HC Deb 16 April 1964 vol 693 cc726-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

I am grateful to have the opportunity tonight to raise the question of maintenance for deserted wives. When I questioned my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary for the Home Department some weeks ago on this subject I did not realise that, as a result of my questioning, I would receive, in fact be inundated by, letters from all ever the country from deserted wives. The more I read them the more I realised now right I was to have raised the matter.

Naturally, I have received a certain amount of criticism. One gentleman wrote a letter, which appeared in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle last week, saying than he had been trying to pluck up enough courage for the last 12 months to leave his wife and children. I need hardly say that he did not sign the letter but used a non de plume. Had his wife discovered his identity he might have got his separate on more quickly than he might have hoped. Some of the remarks he made about to the ladies of Newcastle were so disparaging that had his identity been known I would have feared for his safety. However, this is only in passing.

The purpose of my raising this matter tonight is to try to point out the suffering caused to many children of deserted wives. The majority of people in Britain today have a good standard of living. It is regrettable that there is a persistent minority who are still allowed to exist as best they can. I freely admit that all marriages are not perfect. Some are more or less doomed to failure from the outset, and, regrettably, I do not think that we may ever find a way to prevent some husbands leaving their wives and some wives leaving their husbands.

At the same time, we must make it perfectly clear that, whoever is responsible for the failure of a marriage, responsibility must be had for the children of the marriage. It is unfortunately true that many deserted wives have to fend for themselves and their children as best they can. I appreciate that in recent years a certain amount has been done to help deserted families, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend is completely satisfied that the law is working as effectively as it should.

I understand that a mother and her children are not covered by National Insurance against desertion by the father, although they have the right at civil law to be maintained by him. One improvement made was the decision to extend the legal aid scheme to matrimonial causes. Then we had the Maintenance Orders Act, 1958, whereby we took a leaf out of the Scots' book and enabled deserted wives to apply for a detachment of earnings order.

Although these things have been done to help deserted wives, I still believe that many of them are experiencing great difficulty in receiving the regular payments of maintenance due to them. If the father ceases payment and disappears, the wife must face the bleak prospect of trying to trace him and, if she manages to find him, she often encounters great difficulty in collecting the amounts due. One deserted wife has told me that her husband was ordered to pay the arrears he still owes her at the rate of this a week. She has worked it out that he must live for another 100 years to pay them off. This would be farcical if it were not tragic.

My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but the present procedure is that the wife applies to her local magistrates' court for an order for herself and her children. At that time the court assesses the man's ability to pay, along with the needs of the wife and children. I believe that the maximum maintenance that can be awarded is £7 10s. a week for the wife and £2 10s. for each child, although these amounts are rarely awarded. This, I presume, is because magistrates realise that if the amount they award is too high then the man will fall behind in his payments, and the magistrates know all too well the difficulties of trying to trace a missing husband and of obtaining arrears of maintenance.

Perhaps my hon. Friend tonight could explain what, if anything, his Department does to help to trace these missing husbands.

I should like to draw his attention to the procedure which is adopted by the National Assistance Board. Deserted wives who are not able to go out to work and who do suffer financial hardship can apply to the National Assistance Board, which will give them regular allowances which are paid by Post Office order book. The National Assistance Board also takes over the task of collecting the money and paying it from the court. In this way it does become possible for a woman to receive the same income per week whether her husband falls behind in his payments or not, and I think that this is tremendously important, because many of these women do have great difficulty in trying to obtain it, and in the same way women on National Assistance are saved many fruitless journeys, and they are also fully aware that the amount of money they will receive each week is there.

But the deserted wife who goes out to work and is therefore not able to claim National Assistance has a great deal of difficulty in receiving her dues. She has to visit the court to receive her maintenance, and sometimes, when she goes to the court, the money is there, and sometimes it is not. To find out, she has got to make the necessary journey and quite often she has got to do this in her lunch hour, and that does not give her very much time for her meal. She may telephone to find out whether the money has arrived or not, only to be told, "This is something which cannot be discussed on the 'phone". This is true. Surely my hon. Friend could suggest something to improve this procedure, because surely nothing can be more aggravating than to give up part of a precious lunch hour to go to court only to find that the money to which she is entitled has not been paid into the court.

I have already sent my hon. Friend a communication—that is what it could be called—which one of my women constituents received from a magistrates' court in Yorkshire. The communication was the corner of an envelope which had been torn off and on which was scrawled, Your husband says he has paid £5 10s. but we have not received it. This is disgraceful, because I really think that that particular official should recognise that courtesy costs nothing and that all that that woman was seeking was the amount which had been granted to her by the court to maintain herself and her children.

