HC Deb 19 July 1977 vol 935 cc1545-9

11.27 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

I beg to move, That the draft Preferential Payments in Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved. The purpose of this order is to increase the financial protection available to employees who are caught up in the bankruptcy or liquidation of their employer, and thereby to give them the same financial protection provided for employees in Great Britain by the Insolvency Act 1976.

The existing provisions of the Northern Ireland Companies Acts and the Bankruptcy Acts provide a degree of preference for the claims of the workers of insolvent employers, but this preference is subject to a financial limit of £200 in the case of any one employee. This order increases that limit in both the Bankruptcy and Companies Acts to £800 and gives the Department of Commerce power further to vary the limit, subject to affirmative resolution. The order will, therefore, provide much more realistic protection to workers in Northern Ireland whose employers become insolvent.

The Insolvency Act 1976 contains similar provisions for Great Britain and also made several other amendments to the laws of bankruptcy and company liquidation which are not covered by the present order. It is hoped to include these provi- sions in more extensive legislation on company and bankruptcy law within the next year. In the meantime, I thought it desirable to introduce this short order to extend to Northern Ireland employees as soon as possible the improved cover now available in Great Britain.

Hon. Members will, I feel sure, accept the importance of providing this further protection to workers unfortunate enough to be caught up in the insolvency of their employer.

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

While welcoming the order, we do so recognising that it is but a small step in what would appear at first sight to be a rather dry legal field, but there are two points which certainly can be emphasised. I understand that the Northern Ireland Department of Commerce is considering this whole matter. We hope that the fruits of its deliberations will be before us in the near future.

Here, however, we are dealing with piecemeal legislation. We should beware of that because it has caused trouble in the past and it will do so again in the future. It is a great pity that we have to deal in this order with a small section of an area which requires radical revision and which is known to require it. I can only hope that by dealing with it in this way we do not make matters more difficult.

If one specific area of payment is increased by four times, that throws preferential payments in the other sectors out of balance. I hope that the Minister will give a clear assurance—perhaps we have had it already—that this matter will be brought before the House in a comprehensive way in the near future.

My second point concerns the considerable increase that has had to be made—from £200 to £800—to bring matters into line with our English legislation. I welcome that Article 3(2) gives the Government the power to make a change by order if inflation unfortunately continues, as it seems that it will, so that we do not have to make such radical changes in the future.

We recognise the human problem for those who lose their jobs either through redundancy or because their firms go bankrupt, and that those people have a special moral right to the moneys they have earned. In view of that, and in the hope that very soon we shall see a more comprehensive draft order, we welcome this measure.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Like other hon. Members who have had before them cases of constituents suffering unfairly as a result of the bankruptcy of their firms, I would find it quite impossible to object to this order. However, I associate myself with the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) in the proposition that we should not be doing this sort of thing peck by peck.

We have now settled to the general proposition that wherever there is not a distinct cause to the contrary we wish to see the law in Northern Ireland brought into uniformity with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Certainly the law of insolvency and bankruptcy is one of the areas in which this is perhaps more necessary than others.

The Minister of State will confirm that the bankruptcy laws of Northern Ireland are in a number of respects severer and more unconscionable than the present state of the law in Great Britain. I hope that the legislation that he foreshadows for next year will be genuinely comprehensive and will produce, in effect, a United Kingdom code on the subject of bankruptcy and insolvency.

Some of us would be tempted to niggle and to say that if a year or two ago we had had the declaration of policy we now have—that wherever possible new legislation will be introduced for the United Kingdom as a whole—we might have been saved this order. The ingenuity of the draftsmen, which the Minister of State well knows how to strain, would not have been unequal to covering Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom.

One ironical point arises from handling the matter in this way. I expect that you will have noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Article 3(2) contains a reference to the power of the Minister in future to adjust sums—no doubt due to the further progress of inflation—by order, subject to affirmative resolution. Knowing that you were dealing with Northern Ireland matters you would have been wiser than to believe what you read, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The orders will not be subject to affirmative resolution. That is on the assumption that the 1973 constitution, which is not in force, is in force and that this is not an Act produced by this Parliament under the 1974 Act but is an Act produced by a non-existent Assembly under legislation which is not in force. In those circumstances, indeed it would be subject to affirmative resolution.

But there is a serious point here. If this were dealt with by a United Kingdom Act, it would be the United Kingdom Minister who would have to come to this House for an affirmative resolution, to get an increase which of course would apply simultaneously to the whole of the United Kingdom.

However, I have belaboured that sufficiently. I make only one extra observation, in making which I trust that I may have your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I feel that the time is coming, if it has not already come, when we are not only entitled to say that the harmonisation of the law of Northern Ireland with that of Great Britain should proceed comprehensively subject by subject and case by case but that it is time that we got a conspectus of the law of Northern Ireland as a whole so that some general picture can be formed of the size of the task which lies before us and the major and minor elements which compose the whole. On an occasion more appropriate perhaps than this, my hon. Friends and I will wish to press upon the Government the desirability of setting up a high-powered legal committee to cover the whole of the field and to show where exactly the remaining differences are which in due course will by common consent have to be cleared up.

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and the hon and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) are right: great consultation is proceeding in my Department. We hope to bring the consultation to a conclusion next year.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, some of his constituents were caught up in this matter some time ago. I felt it only right to ensure that the work force in Northern Ireland was covered to the same extent as the work force was covered in the United Kingdom.

I believe that the task to which the right hon. Gentleman referred in the latter part of his remarks would be a major piece of work if we were ever to embark upon it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Preferential Payments in Insolvency (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved.