§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.7 a.m.
§ Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope the House will forbear with me, especially if I do not express myself as well as I would wish on this very important occasion. I should like to say how fortunate I am, so early in my career in this House, to be given this opportunity, but, in view of my inexperience, it makes me feel rather nervous that I may not be able to do full justice to the chance that fate has given me. I should like to pay tribute particularly to the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) and the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) for the stepping stones they have laid in a direction which has made it more possible, perhaps, for the Bill to be accepted today.
I have for many years been doing social work in cities and factories, in overseas territories and also as a member of the London County Council. That work has brought to my notice the many difficulties and problems which beset human beings. Hon. Members must realise when they read their local newspapers and see pictures of very happy smiling young married couples that most marriages are happy and that people start with the intention of bringing up their children in the home life on which we pride ourselves so much in this country. But we are concerned today with those marriages that go wrong, and with those people who are less fortunate.
I have come to the conclusion, from the hundreds of letters that I have received and from experience in my work, that we must be chiefly concerned with the children of these broken marriages, and if the Bill is read a second time it will help many of them to have more security in the future. It is very difficult, and it is not at all normal, even after a partner dies, for one person to have the entire responsibility for bringing up the children. It is normal to have two parents to share in this great 1540 work. Where the marriage is broken, however, and the whole burden falls on one individual, who perhaps has not the wherewithal even to feed and clothe the children, it must make life all the more difficult.
There are many friends, societies, organisations and social workers who, when a marriage breaks up, do their best to help the individuals concerned to reconcile their difficulties. When a marriage cannot be remade, it is necessary to go to court. I would suggest that the last resort is to go to court, but when this happens, if no help can be given to them, a maintenance order is made. At that time the employer is written to in order to ascertain the income of the man and, if a court order is made, the defendant has to pay into court as stated on the order.
Unfortunately, in hundreds of cases where such orders are made they are not complied with and, through no fault of her own, the applicant has to resort to the National Assistance Board. The object of this Bill is to allow the applicant again to appeal to the court when not less than four weekly payments are due or, if it is by other than weekly payments, when not less than two of them are due, to ask for the payments to be deducted by whoever is paying the defendant. This applies to persons in all types of employment and to all types of earnings as shown in Clause 9 (1, a and b). It will be noted that the Clause makes it possible to take money even from the pensions of persons who have retired. Before making payments the employer is allowed to deduct 6d. on each one of the payments to cover his expenses.
This order will specify two rates. The first rate will be that at which deductions are made to satisfy the maintenance order as provided by the court. The second rate will be that below which the defendant's earnings are not allowed to fall, in order that he can keep himself and also any other dependants he may have by a second marriage.
This is an important point, because it would be difficult if, through short time or sickness, the individual concerned were put in the position of not being able to carry out commitments he might have as a result of his second family. As it is probable that the first wife has already 1541 resorted to some form of national assistance to help her, it would be undesirable for the two families to have to do this. Again, all moneys must be paid into court. I believe it is important to ensure that there is no contact between the employer and the woman receiving the money, so the present practice of paying the money into court is continued.
Very often people become defaulters through lack of good management, because they are careless and not used to taking their responsibilities seriously. I feel, therefore, that this may be a good way to prevent them getting into further trouble. For instance, if they do not make the first payment, they find that next week a double payment is too much for them. All hon. Members of this House who have "surgeries" receive cases of people who have engaged in hire purchase, who perhaps have forgotten to make a payment one week, or did not have enough money to do so, and have gradually got into difficulties. It must be remembered that those are voluntary arrangements, and even they seem often to get upset by lack of management on the part of the individual making the contract.
Referring to Clause 9 again, the only person who could not come under this Bill would be the self-employed man. If such people do not make the necessary payments, they have to go to prison after a certain period, and in 1955 between 3,000 and 4,000 persons did so. I would point out to the House, however, that a self-employed man who goes to prison is likely to lose his business or profession, so the danger of such a man not keeping up maintenance payments is less than in the case of somebody who has an employer.
I realise that many people consider that a man's earnings are entirely his own property and that it would be a retrograde step if the employer were allowed to make deductions in this way. I realise that their thoughts probably go back to the time when, for instance, in the mining areas the bad employers did not pay the miners for weeks on end. Instead, they gave them tokens on a "tommy" shop, and so the men were forced to buy at shops which often charged an extra large percentage. This practice was greatly deplored, but I suggest that at present a wife is put in the 1542 same position as that type of action put the husband in the past, because if the maintenance payments are irregular the wife is forced to get goods "on tick" from the shops or even to borrow from her neighbours.
I will quote from one letter sent to me by an almoner which expresses exactly what I mean:I personally know of several cases where great hardship is experienced by wives in this predicament.That is the predicament of not receiving weekly payments—In two cases that I have recently been dealing with, the husbands had deliberately let the arrears run on until the wife was forced to take out a summons, but before the matter could be heard in court, they settled the debt. This had occurred on many previous occasions and had prevented the wives from being able to budget their income. They never knew from one week to the next how much money they could bank on having. I think the greatest hardship is suffered where there are small children and the mother cannot go out to work and there is no possibility of a regular income for years. The bills mount up and the rent gets into arrears, however sympathetically the Assistance Board deals with the cases.That is a strong argument for taking more action than is possible at present.
There are now 70,000 women on National Assistance. They are forced to give full details of their affairs when they go before the officers of the Board and, being already harassed, I consider that this imposes extra strain.
There are also many contradictions as regards employment. On this point I would like to quote from the letter of a solicitor:This case concerns a dockyard employee, and we have the extraordinary position that although the wife of a naval rating can recover, through the Admiralty, maintenance for herself and children from her huband by way of stoppage of pay, yet she cannot if her husband is a civilian employed by the Admiralty.So often where two persons are working side by side on a ship—a naval rating in harbour and a civilian dockyard worker—the civilian is able to keep all his money to himself, if he wishes, whereas the naval rating is forced to help keep his wife. I suggest that both should be put in the same position.
From the very many letters that I have received, there seem to be great differences between the types of person left in trouble. There is the woman with as 1543 many as ten children whose husband has left her. There is the woman whose husband as left her even before their child is born. There are women whose husbands are in very good positions, perhaps being mining engineers or in a bank. There are women who write pathetic letters saying, for instance, "My husband lived with me for 27 years and then left me because of my bad health."
The Bill would allow women who have had illegitimate children to obtain their maintenance in the same way. It would also allow local authorities who had the care of children to obtain money from the parent responsible for paying.
When a man goes to prison rather than pay maintenance—I have said that each year there are between 3,000 and 4,000 such men in England and Wales—the cost is about £300 a year, and, owing to the uncertainty of home life, the children often have to be put in the care of local authorities, and that may cost between £8 and £13 a week for one child. In 1955 the ratepayers had to find £7¾ million, through the National Assistance Board, in respect of 70,000 deserted wives and children.
I am not suggesting that all this money would be saved if the Bill became an Act, but there might be a beneficial effect such as there appears to be in Scotland. In Scotland, where there is the opportunity to arrest wages for one week, it appears that men are far more likely to pay when they have such a threat hanging over their heads. In fact, during the period when 3,000 to 4,000 men went to prison in this country, only 29 men in Scotland went to prison, and I understand that over a period of years the number going to prison in Scotland has varied between 10 and 34.
At present it is possible to "garnishee" a man's income and secure a deduction from it if it is not in the form of earnings or pension. I do not think that has proved very satisfactory, but at all events we have the basis under our present law of the possibility of getting at a man's money by some means in order to help support his family.
It is understandable that a man may not want his employer to know his personal affairs. On the other hand, the employer already knows that the man has some difficulties when he first goes 1544 to court, because if there is any chance of his being asked to pay the original maintenance order, his employer is asked to let the court know the man's earnings.
In regard to the relationship between employer and employee, the procedure does not appear to have been the cause of any industrial unrest in Scotland and in other countries where a similar method is used. I realise that we have no such procedure in this country, but other countries have it, and it is interesting to consider the types of country concerned. Some countries go even further and deduct from a man's earnings if he does not pay his Income Tax or fines. In the Netherlands, a wife, even when living together with her husband, can go to court if she thinks he is not supporting her adequately.
Deductions are made for various forms of debts and maintenance in Germany, Belgium and Jordan. Deductions are made in respect of maintenance, debts, taxes and fines in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and in New South Wales and Victoria in Australia. Maintenance is also deducted in certain States in the U.S.A. and in Ontario in Canada, and in Switzerland and France. In some of these countries maintenance can be deducted in respect of relations other than wives.
There may be points in the Bill which do not commend themselves to all hon. Members. However, I hope hon. Members will consider the Bill, as drawn, as a fair and just one to which they can give their support. If it is given a Second Reading, there will be an opportunity to consider any points of criticism in Committee.
I have received a large number of letters from all kinds of organisations, from magistrates and from hundreds of women, hoping that the Bill will receive a Second Reading. I have received letters from only five men protesting against it. Two of the objectors appear to feel that they were "caught up," as they say, in the first place, and they feel very hard done by at having to make any form of payment now that they have got rid of their wives.
Others seem to fear that the Bill will interfere in their private affairs. They fear that, having left one wife, having continued to pay the maintenance, and 1545 having settled down to a happy second marriage and having got children, their personal affairs may be inquired into and they may also have to pay the maintenance in respect of their first wife through their employer. I want to make it clear that that is not the intention in the Bill. The intention is to take action only if the man does not comply with the original maintenance order.
I have very carefully read the views of the Royal Commission for and against the suggestion that there should be attachment from income—the views appear on pages 283 and 284 of the Report—and I regret that the Royal Commission finally decided against the proposal. However, I feel that what I have said today may mitigate some of the objections of the Royal Commission. If one examines the reasons given by the Royal Commission for and against the proposal, one realises that there is very little dissimilarity between the two. The whole thing seems to rest upon the privacy and liberty of the individual and whether it will make any difference between employer and employee. There is also the question whether the Measure will make a large enough change in the situation to justify itself. I suggest that if it catches up on even a very small percentage of the people concerned it will make life better for both defendants and applicants.
I hope that in considering the Bill hon. Members will think of the needs of the thousands of children who, through no fault of their own, are having a handicap placed upon them early in life. They begin with a divided family and then they have the uncertainty of an unknown income by means of which the remainder of the family can be kept together.
I hope that hon. Members will today agree to send a message, by accepting the Bill, that will mean greater security and less poverty in the homes of thousands of people, and that, as in Scotland, the Bill may prove to be a beneficial, steadying factor in the relationships between the individuals concerned because it appears that they take longer to consider their differences when this deterrent action can be taken by a wife against her husband. I hope I shall be able to answer my many letters in such a manner that I may bring some hope to the writers.
§ 11.29 a.m.
§ Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)
I beg to second the Motion.
I congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) upon the admirable way in which she has moved the Second Reading of the Bill. I have had a great deal of interest in this subject for a number of years. My interest was aroused when in the period following the war I had to deal with a number of difficult cases concerning Canadian and American service men against whom it was difficult to enforce maintenance orders.
At that time, of course, the American and Canadian forces behaved very well in deducting payments from the men's pay and seeing that those payments were handed to the courts in this country. They did so whether the service men concerned were in this country or in America or Canada. Then the men were discharged from the forces and it became quite impossible to get, payments under these orders handed over.
The American forces pointed out that in their country when a man had been discharged from the forces it was impossible to follow him up unless the woman was on the spot and it was possible to get in touch with the man at regular intervals. If that was the case in those two countries it was obviously quite impossible for British women to enforce such orders against Canadian and American service men once they had been discharged and had gone home. I do not want to go further into that question as it is for the American and Canadian authorities to make laws to deal with their internal arrangements.
A further reason why I became interested in this subject was the large number of cases which came to my notice in my "surgeries." In the east of London and adjacent parts of Essex this is a vexed problem. There are many cases of women in varying circumstances who find that the man concerned has "run out on them," has not paid up and has disappeared to another part of the country. That puts the woman in the position of trying to find him and take him to court, with very little assistance from the police. In the end she has to go to the National Assistance Board to get what is necessary to maintain herself and her family.
1547 The number of this type of case is much larger than many people suppose. The hon. Lady mentioned that 70,000 such cases had been given help by the National Assistance Board. I should have thought the total number was probably larger. The amount of money concerned is very considerable. It has been paid out of National Assistance but ought to be paid by the men concerned.
I wish to emphasise the point made by the hon. Lady about the 3,000 or 4,000 people in prison for not having paid up under maintenance orders. They cost the country more than £1 million to keep them in prison and they add enormously to the social problems of prison life. Having 3,000 or 4,000 more people in prison who need not be there adds to overcrowding of the prisons, and at present there are many instances of three or four men in one cell. That adds to the amount of work put on to the prison staff, which already is short of numbers. If these people were not in prison but met their obligations an important contribution would be made towards dealing with present prison problems. That is not a consideration to be put on one side and forgotten.
The suggestions made by the hon. Lady are quite workable. Not only do they work in foreign countries, but in two important instances they work in this country. It has been a common practice for a long time for deductions of this kind to be made from the pay of men in the Forces. The hon. Lady referred to a case in which a man in the Forces and a civilian were working side by side in a dockyard. The man in the Forces would have the deductions made from his pay but the civilian would not. If the arrangement works in the Forces, why should it not work in other forms of employment?
