HC Deb 25 March 1958 vol 585 cc272-99

Amendment made: In page 18, line 28, leave out from date "to" as "in line 29.—[Mr. Renton.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

5.34 p.m.

Mr. Renton

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Although the provisions of the Bill are rather dry and technical, indeed complicated, it deals with an important human problem—the problem of the woman who cannot get her maintenance, and of the man who drifts into prison because he has failed, more often by incompetence than malice, to keep up regular payment.

The House will recollect that this matter originated in a Private Member's Bill introduced in the last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers). I should like to thank her for the help which she has given. She can feel justly proud at seeing her idea now mainly accepted by both sides of the House and embodied in a Bill which, I suggest, is workable, and I should like to congratulate her.

The Bill has stimulated lively discussion, and sympathies have been warmly engaged on both sides of the argument. Knowing how strongly individual Members have felt about the matter, it is good to record that our proceedings have been conducted in a friendly spirit. I should like to thank hon. Members on both sides of the argument for their constructive help in improving the Bill. I should especially like to thank the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood), who showed much tact in leading two divergent columns of his own supporters in broadly the same direction, whereas I had to contend only with my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).

In spite of our arguments, there has I think been broad agreement on two principles—that a man who fails to pay through wilfulness or neglect, and not through misfortune, should be made to pay, and that he should, if possible, be made to pay without being sent to prison. The object of the Bill is to ensure that adequate means of enforcing payment, other than prison, are available. We achieve that object in two ways: by opening the range of High Court enforcement procedures to orders made in magistrates' courts, and, secondly, by adding to the existing methods of enforcement, the new method of attachment of earnings.

In achieving this, we have done our best to avoid unfairness to the man. We have paid heed to the fears expressed by hon. Members about that alarming character the vindictive wife, who brooded like an evil spirit over our proceedings upstairs, and we have barred the way to merely mischief-making registration in the High Court by providing that orders shall not be registered until four weeks' arrears have accrued.

The Opposition pleaded eloquently for the man who defaults through temporary misfortune, such as sickness and unemployment, and during the Report stage we have inserted certain safeguards. I wonder if I may say a word or two about these, because I know that this is a matter about which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee felt rather strongly, and I think it is right that we should clarify the position which has been reached after a good deal of coming and going and the moving of Amendments.

The Amendment which I moved on Report stage, to which an Opposition Amendment had been proposed when we adjourned our proceedings ten days ago—both the Government Amendment and the Opposition Amendment—had the same object, namely, to preclude the court from making an attachment of earnings order where the husband's default was not due to his wilful refusal or culpable neglect. It was generally agreed in Committee that, in achieving that object, we should not put the onus on the wife to prove wilful refusal or culpable neglect, because it would have been giving her an impossible task, bearing in mind that the facts relating to the case are not in her possession at all, but necessarily in her husband's. That was why in our Amendment we placed the onus clearly on the husband to satisfy the court that the default was not due to his wilful refusal or culpable neglect.

The Opposition suggested that there might be cases—though I think they would be rare cases—where the husband chose neither to appear nor to be represented in court, but where, nevertheless, it might become apparent to the court, from facts already in its possession, that his default was not due to his wilful refusal or culpable neglect.

We came to the conclusion that no injustice would be done to the wife—and I must stress that the burden of proof would not be placed upon her—if we accepted the Opposition Amendment which, as hon. Members will have noticed at the beginning of today's proceedings, we did. I say that there is nothing unfair to the wife in this, and no burden is placed upon her, because under Clause 6 (1) the wife will have to prove that there are at least four weeks of payment in arrears and that the defendant is a person to whom earnings fall to be paid. The court will then have a discretion to make an attachment of earnings order "if it thinks fit," and those are the operative words. That discretion covers the whole of the application proceedings.

If the defendant does not appear, and does not bring the matter to the notice of the court, the question whether a default was due to his wilful refusal or culpable neglect will not arise unless it appears to the court to arise. The wife is not likely to draw attention to the matter herself. If the defendant wishes to appear, he can raise the matter and therefore bring it in issue; but, of course, if he does appear, it will be for him to show that there was no wilful refusal or culpable neglect. If he does not appear, the court can of its own volition consider the matter.

In those circumstances, we hope that everyone will feel that the solution ultimately reached by the usual and excellent method of give-and-take by both sides is the right one. As was said by my right hon. Friend during the Second Reading debate, there are 3,000 prisoners sleeping three in a cell; and that figure, bad enough in itself, has now risen. Prisoners cost us nearly £6 a head per week, and therefore we ought to try to avoid sending several thousand men a year to prison for defaulting on maintenance orders. We believe that this Bill will considerably reduce that figure. If it does no more than that, it will have been worth while, but we believe also that it will ensure that many wives who cannot now get money to which they are entitled will get it in future, and it will remove the reproach that court orders cannot be made effective because the present methods of enforcement prevent men from earning the means to pay, and relieve them of their accumulated debt.

