of how they try to help them. In many big works there are welfare workers whose job it is to know what it is that perhaps makes a man a little lax in his work, what it is that is making him off colour or making him perform his work less well than he used to do. There is tremendous care taken today in the welfare and family lives of employees. A week or two ago I had a letter from an employer asking me to do my best to find a new dwelling for a man whose wife's state of nerves was so bad that the man himself could not concentrate on his work. I am sure that all hon. Members constantly receive letters of that kind from employers.
I am sure that hon. Members can rest happy in the knowledge that employers will find quite quickly that they can absorb the one or two cases with which they will have to deal. I do not believe that the fears which have been expressed will prove well-founded. Many an employer will do all he can for an employee rather than lose his services, and that is something we should not ignore. There are key men whose jobs cannot be performed if they are absent from their work. Many employers will take all kinds of steps to ensure that key employees do not go to prison, with all the dislocation that their absence would entail. From the point of view of the man himself, could the job be held for him while he goes to prison for a month or six weeks? The job must be done, and, when he comes back, somebody else will be doing it and he must go elsewhere.
We must consider in Committee the point made by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South about the man flitting off and fresh orders having continually to be taken out by the wife. It ought not to be beyond our wit to pro- 1598 vide that, once an order is made, the name of any new employer can be inserted so that the direction can he transferred from one to another.
I hope that a great deal of attention will be paid to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham. If we are to do the thing at all—and I hope that the House will pass the Bill in all its stages—we must make it as effective as we possibly can. I wish the Bill all success, and in conclusion, I can only say that I congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, for having initiated the Bill in its principal early stages. I only wish that it might have fallen to my luck in the ballot to be able to introduce such a Bill as she did in the first instance.
§ 11.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)
The Joint Under-Secretary who has sat in his place during the whole of the debate, will be left in no doubt that the House as a whole approaches the problem with a tremendous amount of sympathy for those women and children who are left in the very difficult position described so adequately and dramatically by many speakers this evening. At the same time, he will have observed that there have been at least two speeches against the Bill. If I may say so, without any wish to be patronising, they were two very well-balanced speeches, and none of us should take what was said in either of them lightly. I refer, of course, to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) and the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).
Equally, it has obviously not escaped the hon. and learned Gentleman's notice that on all sides there have been a number of points raised which are probably Committee points, but it is right that they should have been raised in this debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) made clear, we shall not divide against this Bill. Therefore, I hope the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will understand that when the Bill is debated in Committee we shall not approach this Bill in any partisan way but we shall want to deal very carefully with many points that must be settled and which I shall not reiterate at this late hour.
1599 I was very glad that the Home Secretary said that he would extend an invitation to representatives from the British Employers' Confederation and the Trades Union Congress, and I hope that appropriate letters will go out quickly and that both those bodies will meet with him, preferably together, to discuss many of the things that they have in mind as real objections to the Bill.
The British Employers' Confederation and the Trades Union Congress object to this Measure not entirely on the same grounds. The T.U.C. objection is a perfectly good one and has already been voiced in this House many times, even by those who support the Bill, and that is that they do not wish to see a break in the 1870 Act which made wages inviolate. We have accepted P.A.Y.E., National Health, National Insurance and deductions of that kind from wages, but we have not moved to the stage where we have really been prepared to accept within the ranks of the trade union movement any further inroads into the sanctity of the wage packet.
This is a real problem in the trade union movement, and whilst the assurances by the Home Secretary, which I hope will be reinforced by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary when he replies, will go a long way, it may well be that the talks that he proposes to have with the T.U.C. and the British Employers' Confederation will lead to some Amendments in Committee which might put this matter beyond any possible doubt.
The British Employers' Confederation also take the view that as employers they do not want to accept responsibility for the part of the machinery for collecting maintenance. They have their own business problems to contend with, and I am not referring only to the character of the work that is involved, because I do not regard that as terribly important; so few will be involved in this matter as compared with the large number of people who are gainfully employed. The employers just do not want to be brought into a matter which they regard, quite properly, as outside their employment responsibilities.