For a long time we have had a good tradition in regard to merchant seamen. It was worked out between the National Union of Seamen and unions representing the officers and the shipping companies. By that arrangement, when a man goes to sea regular deductions are made from this wages and paid to his wife. If the man desires it, those deductions can be increased. He can also arrange for maintenance orders to be met out of his pay. That whole machinery has been 1548 built up over the years and worked even in the years of depression from 1929 to 1932. Given good will on both sides, it has been found to work satisfactorily. I suggest that these two examples in our practice show that such a system could be worked on a wider scale.
The most important argument advanced against any such arrangement is that it would be an interference with the privacy of the individual. That is a very important point to consider, but I do not think that in the modern world we can ever have absolute privacy. There is far too much interference with our privacy, for instance, by newspapers, etc. In this matter I think there is an adequate safeguard for the man. As has been pointed out, it would be only when four payments due under a maintenance order had not been paid that this Measure would operate and deductions would be made from his wages at source.
One has to set against the privacy of the man the position and privacy of the woman. If the woman does not receive payments under the order, she has to go to the National Assistance Board and give all the facts about her private life, about her children, etc., to get assistance. In such cases there is far greater interference with the privacy of the woman and her family than there would be with the privacy of the man under the suggestion contained in the Bill. The man need not have any interference with his privacy if he plays the game and pays up. If there is interference with his privacy he brings it on himself, whereas the woman has that interference forced upon her by the action of the man in not doing what is right. We cannot be absolute on this issue, but in my view there is far greater interference with the privacy of the woman under present arrangements than there would be with the privacy of the man if changes of the kind suggested were made.
The group of people which the Bill seeks to help constitutes one of the most hard-done-by groups in the community. Their position is the principal blemish on the whole arrangements of the Welfare State as it exists. It forms a gap in the whole arrangements, and that gap needs to be filled. I do not think that this Bill will entirely fill that gap, but it will make an important contribution. I hope that today we shall put this matter right.
1549 The hon. Lady is on one side of the House and I am on the other. This proposal which we are considering is not in any sense a matter of party politics, but is one to which the House as a whole should give support. The hon. Lady described herself as a spinster. I am a happily married man. The matter which we are discussing is something which all those who have not suffered from it ought to take the initiative in putting right.
§ 11.38 a.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
This is the third time in different Sessions of Parliament that I have addressed the House on this proposal. On the two previous occasions it was embodied in a Bill moved by the right hon. Lady the Member for Fulham, East—
§ Mr. Bell
The right hon. Lady's geographical position moves, but her attitude to this proposal probably remains unchanged, and I am afraid that mine does also. On the two previous occasions I opposed the Bill primarily because it included two other different provisions, which were very much more objectionable than this one. I remember saying on the first occasion that I would not have objected to allowing the Bill to go forward to Committee if it concerned only this proposal. To some extent I still hold that view, but what I said then and say now—I think it ought to be said—is that this is a rather important proposal and one we should think about carefully.
Whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) and the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) have said, it is an innovation to introduce the attachment of wages for debt in England. I say it is an innovation in modern times because we should remember that this is not some old rule coming to us from the past and imposing perhaps some disability upon women as a sex. It is nothing of that kind at all. The immunity of wages from attachment 1550 dates from 1870 and is due to an Act passed through the House in the time of some people now living. It was passed, I presume, by the generation before us as a deliberate act of modern policy. It was the culmination of a movement to protect the wages of the working man and it was passed through both Houses of Parliament in 1870 without a dissentient voice and without a Division. It was part of a movement in which we are still living, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to protect the position of the wage earner.
Secondly, we must bear in mind that proposals to breach the rule in this way have been made on a number of occasions and have not commanded the support of the most influential bodies representing those affected. This matter was before the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, which reported in January, 1956, and the Royal Commission reported against this proposal. It is a proposal which is opposed by the Trades Union Congress on behalf of the workers of the country, and it is opposed by the British Employers' Confederation on behalf of the employers of this country. I must therefore ask the House to bear in mind that this is no simple, non-controversial matter, but a matter which is opposed by the organisations of the workers and the employers of this country as being wrong and unjust. It is also a proposal which has recently been rejected by a Royal Commission and it is a breach of an important principle laid down by Parliament in modern times. That should condition our approach to the proposal.
The provisions contained in the Bill are in slightly more moderate terms than those in the right hon. Lady's Bill. I will certainly not deny that there is a grievance to be remedied. There are women without effective redress against their husbands, against whom they have maintenance orders, and who are reduced to National Assistance; nor is the number of these women small. If this grievance did not exist the Bill would not be before us. But this is no mere debate. It is a legislative proposal, and a very important legislative proposal. We have therefore to balance the advantages against the disadvantages. There is, first, the argument about the thin end of the wedge. I always hesitate to use it because 1551 it is an argument which can be greatly abused.
My hon. Friend referred to the position in Scotland. That is very instructive, because in Scotland wages can be attached for any purpose and for any debt. It may well be that a country has to choose between those two positions. I recognise that the claim of a wife and children for support is rather different from the claim of a tradesman to have his bill paid, but I am not sure that there is a clear gulf between them along which we can lay a line and hold it. The case of the wife and children must be extended to that of the man with an illegitimate child, and I can think of other social applications. Indeed, my hon. Friend pointed to them. Some Scandinavian countries apply this principle to other relatives, and I am not sure that we have not to choose between the present English position and the present Scottish position, bearing in mind that in Scotland wages can be attached for the instalments on television sets or anything else. The bar in the Wages Attachment Abolition Act, 1870, does not operate in Scotland, and wages there lie fully open to any tradesman who cares to attach them, if the court will make an order.
That is the kind of thing which our predecessors in this House a generation ago had in mind, the kind of thing which the Royal Commission had in mind and the kind of thing which the Trades Union Congress and the British Employers' Confederation also had in mind. Are we to attach the wages of a workman for all those purposes? Secondly, are we to turn employers in this country, some of them great companies, but others small businesses and shops, into general debt collectors? These are weighty considerations to which the House must give thought.
That is the first objection which we must have in mind. The second is one which is inherent in the nature of the proposed remedy. How valuable is that remedy? The men who go to prison for this offence at the moment may include some who are merely negligent and remiss in the management of their affairs, but they also include a very high proportion of men who have a grievance. Sometimes they do not intend to pay. I will say a 1552 word about them later, but at the moment I will merely refer to the existence of that category.
The Bill, like both its predecessors, has one inherent difficulty to face: it can attach only the man who is in good regular employment. The right hon. Lady's Bill expressly said so and I referred to it at the time. This Bill has been drafted so as not to refer to that fact, but it remains true; because one cannot have an order of the court made like a negotiable instrument to be handed around. It must be obeyed, and any employer who disobeys it must be punished. Provision is made for that in the Bill. It must therefore be addressed by the court to the employer, and the moment he ceases to be the employer the order lapses and becomes null and void. The wife must then start again, return to the court and get an order made out by name to the new employer. Any man can always defeat this procedure by changing his job, and obviously he will not have to change it very often to wear out the procedure.
The Bill is useless in the kind of case where some remedy is most needed and it takes effect only in precisely that kind of case where the husband is usually a good payer. We have to bear in mind that there are two sides in all this matter. I do not speak without experience in these cases, for in the years after the war I took part in more of them than I care to remember. I took part in hundreds; I nearly always appeared for the wife and the husband was usually not represented. I am bound to say to the House that this experience left a profound impression on me that justice is not done to husbands in the magistrates' courts of this country in respect of matrimonial cases. That is a general statement which is obviously not applicable to many courts and many cases, but by and large I think it is a fair comment that the husband has a pretty rough deal in these applications for maintenance orders. He is always the defendant—he has to be—and there is generally the feeling, "Somebody must pay and it must be you".
§ Mr. Bell
A maintenance order should be made under the law only if the husband has committed an offence under the Summary Jurisdiction Act, and if he has not committed an offence an order 1553 ought not to be made. In this age of independence a wife is not entitled to say, "I have had enough of you. I am going and my maintenance will be so much, please". She is not entitled simply to say that and then to go round to the court to get an order. That is not the law of this country nor should we ever make it the law; there has to be some misconduct on the husband's part before a maintenance order is made.
§ Dr. Summerskill
How can the hon. Gentleman justify transferring the husband's liability to the community, which now has to pay through the National Assistance Board?
§ Mr. Bell
The husband is liable to keep the wife while she lives with him or if she leaves him having good cause to do so. I have probably left a gap legally in that definition, but in round terms I think I have correctly stated the position. A wife cannot simply "up anchor and off" without any just cause. She cannot say "You are responsible, you are my husband, you are supposed to keep me and you must do it." I am suggesting that the right hon. Lady is not alone in the view which she holds. I am sorry to say that it is rather general.
§ Dr. Summerskill
Will the hon. Gentleman answer my question? He is a lawyer, and I am asking him a question. How can he justify transferring the legal liability of the husband to the community, which now has to pay for this woman through the National Assistance Board?
§ Mr. Bell
My answer is that the legal liability exists only in some circumstances. There is no legal liability if she wrongly deserts him or if she goes to the court without having a case for an order. I do not want to overstate my case on this issue. What I am concerned about is that the House should see the other side of the picture and should realise that there 1554 are two sides to it. If this were not so, there would not be all these important and influential bodies taking the view which they take at present.
What the right hon. Lady said greatly reinforces my argument. There are many husbands with a real sense of grievance, and a sense of grievance which may be justified because they feel, and I think sometimes rightly, that they have not had justice dispensed to them. It is much too summary to start with. Many of these matrimonial cases are very difficult, and I do not know how we can discover in one-and-half-hours or two hours before the bench who is responsible for the break up of a marriage. I should like to see some reform of the matrimonial jurisdiction of our lower courts, because I am very unhappy to think of the number of people who go to prison, the number of wives who are on National Assistance and the amount of justifiable sense of grievance which exists in the community as a result of the present system of matrimonial jurisdiction.
Starting from that, I say to my hon. Friend that this problem is more two-sided than she recognises. I am sure that she has been thoughtful about her case, but she should recognise that there are two sides to it. We have the husband with a maintenance order made against him. Let us remember that it may be only an order for the children. The wife may be to blame for the break-up of the marriage and may have been left out of the order, which may concern only the children. However badly the wife has behaved, he remains liable for the children, and an order may be made in respect of the children only. The wife may be given the custody of them because they are very young. That often happens. Thus, a wife who is wholly to blame for the break-up of the marriage may have an order made in her favour against the husband in respect of the children. The House must remember that.
We must now consider how these matters prejudice his relations with the employer. It is all very well for my hon. Friend to say that all the husband need do is to obey the order. I ask hon. Members to look at the Bill. The man needs only to be four weeks in arrear with his weekly payments before the order is made, and these arrears may not be 1555 due to malevolence or wickedness but simply to illness. That is often the case. There are many men who are fond of their children, who have an order made against them in respect of their children and who are regular payers; but if they are unlucky and have four weeks' illness a wife who is ill-disposed to her husband can go straight to the court and ask for one of these attachments.
The court may well say, "We will not give an order in a case like this," but by that time the employer has been asked to furnish particulars under one of the Clauses of the Bill. All the damage to the employer-employee relationship has been done. A wife who is actuated by malice towards her husband is thus capable of doing great harm under the Bill, even though he is a man who has not misconducted himself during the marriage or in respect of the order in any moral sense. These are important considerations.
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
Surely, when the order is made in the first instance the employer has to supply information about the husband's earnings.
§ Mr. Bell
I can only say that it has never happened in my experience. As far as I know, there is nothing to prevent a wife from calling her husband's employer as witness to give evidence about his earnings, but I can only say it has never happened in my experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Body), who also has an extensive practice in that kind of work, confirms what I say. It has never happened in his experience either. While I think it is right to say that a wife could subpoena the husband's employer to give evidence, in a very wide experience of the courts I have never found it to happen.
§ Mr. Richard Body (Billericay)
The court can get a probation officer's report on a husband's earnings under the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952.
§ Mrs. Jeger
Can we be clear upon this question? The court has the right to collect this information from the employer if it has any reason to doubt a man's statement about his own earnings.
§ Mrs. Jeger
Surely in assessing the amount which the man should pay under the order the court has to take cognisance of his earnings.
§ Mr. Bell
If the hon. Lady considers this she will realise that that is a very different proposal. The fixing of the order is always based on the husband's earnings and the wife's earnings, if any, but almost invariably the husband's evidence on that, after cross-examination, is accepted. In this case, however, the order would be made directly to the employer, which is quite a different matter. If the hon. Lady will look at the Bill she will see that it is not just a case of what the husband's earnings are when fixing the amount of the order. Not all kinds of payment are treated under the Bill as attachable under it.
Under Clause 5 (3) there is provision for the employer to bring before the court, I suppose by appeal or application, the question of whether certain payments fall under the provisions of this Bill or not. It is a very difficult kind of business. I should have thought that in almost every case where a court was thinking of making an attachment order under this Measure, the employer would be asked for either a written statement of earnings or to give evidence on that matter. But at the moment this is highly unusual, and my point about the intrusion upon the employer-employee relationship is still valid and stands.
The Royal Commission gave a good deal of attention to this point. Although it would not be right for me to read lengthy extracts from the Report. I would mention that in paragraphs 1095 to 1107 they consider the arguments for and against very carefully indeed. They refer to the risk, which I believe is a real risk, that a man against whom such an order was made would be more likely to be dismissed by his employer because of the trouble that he caused, and I am told, although I have had no opportunity of checking this, that this is an inconvenience which is experienced in Scotland.