Opinions about the Bill among employers have been divided. It places a burden, not on a small minority of employers—that would be the wrong way to put it—it places a potential burden on employers in a minute proportion of cases. But, bearing in mind the social benefits to be obtained from this Bill, we feel that is a burden which, as time goes on, employers will readily accept. We intend to produce a pamphlet explaining the operation of the Bill which should simplify the task of employers. It is with the confidence that between us we have done a good job, and that the Bill will have beneficial results, that I commend it to the House.

5.44 p.m.

Mr. Lee

This is now a far better Bill than it was before the Committee stage discussions. The Joint Under-Secretary was quite right when he said that his hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) introduced a similar Measure some time ago as a Private Member's Bill. I seem to remember, however, that even before that Bill my right hon. Friend the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) had similar ideas. I do not think it any secret that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) had something to do with the drafting of a Bill then.

The Under-Secretary congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) on being able to bring conflicting elements within the Opposition into unity on this issue. We have never hidden the fact that we have differing views about certain principles in the Bill. I do not know whether it is a mark of the strength of the Opposition or of the weakness of the Government that on a Bill in connection with which admittedly there are differing views among hon. Members on this side of the House, we were strong enough to defeat the Government on a notable and important Amendment. The hon. and learned Gentleman could have been a little more gracious and complimented my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale on that achievement also. However, we are charitable in our approach to the Government—goodness knows, they need our charity—and we will proceed to examine what is now contained in the Bill.

It is the fact that the principles contained in this Measure cut across party lines. During the Committee stage discussions on the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Devonport, some searching Amendments were put down by hon. Members opposite which departed entirely from the principles in that Bill. Those same hon. Members were silent regarding similar issues during the Committee stage discussions on this Bill and I think we understand why. Nevertheless, it is the fact that when the House surveys this Measure hon. Members must keep in mind that there is opposition to some of the proposals in it from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Rebellious souls who air their grievances during discussions on a Private Member's Bill may well consider it necessary not to be quite so rebellious when discussing a similar Government Measure. However, that does not alter the fact that there are differing opinions on some of the salient features of this Bill.

We are discussing a new principle which has never before been accepted in England and Wales. It is right and proper, therefore, that the House should give detailed consideration to such a fundamental change as that enshrined in this Bill. Some of us on this side of the House were persuaded to tone down our opposition by the statement of the Home Secretary during the Second Reading debate that the principle of attachment as applied to maintenance orders would not be widened; or that this Bill would not be used as a lever to widen the scope to include other debts which might be incurred, such as hire-purchase commitments and things of that kind. We attach a lot of importance to that statement, and we shall expect the Government to adhere to what was said by the Home Secretary. It would be quite misleading, however, if I gave the impression that all sections of the community have accepted the principle of attachment. The General Council of the T.U.C. still has reservations about that principle.

We hope that some of the fears which we have voiced during the discussions will proved to be ill-founded. Now that this is to become law, we hope that many of the things we feared will not come about. We believe, and we have said, that men who, rightly or wrongly, consider that they have been ruined by maintenance orders of this type being made against them may refuse to stay in regular work and become casual workers. I could outline to the House instances of that kind.

I am not arguing that the men are right. I am thinking of men who have not had a happy married life and who have felt that they were wronged. It could be, now that we are attaching maintenance orders to wages, that they would refuse to remain as regular employees. A man might say to his employer, "I have taken a stand on principle. I will not permit you to deduct this money. I choose to disappear and to become a casual worker." That would be a very great tragedy. I hope that the Government will watch very closely the way in which the legislation works, and if they find that kind of thing happening I hope they will not hesitate to say that the legislation needs amendment.

No matter what attitude my hon. Friends have taken on the Bill, none of them has tried to defend the unscrupulous or unworthy person who would rather leave his dependants to be looked after by the State and go along in poverty or negligence. We have been concerned with the man who, even wrongly, may take up an attitude which none of us would desire. We have tried to argue that the Government should ensure that that kind of thing does not happen.

When the Bill of the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport was before us we took exception to the provision that a prerequisite was to be that a man should be an employee. Before an attachment order could be made, the man must be in receipt of wages or salary. My hon. Friends argued that this was class legislation and that people who were not employees, but whose actions could be detrimental to their families, would not come under it as long as that condition remained. The Government have tried to broaden the matter out in the Bill. In doing so, they have complicated the Bill very much. I do not complain that they have made a genuine effort to meet us but, despite the Amendments which the Government have accepted to Clause 17, the interpretation Clause—I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Amendments which he has just moved on the Report stage—we still feel there is a lack of clarity about the Clause.

We discussed emoluments, earnings and the like in Committee and pointed out that flats, houses, cars, etc., were now being given to certain types of employee, in some cases directors, in lieu of cash. The legislation which we are discussing does not take that kind of thing into account. The interpretation Clause is very vague. The Under-Secretary of State said that examination of the matter was being pursued. We are not entirely satisfied with the Clause as it is now drawn.

The principal Clause dealing with attachment is Clause 6, on which we had a long and detailed discussion in Committee. We suggested that to give a wife an opportunity to get an attachment order after arrears of four weekly payments was going rather near the bone, and that at least eight periods of arrears should accumulate before action can be taken to get an attachment order. I still feel that four weeks is not sufficiently long. The Government have accepted very much of our argument by excluding men in the Merchant Navy from being brought into the Bill, for obvious reasons.