Therefore, the Home Secretary has been very wise to say that he proposes to talk with both these bodies. I think that he might—I hope he will before we go into Committee—examine once again whether or not the deductions could be 1600 made under the P.A.Y.E. system. I know that there will be many difficulties about it, but I am also well aware that the Inland Revenue can rarely be persuaded to do anything other than collect taxes, and it strongly resisted this suggestion. But I am inclined to think that if this collection could be made other than through the employers by the attachment of wages, it would make the progress of this Bill, and particularly the progress of conversations, much more easy. I am not saying that that is the only way in which it should be done. I am saying only that that is the way which has been suggested in this House and in other quarters, and therefore it should be considered as a method of collection, without committing anybody one way or the other.
I am not greatly moved by the arguments relating to the number of men who are in gaol and the cost to National Assistance as I am concerned with the position of those women who are deserted, and particularly the children. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) put the number at about 26,000. That is terribly important. This is a great social problem. There is not only the tragedy of children being brought up without the father in the home but there is the terrible economic difficulty which does not help to bring up children in the right atmosphere.
This is the one thing on which I, as a trade unionist of many years' standing, am prepared to let go my prejudices about touching the wage packet. I think it worth while to break the principle of the sanctity of the wage packet, because I am much more concerned about young people being compelled to grow up under difficult conditions. It may be that by means of the Bill we shall be able to prevent the worst effects on them of a broken family life.
There is no need for me to deal again with the many objections to these proposals which have been mentioned in debate, but I should like us all to address ourselves, if not now then certainly in Committee, to considering whether the Bill will really do the job that we want done. That is the test of the Bill. If we accept, as a result of the inquiries that have been made, that the Bill will affect 2,000 of the men who are now in gaol, I confess that that number is rather smaller than I had hoped. It means that 1601 only about half of those who go to gaol will be affected.
As to the possibility of men changing their jobs continuously, I agree with the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South that things will be different if there is no longer full employment, but we must apply ourselves to the problem of dealing with the man who is prepared to dodge from employer to employer to escape his responsibilities. It is obvious that no woman can be expected to keep going to court for separate attachment orders. I hope that the Home Secretary and his Parliamentary Secretary recognise that this is something which we shall have to discuss very closely in Committee.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
I believe that, either prior to or soon after the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) presented her Bill, we had a reply from the Home Secretary to the effect that it had been arranged with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance to allow for inter-availability of information, which would help to solve that problem.
§ Mr. Robens
I remember some reference to that point, though my main recollection of the Committee stage of that Bill is of some long speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South. I hope that the Home Secretary will look into it further. It is an important point.
I do not press for clarification now, but I should like to know when it is possible for an individual who has had an attachment of earnings order made against him to be released from it. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Lewisham, North (Mr. MacDermot) raised that important point. A person who goes to court to secure release from an order of this kind is not in a position to say. "I have been extremely good over the last twelve months, because I have paid regularly," since the payment will have been deducted from his wages. How are we to determine what are to be the conditions under which a man is to be released?
I am sure that none of us wants to see a situation in which there is an attachment to earnings order in force against a man for life. That would be wrong. I cannot see within the Bill how he, of his own volition, is able to persuade anybody that he has turned 1602 over a new leaf and not to be given a second chance. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can say whether a time limit can be put on these orders, after which they could be reviewed. We must find a way to release a man. The Home Office could help us very much in this matter.
Will the Parliamentary Secretary say quite firmly whether Clause 3 (1) means that Order 45 of the Rules of the Supreme Court, 1875, applies wholly to the attachment of debts. If that is so, it removes from the field of criticism one objection that this is a class Bill for one section of the community. It must be an all-embracing Bill; no person should be able to escape. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will also be able to tell me that my interpretation is correct that Clause 3 (1) enables a garnishee order to be made against a person's banking account.
As an active trade unionist for many years, I was torn between the inviolability and sanctity of the wage packet and the way in which women and young children who are put in this position are treated. On balance I have come down in favour of the young children and the women. I cannot say that for the whole of my party. We shall give a Second Reading to the Bill and hope that we can make it so watertight in Committee that on Third Reading we can all agree that it is a very good Bill.
§ 11.48 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)
My first and paramount duty is to thank the House for the kind and constructive reception that it has given to the Bill. I entirely accept what the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens) said, that the whole House has transparently approached the problem with sympathy for the women and children who are the primary beneficiaries, yet with a proper realisation of the serious problems which are raised. I include my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) and the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones). My hon. Friend is a personal friend of many years' standing. At one time we worked together in the same room.