Deserted wives in receipt of National Assistance know that if their husbands do disappear the National Assistance Board will take proceedings against the defaulting husbands. It is not surprising, because in 1961 deserted wives and mothers of dependent children received altogether £21,920,000 from the National Assistance Board and that of this amount husbands paid back to the Board £1,803,000. So the taxpayers in this country contributed £20,117,000. I do not see—and I am sure that the majority of deserted wives agree with me about this—why the taxpayer should have to pay so much money when at the same time the law allows so many of these men who have deserted their wives and families just to abdicate their responsibilities.

In 1951 the National Assistance Board reported: It is regrettable that in so high a proportion of cases little or nothing can be accomplished and so little of the cost to public funds can be recovered. It is far from easy to trace a man who is designedly hiding himself from possible discovery and who has the whole country and a population of 50 million to hide himself in, or can go abroad. And this when one realises that when the Board takes action against a defaulting husband it becomes a criminal action and the Board can obtain the support of the police.

If the Board finds it difficult to trace the defaulters, it must seem almost impossible for the mother who has to do all this on her own by civil action. Therefore, I earnestly urge my hon. Friend to look into ways in which his Department can help trace missing husbands. This is vitally important. As the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce pronounced, it may be very difficult to trace a husband who has disappeared with the object of evading his responsibilities to his wife and children. A wife cannot, however, proceed with her application for an order until her husband is found, since the law requires that a summons must be served on him before the case can be heard. This finding of the runaway husbands is, therefore, vitally important.

As things stand, when a wife applies for a maintenance order, there is no way of deducting maintenance from the man's wages when the order is granted. To complicate matters further, if the husband should disappear before the hearing takes place, it may prove very difficult to serve the summons on him. In fact, it is only when maintenance is four weeks in arrears that the wife can apply for what is known as an attachment of earnings order. I believe that this has been of assistance to some deserted wives, but it also has many pitfalls. By this order an employer deducts the maintenance money from the husband's pay packet and sends it to the court. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that many husbands do not like the idea of their employers knowing too much about their matrimonial difficulties. Also, it involves the employers in extra paperwork. As a letter in the Economist in 1962 stated, the trouble is that a good many employers find the bother of making the payments one more reason for sacking such a man. This means that both families for which he is responsible end up on National Assistance, and once more up go costs.

Whichever way they turn, deserted wives find themselves beset with difficulties. When maintenance is in arrears, the wife has to consider taking out a summons for the arrears because the court cannot issue a summons without the woman's consent. Even then there is still the vexed question of finding the husband and getting him to pay the amount due. I am told that this constant pursuing of husbands through the courts and all to so little avail, forces many women to give up the struggle in despair. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can give me any idea of the number of orders which are removed from court books each year. Each time one of these orders is removed in these circumstances it is really a sign of our failure because it is a sign that the man has succeeded in shedding his responsibilities, and the deserted wife must then find ways to earn sufficient to feed, clothe and house his children. I do not doubt that many of these women have a very peculiar idea of the justice of this situation.

I personally feel—I know I cannot pursue this point too far—that the only sensible and fair solution would be to help these deserted wives with families by instituting some form of fatherless child allowance whereby the Government would be responsible for finding the husbands and getting the money from them. But I am also perfectly aware that this goes far beyond the powers of my hon. Friend's Department. However, in the meantime I think that the Department could do much more to assist these families.

Therefore, I earnestly ask my hon. Friend to look at the problem and discover ways in which the Home Office could take administrative action to assist in tracing missing husbands. If this were done, it could perhaps be a deterrent to husbands who contemplate avoiding their responsibilities and would make the task facing deserted wives a little easier.

Finally, I emphasise that this is a very human problem. I have never believed that Government Departments are quite the soulless places that they often appear to be. Therefore, I hope tonight that my hon. Friend will show a great deal of humanity and that he will be able to promise some action to remedy what I feel to be a great social injustice.

10.15 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. C. M. Woodhouse)

I certainly wish to meet my hon. Friend's points in the spirit of humanity in which he has put them forward. He recognises, of course, that this is not an occasion when we can discuss legislation, and he will, on doubt, also recognise that this is a field in which there is particular scope for the lawyers' harsh but true maxim that hard cases made bad law. But that is no reason why we should not constantly look sympathetically at the possibilities of administrative improvement in the light of difficult cases as they arise.

I will refer at once to the particular case about which my hon. Friend and I have corresponded and to which he has referred tonight—the case of his constituent to whom an admittedly inadequate written note was sent by a court. As he knows, the incident was brought to the attention of the clerk of the court who has expressed his regret, with which I gladly associate myself. I am sure that every effort is made normally by court officials to avoid treating members of the public discourteously, even unintentionally. I now turn to the main substance of my hon. Friend's speech, and I assure him on behalf of the Home Secretary that the Home Office is never completely satisfied with anything and that that is the starting point for considering the problem tonight.