A man with orders against him is a nuisance to his employer. The employer comes under some stringent duties and liabilities in the Bill. Clause 2 (4) says:It shall be the duty of an employer who makes deductions in pursuance of this Act to give to the defendant, on each occasion on which the deductions are made, a statement in 1557 writing specifying the amount of the deductions made on that occasion and the period in respect of which the deductions are made.This will obviously mean an extra column in the accounts. Employers are already acting as Income Tax deducters under Pay-as-you-Earn. They are already deducting the employees' share of National Insurance. Those matters are responsible for extra columns in the accounts, and this proposal in the Bill would involve another one.
Each week the employer would be responsible for producing a written statement of the amounts deducted and the period covered. The employer would then have to make the payment himself—although, of course, he might get his staff to do it—to the court. He might have to apply to the court for a ruling under Clause 5 as to whether or not certain payments which he owed to his employee came under the Bill, and he would be under the duty of serving an immediate notice on the court if the man ceased to be in his employment. If he failed in any of these duties he would be subject to the penalties laid down in the Bill.
This is a considerable burden to impose on employers. True, they are allowed to deduct 6d. each time that they make a subtraction from wages. But it is not right to regard all employers, as some people do, in the same way as they regard a large concern like I.C.I. In such a concern the whole matter is impersonal and highly systematised, and the addition of these duties to such a firm would not be a very serious matter. But to a single employer this may be not only a nuisance but a puzzlement. In addition, it would probably be highly embarrassing to the relationship between the employer and his servant.
§ Mr. Bell
The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has not yet given us the benefit of his views on this subject. Perhaps we shall later have an opportunity 1558 of judging the respective fortunes of those who were present and absent.
I would ask the House to give this matter very careful thought.
§ Mr. Percy Daines (East Ham, North)
Would the hon. Gentleman say that it would be convenient to employers to have a man in and out of prison for failing to make his payments?
§ Mr. Bell
I hope hon. Members will not be tempted to make easy points on this very important constitutional proposal. A man who is constantly in and out of prison is not the sort of man who is in regular employment. He is in casual employment or in no employment at all. This Bill can only touch the man who is in regular employment. One should remember that when one is weighing up the advantage and the disadvantage to the community as a whole resulting from the damage to various principles which this Bill does.
Let us remember that the main category of offending husbands is not touched by the Bill. A man only has to change his job, which is very easy in these days of full employment, and he can snap his fingers at the order. A man who is determined not to pay his wife will not be worried by this Bill. The man in regular employment, who is perhaps not to blame at all and who has a vindictive wife, may very well have great harm done to his life. We must weigh these matters one against the other.
While I would not pretend that I am emphatic on one side or the other, I am bound to say that, on balancing the considerations which the Royal Commission set forth in its Report and which are based on the two submissions from the T.U.C. and the employers, I have retained the conclusion which I reached before, that this is a Bill which we should not pass.
The Royal Commission says:The arguments set out in paragraphs 1100 and 1102, taken together with the considerations to which we have referred"—1559 in other paragraphs setting out the point of view of the employers and of the T.U.C.—have persuaded us that it would be inadvisable to introduce any system of attachment of wages in England and Wales. Not all the objections to the introduction of attachment of wages are of equal weight but their cumulative force is impressive. Moreover, given the objections which have been raised, in our opinion a power to attach wages would not in practice deal effectively with the man who deliberately evades his obligations to his wife and family, the man who will go to prison rather than pay the maintenance ordered by the court. It is this man who constitutes the real problem; the existing law is usually able to deal with the other types of defaulter, such as the man who is merely careless or improvident. But the man who at present will go to prison rather than pay is just the man who would be likely simply to give up his job if his wages were attached.It would be nice if we could devise a way of catching the bad man and making him pay, but all these Measures—this is the third of them—catch the good man who is inadvertently or momentarily improvident. He is the man who would suffer all these disadvantages. He may not be to blame in the marriage but he is caught by the Bill. The others who have given rise to the sad cases to which my hon. Friend the Member for Devon-port and the hon. Member for Dagenham referred would not be affected, as the Royal Commission says.
Weighing the matter in that way, as those responsible bodies to which I have referred have done, I suggest that on balance the case for this Bill does not discharge the burden of proof sufficiently to persuade us to upset the decision of Parliament in 1870 that it is wiser and safer not to embark on this course of attaching wages for debt. I hope, therefore, that the House will not give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)
I know that I shall be speaking for almost every hon. Member in the House when I say that we are very grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) for introducing this matter by way of a Private Member's Bill. I do not give the Bill completely unqualified support, but I think that the matter is a matter which is arousing great interest in the country and that it is right and proper that the House of Commons should discuss it. I hope that we shall 1560 be able to discuss it even to a greater extent in Standing Committee.
I am quite sure that the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) was also very grateful to the hon. Lady because this Bill has at least given him an opportunity of an intellectual exercise which he might otherwise not have had this morning. I suggest too—and I say this in fairness to him—that he has made some good points. There are, however, doubts in people's minds about the advisability of the Bill, and I think that it is right and proper that the objections should be named in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has named them this morning. There are one or two points that he made which, before I come to my own argument, I should like to take up.
Early in his speech the hon. Gentleman said that the proposal contained in the Bill was opposed by the Trades Union Congress. I know that in the past the Trades Union Congress has expressed itself to some degree in opposition to this suggestion, but I am sure that every hon. Member in the House must take note that since we first knew about the Bill we have had no communication from the T.U.C. about it. I feel that if it were the view of the T.U.C. at the present time, and if it really saw danger in it, the T.U.C. would be approaching Members of Parliament, especially those on this side of the House, suggesting that they should oppose the Bill.
As a magistrate I am naturally concerned about the sweeping statement made by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South on what happens in domestic courts. In the light of my own experience, I know that we spend more time on these cases than on almost any others, and to suggest that the justices come down on the side of the wife automatically—
§ Mr. Bell
The hon. Gentleman must allow me to intervene because I certainly did not say that they automatically came down on the side of the wife, nor did I make sweeping allegations. I said very carefully that I was making a general statement which would not apply in many 1561 ways to many people. I did not say "automatically". I said that there was a tendency, which I maintain there is, to find against the husband.
§ Mr. Royle
I accept the hon. Member's correction, and that he used the word "tendency" and not "automatically". There was, however, a suggestion, or innuendo, that in the light of his experience as a barrister appearing before domestic courts, he had found a tendency on the part of the magistrates to come down on the side of the woman every time. I suggest that that is not a fair assumption. Much time is given to these matters and great care is taken to come to the right conclusions. Many of these cases, as he knows, occupy hours and hours in domestic courts.
§ Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)
Would my hon. Friend not agree that the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) has been very unfortunate in the magistrates' courts in which he has appeared?
§ Mr. Royle
I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for that interruption. I do not want to be unfair. It would appear that some of the cases in which the hon. Member has appeared professionally have been very unfortunate ones. He mentioned cases in which an order was not made for the maintenance of the wife but purely and simply for the maintenance of the children. That is a very important matter, and I think that there is some substance in the doubts which he expressed.
I would suggest, with respect to the hon. Member, that experience shows that when an order is made only in respect of the children, the man invariably regards himself in the light of the father rather than the husband. In my experience, and, I think, that of most of us, the man pays out under an order of that kind, and the problem is not the same as in the case of a maintenance order with regard to the wife. I would suggest that when it is the father rather than the husband who has failed, attachment is just as applicable as it is in the case of the maintenance of the wife.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) challenged the hon. Member for 1562 Buckinghamshire, South on the point about the work caused to employers. The courts have the right to, and often do, approach employers to find out the truth with regard to earnings. There is no doubt about it that there are occasions when we doubt a man's own statement. The court has then the power, which is often exercised, to get the truth about the man's income.
I almost shed tears of blood when I think about the extra columns which the employers will have to fill up. I thought that that was a rather frivolous objection to the Bill. The most important objection of those which the hon. Member enumerated is the one which he quoted from the Royal Commission's Report, in which it is suggested that there are many men who will leave their jobs rather than be made subject to attachment. I think that there he has a very strong case indeed. The House should take notice of it and weigh whether that is a sufficient reason in itself for not putting the Bill on the Statute Book.
I said that I supported the Bill with some qualifications. I have named one or two of them already and I come down on the side of giving the Bill a Second Reading. I do so because of my knowledge of the tremendous trouble which cases of arrears cause in the country when men fail to make payments due to their wives by order of the court. The time of justices is taken up in listening to these cases of arrears. The work of a petty sessional court is occupied in that way for many hours, and there grows an impatience, let is be said, in the minds of magistrates when they are constantly listening at almost every sitting of a court to cases of arrears.
There is another important matter, about which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department knows full well. It is a matter that we have to take into serious consideration when discussing a Bill of this kind. The prisons of this country are overcrowded. There are hundreds of instances at this moment of three prisoners occupying one cell. Successive Home Secretaries have suggested to magistrates that they must do all in their power to avoid sending men to jail for short sentences because of the overcrowding. While we are waiting for more prisons to be built and for 1563 penal reform, with all its ramifications, we have to consider that matter in discussing this Bill. If there is anything we can do to alleviate the overcrowding in our prisons today, then it is our responsibility to do it.
I am quite sure that, since the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, came into operation, much has been saved in this respect, and perhaps the necessity for attachment has been reduced by reason of the fact that magistrates are using their power now to commit to prison and suspend the order for imprisonment whilst payment is being made. I regard that as very valuable, and I am quite sure that there are many men who will not go to prison as a result; the prison sentence is hanging over their heads, and so long as it is they will continue to pay I am perfectly certain that in many instances imprisonment is thereby avoided.
I wonder Whether the Bill before the House this morning is perhaps to some extent using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It occurs to me that this problem could possibly be approached in another way. One of the snags which I am always conscious of is that if a man goes to prison now he wipes out his arrears. That is a very great difficulty, and the very type of man to whom the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South particularly referred will go to gaol knowing full well that doing so takes away the responsibility for the arrears which then exist.
I am wondering whether legislation providing that imprisonment shall not wipe out arrears might help. I know the charge would have to be different; it would be a charge of contempt of court and would not, in the main, have anything to do with maintenance. But it seems to me that such a change might well help the situation if this Bill fails to reach the Statute Book. By charging a man with contempt of court and providing that his arrears still remain due when he comes out of gaol, we might indeed save many people from going to gaol.
We have heard this morning from the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport and from the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South about the system in Scotland. One tries very hard to understand 1564 the Scottish system. They call it arrestment in Scotland, not attachment, and there are some differences in the actual application of the system. For example, sheriffs' officers are the only ones who can collect from the employer. It seems that another difference is that the order for arrestment is attached for to the order for maintenance at the time when the maintenance order is made.
I have made inquiries from friends associated with these matters in Scotland, and the questions which I have put are these: What objections have been raised? What has been the result of this system over so many years in Scotland? The invariable reply which I receive from friends who know about these matters in Scotland shows that there is no objection at all, whether it be from employers or employees, trade unions or anyone else. The system works admirably, and certainly, as the hon. Lady has pointed out in the figures which she gave to the House, there is no comparison at all in the amount of imprisonment for this cause in Scotland as compared with England.
There is only one other matter about which I feel troubled. We are dealing with the employed. Why are we leaving out the employer? We find that there are self-employed people who are backsliders in matters of this kind, but in no way does this Bill, in any part of its provisions, catch up with the self-employed man who fails to pay.
§ Mr. R. Bell
I shall no doubt be corrected if I am wrong, but I think that the reason is this. The Wages Attachment Abolition Act, 1870, applies only to the wages of a servant or clerk, and therefore this disability does not exist in those cases.
§ Mr. Royle
I am much obliged. That certainly is an important point. But it does not alter the principle which I have mentioned, that we are catching up with one section but not with the other. I wonder what the attitude of Mr. Moyes, the Accountant of the House, will be, and whether he will have any objections when Members of Parliament have to go on his list and appear in his columns in respect of this matter? I hope that he will not have any trouble about it.
I do not want to occupy the time of the House any longer, except to say this. 1565 I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South is winding up on behalf of the promoters of the Bill, and in a whispered conversation she confessed to me that she does not know the answer to this question which I want to put. I should like the hon. and learned Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary to deal with it when he speaks. I am a little concerned about Clause 4 (1, a). I went to the Library this morning and I tried to find the Debtors Act, 1869. I am at a loss even to find it. I should like the hon. and learned Gentleman, when he speaks, to be kind enough to tell me whether I am justified in having very grave suspicions with regard to that paragraph. Does it mean wireless sets, television sets and hire-purchase agreements? Is that what "debts" means under the terms of that Act? If that is so, I am very worried indeed. I want this to be purely a measure dealing with maintenance and maintenance only.
In conclusion, I will refer once again to the objections. The main objections are those mentioned by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South, relating to the liberty of the individual, the right to privacy of the individual; that it will be a real worry, perhaps, that the employer of a man will know his domestic circumstances; further, not only that his employer will know them, but that the wages clerk, who may not be very discreet, will know, and may say something to some other employee, so that before very long it is known throughout the works that a man is having domestic difficulties of this kind, not only with regard to maintenance orders and his wife but perhaps with regard to affiliation orders, which may be even more troublesome. Those are the objections.
I would anticipate those objections by replying to them myself. If it is undesirable that a man should have that kind of publicity, how much more undesirable is the publicity for the poor wife or for the girl who has an illegitimate child. That is how I answer that, the principal objection even to myself. The wife or the girl in the case is faced with a great deal of limelight and publicity in any circumstances. Therefore, why should the man, if he is to blame, escape publicity? I regard the risk taken in the proposals of the hon. Lady's Bill as being only a slight 1566 risk in comparison with the other things which now happen. Therefore, in spite of certain reservations, I feel that the House would do well to give the Bill a Second Reading. Let us have a good look at it in Committee, and let us see whether we can make it into an even better Bill.