We pointed out that many other types of people besides members of the Merchant Navy were not in a position to meet an attachment order based upon weekly payments. For many weeks on end, hundreds of thousands of workers in certain types of industry draw a minimum wage far below their average, and they do not draw bonus. They may be on day shift instead of night shift. All such points must be considered, because they amount to the kind of consideration which the Government have given to the Merchant Navy.

We discussed the ability of magistrates' courts to discharge committal orders. I do not want to recall the painful chapter for the Government, but they may remember that they could not get a majority in the Lobby against our Amendment, because a good many hon. Members who normally support the Government agreed with us on that occasion, and there was a majority on that issue. In spite of arguments, I still do not understand how a Government who introduce legislation to attach orders to wages can be reconciled to keeping men in prison at this very moment and thereby refusing to allow them to earn wages and have an order attached to them. However much we may differ among ourselves on this Bill, we are unanimous on this side of the House on this point, and we ask the Home Secretary to examine this position again before the Bill goes to another place.

We are still not clear why payments made by the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance are excluded from the Bill. I should not have thought that the value of money depended upon the source from which it came. It is an amazing admission that if money is paid through a Government agency like the Ministry of Pensions it is, for some reason not explained to us, excluded from the Bill. We have never had any logical explanation of that. Even at this late stage I hope that someone upon the Government Front Bench will tell us, or will give us an assurance, that the matter will be looked at again before the Bill goes to another place.

We have tried to improve the proposals which the Government brought before us. We feel that, because of the acceptance of Amendments moved by my hon. Friends in Committee and on Report, the Measure is now better than when it first appeared before the House. I do not necessarily believe that it is yet as good as we should like it to be. I hope that the Home Secretary will note what my hon. Friends have said during the various stages of our deliberations and see his way clear to amend it even further in another place to correspond with the many constructive and able suggestions put forward by Her Majesty's Opposition.

6.1 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I wish to take the opportunity of the debate on Third Reading to express sincere thanks to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary for bringing the Bill forward.

I wish also to thank the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) for the way in which he has helped with the Bill and the right hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Robens), whose speech on Second Reading impressed the House very much.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to the hon. Lady the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White), who originated the suggestion which led to the establishment of the Commission on Marriage and Divorce, and we are grateful to the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill).

I pay tribute to the sincerity, tenacity and courage of the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) and the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons) for sticking to their principles and stating them so clearly in debates on the Private Member's Bill that I introduced and on this Bill.

I wish to say a word of thanks to the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Not only was he a sponsor of my Private Member's Bill, but he was Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department when this Bill was taken over by the Government. In defence of my Private Member's Bill I should say to the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) that that Bill was not in any way intended as class legislation. Although I realise that the present Bill is a much better one than I could have produced, at the time I introduced my Bill we knew there were other means of taking money from salaried people and those who had private means by garnishee methods. I would not be a party to bringing in legislation which savoured of class legislation.

In debates on this Bill I think that hon. Members on both sides had consideration for women and children. We were very desirous that their security should be made more sure in future. We particularly want to remember women left with small children to bring up. Looking round the Chamber now I do not think very much can be said about "vindictive women". There are 28 women Members of Parliament, but only three are here now, so I think that we can say that this matter is not being put over from the feminist point of view.

This Bill will be beneficial on the question of affiliation orders. I believe I have the agreement of all hon. Members who worked on the Committee when I say that they are very keen to see that women who have had illegitimate children should keep them in their care. I hope that as a result of this Bill the father of the child concerned will have to maintain the child rather than it being adopted or put into the care of the local authority. I believe that the Bill will help local authorities because there will be better contact with parents, and parents will have to help maintain those children.

The Bill will be a deterrent to the sending of men to prison. When a man feels that he cannot get out of his responsibilities, he will consider the matter a second time and many families may be reunited because a man will not be able to leave his responsibilities entirely. I hope that it will be a deterrent to separa- tion in future. Having made several inquiries in the country, I think that even before it becomes an Act the Bill is having a good effect. I have come across quite a number of magistrates who have put men on probation rather than sending them to prison. In view of what we have heard about the increasing sharing of cells, I think that that will be a good thing. Men have been put on probation because magistrates know that if they do not pay action can be taken when the Bill becomes an Act.

This Bill did another good thing in Committee upstairs. It meant that the quorum was changed from 15 to 12 and we have managed to keep a quorum for Private Members' Bills since. During the Committee stage on the Private Member's Bill and on this Bill hon. Members retained their independence. We did not necessarily obey the Government Whip. Hon. Members voted according to personal opinions although it was a Government Bill.

Several hon. Members have wondered how the Bill will work out. I wish to suggest that perhaps some records might be kept by magistrates of the number of cases that come before them, the number in which orders are made, how they are kept, and, finally, the numbers who have to go to prison. If possible, we should find the cost caused by women and children who still may have to apply for National Assistance. That information would be most helpful to hon. Members on both sides of the House who might still have doubts about how effective the Bill will be.