§ Mr. Simon
The hon. Member for The Hartlepools has been a political neighbour extremely agreeable and kind and, 1603 I need hardly say, invariably completely fair. The whole House recognises in both cases that their qualities of heart acquit them of any lack of sympathy with the unfortunate women with whom the Bill is concerned.
I associate myself with what has been said in the way of congratulation to my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) on her handling of her Bill. Although she was possibly disappointed in Committee, her Bill had a very big effect upon public opinion. It was actually during her tenancy of this theme that Lord Morton came out so clearly in support of the principle of the Bill, and we had the Report of the Advisory Committee on the Treatment of Offenders which abundantly vindicated the view she was putting forward and, as the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) pointed out, the unanimous recommendation of the Magistrates' Association, an extremely representative and experienced body in this field, also endorsing the principles of the Bill. One ought not to forget, in passing such encomiums, the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill), who blazed the trail in this field.
I think it would be invidious to remark on any particular speech made this evening, but, if he will forgive me, I should like to mention the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), because he and the right hon. Member far Blyth seemed to speak for the generous heart of the trade union movement, with the compassion which I think the trade union movement has always had for those on whom misfortune has lighted, those whom fate has oppressed harshly, wherever they may be.
I think it is true, as the hon. Member said, that there is a danger in any institution when it becomes successful—when it has arrived—that it should merely defend the privileges it has rightly fought for and achieved. I think the debate this evening, on the part equally of those who opposed this Bill and those who supported it, shows that that generous heart is still beating strongly.
I hope the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) will forgive me if I do not deal with the important points he raised, because I agree with the right hon. Member for Blyth that the Bill ought to be examined together in Committee and it 1604 seemed that those were important points of detail.
I should like to refer to three preliminary questions before dealing with the main arguments against the Bill and those in favour of the Bill. First, I think it ought to be made clear that the Bill does not deal only with the collection of arrears. Not until there has been a default, and a default for four weeks in the case of a weekly order, can an attachment order be made. Even when there has been a default it is, of course, discretionary on the part of the court whether it shall make an order. The court is not bound to do so, and, obviously, in cases of misfortune and sickness it is unthinkable that it should do so, but when it makes an order, the order not only bites on the arrears, but also takes account of the current payments as they become due. I hope that that is an answer to the right hon. Member although it is, quite clearly, a problem we must examine further.
In the end, the attachment order will exhaust itself so far as arrears are concerned. The arrears will have been recovered and then there will have to come a time for the variation of the order. I should hope that a well-intentioned husband who had seen the errors of his ways could convince a court that he is willing to pay properly in future. The court, I suppose, might make a further order for the attachment of the lower sum, merely to recover the maintenance as it became due prospectively, but I do not see any difficulty where an honest man could convince a court that an attachment order should be lifted. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member that none of us desires to see an attachment order inuring for all time whatever the intention of the defaulter may be.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
The hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that if a man changes his occupation there has to be another order, which causes a break anyway. That may happen in the case of a man who wants to escape, but it seems a terrific burden that a man in regular employment as against the man who drifts from job to job should be disadvantaged. The hon. and learned Gentleman ought to think over this and perhaps have inserted in the Bill the provision of a period in which not only the wife can apply but the husband also.
§ Mr. Simon
There are, of course, objections to the proposal for automatic transfer of the liability from one employer to another, but I think there is a point arising out of what the hon. Member says, namely that if there is a change of employment the original attachment order is discharged, and if the man against whom the maintenance order has been made then pays maintenance regularly, without the attachment order, he would be in a very strong position to go to the court and claim that he could be trusted not to have an attachment order. I should have thought that in those circumstances the court would be reluctant to make any attachment order and it is most unlikely that it would do so.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about collecting through P.A.Y.E. I personally was very anxious, if it could be done, that it should be done that way, for the various reasons that he set out. We did find what seemed to us to be insuperable objections, but I will look at the matter again before the Committee stage.
Finally, a further point was raised by the right hon. Gentleman, about the tracing of husbands who shifted their jobs. The recollections of both the hon. Member for Leeds, West and the right hon. Member for Blyth were correct. In the Standing Committee there was nothing but long speeches from my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for The Hartlepools. But my right hon. Friend made a statement, on the lines that the hon. Gentleman stated, on Thursday, 6th June of this year, in which he stated the new policy—and that was not in connection with the Standing Committee.