My hon. Friend has performed a valuable service in calling attention to the plight of deserted wives. Husbands who abandon their wives and children and seek to evade their responsibilities for maintaining them naturally earn the contempt of all of us and my right hon. Friend and I, and our Department, have the deepest sympathy for wives in these painful circumstances. Every case of this kind represents not only a hardship but also one of personal tragedy and it is to give help in these cases that the matrimonial law exists. It is, however, important to remember that in not all of the cases in which the law makes provision are the merits so clearly apportioned. My hon. Friend will appreciate that matrimonial discord can result from a great variety of causes and that the fault is not always that of the husband.

Until the circumstances have been fully investigated and the merits of the often conflicting stories judicially weighed, it is impossible to determine what settlement should be made between the parties. That is an essential prerequisite to the making of a maintenance order. Perhaps I may make this clearer by reference to some of the provisions of the principal Statute, the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act, 1960. I am, of course, referring only to the matrimonial jurisdiction of magistrates' courts. The Act was based on the recommendations of a departmental committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Arthian Davies, which reported in 1959. My hon. Friend will see, therefore, that this branch of the law has only recently been thoroughly reviewed and brought up to date.

Section 1 of the Act deals with the circumstances in which a magistrates' court may make an order. The grounds of complaint under this Section are desertion, persistent cruelty, certain offences of assault, adultery, habitual drunkenness or drug addiction, wilful negligence to maintain and one or two others. It will be seen that the substantiation of these grounds of complaint may involve complicated issues.

In the case of desertion, for instance, the husband may well allege that it was the behaviour of the wife which forced him to leave her. These are issues which can only properly be decided by a court. Once the court has established that a ground for complaint exists, it has to decide what sort of order it should make. The possible contents of this order are set out in Section 2.

The order may include provisions for separation, the payment of maintenance and the legal custody of the children or other provision for the welfare of the children. The court, in effect, has to consider all the arrangements which should be made in view of the break up of the marriage and not only the payment of maintenance.

In deciding the terms of the provision for payment of maintenance, the court is also required to consider all the circumstances of the case in order to arrive at an appropriate weekly sum which, as my hon. Friend indicated, must not exceed £7 10s. a week. I emphasise the fact that the court must consider all the circumstances of the case. It is not solely concerned with hardship of the wife. It has also to bear in mind, for instance, the earning capacity of the husband and any other responsibilities he may have. It would clearly not be right for an order to be made which would result in undue hardship to other innocent parties for whose maintenance the husband might be responsible, although, of course, it is true that his responsibility to the wife he has wronged is paramount. But these are all human cases and the court is bound to take into account the effect that its order will have on all parties who may be involved.

The matter does not end with the making of the order. The circumstances of the parties may change and the complainant's subsequent behaviour may diminish her entitlement to maintenance from her husband. There are provisions in the Act for either party to apply to the court for a variation of the order and at any time to take account of these changed circumstances. These are important provisions, because a maintenance order may subsist for twenty or thirty years or even more.

I have dealt with these provisions at some length because I want the House to bear in mind the complexity of the issues involved and the necessity for an impartial tribunal to disentangle them, and to remember that it is a necessity which does not end with the making of the order.

There are similar detailed provisions for the enforcement of an order, and I should like briefly to refer to one or two of these which appear to me to be most relevant in the context in which my hon. Friend has initiated the debate. He referred to the visits which wives have to pay to courts to collect their money. I should like him to know that there is provision for payments to be sent by post if the wife so requests, and if state is prepared to pay the postage, which, of course, is not a heavy burden.

Next, the initiation of enforcement proceedings is made as simple as possible. If payments are in arrears, the complainant has only to write to the clerk of the court, through which the order directs that payment should be made, asking him to institute proceedings. Unless it then appears to the clerk that the circumstances make it unreasonable for him to do so, he is required to take proceedings in his own name. This provision does not affect the right of the complainant to proceed in her own name if she prefers to do so. These are simply alternative provisions and she can make her choice.

Enforcement proceedings then involve a further hearing before the court and a number of courses are open to it. The court may order the payment of arrears by small weekly sums. My hon. Friend cited one instance in which it certainly appeared on the face of it that the weekly sums were unreasonably small, but it would be improper for me to comment on or criticise the decision of the court in circumstances with which I am not familiar.