One often wonders about public opinion in the country. I believe that this Bill has enabled us to sound public opinion. From the chairman of the Royal Commission downwards, many people have changed their opinions. Through the Press we have had an adequate opportunity of learning that opinion. As a result I think that the Bill will have more chance of working satisfactorily. I again thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for their kindness in bringing forward the Bill, which, I hope, will prove a blessing to the whole country.

6.8 p.m.

Mr. Usborne

As an hon. Member who, alas, was not a member of the Standing Committee which considered this Bill—not through any fault of my own, because I announced my interest and applied to serve on this Committee but was not asked to do so—

Mr. Pannell

What was my hon. Friend's interest?

Mr. Usborne

As hon. Members know, I am associated with the National Marriage Guidance Council which from the start has had a very great interest in the Bill and has done much to support its passage. I should say on behalf of that Council how pleased it will be when the Bill becomes an Act.

There is a small point of criticism I wish to make. Probably it ought to have been made in Committee, but, as I have said, I did not serve on the Committee and this point has been noticed only a few days ago. I believe, nevertheless, that it is an important and relevant matter. I put down a new Clause on Report stage but in its wisdom the Chair did not call it. I do not know why, but I gather it was considered not necessary. I presume, therefore, that somewhere in this Bill this point is taken care of. My criticism is that it is not very clear to some experts, nor to some amateurs like myself, how it is taken care of.

A man having part of his wages attached is working for an industrial company. The company runs into financial difficulties and is on the point of going bankrupt. It is not uncommon for a company in that peculiar sort of situation to fail actually to hand out wages to its employees for a number of weeks or even months. Indeed, such a failure is so common that, in the Companies Act, 1948, it is laid down that if an employee of a company has not received his wages for up to four months, those wages shall be regarded as a preferential debt when the company goes into liquidation. If it is provided that an employee's wages not paid shall be given preferential treatment over other commercial debts of a company, it should, I feel, be equally clear that any increment to be deducted by way of attachment which is, for precisely the same reason, unlikely to be paid over, ought to receive the same preferential treatment.

Mr. J. Silverman

They are still wages.

Mr. Usborne

They are not quite wages, because they should have been deducted from the wages. If the company's secretary or cashier was doing his job, those moneys ought to have been deducted from the wages. On being deducted, they cease at that point of time, being theoretically detached, to be wages and they then really belong to the court to which they should be turned over. However, I will not argue the matter, for I am not a lawyer.

The point is important. It has been brought to my attention by one of the officers of the National Marriage Guidance Council. I should be very pleased if the Joint Under-Secretary would look at the matter again to see whether the point is valid and whether it is covered by the Bill as it stands. If it is not, perhaps matters could be put right in another place.

I repeat my congratulations to the Government and, indeed, to the House as a whole, upon passing on its way into law a Bill which, when it goes on the Statute Book, will be regarded as a very important and valuable reform.

6.12 p.m.

Mr. Donald Sumner (Orpington)

I wish to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers). I saw a good deal of her work when she was, if I may say so, paving the way and providing the inspiration for what has now become this Bill. The House as a whole, the country, and particularly many wives and, despite themselves, many husbands, will have reason to be grateful to her. If I may, I will give one short illustration of what I believe will be the value of my hon. Friend's work.

One night, not long ago, a constituent was brought to me at home by his employer because the police, to his utter amazement, had come to collect the man and take him off to prison. He was a somewhat ignorant, careless sort of individual. One soon found out that a suspended order had been made against him because he was not making payments to his wife. He did not really understand it at all and he certainly did not believe that he was ever going off to prison.

Mr. C. Pannell

He sounds like a Conservative.

Mr. Sumner

I never trouble to inquire the politics of people in trouble in this way. Whatever he was, he was a careless sort of person, and this was the situation in which he found himself. He had not saved up any money, and there was a very large sum, well over £100, due from him. There was no opportunity for him to go to court again to plead his case, and one could tell him only that he would indeed be collected by the police—he had been given until the next morning—and taken off to prison.

That was, in fact, what happened. He was taken away from a good job. He left the other woman—there is so often another woman in these cases—and her children in circumstances in which it seemed likely that they would have to vacate their accommodation. His wife was not a penny better off as a result, and an extra burden was put upon the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport will be able in future to think that that sort of hardship will be avoided because of what she has done and what she has inspired. That reason alone will suffice me in saying that it has been a pleasure to have the opportunity to congratulate her today.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. D. Jones

I am very glad the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) has taken part in this debate. Far be it for me to take away from her any of the credit which is due for this Bill, but during the long proceedings in Committee one began to wonder whether she had lost interest, because we hardly heard a word from her in support of it.

Although I do not wish to detract from the credit which has been given to her this evening, I feel it should be put upon record that there have been many attempts in the House to have the attachment of income made law, long before the hon. Lady introduced her Private Member's Bill. Indeed, as far back as 1934, the Fischer Williams Committee recommended it in its Report, but it was not adopted by the Government of the day. Later attempts to introduce proposals on similar lines have been unsuccessful. One such proposal was considered during the passage through Parliament of the Married Women (Maintenance) Bill, 1949. The Women's Disabilities Bill, introduced in 1952 and again in 1953, contained provision for deduction of maintenance payments from wages. For the benefit of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary, that quotation is taken from the Report of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce. We should have it on record, at any rate, that there were other hon. Members who attempted to secure the enactment of such a Measure before the hon. Lady.