§ 12.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Body (Billericay)
I offer my support to this Bill. Perhaps I have more day-to-day experience of this problem than any other hon. Member, though not practical experience, being a bachelor—[Laughter]—there is no bastardy order against me yet—but as chairman of an organisation which, among other things, during the course of each year assists hundreds of wives who are faced with problems which could be alleviated if this Bill were enacted.
Before I say something on the points made by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle), I should like to endorse the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) when he said that many magistrates' courts have a tendency to come down on the side of the wife. A wife can only get a maintenance order in a magistrates' court if the husband has committed a matrimonial offence. Very often the offence alleged is one of desertion, which in law is a complicated matter and involves going into many different facts and hearing a great deal of evidence.
Often, when the magistrates are in doubt, they come down on the side of the complainant rather than on the side of the defendant; on the side of the wife rather than that of the husband. They take the view, which one has heard from them, that someone has to support the wife, who perhaps has children. Perhaps it was her fault that the husband left the matrimonial home, perhaps she left the matrimonial home of her own accord, or perhaps she wanted a separation. None the less, if the magistrates are in doubt, they tend to come down on the side of the wife. I have known that to happen on countless occasions. I have appeared for wives in many cases of desertion and it is easy to win. In fact, one can hardly lose if one appears on behalf of a wife and alleges desertion.
§ Dr. Summerskill
The hon. Member is a bachelor and has shown great human feeling. May I ask him, from his experience as a lawyer and as a Member of Parliament, whether a wife, particularly a wife with children, lightly deserts a good husband?
§ Mr. Body
There have been occasions, and I have one in mind, where, as a result of pressure from in-laws, a wife has deserted a good husband. Either her in-laws or her parents have intervened and caused the marriage temporarily to break up. Very often, I regret to say, the trouble is caused by housing shortage. If the couple could have begun their married lives with a home of their own the problem might not have arisen. Subject to that kind of case, I would say that generally speaking a wife does not leave a good husband, although one does, of course, know of the Romeos at the other end of the town who entice wives away. There are many of them, but very often the magistrates' courts shut their eyes to the fact of their existence.
One of the reasons why I support the Bill—I regret to say this—is that so many of the colleagues of the hon. Member for Salford, West have what one can only describe as an almost unbelievably touching faith in the honesty of husbands when they appear before them to answer a summons for arrears.
§ Mr. Body
The hon. Member may shake his head, but let me quote another experience, and a very recent one. Only last night, two women came to see me, amongst many other people, and both of them had the problem of a maintenance order which had been made in their favour but on which arrears were owing to them. One was a constituent of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) and the other a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Lagden). One of the women came within the jurisdiction of the Stratford Magistrates' Court and the other under the Romford Magistrates' Court. The policy of those two courts appears to be quite different in the way that they deal with husbands.
One court has a touching faith in a husband when he answers an arrears summons. He may tell a pack of lies, but the court believes him and gives him 1568 a gentle little homily and says, "You really must make some effort. If within six months you do not make an effort, we may make a suspended committal order against you." The husband goes out and one hears titters of laughter from him outside the court. He goes away laughing at the court's leniency.
The other court which I have in mind is far firmer. Within a very short time—say, a month or two—it will not hesitate to make a suspended committal order and then one knows that the wife will have her arrears paid off. My conclusion was that one of those two wives who came to see me would be wasting her time if she pursued a summons for arrears, while the other wife would not be wasting her time.
§ Mr. Royle
Apparently I did not make myself clear. I cannot think that I was ever talking or arguing that way; I certainly never intended to create that impression in that House. I was dealing with an entirely different point. I said that magistrates had and exercised the power to get details from an employer.
§ Mr. Body
I am not complaining about the hon. Member. What I complain about is the lay members of the Magistrates' Association, of which, I believe, the hon. Member is Vice-Chairman. As a general rule, lay magistrates are far more lenient in this matter than the Metropolitan magistrates. In the County of London, magistrates are far firmer and will not hesitate to make a suspended committal order at a very early stage, thus ensuring that the wife need not go on to National Assistance and, in fact, has the order properly enforced.
The present position, as hon. Members must know, is that no summons for arrears is taken out unless some three weeks' payments are in arrear. Then, very often, the case is adjourned, sometimes two or three times, while inquiries are made. Sometimes the magistrates will make an order under Section 60 of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, requiring the probation officer to make a means inquiry. This involves the probation officer going to the employer and finding out the earnings of the man or, perhaps, making other inquiries from relations and friends, and so on.
If the wife is legally represented, her solicitor can also serve upon the husband 1569 a notice to produce a statement of his earnings, which can be equally effective, but if the probation officer does not make such a report and if the wife is not legally represented, the delay can be very considerable and can extend over months. I can think of several instances when a court has not made a suspended committal order, let alone a committal order itself, until the arrears have amounted to some £300 or £400, extending over a year or 18 months. In the meantime, the wretched wife is forced to seek and to live on National Assistance, something which, naturally, she may not want to do, and be an added burden on the taxpayer, through no fault of her own. The main reason, therefore, why I support the rill is my belief that it can make these maintenance orders more effective. It can make them more truly enforceable and at the same time relieve the taxpayer, through the National Assistance Board.
So far, no hon. Member has spoken of the two other types of order which are affected by the Bill: the affiliation order and the maintenance order from the High Court. The latter is most important. A few years ago, as my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary will perhaps agree, divorce tended to be restricted to those who could afford the fairly substantial fees. Today, with the assistance of legal aid, divorce comes within the possibility of almost any married woman. Every lawyer in the House will know that a large number of poor women, with no means whatever, would far sooner go straight to the divorce court and be freed from their husbands than seek a maintenance order in a magistrates court.
Such a maintenance order from the High Court is enforced not by the High Court itself, but by the county court. Every complaint that one can make about the delay of the magistrates' courts in enforcing their own maintenance orders is nothing to the appalling delays which sometimes occur in the county courts, when a registrar or judge of the county court who has to enforce the maintenance order of the High Court.
I can think of a number of cases of fairly poor women with no real means of their own who actually have had maintenance orders given in the High Court following their divorces which have to be enforced in the county court, and, unfortunately, the county courts are 1570 infinitely more dilatory than the magistrates' courts. In the first place, they take out a summons, which is not served by a policeman but by an officer of the county court, who is, one regrets to say, far more inefficient in the matter of serving summonses than a police officer would be. The summons generally costs £1 or sometimes more, which is an added expense to a wife who is destitute and living on National Assistance.
When the matter comes before the county court, after perhaps a month or two of further delay, the husband may not appear on the first occasion. If he does not, that summons has to be reissued, with further expense involved of another £1, and, finally, the husband may be brought to court, may be treated to a gentle homily by the county court judge, and, almost invariably, one can say no committal order or even a suspended committal order is made in the first instance. The wife must then come back again, perhaps several months later before she can obtain a committal order, which might mean there might be a delay, quite easily of twelve months, in which time she may not be receiving any money at all, except from the National Assistance Board.
It is particularly for that reason that I support the Bill, and I think it is important that this House should address itself to the fact that many more poorer people are obtaining divorces, and that, when they have obtained them, they have to have a maintenance order, and that the enforcement of such maintenance orders in the county courts is very unsatisfactory indeed.
§ 12.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
We are now in the usually fortunate position in this House when lawyers intervene; we have 'had one from each side, and legal opinion so far cancels itself out. We shall have to rely on the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office to act as umpire between them. I can only hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will come down on the side of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Body).
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Boyle), I think this is a Bill to which we should give a Second Reading but which will require 1571 careful examination in Committee upstairs with regard to some of its provisions. I regret that the hon. Member for Billericay took occasion in the course of his speech to name two benches whose proceedings he criticised.
§ Mr. Ede
It does not matter whether it is praise or blame. I always understood that one could criticise specific judges and other magistrates in the courts and their duties only by a specific Resolution of the House, and the hon. Gentleman not merely broke that rule but has now left us in doubt as to which of these benches—
§ Mr. Ede
It is all very well for my right hon. Friend to say "Do not be unkind," but it is a very important rule of this House that individual judges and magistrates, whether lay or stipendiary, shall not be brought into our debate and quoted in the way in which the hon. Gentleman did, except on a specific Resolution.
§ Mr. Speaker
That is perfectly right, and the right hon. Gentleman is quite correct. It was because when I was following the speech of the hon. Member for Billericay I could not pin the censure to any particular bench that I allowed him to proceed. If he had indeed criticised one bench rather than the other, or had indicated its identity with sufficient clarity to make a charge against the magistrates there, I should have stopped him.
§ Mr. Ede
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I do not want to protest against the way in which both the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) and the hon. Member for Billericay have made general charges against lay magistrates in this matter. In fact, the hon. Member for Billericay said that "so often" he had seen that in cases of doubt—he went on to say "on countless occasions," and he is a comparatively young man—that in cases of doubt the magistrates had found against the person who, for the purpose of this discussion, must be regarded as the person who should be given the benefit of the doubt. Although 1572 the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South was not quite as sweeping as that, he had apparently become so lost in his admiration of the great Gladstonian Government which was here in 1870 that his language was generally rather vague and woolly with regard to these charges.
I first became a magistrate in 1920, and, except for one short period and during the time when it was my duty to make recommendations with regard to the exercise of the Royal Prerogative, I have been a regular attender at my magistrates' court and at quarter sessions ever since. It is true I have never had the misfortune to have a case presented to me by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South, and I hope that any bench which does have him making an application for a wife in future will be particularly careful in view of what he has told us today about his way of getting wrong decisions from a bench.
I do not think that the strictures that have been made on the magistracy today by these two hon. Gentlemen are deserved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West said, these cases sometimes have seemed to be almost interminable when they are being heard in the first place. Then, when the case comes up again with regard to the arrears, the bench has to devote an amount of time to it which is out of all proportion to what is involved in the general run of cases that come in front of it. I have sometimes been in a minority on the bench in the decision which it has reached. I am bound to say that I have always found that the bench has given the utmost care to the very detailed particulars that are placed in front of it, and I regret that two hon. Gentlemen claiming to have had considerable experience of practising before these courts should have made the general charges which they have made today.
One of the difficulties that concerns the court in these cases in which arrears have accumulated is the fact that the only remedy which the court really has to ensure the enforcement of the order which it made originally is to send the man to prison, and then the whole of the arrears are wiped out. What is the consequence of dealing with this matter in this way? On occasion, the bench will reduce the amount of arrears it regards as outstanding, and will write off some 1573 quite substantial sum which it is really the duty of the man to pay.
While, quite frankly, I dislike this method of proceeding by attachment of wages, I know of no other way in which the order of the court can be made effective. It is on occasion pitiable if a man is before the court time after time because of his arrears. I am very glad that the Bill will deal with the man, a very objectionable type of man, to my mind, who tries to outwit the court by paying something short of the amount of the order which has been made.
There is, say, an order for 30s. a week. He pays 22s. 6d. this week. He will pay 17s. 6d. next week. Then having found a horse that is not too slow he may be in funds next week and may pay the exact amount of the order. So it goes on. As I understand this Bill, when the arrears so accumulated reach the total of four weeks' arrears the order for attachment of wages can be made. I should say that in that kind of case, which occurs not infrequently, as I am quite sure hon. Members who have had experience on the bench know, this method of procedure ought to be effective.
§ Mr. Dudley Williams
I am following what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, and I am almost entirely in agreement with what he has said, but I have not quite grasped the point he is making about the man who pays something less than the amount of the order. I cannot quite follow what his argument is.
§ Mr. Body rose—
§ Mr. Ede
If I do not express it quite legally the hon. Gentleman can put it in the way in which he manages to confuse the courts. The hon. Gentleman will see that a man pays, perhaps to the clerk of the court, perhaps to the woman, something less than the amount of the order each week. So arrears begin to accumulate. What the Bill says is that when the arrears amount to the arrears of four weeks the attachment can be made.
The bench is in some difficulty on occasions in dealing with the fellow who thus suggests that the order made is just beyond his means, when he does not come to the court, as he can do if that is the fact, and ask for the order itself to be reduced. In the case which I have just 1574 adduced, of an order for 30s. a week, when the man's arrears amount to £6 an application for attachment can be made under the Bill, and it will then, of course, be for the bench to consider, in the light of what is said on both sides, whether such an order should be made.
§ Mr. Ede
I have been taught as a magistrate, from the earliest day I took my place on the bench, assisted by a very good clerk of the peace, that every case has to be considered on its merits, and general, sweeping statements, particularly when made by laymen, are to be avoided in these matters, and the fixing of a tariff and all other ways of avoiding the necessity of considering each case on its merits are very reprehensible proceedings on the part of magistrates. I am not going to say why Metropolitan magistrates are better than lay magistrates, if the hon. Gentleman thinks so. I shall say nothing on that except that I used to appoint Metropolitan magistrates and I have not appointed a lay magistrate yet. I have served on a lord lieutenant's advisory committee, but it does not appoint: it only advises.
The hon. Lady the Member for Devon-port (Miss Vickers) is to be congratulated on having used the opportunity which came to her to introduce this Bill. I hope that the Bill will be committed to a Committee and that there the various administrative difficulties which may arise can be carefully considered, but I am quite certain of this: the hon. Lady is kinder to members of her own sex than most of the ladies with whom I have sat on the bench.
