HC Deb 31 July 1972 vol 842 cc28-31
35. Mr. Dalyell

asked the Attorney General what information he has received from the courts on the level of fines or prison sentences given to men who have failed to pay alimony granted to women under court order.

The Attorney-General

As I have told the hon. Gentleman on previous occasions, failure to pay maintenance pursuant to a court order is not an offence for which a fine or prison sentence may be imposed. Dishonest maintenance debtors may still be committed to prison under the Debtors Act, 1869, upon the application of the creditor, and 1,683 such applications were made in the High Court and county courts in 1971. Information as to the average length of time spent in prison by debtors is not readily available.

Mr. Dalyell

Nevertheless is not the Attorney-General's office sensitive to the fact that, while it is true that there are many men who are, perhaps, in no position to pay, a great number of women feel that their erstwhile partners are getting away with it scot-free more or less while they are having very severe financial hardship and the difficulty of bringing up families?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman asked about fines or prison sentences, and fines or prison sentences do not follow from prosecutions. There is none such save under Section 30 of the Ministry of Social Security Act, which prosecutions are brought by the Department of Health and Social Security. But the fact that some 1,683 women nave made aplication shows that wives are pursuing those persons who persistently evade payment. Now that the Department makes its records available to the court, however, every effort is made to trace recalcitrant husbands.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

While it may be true that many wives make application, is it not equally true that on very many occasions the people against whom application is made fail again and again to appear before the courts? Is it not about time that action was taken to try to bring to an end this deplorable state of affairs?

The Attorney-General

Certainly that happens, but the provisions of the attachment of earnings orders have recently been introduced and we hope that this may be the most successful way of getting the money for the wife, which is what is needed. But as the House must realise, it is very difficult to trace husbands who persistently change their employment and conceal their whereabouts. We find it very hard to trace such people, but every effort is made to trace them.

Sir Elwyn Jones

Is the attachment of earnings procedure working satisfactorily? What is the state of play on that matter? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there are complaints that some of the women who have been abandoned in this way do not get full co-operation from the Inland Revenue and other authorities in the tracing of defaulting husbands? Will he look into this matter, which is causing a great deal of dissatisfaction?

The Attorney-General

The records of Inland Revenue are not available but those of the Department of Health and Social Security are available. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate, as he was a Law Officer at the time, the Finer Committee was established in order to go into the whole of this matter and TO make recommendations. That committee has been engaged in a very complex and difficult inquiry but it hopes to report sometime in 1973.

36. Mr. Dalyell

asked the Attorney-General on how many occasions in 1971 he took criminal proceedings against people who persistently refuse or neglect to maintain a person for whom they are liable, and for whom supplementary benefit is paid as a result of such refusal or neglect.

The Attorney-General

None, Sir. All such proceedings are instituted by the Department of Health and Social Security. As to the number of them in 1971, I would refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer given him by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security on 25th July.—[Vol. 841, c. 260.]

Mr. Dalyell

Is the Attorney-General aware that Morris Finer, who is leading the committee, is desperately short of staff and that his report will therefore be unnecessarily delayed? Is the Attorney-General's office aware of a feeling that whereas some lawyers are doing their very best in these complex cases, very many solicitors are treating these cases in a somewhat lackadaisical manner? To be blunt about it, there is nothing in it for them. An enormous amount of work is involved. It is a very unsatisfactory situation.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman asked about criminal proceedings and those are the proceedings which are brought by the Department of Health and Social Security. I should be surprised to learn that solicitors do not take such matters very seriously, because anyone who has had experience of the obvious distress caused to wives in such situations would be a very unfeeling person if he did not take the matter seriously.

Mr. Kaufman

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that this matter, which affects constituents of hon. Members on both sides of the House, ought to be treated with more sensitivity and a greater sense of urgency? Is he aware that the problem does not stop short at tracing husbands who have left wives? Even when they have been traced, it is not possible to get them to attend the court. Why cannot the procedures be made similar to those for divorce so that when a certain number of notices have been served a person has to pay whether or not he has attended the court?

The Attorney-General

The difficulty is in finding these people, who change their employment and move from place to place. It was because of all these very complicated difficulties that the last Administration asked Mr. Finer to undertake this inquiry. It is because of the complexity of the matters involved that it was then believed—and is still believed—that an inquiry into all these considerations had to be undertaken. My hon. Friends, as well as hon. Members on the Opposition side, are well aware of these difficulties.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many people think that the use of social security benefits in many of these cases is an abuse? Social security should be aid because it must be paid, because the women concerned are in financial trouble otherwise. Would it not be easy to ask employers to ensure that the numbers of the national insurance cards of these women are made available as they go from one employment to another?

The Attorney-General

Records of the Department of Health and Social Security are made available. What are not available are Inland Revenue records.

Mr. Paget

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I refer to Question No. 31 without reading it. Will you be good enough to refer that type of Question to the Select Committee on Procedure to see whether there are means of controlling the Order Paper? My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) may have perfectly good reasons for not being here, but the kind of damage caused by a Question of this sort being on the Order Paper, particularly when there is no opportunity to answer it, is obvious.

Mr. Speaker

I will certainly consider the point which the hon. and learned Gentleman makes.