I hope that all the hopes and expectations for the success of the Bill will be realised. I still have grave fears that, in practice, it will work out very differently. My fears are shared by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and, indeed, by many employers. I will not weary the House tonight, but hon. Members will recall that I read to the Committee a letter dated 17th April, 1957, from the Derby and Derbyshire Chambers of Commerce in which were expressed grave doubts as to whether the Bill ought to become law because of the inconvenience that will be caused to the employers concerned. I am glad the hon. and learned Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary of State corrected himself this afternoon. He did rather give the impression in Committee that employers had altered their minds about the Bill. He was good enough today to tell us that there are two points of view among employers about how the Bill will work.

It seems to me that there are severe dangers still to be expected. I was glad to hear the hon. and learned Gentleman say that it is his right hon. Friend's intention, when the Bill has passed through all its stages, to publish a pamphlet. I presume that that pamphlet will be available to employers and employees, and I make the suggestion that, in that pamphlet, he should indicate in thick black type that any attempt at victimisation by employers because of the difficulties which are likely to be caused to them by the Bill will meet with the stern disapproval of the Home Secretary.

I still believe that there will be a tendency for employers to discriminate. An employer who does not employ many people may well find it difficult or inconvenient to employ a man who has an order under the Bill made against him. One must remember that the calculations may differ from week to week and from person to person. The employer in those circumstances will run the serious risk of either disobeying the law in underpaying or the employee creating trouble because the employer has over-deducted. With all those difficulties facing the small employer, he may find it more convenient to get rid of the man rather than to suffer those difficulties. I hope, therefore, that the Home Secretary will make crystal clear to the employers that any attempt at victimisation will be met with his stern disapproval.

Regarding the suggestion of the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport, if statistics are to be gathered about the operation of the Bill, I hope that we shall endeavour to ascertain how many people with attachment of income orders have had their employment terminated. I can well understand that no employer will make it clear that he proposes to discharge a man because of the existence of an attachment of income order, but there are a thousand other methods by which the employees' services can be dispensed with.

Therefore, it seems to me that the Bill will need to be carefully examined. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) I hope that my fears about it are ill-founded. If the Bill can be operated fairly, it will contribute in some ways towards easing the situation of women whose husbands have left them. But if in the process of easing those difficulties it creates industrial dissension—and there is a danger of that—it may do more harm than good. I wish the Bill well, but I have very great fears that it will not operate properly.

6.23 p.m.

Mrs. L. Jeger

In view of the very gracious tribute that the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers) paid to those who preceded her in work in this sphere, I do not think that there is any need for me to repeat once again the debt that we all owe to her and to those who gave thought to this difficult problem in earlier years.

There is one important reason for supporting the Bill which has not so far been mentioned. The Bill gives a considerable opportunity to uphold the authority of the courts. It is very puzzling to many women who, after careful thought and often great difficulty, screw up their courage to go to court to bring this kind of action against a man who has deserted. It has been very puzzling and embittering to them that, when the court has found that a matrimonial offence has been committed against them, the law of our land was helpless to enforce the findings of the court in any constructive or useful way.

The community owes a great debt to our magistrates' courts for the work done in this difficult sphere. In 1956, out of 23,000 applications for maintenance brought in the magistrates' courts by married women, orders were made in only 13,000 cases. That is to say that only just over half the applications were successful. I emphasise these figures because there has been a great deal of talk during the various stages of the Bill which seemed to suggest that some hon. Members felt that women had things too much their own way and that magistrates' courts tended to take too favourable a view of the woman plaintiff. The fact that only just over one half of the applications that were brought were granted is a useful reminder.

I would not for one moment have been associated in support for the Bill if it discriminated one way or the other. I think that that goes for all of us who have worked on it through all its stages. When a marriage breaks down, it is a tragedy for everybody. Those of us who have had any experience of social work would say that there is hardly ever a case of a marriage breaking down where the blame is 100 per cent. on one side or the other. The job that the Bill tries to do must be limited to ensuring some kind of help for the casualties of the break-down of marriages. It is not for Parliament to be censorious or to apportion blame.

The Bill has also a very big contribution to make with regard to unmarried mothers, but, again, I think that, far from taking unfair advantage of the provisions of the law, unmarried mothers hesitate too much to apply for what should be theirs by right. For instance, out of 33,000 illegitimate children born last year, in only 4,000 cases did the mothers apply for affiliation orders. I know that that is partly accounted for by the fact that many unmarried mothers may be living happily with the fathers of their children and receiving support from them. There are others who make private arrangements of their own without going to the court. However, there is still a large number of unmarried mothers who are supporting their children without any help.

Many of the 4,000 women who apply for orders are let down week after week after an order has been made. All of us must know, as Members of Parliament, the terrible situation in which this puts a girl who has no other source of income. She has the painfulness of dreary weekly journeys to the court to say to the clerk, "Is there anything for me this week?", and she has to come away knowing that once again there is nothing for her. We know that the National Assistance Board tries to help materially in these cases, but, although the Board can relieve the immediate material need, it is no recompense in other ways to a girl who is let down in this way.