§ 12.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Godfrey Lagden (Hornchurch)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) on the way in which she has commended the Bill, and I would express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who so seldom has the same opinion as I; but today we are in one camp. I was rather intrigued by a phrase 1575 used by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) about the wives who "up anchor and away"—presumably to join the Navy and not the Army. I suggest to him that "up anchor and away" is far more practised by the husbands than by the wives. I think that the statistics will prove that for him, if he looks into the matter. Possibly, having listened to his lengthy and considered speech, the House will come to the conclusion that he is more disappointed in law than he is disappointed in love. However, that is as it may be.
I do not want to detain the House for long, but I do wish to emphasise that there is a very human problem involved here. There is a class of husband who to my knowledge adopts the attitude that if he can force his wife to appear time after time in court he will eventually break her resistance, so that she will say, "What is the use? Why should I continually humiliate myself in the court?" He hopes she will give up and then he will have gained a moral victory and also a financial victory.
There are many wives who would continually go to court if it were not for the fact that they know that that casts a stigma on their children. The children grow and go to school. The mother does not wish it to be known that she was in court, that she is a deserted woman. Children at school, quite unwittingly, can be very cruel little creatures indeed. The mother goes to court one morning, and by the next day the news has gone round, "So and so's mother was in court yesterday because her daddy does not want her mummy." It is a terrible thing, and I am quite certain that hon. Members, who understand human nature, as they do because they are brought into contact with it so much, will give careful consideration to that.
If we judge this question, after considering it from both sides, I think we shall come to the conclusion that once the break between a husband and his wife has been made in the magistrates' court it should be a clean break and that it should not be necessary for the woman continually to have to humble herself by going to court to ask for what has already been granted to her.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)
I propose to add only a few words in support of the Bill, and I should like to add my congratulations to those which my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) and the hon Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) have already received this morning from other hon. Members.
We do not want to lose sight of the fact that in considering a Bill of this nature we are really considering only a relatively small number of cases of men who seek to evade maintaining their wives after their marriages have broken down. I am quite convinced that, in the vast majority of cases where marriages have gone wrong and either separation or divorce has taken place, most men are decent enough to realise that they have damaged the life of the person that they married and they are prepared to pay the orders made against them in the courts. We should bear in mind that it is only a minority of people who attempt to evade these payments.
I was very much impressed by the reference of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Lagden) to the damage that is done to children of broken marriages when they are taunted by their companions in school—and one cannot prevent other children being unkind—that their mother was in court yesterday because father did not want anything further to do with her. Anyone who has children knows well that in every school there are children who are problems merely because that kind of damage has been done. Children of divorced parents are very often problem children from a very early age. Surely, we must try to devise our laws to ensure that additional difficulties will not be placed in the way of the development of these young people.
One reason for my supporting the Bill is that it enables the break to be complete between the parents and ensures that the sore is not constantly re-opened, to the damage of the children of the marriage. I find myself in almost complete agreement with the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle) in the point he made about arrears of instalments being wiped out by a prison sentence and the fact that there is considerable advantage therefore in arrears being dealt with 1577 by attachment in the manner suggested in the Bill. I do not think the hon. Member need have fear that the Bill might be used to collect debts under hire-purchase agreements. The relevant Clause makes clear that the attachment can only be in respect of maintenance orders. I do not think there is any question of hire-purchase being made subject to this proposed legislation.
I do not want to add too much to the criticism made of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell), but I really think that he overstated his case. He made great play of the fact that the Bill will not get at the people whom we really think are defaulters and that the steady man in a steady job, behaving in an honourable manner, will be attacked as a result of the Bill, will have an attachment made against him and will be criticised by his fellow-workers, whereas the man who takes a job casually, does something like this and then moves to another part of the country will not be caught up.
My hon. Friend is exaggerating the position because, as I understand, there can be no attachment under the Bill unless there are arrears. Clause 1 (1) states thatIf, on the application of a person entitled to receive payments under a maintenance order (in this Act referred to as the applicant'), it appears to a court by which the maintenance order is enforceable—(a) that, at the time when the application was made, payments under the order were in arrear …and so on.
The man has already behaved in a dishonourable manner because he has not kept to the order made by the court after it had considered his means. He will not be penalised, because again the wife has to go to court and make a case that her husband is in arrears and is in a sufficiently strong position financially to maintain the payments. It is only when the wife has done this that the court in its wisdom takes action.
My hon. Friends have criticised magistrates this morning. I am neither a magistrate nor a lawyer. The only time I get to the police court I am at the receiving end rather than at the dishing-out end.
§ Mr. Williams
Nothing very serious, just minor motoring offences and nothing that would come within the scope of this Bill.
As I have said, the wife has to prove all this before she secures an order, and magistrates exercise their power with extreme discretion, though one might disagree with their decision. On one of the minor occasions to which I have referred, I disagreed most violently with the magistrates, but, generally speaking, magistrates are a proper part of our judicial system and I deprecate criticism of them by those hon. Members who are skilled in the law.
It is only after the case has been made out that the woman can get a court to make an attachment order, and that is a sufficient safeguard for the honourable man who is making his payments to his wife under a maintenance order. Therefore, I do not think that there can be any question that such a man will be penalised, in contrast with the man who moves from one job to another.
I do not wish to weary the House with quotations of cases of hardship to the woman, with which I have come in contact, but I have in mind one case of a merchant sailor who neglected his wife and three children. She could get nothing out of him. He was constantly at sea. Undoubtedly, she would secure reasonable maintenance under this proposed legislation. At present, there is no hope of her getting anything from him. He comes home for a week or two and then is off to sea again. She has spent her time seeing lawyers to try to enforce an order against him and has now almost given up hope. He is completely irresponsible and behaves in a completely callous manner, leaving his wife and children entirely dependent on the State. I have no sympathy with that kind of man. I hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading, have a swift passage through Committee and become the law of the country.
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)
I should like to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) and to express my support for the Bill. One reason for my speaking is that I feel that further protest should be made about the generalisations 1579 of the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) and the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Body). As I listened to them, I thought that my experience as a magistrate must be very exceptional or that they had been very unfortunate in the courts in which they had appeared. However, I think it is wrong to make such wide generalisations from limited experience, even though they may have had many cases to deal with.
If there is a reluctance on the part of magistrates to commit and suspend sentence, as has been alleged, it probably arises from their natural reluctance to commit people to our already overcrowded prisons, and also because of the fact that if the person concerned is sent to prison, the debt is wiped out. I agree with other hon. Members that this is a serious matter and one to which Parliament will have to attend at some time.
The hon. Lady rightly said that the majority of marriages are happy. Of course, reading one's newspaper one would not imagine that to be the case, but a happy marriage is not news. The people who would be caught by this Bill would be comparatively few because even when a marriage breaks up the husband usually meets his commitments. It is only in the case in which a man tries to default on his payments that the Bill will operate.
I think that this Bill is important, in order that a defaulter can be forced to pay, and because it will save public money. It is wrong that the taxpayer should have to bear the cost, which is the case at present. I hope, therefore, that the House will give the Bill a unanimous Second Reading. If there are any shortcomings in it, they can be dealt with during the Committee stage.
§ 1.12 p.m.
§ Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)
I am glad that the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) has brought forward this Bill, which affects people living in her area and mine probably more than those of most other hon. Members. That may be due to the fact that in this House we both represent ports. Indeed, I find that as many wayward husbands as I manage to trace find their way down to Devonport, 1580 and I continually get letters from wives in Devonport asking whether I will trace their husbands in Portsmouth. So if something can be done to attach these wayward gentlemen, and get some money out of them, a great service will have been rendered.
There is no doubt that considerable hardship and misery is caused to wives who have to get a court order, which is met for a few weeks but subsequent to which, when things seem to be all right again, a big debt is again accumulated, and the wife has to start all over again to get another court order. A husband who does not wish to pay can cause this procedure to continue year in and year out.
How this Bill will make a husband pay who is determined to default, I am at a loss to know. Some husbands I have had to deal with have said that they would rather shoot themselves than pay one penny to their something, something wife. When a husband says that, I do not think that anyone would succeed in making him pay but, if it is made more difficult for an individual to get out of paying, the Bill will have rendered a great service.
§ 1.14 p.m.
Mrs. Irene White (Flint, East)
I wish briefly to commend this Bill. I hope it will obtain its Second Reading today and will afterwards go upstairs where some of the points of difficulty which have been sympathetically raised on both sides of the House can be dealt with. I am glad that the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) has used her opportunity for something constructive which affects so many people. The Bill concerns a matter which was brought to my attention in rather a different aspect some years ago when I also had a Private Member's Bill before this House, though of a much more controversial nature.
I do not wish to go at length into those controversial matters, but I will say that some, at least, of the men who refuse to pay under court orders at present do so, as was indicated by the hon. and gallant Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke), because they feel they have themselves in some way been unjustly treated and it is not fair that they should be asked to pay at all. However, that is not something which can be dealt with in this Bill. One can never 1581 get perfection in these awkward matrimonial matters, but if the position is to be improved it will have to be dealt with by different means. We could not expect to deal with it in this Measure.
Yet there are certain other reforms which I believe should be carried out in our marriage and divorce laws that might lessen the sense of injustice which some men justifiably have against women whom they feel are 'behaving vindictively towards them. I must say that in fairness to hon. and learned Gentlemen who have now left the Chamber and feel that the magistrates' courts have also taken a somewhat biased view of this matter. For example, a woman who has no children and is of reasonably youthful age should not expect to receive maintenance from a man simply because at some time she has been married to him.
§ Mr. Dudley Williams
It depends, of course, upon how old a woman is and if she has been married for some time.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not catch what I said. I tried to indicate that I was referring to someone who was reasonably youthful and who might be expected to support herself. After all, there are two sides to a marriage, and she has at least made the mistake of choosing the wrong man. In the laws concerning widows' pensions we take account of the fact that if a woman is without children and is reasonably young she can be expected to look after herself. I feel strongly that this should be the guiding principle in normal cases of maintenance orders.
§ Mr. Blackburn
Would my hon. Friend not agree that magistrates usually take that matter into consideration?
I am certain that my hon. Friend would, and that the other magistrates who have been speaking in this House today would also do so, but it is not universally the case. I know of cases where I have felt strongly that a woman has got away with it when she ought not to have done so and, as a result, her husband is under obligation to make payments which he feels are unjust and which, objectively, one might say were unjust.
I repeat that there are other matters which should be looked at, but that does not invalidate the main purpose of this 1582 Bill, which is that although there may be some unfair decisions about maintenance orders, nevertheless the majority are just and proper, and if they have been made, they should be enforced. We have been told in some detail today that at present they are simply unenforceable in the proper sense of the word. The only sanction is to send the man to prison, which wipes out the arrears, leaves the woman no better off, and the taxpayer considerably poorer, which is very unsatisfactory.
There is one other point which affects a woman who is due to obtain payments under a maintenance order. She cannot always trace her husband. If she is in receipt of National Assistance, the National Assistance Board can use official machinery, if necessary, to trace a man who has perhaps deliberately, though not necessarily so, removed himself from the town where he lived. A woman may not be able to trace her husband. Subject to correction from any magistrates who may be present, I believe that a court does not take action to find the man if the woman herself cannot say where he is to be found. As far as I can see, there is nothing in the Bill which will alter that situation.
If a court knows where a man is, it can find out who his employer is, and the proceedings under the Bill would then take effect, but if the court does not know where the man is and he cannot be produced, it cannot find out who his employer is, and then the rest of the Bill is of no effect. It would be interesting if the Minister could give us some indication as to whether it would be possible to obtain this information—not, I would emphasise, to be given to the woman, for that would be open to many objections—to be given to the court to which the money had to be paid. It seems to me that, without this provision, some of the people whom the Bill is intended to catch will find it relatively easy to escape.
I realise that the type of provision in Clause 1 (2) is probably the most sensible way to deal with an inherently very difficult situation, but I am a little concerned about the position of the children of the first family. I have always felt that, while, as is well known, I have views about what should happen when a marriage is irrevocably broken down, the children of the first family have a prior claim. Whatever may have happened between the parents, 1583 those children were brought into the world, and it seems to me that their father has a very definite obligation towards them which he should meet before he embarks upon a second legitimate or illegitimate family. It seems to me that there is a possibility under the Bill that the children of the first family might not obtain what they really ought to have. I may be mistaken, and I shall be happy to be corrected if I am.
There are one or two points of this kind, which are of some importance, with which I hope we shall be able to deal in Committee. While I have made those few reservations, I feel that the Bill in itself is an extremely valuable one.
§ 1.23 p.m.
§ Dr. Edith Summerskill (Warrington)
I should like to say a few words because on two previous occasions on Fridays during the last five years I have put forward the case which has been presented today. I also argued other parts of a Bill which I introduced. I had to retire from those two contests—I am sure Mr. Speaker will agree that this is Parliamentary language—"bloody but unbowed". It gives me the greatest joy to be here today and to congratulate the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) upon having the moral courage to introduce a Bill which we know will not be popular in all quarters.
The hon. Lady has recognised that here is a grievance which is suffered by one of the most inarticulate sections of society. She has defied those who have written unpleasant letters to her and has brought forward her Bill. This morning she has had her reward. She has had support from both sides of the House, and I sense a sympathy towards the Bill on the part of hon. Members who have not spoken.
