HC Deb 25 February 1965 vol 707 cc752-8

Amendment made: In page 21, line 47, at end insert: and if subsection (2) were omitted".—[Sir Eric Fletcher.]

10.24 p.m.

Sir Eric Fletcher

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

In view of the lateness of the hour, I am sure that the House will excuse me if I am very brief in commending the Bill for its Third Reading.

The House knows that the Bill has been very fully considered on Second Reading, in Committee and again this evening. I personally am grateful for the various suggestions which have been made during the course of the Bill's passage, both by my hon. Friends and by hon. Members opposite, as a result of which very considerable Amendments of detail have been made and the Bill has been improved and perfected in certain respects.

As the House knows, the main object of the Bill is to provide modern and flexible methods whereby funds paid into court for the benefit of widows and dependants in respect of claims under the Fatal Accidents Act, can in future be invested far more prudently and sensibly than has been the case in the past. This, the primary object of the Bill, will I am sure put an end to a long-standing grievance under which widows and their dependants have suffered as a result of the courts having been compelled to confine their investments broadly to War Loan and other undated Government securities.

The Bill deals with a number of other matters. The one which has concerned most of the debate both in another place and here was the rather vexed question which transcended party politics, of whether the widow with dependent children should still be subject to the discretionary control of the courts. The Committee and the House decided by a small majority, as they did in another place, that on the whole the provisions of the Bill were to be preferred both to the recommendations of the Pearson Committee, which recommended more control, and also to the views of some of my hon. Friends who preferred the abandonment of all control. The House is to be congratulated upon having accepted a wise and sensible compromise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) raised very wide questions of great social importance. I can assure him that the whole question, which he raised, of the steps which should be taken for recovery of debt is under the closest consideration by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and myself and I am hoping to make an announcement about that in the very near future. In the meantime, all we are concerned about in the Bill is the limit of debts in respect of which an administration order can be made. At present, the limit is £50, and so for many years past the administration order procedure, which is a simplified form of bankruptcy, has been practically a dead letter.

We are now raising the limit from £50 to £300 and, as I can assure my hon. Friend and others, we shall be able to consider, now that it is raised to £300, whether that figure is right or not. It is not intended that the administration order procedure should be available for traders. It is intended that it should be available to that category of person to which my hon. Friend referred. Now that we have power to vary the figure by Order in Council, I can assure him that the appropriate figure will be reviewed from time to time.

10.29 p.m.

Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

I intervene briefly to put one point which I hope my hon. Friend will bear in mind. This is in many ways a technical Bill. There is nothing in the Title to suggest to the layman that it contains provisions which can have considerable impact on the alleviation of personal and family distress.

The usefulness of the Measure, which we all welcome, would be greatly increased if my right hon. Friend could find some way of ensuring that the fullest publicity is given to it, in possibly simpler terms than those in which for obvious reasons we have been considering it tonight, and made available on the widest possible basis not only to statutory authorities but also to people like the citizens' advice bureaux and other bodies which have been mentioned in the debate. It is essential that this wide and simple publicity be given to the benefits of the Bill. Otherwise, we shall find people whom we wish to help still continuing, through ignorance, to suffer from the wrongs we have tried to remedy.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Percival

There may well be some hon. Members, perhaps on both sides, who have not yet been able to master fully or to comprehend the full significance of the apparently copious and sweeping reforms introduced by Schedule 2 of the Bill, for instance, the deletion of the words "with full costs of suit" from the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act, 1801, the deletion of the four words "with costs of suit" from the Nautical Almanack Act, 1828, or even the repeal of three whole Sections of the Petty Bag Act, 1849. But it will be no surprise to the House to learn that we on this side welcome the Bill and we are glad that it has reached this advanced stage so speedily, and we gladly support it on Third Reading.

We welcome the Bill, of course, not for these minor amendments but because of its main provisions, to which the Minister has already referred, the provisions which make major improvements in the machinery for dealing with money paid into court. It will be no surprise that we take this view, because the Bill may fairly be said to have emanated from the work of the Committee presided over by Lord Pearson, as he now is, and set up by the last Administration to advise on this particular point. In substance, it is a Measure which would have been introduced early by whichever party became the Government.

We warmly welcomed the Bill on Second Reading, and I think we may fairly claim that it was we on this side who saved the Government from defeat in the one Division which took place during its passage thus far. However, I do not dwell on that aspect of it. The Minister has graciously acknowledged the way we have tried to be helpful. I in turn acknowledge the ready response from him to the suggestions which we have advanced from time to time, and the manner in which the points have been covered.