The second reason why I hope that the Bill will become law is that the community has been carrying an unfair burden in picking up, as it were, the responsibilities that men have rejected. The National Assistance Board, which has been helping to maintain 70,000 wives who are separated from their husbands, 26,500 of whom have small children, is surely making a bigger contribution than is fair. I hope that the Bill will mean that, not only through the National Assistance Board, but also through the other community services which have to be brought into play in these circumstances, economies which will be helpful to the public will be made. The main reason, however, for supporting this Bill must be that we look to it to ensure that women and children receive some stability and security, because that is as important as economic solvency.

I want to say a few words to my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones). I thank him for the clear way in which, throughout our deliberations, he has left us in no doubt about his point of view. I appreciate the difficulties which many trade unionists feel about this matter, but I would remind him and others who share his view that there are a few women members in our trade unions and I know that he would wish to represent their views also.

I am thinking specially of the National Union of Railwaymen, many of whose members live in my constituency. While he was speaking today my thoughts turned to the case of one of the women members of the National Union of Railwaymen who came to see me not long ago in grievous circumstances. Her husband had left her with two small children, without any word of what had happened to him. She has had to struggle alone for years to bring up those children, and she has managed to do so without any help from public funds. She was very proud when she got a job on the railway and, through her own labour—and very heavy labour—managed to bring up a family single-handed. In those circumstances a woman has as much right to look to her trade union representatives to support a Measure which will help her as has her husband, who went off on a long ride from which he has still not returned—I hope not at the expense of the National Union of Railwaymen.

We have tried to meet some of the difficulties which have been raised, and in the circumstances I hope that the Government will watch the Measure in the early years of its existence. I am a little anxious whether the courts will keep the protected earnings limit high enough, and I am specially worried about the position where a second family exists. None of us would want a man who has made a second start, and has another family of small children, to be put into the position of being unable to support that second family. It is most important that those children should receive fair consideration.

We should be encouraged by the support which the Bill has had from the Magistrates' Association and many other bodies with great experience of this work, including the Society of Probation Officers, which should know, perhaps better than any other body, the difficulties and complications involved in this sort of work.

We are all indebted to the hon. Lady and to those who have worked in Committee to try to meet objections and difficulties put forward in all fairness. We must accept the fact, however, that this is only an ambulance Bill; it deals only with marriages which have broken down. I hope that there will be other occasions when the House can find time to apply its mind more constructively to the very many measures which should be taken to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, which might save many marriages from breaking down. Within the limits of what we are trying to do, and within the rules of order, however, I am very glad to have this opportunity of wishing the Bill every success.

6.34 p.m.

Mr. C. Pannell

I would reaffirm what was apparent in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. L. Jeger) namely, that from the beginning a majority of Members on both sides of the House has been in favour of the Bill. There has been an active minority, but the passage of the Bill tonight emphasises what should be apparent in any democracy, namely, that although minorities have their rights—and they have had considerable ones in connection with the Bill—in the last resort majorities must govern. I am fairly sure that the majority view represents the mind of the country. Not only to people who have sat on magistrates' benches, but to the more unfortunate women who have had to come before them, there has seemed to be something particularly frustrating about the fact that people could purge their normal liabilities by going to prison.

My constituency contains Armley Gaol, which always has about 30 men who have been imprisoned for this sort of offence. Anybody visiting such a prison and seeing three men in a cell will realise that nobody can consider this problem without a good deal of perturbation and alarm.

I hope that none of us will be ungenerous or ungrudging in the praise we give the hon. Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers). It is hardly fair to suggest that she was silent when her own Bill was in Committee. Throughout that period, because the minority was kicking up all the row, she had to be silent. Consequently, it must have been a very sore trial for her to keep quiet. Anyhow, the Committee held out, and at last caused the Government to adopt the Bill.

We ought to point out that the Bill deals with only a minority of marriages. Much of what has been said in opposition to it has been a waste of time, because the Bill does not seek to create maintenance orders; it merely seeks to enforce those already made. When dealing with the casualties of marriage it is as well to point out that it is, nevertheless, still a very popular institution. People who become divorced do not remain separated for very long; they marry again very quickly.

The great majority of men make some settlement with their wives at the end of the week. The best marriages are those in which the wife does not ask how much the husband is getting, but is satisfied so long as she receives what she regards as a fair share to enable her to bring up her children decently. In the main, the successful marriages are those where money is not mentioned at all, but is merely passed over.

Mr. S. Silverman

What does my hon. Friend mean by its being passed over?

Mr. Pannell

I shall not get involved in a point of order on that issue.

The Bill does not necessarily deal with men in prison, or with the amount of public assistance; it is concerned with the proper care of wives and children—especially illegitimate children. The other factors are side issues. The fact that we pay money which should be paid by the defaulting husband, and that men are in prison who ought not to be, are important considerations, but the most important consideration is that where a man and a woman get married the woman should look to the man as her principal means of support. We should emphasise that fact, because marriage is a civilised institution which should be fostered and cherished, and the Bill moves towards that end.