May I now turn to the main matters which have been disturbing the House and particularly the two objectors to this Bill in this debate. The first is the argument about the "thin end of the wedge." I could not help calling to mind the sayings of two very wise men on this sort of argument. The first was Lord Cecil of Chelwood, who once said:The British constitution is full of the thin ends of wedges that the good sense of the community forbears to drive home.The other was a very great Judge, to whom counsel once addressed the argument of the thin end of the wedge, and the Judge immediately replied in his stately way:I am rarely impressed by forensic forebodings of indeterminate future disaster.1606 I think the House of Commons also, with its sense of the practical, is not very much impressed by political forebodings of indeterminate future disaster; but I would reiterate what my right hon. Friend said in introducing this Bill. The Government have no intention of extending attachment for the enforcement of civil debt, or hire purchase, or fines, or in any way beyond the confines of this Bill.
The hon. Member for Rossendale asked what advice the Government would give the House if a Private Member brought in a Bill proposing to extend the principle of attachment. I am authorised by my right hon. Friend to say that the advice the Government would give would be to reject such a Bill. I am quite clear, and have always been clear, that this is a case by itself. As my right hon. Friend said, the hardship on the woman, the burden on the taxpayer, and the futility of putting the men in prison, put this in a class by itself.
But I think there is another reason. It arises out of the fundamental division of labour between a man and his wife. Largely, the wife stays at home, runs the home and brings up the children, and through that she releases the husband so that he can go out into the world and earn his salary or wages. Morally she is entitled to look to his earnings. Morally, they are the source to which she is entitled to look for her support, and her support and that of the children should be the first charge on them. That seems to me to put this debt into quite a different category from any commercial debt which may arise.
Again, as the right hon. Gentleman very properly reminded us, we are concerned here not only with the wife but with the children, who clearly have a right to look to the father's earnings for their support. In particular, we should not forget a comparatively large class of beneficiaries under the Bill—the unfortunate children who are born in a state of illegitimacy.
Next may I deal with the question whether this is class legislation? As I am advised and believe, Clause 3 (1) makes available to orders made in the magistrates' court—as it has always been available to orders made in the High Court—the great panoply of methods of execution which the law over the centuries has devised to see that men pay their judgment debts. I see that the right 1607 hon. Gentleman had a book with which I was very familiar at one time, and with which I am no longer so familiar. I am sure that he is right when he says that that is the effect of Clause 3 (1).
§ Mr. MacDermot
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that nevertheless this would apply only to arrears and not to current payments? In other words, all the procedure of garnishee orders and charging orders can be used only to enforce an order for arrears and not an order for current payment.
§ Mr. Simon
The hon. Member is quite correct. As I understand the law, that is the position. That has always been effective to secure the payment of maintenance in the High Court. We are now making available to the magistrates' courts, just as we have to the High Court, the instrument of attachment of earnings, and that will apply to the salary of the managing director of the largest company in the land just as much as to his doorkeeper. We have ensured by that Clause that the rents which are due to a rentier can be attached; there is the instrument of the receiver. A bank balance can be attached by garnishee; goods and chattels by distress; shares by a charging order; Government stock by another method of execution, that of distringas; land by a very severe method, sequestration, for one can put in a sequestrator who can not only receive the rents and profits of the land but can take all the goods and chattels and all the personal property on it. The charging order in respect of shares is available not only to collect the income of the shares but also to take the capital to discharge the debt, or the arrears in this type of case.
The House will see that those are very effective methods for making the man of property meet his judgment debts. That applies equally to the case of the shopkeeper, about which I was asked. One can garnishee his bank balance or his trade creditors and his goods and chattels can be taken by distress. That has proved so effective a remedy that by and large where that type of property has been available the man will pay rather than attract these methods. The House will see how very unattractive it would be for a partner to have a receiver put into his partnership to receive his share of the 1608 partnership profits. I am able to assure the House that there is no difference in the treatment of various sources of income, or capital, except in the sense to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, North correctly drew attention.