I am glad to be able to speak before the Joint Under-Secretary does so. In the past I have regarded the hon. and learned Gentleman as a great champion of women who, through their own fault or that of their husbands, have been unfortunate enough to get into the world of broken marriages. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not be tempted to forget his very fine, noble past on behalf of these unfortunate women, and I trust that he will have the 1584 courage, and a mandate from the Government, to support us.
In the past the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) has been one of my fiercest enemies: however, on the two occasions when he attacked me on this subject he was a bachelor. The hon. Lady is fortunate, for the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South was married last year. This morning I detected a certain mellowness in his manner, a just perceptible change, and I know that this mellowness will increase over the years, for it inevitably comes to a man who has married the right woman and enjoys a happy family life. This morning the hon. Member introduced some arguments which he could not sustain. He was certainly legalistic, but there was that mellowness which I can only attribute to a certain change in his social milieu.
§ Mr. R. Bell
The right hon. Lady is very kind indeed. I take all these remarks in the spirit in which they are meant. However, I am sure she will appreciate that there is a very important change in this Bill compared with the Bill which she introduced.
§ Dr. Summerskill
Yes, but I must remind the hon. Gentleman that he supported me, showing great sympathy, on the comparable part of my Bill. I wondered what his attitude would be this morning, and I found it very difficult to understand why he did not show the same support for the hon. Lady's Bill. However, let us not indulge in recriminations.
The hon. Gentleman equated a woman with a television set. He expressed the fear that if we accepted the Bill it might apply to all kinds of domestic articles. I would remind the House—we are inclined to be a little legalistic about this—that we are dealing with an important human problem. I have said that the people whom we are discussing constitute an inarticulate section of society. These women come to have a feeling of complete helplessness and hopelessness. I am not referring to the married woman who has no child. I share the feeling of the House that the young married woman without children probably has no problem. There are, however, women who later in life, after having been 1585 married many years, find themselves deserted, and their position may be difficult. The people about whom we are chiefly concerned here are women with a number of children who find themselves in a difficult position because they are unable to work and must have resort to the National Assistance Board.
As Minister of National Insurance, I felt—I would direct the attention of the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South to this point—that that position could not be sustained, and that no man should be allowed to transfer his legal liabilities to the shoulders of his fellow workmen. National Assistance comes out of taxation, and if a man is not prepared to pay maintenance to his wife, his fellow workers have to do so through taxation.
I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South say that he was prepared to stand by the 1870 position. He should remember that during the last century there were most interesting debates in the House about the position of women. There was a debate on whether a husband should have the legal right to assault his wife. A man could be charged for assaulting a strange individual, but he could not be charged for assaulting his wife. There were hon. Members, forerunners of the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South, who said in this House that if legal sanction were given preventing a husband from assaulting his wife that would be an interference with the sanctity of marriage. This was a right which was recognised by all husbands. Now we are moving on—
§ Mr. R. Bell rose—
§ Dr. Summerskill
I am going to sit down in a moment and I only referred to 1870 because, as he will agree, the hon. Member mentioned that date.
§ Dr. Summerskill
No, but obviously it is analogous with what we are doing today.
The other argument of the hon. Member was that the worst offenders would not be caught by this Measure. If that 1586 argument were followed it would obstruct most legislation introduced in this House. Many murderers are never caught. Nevertheless, we would not for one moment believe that murder should not be regarded as an offence in this country.
I think only one hon. Member has opposed this Bill. I hope that he will reconsider his attitude and that the Bill will finally reach the Statute Book. I am perfectly certain there would be no regrets, but that we should regard this as another step forward in social reform, a matter in respect of which Britain has always been regarded as being in the van.
§ 1.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)
I wish to intervene only for a few moments in order to support this Bill and to add my congratulations to those already accorded to my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers), not only on being successful in the Ballot but on introducing this Bill.
I think it is of some importance that Scotland should already have this matter covered in the way it has, even though it applies to deductions from wages for different purposes from this. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) has again left the Chamber. I wish to endorse what the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) said, particularly about what my hon. Friend said with reference to 1870. I was frankly surprised to hear him use that argument, bearing in mind the number of changes which have been made in the law since that date. Surely this is an example of something which must be judged on its merits, not on the antiquity of the existing law.
It is also significant that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport has had some letters opposing the Bill, apparently they all came from defaulting husbands and none—as might have been expected—came from employers who might object to having to enforce the law. It is also significant that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South gave no evidence of any objections or difficulties raised by employers in Scotland, who already have to carry out the provisions of the Act which applies north of the Border.
1587 I cannot help feeling that it is utterly wrong, as the right hon. Lady pointed out, that because a husband cannot be traced and the present law enforced against him, the remainder of the taxpayers have to keep his wife and children. The present position under which a man who is a defaulter and cannot pay goes to prison, thereby not only extinguishing the debt but making it still more difficult for him to pay in future, also seems utterly wrong.
It would be an act of justice, not only to the unfortunate wife and her family but to the public as a whole, for this Bill to be passed and the position to be remedied. I hope that it will not only be given a Second Reading, but have a speedy passage through the House.
§ 1.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Percy Daines (East Ham, North)
I think the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) is extremely lucky to be able to introduce a Bill dealing with such an obvious weakness in our social and legal set-up and with the hope of getting the Bill on the Statute Book. I feel a little ashamed of myself speaking in this debate and telling her how lucky she is because, if my memory is right, she has been here continuously since we started this morning. She must be getting a little tired of listening to nice words being said and feeling rather hungry. Therefore, I shall cut short my remarks.
The hon. Lady has also been lucky in the type of opposition which has been encountered by the Bill. I listened to most of it, and it struck me as debating society stuff of a very fourth form kind. Inevitably on Fridays we expect that sort of thing. When I was a supporter of a Government I found that Friday was the only time I could get a speech in and, naturally, I took advantage of it.
I respect magistrates very much. I could not be one myself as I am completely allergic to that type of work. Why people want to be magistrates, I do not know. I hope that it is a sense of social duty and not a sense of social prestige which animates them. We have to have magistrates and one has to be tolerant. I believe it to be quite wrong for us not to tighten up in every way we can the opportunities of resisters. I believe it 1588 is our duty and job to do that. I have always been against a system in which a man can be sent to prison to work off his debt, then to come out and again dodge paying for a subsequent period.
Despite all that was said by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell), this Measure would catch a lot of those chaps. There is no question of that. The hon. Member considerably over-stated the case in regard to employers. At present defaulters go to prison, come out again and return to work and go in and out until the wife gets fed up. I am certain that this Measure would catch a lot of such defaulters. We not only have to consider erring wives or erring husbands but also the question of illegitimate children. I have no statistics, but I hazard a very strong guess that the number of resisters under that heading is equal to the number coming under the heading of straight forward maintenance orders.
Another practical point is in regard to the disappearing spouse. I do not believe that there are a lot of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) pointed out that when National Assistance is paid one Government Department can get in touch with another—in this case the Ministry of National Insurance. Then the information is forthcoming and the defaulter can be traced and proceedings taken against him. I should have thought it would be quite practicable for that to be done.
I suggest that there is a possible loophole in the Bill which could be amended by ensuring that if the magistrate makes an order that the information should be disclosed the Ministry of National Insurance should disclose it. I do not know what legal jargon would cover that, but it seems perfectly reasonable that when a man has disappeared but it is known that he is in this country the Ministry should disclose his whereabouts. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Ferneyhough) has raised this perfectly reasonable suggestion in Adjournment debates. I hope the hon. Member for Devonport will consider it in relation to this Bill.
The little work we are engaged on this morning does credit to the hon. Lady. I sincerely hope the Bill will reach the Statute Book for its own sake and also for personal reasons. It must be a great 1589 thing for any hon. Member to be able to point to some reform and say "I did that." or, "I initiated that". I hope that the hon. Lady will be here for quite a long while so as to enjoy the fruits of a job well done, but, politically, I hope that her time will be short.
§ 1.40 p.m.
§ Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Daines) I welcome the Bill, although I am disappointed that it does not go a great deal further. If and when it becomes law it will catch only a small percentage of those who are evading their moral, if not their present legal, responsibilities. I want to reinforce what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North and by my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) about the attitude of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Up to date, the Ministry has refused to give any assistance to the mother, unmarried or married, where the father of the child has deliberately disappeared and where the mother can do nothing whatever to trace him.
I am sure that every hon. Member knows of cases in his constituency in which a married or unmarried mother is left in such circumstances. Very often she is compelled to go out to work, and because she has to go out to work the children, while they are very young, are the sufferers. They not only lose, as it were, the guidance, protection and affection of the father, but because of his disappearance the mother is forced to carry a double burden, thus neglecting her children, the care of whom should be almost a full4ime occupation.
I cannot understand why the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance should take the point of view that it cannot divulge the information because it is private information, that it is something that Should be given almost in secret, and that it would be morally reprehensible to disclose the whereabouts of a person. If a man who disappears has committed the slightest crime in law, the whole police force is mobilised to try to catch up with him.
I hope that the Ministry will have second thoughts about cases of this character. If children are neglected because the mother goes out to work, the mother can be hauled before the courts. 1590 It seems to me that where a court order has been made, the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance ought to be prepared, in cases where the mother is not seeking National Assistance but out of self-respect is going to work, to give all the help and advice at its disposal in order to trace the man.
I remember a case before I came to this House, when I was a trade union official, where the husband had disappeared and where the wife knew the county in which he was residing, but not the county district. We searched through the whole of the electoral registers of that county in order to try to trace the man, and I am glad to say that we were successful.
The Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance argues that there may be two Tom Smiths and that it might give information about the wrong one, thereby causing terrific embarrassment. That is sheer and utter nonsense. The Tom Smith who is wanted is the Tom Smith who is registered at the Newcastle office of the Ministry of National Insurance, living at Jarrow, Timbuctoo or wherever it may be. If he moves at the end of six months he must indicate on the card where he is going. Of course there is no question of notice being served on the wrong man or of the wrong man being wrongfully apprehended by the police. It is all as simple as A.B.C.
One further point. So long as the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance takes this line, I want to know what happens in the case of a man who disappears, who is not making these payments but who may, for Inland Revenue purposes, still be claiming tax relief as though he is maintaining his wife and children. That is quite a possibility. So long as the Ministry is not prepared to give information of this kind, what happens if the man dies? In the normal way, the widow would be entitled to a widow's pension, but she cannot apply for it if she cannot trace her husband or knows nothing about his death. I think it is time that the Ministry began to be more co-operative in these matters.
Like all my hon. Friends, I wish the Bill well. It does not, of course, embrace all the cases which we think should be brought within its scope, but it is at least a start. I hope that following the Bill we may get co-operation between 1591 the Home Office and the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance which will enable us to bring to all the victims of circumstances such as have been outlined that help, assistance and comfort to which the vast majority of them are certainly entitled.
Of course, there is the odd case here and there where the people concerned do not deserve much sympathy, where their difficulties have been brought on by themselves because of incompatibility, or for whatever cause. But the vast majority of these cases are genuine, and those involved are entitled to the sympathy and help of this House. Therefore, as I say, I hope that we shall receive from the Home Office and from the Ministry all the help necessary in dealing with what, after all, is a long-standing and growing social problem.
§ 1.47 p.m.
§ The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)
May I first associate myself with the congratulations that have been so justly paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) on her success in the Ballot and on the admirable way in which, it seemed to me, she introduced the Bill. It is true, in spite of the impression that one might get from the debate today, that it is a controversial Measure, but the House will agree that it would be a pity if private Members were deterred from introducing Bills just because they raised opposition. To say that a Bill raises opposition is by no means to say that its effect, on balance, is not found to be entirely beneficent.
My hon. Friend set out the effect and purpose of the Bill, and I am grateful to be relieved from giving details of the circumstances and background of the present law, the serious social problem with which the Bill seeks to deal, or the way it proposes to set about it and the effects of its various Clauses.
This is a Private Member's Bill on which hon. Members will give an untrammelled vote as their convictions demand, but I think it may be for the convenience of the House if I advert to some of the arguments which have been put forward, deal with one or two of the minor points where a question has been specifically put to me, and finally, indicate the Government's attitude towards the Bill.
1592 The arguments for and against the proposal to attach a source of income where there is wilful default in payments under a maintenance order are set out clearly in the Report of the Royal Commission. They have been deployed, reinforced and extended in this debate with very great cogency. The House today is not concerned with the many other questions considered by the Royal Commission, and it would not be appropriate for me to refer to them. However, I think that I should be voicing the general sense of the House if I said how grateful we all are to Lord Morton of Henryton and his colleagues for the care and devotion with which they dealt with the difficult questions before them and the wonderful lucidity with which the many complex issues were argued.
On the question of attachment of income, the Morton Commission conclusion was that it would be inadvisable to introduce any such system in England and Wales. The Commission said:Not all the objections to the introduction of attachment of wages are of equal weight but their cumulative force is impressive.The Commission gave no indication which of the arguments it thought carried weight and the House is left to form its own view about that. If hon. Members should feel that the arguments against attachment of income are largely neutralised by the answers which have been given by the promoters of the Bill, they are entitled, it seems to me, to feel that however much those arguments are proliferated, their cumulative force remains less than impressive. This is a matter on which the House, lacking detailed guidance from the Royal Commission, can properly form its own judgment.
May I deal with two specific points which have been raised in the debate? I do not wish to pre-empt in any way the hon. Lady who is to reply on behalf of the supporters of the Bill, but these were largely legal questions and I was specifically asked about them.
The hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle) asked about the effect of Clause 4 (1, a). It seems to me, reading the Bill, that the effect of that paragraph is by no means to bring in such agreements as hire-purchase agreements. The procedure with which it deals is the fairly well-known one of procedure by way of judgment summons, which is the way that 1593 the High Court and the county court proceed to enforce a money judgment on which there has been default. It is true that this applies not only to maintenance orders, but to other judgments, but the Clause is limited to maintenance orders, because after paragraphs (a) and (b) the Clause then states,and at the date when the proceedings were begun payments under the maintenance order were in arrear.It seems to me that it is specifically limited to maintenance orders and does not include general money orders.
§ Mr. Simon
The other point was raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White), who dealt with the position of the children of the first marriage and who rightly affirmed that their position should not be prejudiced. Again, it seems to me, the Bill has regard to that matter, in Clause 1 (2, b), where it seems to me that the hon. Lady has framed the Bill so as to allow the court which is making an attachment of income order to fix two amounts. The first is the higher amount, which is the amount necessary to discharge the order and the arrears by instalments; but the second is the lower amount below which the income of the man in question must not be allowed to fall. This is found in paragraph (b), where the magistrates must haveregard to the resources and needs of the defendant and the needs of any other persons for whom he must or reasonably may provide.
The hon. and learned Gentleman used the phrase "higher and lower amounts". I have not found that in the Bill.
§ Mr. Simon
That is inherent in the nature of the Clause as it is framed. In paragraph (a) is the amount which the man's employer must pay in order to discharge the maintenance order and the arrears. But if in any week the man's earnings should not be as great as they are in other weeks, the order must not be allowed, as I understand the Clause, to take up the whole of his earnings. The Clause goes further; his income must not be allowed to fall below a stipulated sum. That is the sum set out in paragraph (b) and which must be sufficient for his needs and the needs of any other person for whom he must or reasonably 1594 may provide. I should have thought that certainly includes any children of his first marriage.
The arguments for and against this Measure are stated very clearly in the Royal Commission's Report but there was one argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) which is not dealt with in the Royal Commission's Report and which I think it is right to mention. My hon. Friend made what seemed to me an extremely thoughtful and moderately-phrased criticism of the Bill, and he argued that magistrates' courts—and it is with these that mainly, although by no means exclusively, we are concerned in the Bill—often treat husbands less than fairly in matrimonial cases. He went as far as to say that justice is not done to husbands in these cases, although he withdrew from that, I think, in an intervention.
Justice in this world has to be done by human beings, and however carefully they may be chosen, however conscientious they are and whatever system of appeal we may have—and we have a system of appeal—it is bound to be less than perfect. That is inherent in any system of human justice.
The first thing I should point out, however, is that the Royal Commission, having taken evidence on this subject, including that from witnesses who shared my hon. Friend's view on this point, agreed with the majority of the witnesses that magistrates' courts were well-suited to exercise matrimonial jurisdiction and, in the view of the Royal Commission, should continue to do so. Perhaps it might help the House if I read what the Commission said in paragraph 997 on page 262:It was argued that this is a difficult jurisdiction which lay magistrates are not best suited to handle; that there is still a police court atmosphere; and that there is prejudice against husbands. These criticisms were not shared by the majority of our witnesses. On the contrary, the view of the majority was that magistrates' courts are well suited for finding the facts in the type of matrimonial case with which they have to deal; that they have developed a simple, cheap and efficient procedure for obtaining and enforcing orders; and that the participation of lay magistrates in the administration of the law keeps it in touch with human needs. We agree with these views and consider that magistrates' courts should continue to exercise jurisdiction in matrimonial matters.1595 In any case, it seems to me that where the court has come to a decision in a conscientious attempt to do justice between the parties, it is intolerable that the decision should be set at nought by one of the parties. There must be sanctions for the order of any court, and I think the supporters of the Bill urged with some cogency that it is unreasonable to argue that a party may flout the decision of the court at the peril of going to prison but not at the peril of having his source of income attached in order to make the order effective.
If the system is unjust, which I do not accept, it is a reason for amending it, but it is a not reason for saying that its orders should be stultified. So long as it stands, and stands to general satisfaction, its judgments should be enforced, and all we are concerned with here is whether attachment of income is the most effective and desirable method of enforcing those judgments.
The main argument which impresses the Government against the Bill is, first of all, the desire of the trade unions that wages should be preserved inviolate from deductions. We have heard today the speeches of experienced trade unionists, for example the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough), in support of the Bill, but I think it is fair to say that the view of the trade unions as given to the Royal Commission, and given after the right bon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) had produced her two Bills, was against such a Measure.
§ Mr. Daines
My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) made the point that in the case of National Assistance the information is given. If it is given in that case, why can it not be given otherwise?
§ Mr. Simon
The hon. Gentleman did not follow my point. I was dealing at this stage with the trade union objection to this Bill and I was answering the point that was made by the hon. Member for Salford, West that the trade union objection had not been put forward since the right hon. Lady's Bill. I thought it right to point out that that was not so. They had made their objection, and in fairly strong terms, as is shown in the evidence to the Royal Commission.
§ Mr. Simon
The hon. Gentleman said that as well, and that is a matter which the House is well entitled to take into account in order to judge of the real force of the Trades Union Congress's objection to this Measure.
But I recognise the force of the contention that is made on the other side that however desirable it may be as a matter of general principle that a man's wages should not be attached, here the situation is slightly different because a man's wages constitute the fund to which a wife is primarily entitled to look for 'her support, and the maintenance of his family is normally a man's first charge on his income.
With regard to the argument that the Measure may upset the relations between employer and employee by bringing the man's private life into such relationship, which was the view advanced by both the trade unions' and the employers' organisations to the Royal Commission, I must say that it seems to me that to send a man to prison is likely to upset the relationship still more seriously and to bring the domestic disagreements right into the forefront of the employer's notice.
I am sure it is the hope of the promoters of this Bill that the mere threat of attachment would in many cases encourage a man to honour his obligations. The Government recognise the objections put forward by both sides in industry and the possible difficulties. They are also aware that the Scottish system of arrestment of wages does not in practice cause the difficulties which have been feared here.
I also think it right to draw attention to the public consequences of the fact that under the present system in England and Wales the only real sanction against a defaulter is to send him to prison. First of all, there is the financial burden which this situation at present throws on the public.
1597 I hope the House will not think that in approaching the matter from this rather (material, public angle I am unfeeling and unmindful of the personal hardship which this Bill is designed to mitigate. I know very well that many women and children are today eating the bitter bread of penury and despair because there is no remedy except to send a defaulting husband to prison, and that wipes out the arrears. Their lot, I know, is one that excites the compassion not only of the prompters of this Bill but of the hon. Gentleman who has spoken against it. But I thought that it would be more helpful if I adverted to the more public aspects of the problem. We pay annually by way of National Assistance to separated wives, divorced women with children and unmarried mothers over f10 million a year. That is a very considerable sum.
Secondly, there is the pressure on the prison system which has already been referred to by the hon. Member for Salford, West. Our prisons are already over-full. Last month no fewer than 2,052 prisoners were sleeping three to a cell which was built to accommodate one only. Yet, since this is the only real sanction for the order of the court, about 5,000 men are sent to prison each year for wilful default of maintenance orders. These men, most of them without any previous convictions, are of necessity exposed to the risk of contamination in prison.
One cannot fail to be impressed by the futility and wastefulness of the whole operation. I do not suggest that attachment would prevent all these committals. There will always be the man, who has been referred to particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), who objects to paying on principle. But there is also the feckless type of man who is incompetent at managing his own affairs and drifts into prison under this procedure. The House ought to consider earnestly whether it is right to deny the courts an opportunity of making him pay instead of sending him to prison. This seems to the Government to be a matter to which the House should give serious weight.
As I have said, about 5,000 men are committed to prison each year for defaulting on orders to which this Bill applies. In Scotland, where the system 1598 of arrestment of wages operates, the total number of maintenance defaulters is about 30. That is a striking difference. I think it would be wrong to say that it is wholly explained by the difference in system, because there are other factors, other differences in the matrimonial law and other differences in method of enforcement of matrimonial orders—principally that in Scotland imprisonment does not extinguish the debt. Nevertheless, the difference is a striking one, and I think that supporters of this Bill are entitled to claim that attachment would bring about some reduction in the number of committals in England and Wales.
Finally may I remind the House that for the last seventy years the Service authorities have had precisely this power to give effect to a maintenance order against a Service man by making the necessary deductions from his pay. This has always been considered desirable, and the provisions were recently endorsed by the Select Committee on the Army Act.
Those are the arguments and considerations on each side that particularly impress the Government. If the House accepts the principle of attachment, the Government will welcome its beneficial result in the public interest, and the Government's view is that the detailed provisions of the Bill represent, on the whole, a scheme that is the most suitable and reasonable in all the circumstances.
Salaries as well as wages are to be attachable, and any direct contact between the employer and wife is avoided by the deduction from earnings being paid to the court and not to her direct. If the House should give the Bill a Second Reading the Government will be glad to give such help as they can in Committee to make any improvements that may be desirable.
Could the hon. and learned Gentleman say one word about the point that I raised, in which I know he has taken an interest, about tracing the husband?
§ Mr. Simon
I expressly did not because it is not primarily a responsibility of the Department for which I answer, and also it seems to me to be outside the scope of the Bill as it is at present framed. But it may well be that if this Bill receives a Second Reading 1599 that is a matter which can be discussed in Committee.
§ 2.9 p.m.
§ Mr. R. W. Sorensen (Leyton)
A gentleman in my constituency of a rather fundamentally evangelistic nature remarked that my constituency must be very evil. Whether that is because I have been the Member of Parliament for that district for so long I do not know, but that observation, I am afraid, is characteristic not only of my own area but of many other areas, too. In other words, there is an assumption in certain quarters that we are morally inferior compared with our predecessors.
The best reply to that, I think, is the debate that we have had today. We have been engaged in considering the implementation of a moral principle, in striking contrast to what has taken place in bygone centuries. When one compares what we are doing now with the disabilities from which women have suffered through many past centuries, one is encouraged by the fact, in spite of all the moaning to the contrary, that we are certainly making a great moral advance. I therefore do not propose to spend more than two or three minutes in supporting this Bill and in expressing not only my appreciation of the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) for introducing it, but also my appreciation of the spokesman of the Government for indicating that the Government will do all that they can to assist the passage of this Bill.
What I would say in the few moments at my command is that in the exercise of our pastoral duties all Members of Parliament must have had abundant experience to prove the necessity for this Bill. I speak of the "pastoral" duties of Members of Parliament because not only I in my own locality but all hon. Members, to a greater or lesser degree, have found in recent years that they are called upon to administer to human beings, irrespective of either their political interests or any particular political issues.
We—on both sides of the House—are called upon, in the areas which we call constituencies and which ecclesiastically are called parishes, to deal with the simple human needs of the people who are there. I am perfectly certain that the 1600 great majority of Members of Parliament attend to those needs not with any desire to secure any political advantage whatever, but out of a sheer human desire to serve those in a less fortunate position than themselves.
For my part, I and my wife, having been associated with Leyton for many years, have had a long experience of unfortunate women and indeed unfortunate men who will benefit under this Bill, if it is passed into law. I say deliberately men as well as women because, although the women may have a certain financial and economic advantage, the men will secure a substantial moral advantage. I think that the Bill will help men to appreciate their responsibilities much more than so many do at the present time. As a man myself, I recognise that men as a whole are liable to what I would call sexual irresponsibility, but, on the other hand, to counterbalance that, I think that women as a whole are liable to social irresponsibility. Be that as it may, the fact remains that a great deal needs to be done to bring home to men that in many respects biologically, psychologically, politically, and socially they have certain advantages compared with women.
We here know full well that in every one of our constituencies there are hapless women who have been maltreated or deserted by their husbands and who have a terrible struggle just to live. None of us stands in judgment on matrimonial disputes and conflicts. We do not know all the facts. All of us have learned by experience to withhold any censorious judgment. All we know is that woman, as compared with man, generally has the worst of the encounter and suffers from the gravest disabilities. That is why I hope that this Bill will receive the unanimous support of both sides of the House, so that it will go some little way towards redressing the historic and traditional disabilities under which so many women have suffered.
I cannot understand the objection raised, as apparently it has been raised, here and elsewhere, against the disclosure and attachment of income. I fully appreciate the objections of the T.U.C. on other grounds, but here surely is a different ground altogether. The Joint Under-Secretary himself in fact quoted criticism of their attitude, implicitly at 1601 least, that I myself was going to mention, and although he has done it more eloquently and effectively than I could have done, I shall repeat It.
It seems to me very strange that it should be regarded as far more serious to disclose one's income and resources than it is to go to prison. Quite apart from the disadvantages which the women may suffer, the men themselves surely suffer far greater disability in that way than if they had their resources disclosed in order that justice might be done.
With these very few remarks, I again congratulate not only the hon. Lady for her imagination and initiative in this respect, but the Government too in helping the House of Commons to exercise its function, not merely in a narrow political sense but in the human sense, to do something towards redressing the disabilities of men and women, and therefore bringing men and women into a wholly righteous relationship with each other.
§ 2.15 p.m.
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
I think the whole House is indebted to the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) for bringing this Bill forward. It is usual for hon. Members to regard as very lucky a colleague who draws a good place in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills; but it is good luck which brings with it a very heavy responsibility in making hp one's mind about the best use to which the occasion should be put. We should be very grateful to the hon. Lady for having followed one of the traditions of this House, which indicates, I think, that some of the most important and successful legislation introduced by private Members has been that which dealt with the more personal difficulties of the people whom we represent.