6.38 p.m.

Mr. V. Yates

I very much welcome the Bill. The hon. Member for Devon-port (Miss Vickers), who introduced her own Bill last year, is entitled to much credit for this one. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), who said that the hon. Lady had not had much to say in support of her Bill in Committee. We spent many hours listening to the arguments upon it.

I will give one or two reasons why feel that the Bill is to be especially welcomed. My hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools has expressed great fears on behalf of the trade union movement. My complaint about the Trades Union Congress and the trade union movement is that they are sometimes a little too conservative. In the past the Trades Union Congress was very much against family allowances for years before their introduction, so the argument of fear is not valid.

What is a valid point is that the Joint Under-Secretary, when proposing the Second Reading of the Bill, referred to the large number of men in prison. In all the prisons I have visited I have never found a governor who did not feel that such people ought not to be in prison. In my submission they ought not to be in prison not only because of the overcrowded conditions, but because it is wrong for this type of person to be contaminated through our prison system. There should be other ways of dealing with these people.

I hope that the Home Secretary will not only soon find a way of relieving overcrowding but also of reducing the number of hours during which prisoners remain in their cells. Sometimes they have to remain there for 18 hours a day. Because this Bill will relieve overcrowding, because I believe it is wrong that these people should be in prison, because I believe the conditions are so bad as to make criminals rather than to rehabilitate people of this type, I welcome the Bill. I believe that it will go down in history as one of the great reforms of our time. I think that experience will prove the fears that have been expressed to have been unjustified, just as fears on other reforms have proved to be unjustified.

I welcome the Bill and I express my thanks to the hon. Lady the Member for Devonport. The Joint Under-Secretary showed considerable kindness in Committee in giving thought to our points, as he has done tonight, and I thank him for the sympathy that he has shown to hon. Members on this side of the House who have had fears about the matter.

6.43 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood

Before the Home Secretary replies to the debate, I would like to make two points very briefly, because we have other important legislation to consider before the day finishes.

First, I want to echo the thanks expressed by a number of hon. Members to the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary and to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Joint Under-Secretary for their handling of the Bill, and for the way they have fathered and maintained the Bill, which had three such delightful mothers in the hon. Lady the Member for Devon-port (Miss Vickers), my right hon. Friend the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) and my hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White). Also, we should not forget to express our thanks to the midwife, as it were, the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

Secondly, I wish shortly to summarise the views of the Opposition upon this Bill. As is well known, we have had misgivings throughout our discussions, but we have given the Bill careful consideration. It merited consideration and the results have justified the care given to it. The House ought to thank those of my hon. Friends who took a great deal of trouble in tabling Amendments, many of which were accepted ultimately by the Government. As a result, it is a much better Bill than it was when it had its Second Reading in this House, and in a small way the results reflect great credit upon our system of government in this country.

Throughout we have sought to improve the Bill. We have sought to make the enforcement of the law effective and, at the same time, to keep men out of prison. We have tried to protect wives and children without being unduly oppressive to the husband, and we have tried to protect the husband against the spiteful wife and the wife against the spiteful or vindictive husband. The results of our efforts are not inconsiderable, and I would remind the House of six of those results.

First, we have established that there will be no registration of maintenance orders in the High Court until arrears are already in existence. Secondly, an attachment order will not be made unless it is established that there is wilful refusal or culpable neglect on the part of the man concerned. Thirdly, there will be a right of appeal for a man against his employer's interpretation of what constitutes earnings. Fourthly, we have made some progress towards ensuring that imprisonment will not wipe out arrears. Fifthly, we have closed a loophole in the case of persons employed by foreign governments. Finally, the hon. and learned Gentleman today conceded an Amendment of the definition of earnings, which, previously, we believed was too narrow.

There are, therefore, great improvements in the Bill and I think that our efforts have been justified. It would be unfair, however, not to remind the House that we are not altogether satisfied that the Bill is wholly free from loopholes. I am afraid that it will get at the industrious man in regular employment and that magistrates may well consider the awarding of an attachment order as the easiest and most effective way of making a maintenance order effective. I do not think that it will affect the case of the real wastrel, the man who refuses to work to maintain his family and is prepared to live at public expense.

I do not think that it will get at the man who is prepared to give up his job, to leave his employment and go to another part of the country, or possibly to keep his earnings down deliberately to the protected level. So there are weaknesses and the Bill will not be quite as successful as many of us would like it to be. Nevertheless, it is a Bill to which we shall give an unopposed Third Reading.

I repeat the warning given by my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Lee). Over and over again in these discussions we have emphasised the dislike many of us feel for the principle of attachment. We welcome the assurance that the Home Secretary and the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury gave on the occasion of its Second Reading. It is because of those assurances that we have given an unopposed Second Reading, and propose to give an unopposed Third Reading, to the Bill.

Attachment, however, can be a slippery slope and it is a very short step from attaching a man's wages for arrears of maintenance order or affiliation order to attaching them because he is in arrears for his rates or rent or hire purchase or civil debts of various kinds. That is something on which we accept the assurance of the Government, but we emphasise that any extension of attachment is something we would not tolerate on this side of the House. Any attempt to extend it beyond the limit we have rather reluctantly conceded in this case would be met with the united opposition of both the industrial and political wings of the Labour movement.