I should also like to deal with the point put by the hon. Member for The Hartlepools that this represents interference between the employer and the employee. Our view is that we believe that the threat existing here will, in most cases, make it unnecessary to issue an attachment order at all. That has been the experience in Scotland, and we see no reason why it should not equally apply in England. We believe, too, that the Bill will be effective in producing the result which we desire; and that, again, has been the experience in Scotland. As has been pointed out during this debate, there are some 1,500 arrestment orders made every year, but only thirty men go to prison. If we can achieve that sort of proportion in our society I think we shall be entitled to say that it represents a major advance, not only for the beneficiaries and their children but also for the men themselves; for who would not wish to see them kept out of prison?
The hon. Member for Leeds, West spoke about this, and I would ask him if it is in the interests of the trade unions to see their men in prison.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
The trade unionists about whom I was speaking are not, by their philosophy, the sort to be caught by this Bill. It is the Tory working men who are the sort.
§ Mr. Simon
I can only say that I am sorry that, after we have been in such close agreement throughout the evening, the hon. Gentleman has now forced me into violent disagreement with him.
The hon. Lady the Member for Peckham (Mrs. Corbet) made a valid point in her reference to welfare services. With the development of welfare and social services in industry, the matters about which we are speaking ought to be within the knowledge of the good employer. One might well get an extension of voluntary arrangements, such as operate in Sheffield, whereby the maintenance money is deducted. But this point has been made by many hon. Members, and I would ask, which is really the more serious—interference, as it is called, between employer 1609 and employee with attachment of the man's wages, or sending him to prison? Although the point is a valid one in an abstract way, the interference is less serious than the alternative.
§ Mr. D. Jones
I made the point that the man is likely to get the "sack", whichever way we apply it.
§ Mr. Simon
I propose to deal with the likely cases which come under the Bill. Anybody can prevent an interference between the relations which a man has with his employer merely by paying the obligation which a court of law has ruled to be his due. Of course, it has been said that some men will do anything at all but pay. There are such men; we acknowledge that, but it does not mean to say that, as the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) pointed out, we should not deal with the many men who will be susceptible to the operation of the Bill.
The Advisory Council on the Treatment of Offenders went into this matter with very great care and came to the conclusion that only about 12 per cent. of those who went to prison for non-payment had refused to pay on principle. It was thought that in the case of about 50 per cent. the attachment order system was well worth trying. In all cases, of course, we shall not be successful; but if we can keep say, only 2,000 men—the figure which has been used—out of prison and secure at the same time maintenance for their wives and children, then it is surely worth while.
I turn to deal with the argument that the original order is not always a fair one. One has to accept, of course, that there will be cases in which unfairness does result; not intentionally, I believe, but simply because justice in these courts, as in all courts, has to be done by human beings and so must be something less than perfect justice. That, however, does not mean that the orders of the court, even though less than perfect justice in some cases, should not be effectively enforced. After all, what logic is there in saying that magistrates' courts are so unfair that they should have the power to send a man to prison but not to attach his income? It simply does not make sense. If the system is unjust, that is a reason for amending it, but not a reason why it should be stultified.
1610 Now I come to the strong case in favour of the Bill. We believe it will keep defaulters out of prison, and even if it keeps only 2,000 defaulters a year out of prison it will be well worth while. It will lead to substantial economy. It costs about £175,000 a year merely to keep that sort of man in prison. In addition there will be a substantial saving on National Assistance. It amounts to a vindication of the decrees of our courts of law and, therefore, as the hon. Member for Rossendale pointed out so rightly, conduces to the general maintenance of the rule of law.
As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blyth said, it will lead to the relief of suffering by people who have been hardly used. Consider the wife first of all. There is not one of these wives who has not been found by the courts to have suffered a matrimonial wrong at the hands of her husband. She has been deserted by him without cause, or he has failed to maintain her as he should and could have maintained her, or he has committed adultery, or has treated his wife with persistent cruelty. In addition to that, she has to have the heart sickness of knowing that the court which has made an order in her favour, which has said she and her children shall be maintained, is powerless to give effect to its decree. It does not take very much imagination to call to mind the misery and the despair these women go through.
Then there are the children, particularly the illegitimate children, with all the disadvantages they suffer as a result of being born, through no fault of their own, into that sort of condition. It is for those reasons, while again expressing my gratitude and the gratitude of the Government at the reception which the Bill, on the whole, has had in the House, that I commend it to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).