I stress only one aspect of the Bill now. It is important—this ties in with what was said by the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger)—that the Bill be made effective. It provides some complicated machinery, and whether it is effective depends entirely on how the machinery is used. It is essential that that machinery be put into operation both speedily and effectively. We hope, therefore, that it will be possible to draw up schemes and put them into force quite soon.

But this is not all. Here again, I endorse what the hon. Lady said. The Bill is designed to have a twofold effect. First, we want it to improve the material prospects of litigants whose money is paid into court. Second, we want it to improve the confidence which they have in what is being done with the money paid into court on their behalf. If we are to achieve those twin objectives, it is vital that the fullest possible details of the schemes, the investments which are made, the state of those investments, and the like, be given the widest possible publicity.

In Committee, the hon. Gentleman was good enough to give an unqualified assurance that this would be done and, of course, we accept that assurance and look forward to receiving this kind of detail as early as possible. Those who practise the law have also a heavy responsibility in connection with the Bill, because it is for them to advise litigants whose money is affected in this way what their position now is.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members present—

Mr. Percival

I was just referring to the responsibility which those who practise the law will have in advising litigants whose money is affected by the Bill as to their position, and in this connection I would mention again what I mentioned in Committee—the absolute necessity for the necessary amendments to the rules to be made at the earliest possible moment.

One other matter in the same serious vein is the question of redrafting the official form of order to be used in the county courts under the appropriate Section of the Act. We take the view that the Amendment to that Section 191 may well be of considerable help, but that will not be unless and until the official form of order used in the county courts for orders under the Section is altered, because we believe from experience that it is the form of the order which leads to the kind of difficulty to which the hon. Gentleman referred at an earlier stage.

We support the Bill because we hope and believe that it can result in a speedy, material and significant benefit to those who are affected by it, who, ex hypothesi, are people suffering hardship because they have recently suffered a loss. Whether that object is achieved or not will depend upon the manner in which these provisions are implemented. We appreciate that there are great difficulties to be resolved in implementation, but we wish the Bill and those who have to implement it well, and we shall continue to take the closest interest in the manner in which it is implemented.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Abse

I shall not detain the House long. I share the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger), because she wanted to emphasise that people should known the contents of the Bill. I do not want to go over the ground covered in Committee, which dealt with a very delicate subject as to whether a widow with children should have the right to bring her money out of court.

I hope that the small majority which that provision as it stands commanded will be noted outside the House. I hope, also, that the fact that the Bill gives discretion to the court to release the money will be noted by the judiciary, so that the discretion will not be exercised narrowly, because, as my hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio has said, quite rightly, a distinguished opinion in another place held a contrary view to that now in the Bill. It was only through the intervention of the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) and others that the view was finally taken in Committee that the money of a widow with children should be released to her and that she should not be discriminated against as a number of us now believe to be the case.

What is no less important is that every widow who is without children and who has money in court and who has the absolute right to take her money out of court should be so informed. I hope that steps will be taken to see that it should not be on the initiative of the widow necessarily to discover in some remote way that the money which she has in court can be taken out of court. If the House decides, as it is now deciding, that the money can be taken out on request, the courts have a duty to see that widows are informed of their rights.

Sir Eric Fletcher

My hon. Friend says that a widow ought not to have to take the initiative, but he will appreciate that unless the widow applies to the court for the release of the money the court cannot act. I assure him that the fullest steps will be taken, largely, I hope, as a result of the debate, to acquaint all widows without children who have money in court that they have an absolute right to apply to the court for their money to be taken out.

Mr. Abse

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments, but I hope that it will go out from the House that there are large sums of money in court held by widows which, if they so wish, they can apply to have out. I take the point that it requires the widow to apply, but that does not mean that the court could not inform her that she has a right to make an application. I am sure that that view is generally shared in the House. It is not good enough that the money should be just left there.

Now that widows no longer have to go again and again to the registrar or master to cajole or beg for amounts, as has occurred in the past, and now that, belatedly, we regard women as men's equals, I hope that there will be no lingering misogynism in the courts and that they will not act churlishly and not inform widows of their overdue rights and not tell them that they need not be treated as idiots and infants.

Apart from that, I welcome what appears to be the conclusion of the Bill. It is clearly a Measure long overdue and it will have a considerable effect on many parties.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.