HC Deb 22 January 1980 vol 977 cc215-8

4.3 pm

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to control the conduct of sheriff officers and to put an embargo on the use of warrant sales in Scotland. The practice of warrant sales in Scotland dates back to the Middle Ages. Since then, several attempts have been made to reform the law, the most recent being a successful attempt by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen (Mr. MacKenzie) in 1973, when he introduced a Private Member's Bill to ban warrant sales of certain essential furniture, such as bedding and heating and cooking appliances.

The object of my Bill is to extend the embargo, with the hope eventually of a permanent ban on this antiquated, degrading, expensive and not very effective system of debt enforcement in Scotland.

It causes a great deal of harassment, worry and distress, particularly to families on low incomes, although it is not confined to them. Failed business people have been driven to suicide through the despair caused by the system.

The case that I shall briefly outline is perhaps not quite so tragic, but it helps underline how ludicrous and incredible the system is. A council house tenant in my constituency called in Stirling district council to get rid of a wasps' nest in her house. Many local authorities perform that task free of charge, and I would point out that this constituent is a single parent with four children, living on a low income. However, the Tory-controlled Stirling district council imposed a charge of £2.50 for the service. At first my constituent thought that there had been a mistake, but the local authority went ahead with court action. The sheriff officers were called in. They went along to my constituent's house and, without her permission, entered her house and proceeded to evaluate her property as a possible subject of a warrant of sale.

By that time the debt, including court and sheriff officers' expenses, was over £30. The sheriff officer valued her carpet, vacuum cleaner and television set at £37, although it cost my constituent more than £350 to buy those items and would cost her that to replace them.

When I took the matter up with the district council, even the council expressed concern at the antiquated process of debt recovery and agreed that the law on diligence leaves much to be desired. I also took the matter up with the Lord Advocate. He stated: Enforcement of debt by poinding of goods (sometimes the only mode of diligance open to a creditor) is relatively expensive because the diligence is necessarily labour-intensive and, in the case of debts of small amount, the expenses can be, or appear to be, disproportionate to the amount of the original debt. It appears that in some cases the system is not even in the interests of the creditor, because as time goes on the debt tends to accumulate. It increases, and therefore the possibility of the debt being repaid decreases.

In many ways the system appears to be legal intimidation. The sheriff officers, without permission from the householder, can enter the house and threaten to sell the furniture at a mere fraction of its value. There is no legal obligation on the courts or the sheriff officer to take account of the financial circumstances of the debtor and the desirability of paying the debt by instalments. It is up to the creditor to choose the method of repayment, once the court has issued its decree.

If the debtor does not pay, the sheriff officer can threaten to advertise the warrant sale. Daily or weekly, certain Scottish newspapers are filled with pathetic lists of names and addresses of people who are subjected to that system. It is a public humiliation and punishment instead of a constructive attempt to get the debt repaid.

In 1971, the Scottish Law Commission set up a working party to investigate warrant sales and the law of diligence, but it was disbanded in 1977 with no report or recommendations published. The Commission claims that it has taken over some of the functions of the working party, but it, too, has failed to publish findings or a report on possible alternatives.

For the best part of a decade, the legal establishment in Scotland has been dragging its feet on that issue. I strongly suspect that the reason for the delay can be found in the vested interests of the legal mafia. The working party comprised lawyers, sheriff officers and a sheriff clerk, which is hardly a cross-section of Scottish society. There are also connections between certain firms of lawyers, firms of sheriff officers, private debt collecting agencies and certain unscrupulous secondhand dealers and auctioneers.

Not so long ago The Sunday Times highlighted the case of a Mr. Thomas Gray, a sheriff officer and messenger-at-arms to the High Court. The article stated: Over the past 20 years Thos. Gray and his partner, James Donald, have built up a network of 11 firms of sheriff officers. One of those firms with an office in Stirling is the one that was involved in the case of my constituent. Later on the article said: Gray also owns or is associated with seven firms in the private business of debt collecting. In other words, the system is unlike the English bailiff system. In Scotland the sheriff officer is not employed by the court but operates more or less as a private enterprise and therefore has a vested interest. These people make a living out of other people's misfortunes, such as falling into debt. It is not all that surprising to read in the article that two out of the eight members of the Law Commission's working party were James Donald, Thomas Gray's partner, and John Gray, his brother and secretary to most of his companies.

My Bill proposes to separate the functions of sheriff officer from those of private debt-collecting agencies. Sheriff officers will become employees of the court, and therefore will be subject to more control. Their behaviour will also be subject to a code of conduct. Allegations have been made of high-handed bullying and threatening tactics being used by sheriff officers, not always in cases of warrant sales, either.

There was a case last year of a sheriff officer being responsible for dragging three young children screaming from their beds at 4.30 in the morning in order to execute a child custody order. Such Gestapo tactics should be outlawed in any civilised society.

As for warrant sales, my Bill proposes to ban them completely, at least until such times as the Law Commission comes up with alternative proposals. I should like briefly to indicate a possible alternative system. Most small debts are not even disputed by the debtor and there is no need to go to the court in order to determine the legality of the debt. Instead of the present system of debt enforcement, it would be better to have a debt arbitration service, which would enable the creditor and the debtor to come to some arrangement about the repayment of the debt, taking account of the debtor's financial and family circumstances. That does not happen under the present system. The arbitrator could be given the power to issue a repayment order. payable, if necessary, at source from the wages or other income of the debtor.

I maintain that this system would be far more in the interests of both creditor and debtor. It would be less brutal, more civilised, and probably more effective. Therefore, I ask the House to support my efforts to ban warrant sales, which are a barbaric, inhuman and medieval relic, causing undue hardship and misery to many unfortunate people and their families.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. Gregor MacKenzie, Mr. James Dempsey, Mr. William McKelvey, Mr. Ernie Ross, Mr. Allen Adams, Mr David Marshall, Mr. Norman Hogg, Mr John Home Robertson, Mr. George Foulkes, Mr. Ron Brown and Mr James White.