Alternatively, in certain circumstances it may make an attachment of earnings order, or may make an order for the committal to prison of the defendant if the arrears are not paid, but suspending the effect of the committal. Finally, if the defendant continues to prove recalcitrant, the court may, subject to certain safeguards, commit him to prison for a period not exceeding six weeks. It is then open to the defendant to secure his release or a shortening of the period of imprisonment by paying the whole or part of the arrears. If he fails to do so, however, they are not extinguished by his period of imprisonment.

These provisions have sometimes been criticised on the ground that they are too favourable towards the defendant. It has been complained that it is all too easy for defaulting husbands to disappear and that wives do not have facilities to trace them, both for the purpose of instituting proceedings and for enforcing an order already made.

But we should bear in mind that these difficulties do not arise in every case, because many husbands are conscientious in their obligations. I may also say that the Home Office sometimes receives complaints from husbands who allege that the maintenance laws are oppressively against them. But there are many cases in which deserted wives are faced with real difficulties in enforcing maintenance orders and we do all we can to help in these cases.

As a general rule—and this is very important—information in social security records held centrally by Government Departments is regarded as strictly confidential, but a relaxation has been made in recent years where an address is sought for the purpose of initiating maintenance or affiliation proceedings, or the enforcement of a maintenance order.

I think that the availability of this information is well known to clerks of courts, but when I answered a Question in the House this afternoon some hon. Members apparently were unaware that these arrangements existed. I am certainly going to consider, as I undertook to do this afternoon, whether anything should be done to remind those who need to know that it is possible to obtain an address in this way.

When a warrant has been issued for the arrest of a defendant, the police make every effort to execute it and in such circumstances they would also have access to the same facilities for information. But if a husband is determined to evade his responsibility, either by continually moving round, or undergoing periodic periods of imprisonment, or simply neglecting to work, there is in the last resort nothing that can be done, whether by the State or by a court, or by anybody else, to bring him to book, and I think that that is a point which my hon. Friend recognised.

My hon. Friend quoted a passage from the Report of the National Assisance Board illustrating the difficulties which the Board has even when relying on the resources of the police for the purposes of taking criminal proceedings, and a change of mechanism or a shifting of responsibility would not make it any more possible than it is now to extract payment from a defaulting husband who was absolutely determined not to meet his responsibilities.

My hon. Friend also asked whether I could tell him in how many cases orders continue to exist without any payment being made under them. I am afraid that I do not have those figures, but, even if they could be obtained, it would not be right to conclude that they represented the number of cases in which the law had failed, because payments may cease for a number of reasons—because of the death of one of the parties, or possibly even as the result of a reconciliation—and the court will not necessarily be aware of those changes of circumstance.

It has been suggested that the State should undertake responsibility for the husband's maintenance obligations, and I hope that I shall not transgress the bounds of order if I touch briefly on my hon. Friend's suggestion. I have already made it clear that the object of the maintenance law is to establish in a court order the obligations as between a husband and wife. The wife's hardship is one of the relevant circumstances, but it is not the only one.

In many cases the amount the court orders the husband to pay can only go some way to relieving the wife's hardship, and in such cases the State naturally comes further to the wife's help by means of National Assistance. But assistance provided by the State would not normally take into account the respective obligations of a husband and wife. If the State were to underwrite a husband's maintenance obligations, it would still in many cases be found that additional payment was needed for relief of the wife's hardship. In other words, the extent of the husband's maintenance obligation does not provide an appropriate yardstick for determining the extent to which the State should assist.

Perhaps I might amplify that by reference to the figures given by my hon. Friend, which were correct. The figure of just under £22 million covers payments to separated wives, women with illegitimate children, and divorced wives with legitimate children. In many of those cases there would be no maintenance order. In the case of women with illegitimate children, the putative father can be required to pay maintenance only in respect of the child. In many of those cases the National Assistance Board will have made up payments in respect of the woman's maintenance, and those payments are included in the total.

The figure of £1,800,000 also relates only to payments made by husbands direct to the National Assistance Board. In addition, husbands pay substantial sums direct to their wives, which are excluded from those figures. There is no way of calculating the sum which men should have paid under court orders but failed to do so, but I assure my hon. Friend that the figure, if it could be ascertained, would be substantially less than £20,117,000, which the taxpayer had to meet.

I believe that my hon. Friend may have been thinking that it would cost the taxpayer rather less in the long run if the State were to take over the husband's obligations and the responsibility for collecting the husband's contribution, but my view is that the reverse would be a more likely outcome, though it is not merely on such grounds as cost that an essentially human problem such as this should be determined.

In conclusion, I should like to reiterate the sympathy that I expressed at the beginning of my remarks for deserted wives. I hope that I have made it clear that this is a far from simple subject. A great many different factors have to be taken into account for which the existing law makes appropriate provision. Might I add finally that everything is tone, and will continue to be done, to operate the necessarily complicated law in the most humane way possible.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.