Today we have seen the House of Commons at its best. We have been presented with an issue which affects us all as men and women directly or indirectly and because, so far as Members of Parliament are concerned the effect is for the most part indirect, it is nonetheless our responsibility to try to examine this matter carefully. Even the arguments which have been brought against the Bill today have not been brought without sympathy and in any capricious 1602 spirit, and that is certainly appreciated by the supporters of the Bill.
The difficulty, of course, is that it is completely impossible to legislate over the whole realm of human emotions. We are here dealing with subjects which defy legislation of any kind. All that we can do, and what I think we have to do, is to try to see how we can help the law of our country to protect the casualties of the breakdown of a marriage. I think that a happy marriage is the supreme experience of human life, and I am sure that we must keep our sense of proportion when we are concentrating on the failures which are the minority. But because they are a minority is nonetheless a reason for our giving a fair amount of time and thought to the question.
I should like to refer to some of the arguments which have been brought against the Bill. Before I do so, may I say how encouraged we all have been that the hon. Lady has received a little while ago a telegram from the National Association of Probation Officers sending its very full support for this Measure today. I think that is very important, because there cannot be a body of men and women in this country which is more closely associated and more intimately concerned with the problems we are considering. The fact of their support today will be an encouragement to the House, and I am sure that the Government will be glad to know that they have the support of the National Association of Probation Officers.
So far as the trade union side is concerned, my experience is the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle). I had not received any objection from any trade union representatives to the Bill introduced by the hon. Lady. That is not because trade union branches and representatives are backward in writing to Members of Parliament. There are certain other topics which have been before the House recently which I am sure have produced for all of us a very heavy post bag from the trade unions. It is significant that the Bill has not resulted in any angry resolutions or letters of agitation sent to Members of Parliament so far as I am aware.
We ought to try to understand the background to trade union opposition to 1603 the attachment of wages. It is very closely linked with the recollection of periods of unemployment and great difficulties for the working people of the country, and there is sometimes a tendency, a readily understandable tendency I think, to be over-jealous in this matter and to suffer from what might perhaps be called a "hangover" from past difficulties, which other circumstances make less relevant today.
No one has referred to the fact that it is the intention of the sponsors of the Bill that it should apply equally to men and women, for it is not only men who have orders made against them. For instance, the Report of the National Assistance Board for last year referred to a case successfully brought by the Board against a woman having a private income who had deserted her husband, who had no income. The court ruled that the woman's income should be made available for the support of her husband, and a maintenance order was made against her. It is the intention of those of us who have put forward the Bill that attachment of wages should apply equally to the women of this country.
I emphasise that we are not asking for any privilege for women in this matter. Certainly, we are trying to achieve some kind of rough justice between both parties in this situation, and, above all, to secure justice for the children, about whom the whole House must be very closely concerned.
§ Mrs. Jeger
The fact that there are some 3,000 to 4,000 cases of men being imprisoned for failure to pay and none of women being imprisoned for the same cause does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that wives are much better payers towards the maintenance of their indigent husbands.
I should like to refer now to some of the arguments adduced by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell). He seemed to suggest that it was an innovation for the House to be discussing the possibility of the attachment of wages. I would like to point out that under Section 2 of the Affiliation Orders Act. 1914, and under Section 9 of the 1604 Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act, 1895, Parliament did in fact make provision for the attachment of wages, and it was only the passing of the Wages Attachment Abolition Act of 1870, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which made a dead letter of those provisions.
In dealing with this matter, the Royal Commission took a great deal of evidence, but I think it is only fair to point out that many paragraphs in the Commission's Report on this subject contain a reiteration of the findings of the Fischer Williams Committee which reported in 1934, when the economic position of people in this country was very different. We should not, I think, apply all the arguments which were valid in 1934 to the circumstances today.
Although the Royal Commission came down, riot very heavily. I thought, against attachment, it might be fair to mention that the Gorell Commission came down in favour of attachment. We do not have an overwhelming or a unanimous vote of opinion against attachment. Certainly, as I have been glad to tell the House, there has not been an upsurge of argument against this particular Bill, which is, after all a very modest Measure.
The arguments of the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South, about the practice of the courts has been adequately dealt with by several speakers. It was a pity that he seemed to overlook the fact that the burden of proof in law rests upon the husband in these matters, and when he seemed to stress that magistrates' courts were rather harsh on the husbands, it surely would have been right to remember that when they are trying to administer the law it is upon the husband that the burden of proof must rest, and they have no alternative but to enforce the law in that connection.
I want to deal now quite honestly and fairly, I hope, with the main argument against attachment, which relates to the intrusion on the privacy of the worker, particularly in his relation to his employer, which would be entailed. I find that there is a changing attitude nowadays towards the privacy of income. I find that people are much less sensitive and much less shy about people knowing how much they earn than they used to be. I think that is partly due to there being so much more publicity about wage negotiations, about salary claims, about how 1605 much even respectable gentlemen like doctors earn these matters can now freely become the subject of public debate and comment.
One must remember that it will not be at all a strange experience for employers to receive inquiries about wages and salaries paid to staff. Many local authorities which implement differential rents schemes write, as a matter of course, to employers to check wage statements by applicants for council housing. When people apply to the London County Council for home helps, to get their children into care in the council's homes or into day nurseries, when they apply for grants to help to send their children to university, information about wages and income must be made available, and in many cases there is a cross-check with the employer as to the amount involved.
Moreover, if we are conscious, as we must be, of the invasion of privacy in this matter, let us for a moment consider also the invasion of privacy for the woman. What of her privacy when she is left with no money to pay the rent? She has to tell the landlady something. She has to go to the National Assistance Board and tell the whole story. She has eventually to go to the court. I should like to say in passing that to go to the court is in itself a terrible ordeal for many respectable women, often shy, sometimes elderly, and not used to dealing with this sort of matter at all. I know for a fact that many of them do not go to court.
We are dealing here with cases of failure to observe orders of the court. I think it would be useful for the House to be reminded—and I say this particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White)—that there are thousands of women, able-bodied and young, as she suggested, who do not seek court orders but who say, "I do not want a penny off the 'so-and-so'; I will manage on my own". In fact, when I last investigated the figures in connection with affiliation orders, I found that less than one-tenth of our unmarried mothers sought affiliation orders. I know that that is partly accounted for by the large number of private arrangements, which are very much to be encouraged and welcomed, but it is a fact that there are many women who do prefer independence to intrusion upon their affairs, perhaps 1606 recognising that they too have made a mistake, and who press on and do the best they can.
Where there are many small children, such an independent attitude is not possible. In such circumstances, the woman is subjected unavoidably to all sorts of questions and investigations. She may be most anxious to hide the fact that her husband has left her, as anxious to hide that fact as the husband who sets up in another town may be anxious to hide the fact that he is married. It is a terrible blow to a woman's pride when a man leaves her, whatever she may say about him afterwards. Let us face it; it is a deep humiliation, because it is an enforced acknowledgement of failure and of a marriage which has broken down.
When the woman, having pocketed her pride and in all the bitterness of the situation, goes to the National Assistance Board and the taxpayer's money is used to keep her from penury, let us recognise that it is only from the utmost depths of penury that it keeps her. The wife of a man who may be in a very good position, who may be earning a very good salary, is faced at the National Assistance Board with a scale of allowances which provides 7s. 6d. for a child under the age of 5, 9s. for a child aged between 5 and 11 and 10s. 6d. for a child between 11 and 16 years of age. These are small amounts enough, and the catastrophic drop in the standard of living which a woman in this situation faces is a question of the utmost seriousness.
I would be the last to argue that national funds should not be generously used for people who are in distress. That is why the National Assistance Board was set up by my right hon. Friends, to rescue the casualties of our society. The casualties of our society should be treated even more generously than they are at present. But that is no reason why the National Assistance Board should be called upon to support, with Exchequer funds, the families of men who have deserted their social obligations.
The magistrates' courts can make only very modest orders. At present, whatever a man is earning, a magistrates' court cannot enforce payment of more than £5 a week for a wife and 30s. for a child. I do not know the experience of other hon. Members, but I do not understand that 30s., which is the top limit, is a 1607 very generous sum on which to keep a child—a child, possibly, of a man who is earning a very good salary. I emphasise this only to underline the modesty of the proposals in the Bill. We are asking little enough for the dependants of men whose marriages have broken down.
Last year, there were on National Assistance over 70,000 women who were described as "married and living apart." Twenty-six thousand five hundred of them had children, which makes it diffifor them to go out to work. If they have small children and go out to work, they want to put the children in a day nursery. There is then the question of the reduction of day nursery fees for them. Local authority funds have to be used, quite rightly, to help them. The total bill to the community because of the husband's default is, therefore, something which it is difficult to compute, but it is much more than the actual Assistance Board figures indicate, because of the other services which these women must use.
The big difficulty to which my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East referred is the question of catching these men. It seems to me to be a bad argument against a Bill—I know that my hon. Friends will not argue it against this Bill—to say that because it will not catch everybody, we should not try to catch anybody.
I am sure that the Bill will be of help to the man who is not a wilful defaulter but who is somewhat feckless—some of the most attractive men are very feckless—and who might find himself living with another woman, trying to set up a second family. His responsibilities to the second family might make him feel some difficulty in fulfilling the maintenance order. This has nothing to do with a wilful refusal but is simply a failure to make the money go round to meet all the responsibilities. If, on the other hand, the man and the second wife, as I will call her, felt that there was hanging over them the sanction that unless the money was paid an attachment of income was possible, it would help them to set the commitment aside out of their budget and recognise that it must have the first call.
1608 I know that many of us would be most anxious that nothing in the Bill should detract from the standard of living of the children either of the first or of the second marriage. Our anxiety is to see that justice shall be done and that the children of the first marriage shall not be left in indigence so that the children and wife of a second marriage may enjoy on undue proportion of the income of the husband.
We recognise the difficulty of the self-employed person. We must recognise also that we do not claim that we shall eliminate the whole number of men who are sent to prison for failure to pay their responsibilities. Often there are very deep emotional, human reasons why these men go to prison. I should be the first to recognise that often their sense of injury and injustice is fair enough. There is a deep psychological trauma which makes them feel a bitterness that cannot be overcome, and out of their bitterness comes the firm refusal to pay and the feeling that they would rather go to prison than give a penny of their money to the woman who, they believe, has wronged them.
Once the husbands are in prison, unfortunately, their bitterness deepens and when they come out there can never be the reconciliation which might at some time have been brought about had there not been that period of imprisonment, which, I have found, puts the final seal on the breakdown of any marriage. It is the worst possible thing for any human relationship to end with one party behind prison walls. That makes the whole situation somehow terribly irretrievable. The most we can say is that the Bill will reduce the number of men who find themselves in that position. That is certainly the intention of those of us who support it.
The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Body) was fairly answered by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) in his mild strictures concerning the magistrates' courts. The situation as it affects the husband who is in a good job and who is nervous about his employer knowing his affairs is quite simply remedied: he has only to pay. That must be our main answer to those who oppose the Bill on these grounds. By not paying, not only is the man unfair to his wife and children, not only 1609 unfair to the general body of taxpayers, but he is very unfair to the large number of men who fulfil their obligations under maintenance orders, many of them, as we all know, with a big struggle to meet their obligations if they are on low wages.
It is a great pleasure to us all to know that we are to have the support and help of the Government in taking the Bill through its further stages. The hon. Member for Devonport, who introduced it, did so extremely ably, helpfully and modestly. I know that she feels, with us all, that this is a Bill of such complexity that there will be many points to be raised in Committee. We are only too glad that the House will give, as I am sure it will, the opportunity far the Bill to get to its Committee stage.
I can assure all hon. Members that the promoters of the Bill are more than open-minded on any proposals to improve it and make it more effective, because we recognise that there can be no foolproof legislation in matters which affect intimate human relationships. We only ask that this Bill should be allowed to go through its further stages in an attempt to do justice and fairness to a large number of women and children who are the unfortunate and unhappy casualties of broken marriages. We do that without any apportionment of blame. I certainly would not associate myself with any body of opinion which tried to suggest that this Bill was a women's measure against men, because that certainly is not the underlying intention.
It is not the job of this House, and it certainly is not the job of the promoters of this Bill, to be censorious and attribute blame to one party or another. A broken marriage is a tragedy for all concerned, and the most that we can do, and the most that this House can do, is to try to 1610 ensure some measure of financial stability for those who have suffered in this way.
§ 2.42 p.m.
§ Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)
I should like to say that I support this Bill, the Second Reading of which has been moved so very ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers). I know what a great interest she takes in all human problems, and this Bill certainly concerns a very human problem. I am very pleased to think that one of my neighbours in Devonshire is the promoter of the Bill.
There is a tendency nowadays for people to harp on their rights, and one gets rather sick of it sometimes. We all have rights, rights of equality before the law, and certain freedoms, which all the citizens of the British Commonwealth enjoy, and to which we have become so accustomed that we are apt to take them for granted. But we also have duties, and the man who enters upon matrimony has a duty to his family.
After all, the family unit is part of the very foundation of our Christian civilisation, and anything which tends to undermine the family or make it more difficult for a family to keep together is bad. The man who neglects his duty to his family is, to my mind, a bad citizen, and anything that we can do by means of this little Bill, which I think is a good Bill, to help to bring a culprit to book is a good thing. I am delighted that the Minister has spoken so sympathetically, and I hope that the Bill will soon be on the Statute Book.
§ 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).