Having said that, we believe that this Bill, in a rather limited way, will serve a useful purpose. We are grateful to the Government for the way they have handled it, we appreciate the concessions that they have made, and we hope that in another place it will be still further improved.

6.50 p.m.

Mr. R. A. Butler

It will be courteous to the House if I conclude this Third Reading debate with a few words, but I am sure the House will understand that I shall not make a long speech. I should like to thank hon. Members present and those who took part in the Committee debates for enabling us to carry the Bill to its Third Reading, and I repeat the undertaking which I gave earlier, that the various points we have said will he reconsidered will be considered before the Bill goes to another place.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Miss Vickers). In answer to the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), I must say that if one is very keen on a Bill it is very often better to keep quiet. That is what we always tell Ministers when we want to get business through. It is very often better for the Executive to say very little, because business then goes through very much better.

Mr. D. Jones

Would that have applied to the right hon. Gentleman's hon. and learned Friend a couple of weeks ago?

Mr. Butler

The hon. Lady the Member for Devonport has followed this practice with great skill, with the result that she sees her Bill, although slightly changed, but still in a form which I hope she will find satisfactory, now moving to its Third Reading. The Government have been very glad to take it over. We were quite aware that it would not be easy, but it is a measure of considerable social reform.

One or two hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Yardley (Mr. Usborne), referred to the Marriage Guidance Council, with which I have been closely associated and which I greatly value. I understand that the Council has approved the step we are taking. I welcome that, as I welcome the support of the many other bodies which have been behind the Bill.

The hon. Member for Yardley referred to an Amendment which was in his name but was not called, dealing with the sums due from an employer under an attachment of earnings order when an employer was bankrupt or when a company was subject to winding up proceedings. That seemed to be a legitimate point, and even though it was not discussed here I will undertake to look into that matter before the Bill proceeds to another place.

The hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Lee) referred to the temporary local difficulty into which the Government fell when the Bill was in Committee. I can only say that, with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), I was responsible for a very considerable piece of social reform, the Education Act, 1944. At a critical moment in the passage of that Act, when almost the whole House was in favour of the reform, the Government were defeated on a vital matter, namely, equal pay, but that did not deter the Government of the day. Indeed, that issue was dealt with in a somewhat Draconian manner by the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), who caused us not only to eat our words but to troop through the Lobbies.

Mr. S. Silverman

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm what used to be said in the Lobbies at that time, that his right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford refused to carry on the direction of the war unless women continued to be paid less than men in schools?

Mr. Butler

I do not think my right hon. Friend elevated that into a matter of principle. We are about to discuss women and their place in the reform of the other place. My right hon. Friend elevated to a matter of principle the absolute necessity of supporting the Government of the day in a major reform which they were introducing.

I was somewhat comforted by the events of the other night, because I felt that one important social reform with which I had been connected had been marked—I do not say marred—by an event of that sort, and I am sure that this Bill will have the same glorious future as the education reform for which the whole House was responsible during the war.

Mr. Lee

Will the right hon. Gentleman suggest to the Chancellor that he should make sure that his Budget is defeated with the same object?

Mr. Butler

I think that that ranks rather differently. I should not have liked any of my Budgets to be defeated. I reserve this right or privilege to matters of important social reform. Devices of this sort very often serve the purposes which animate hon. Members discussing a Bill. That is the spirit in which we took our temporary reverse, and that is the spirit in which the Bill will go forward.

The hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) referred to the views of organised labour and the trade unions and to the doubts of the Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce about the Bill. It ought to be said by the Government in the concluding stages of this Bill that organised labour has taken a very generous attitude, because there have undoubtedly been fears about what the hon. Gentleman described as an extension of the attachment of earnings principle.

I repeat the pledges which I and the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury have given, namely, that the Bill is not intended to be a slippery slope for the further attachment of earnings. If it is any comfort, I reaffirm what I have already said, namely, that the right attitude towards this particular Measure has been taken in regarding it as a particular Measure in which the attachment of earnings is legitimate.

The hon. Member for Rossendale referred to six improvements in the Bill. I have noted them, and I agree that they are six improvements. They were made in Committee, and here I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary, who has plunged into this matter with practically no notice and who took it on with the skill not only of one used to the forensic art, but with this reform very much at heart. It is largely due to his attention that we have been able to make necessary Amendments to the Bill, and I am glad that the Opposition feel that those Amendments have been worth while.

In conclusion, those interested in penal reform have attempted to keep the dour taint of prison from as many people as possible. As the hon. Member for Ladywood said, those who have visited prisons—and my experience of visiting prisons has been largely during my period as Home Secretary—will agree that if only one or two men can be kept out of prison, then that is a great reform. I see two of my predecessors sitting opposite, and they will agree with me that this is something which greatly affects one in my present office. Even a visit to prison puts one back in one's own idealistic outlook on life. We are trying to improve prison life and doing what we can in our own generation, but this Bill will keep several thousand out of prison every year and will not only relieve our difficulties as administrators but will alleviate our consciences.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.