HC Deb 18 July 1991 vol 195 cc550-2
The Solicitor-General

I beg to move amendment No. 51, in page 25, line 34, leave out from 'sought' to 'he' in line 36 and insert ` —

  1. (a) to levy an amount by distress under this Act; or
  2. (b) to recover an amount by virtue of section 35,
and that amount, or any portion of it, remains unpaid'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 53 and 84.

The Solicitor-General

There is some substance in the amendments, but I shall be able to deal with them briefly. They are mainly technical.

Amendment No. 51 is consequential and is linked to clause 35, which was inserted by the will of the Committee. It provides that garnishee and charging order enforcement action may be taken by the Secretary of State under the provisions of the Bill. This is beneficial and welcome. The amendment means that the agency will have to have attempted distress action or garnishee or charging order action before applying to a magistrates court for a warrant to commit a maintenance debtor to prison. This means that the full range of collection options will be considered and at least one or other of the enforcement measures attempted before the final sanction of imprisonment is considered.

I said that I would mention the matter briefly when we were debating an earlier clause as a consequence of an issue having been raised by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). The hon. Gentleman asked whether enforcement of liability orders throughout the United Kingdom meant that civil imprisonment would be an immediate possibility once a liability order was registered in the sheriff court, without a hearing by the sheriff. The hon. Gentleman will understand the relevance of what we are now considering. The answer is that the court will have to ensure that the various methods of collecting money have been considered and have failed before it goes on to take the step of civil imprisonment. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Dr. Godman

I wish to ask the Solicitor-General some questions relative to amendment No. 84. Section 4(4) of the Civil Imprisonment (Scotland) Act 1882 states that a warrant of imprisonment may be granted of new, subject to the same provisions and conditions, at intervals of not less than six months, against the same person in respect of failure to pay the same sum or sums of aliment and expenses of process. Does that mean that a person could be gaoled over and over again?

Subsection (5) states that the imprisonment shall not to any extent operate as a satisfaction or extinction of the debt, or interfere with the creditor's other rights and remedies for its recovery". Am I right in thinking that after the individual is released from prison he still has all the debts to pay?

I remind the Solicitor-General that from 1985 to 1989 the number of civil prisoners in Scottish prisons who had been convicted under the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1880 and the Civil Imprisonment (Scotland) Act 1882 produced an average of one a year. We are therefore talking of only a few people. In the circumstances, would it not make good sense for such persons to be imprisoned at weekends? If they have to serve six weeks imprisonment, why should they not serve that period over 10 weekends? If such persons were employed, such an arrangement would enable them to retain their employment.

Mr. Hardy

I reinforce the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). Does the Solicitor-General recognise that magistrates are increasingly perturbed at having to send people to prison to serve short sentences for non-payment of fines, for example? I recognise that there is a distress mechanism designed to avoid custodial sentences, but the prison population is enormous and prison sentences for non-payment of fines, for example, can be counterproductive, to put it mildly, and engender bitterness and perhaps viciousness subsequently. Consideration should at least be given to the proposal that there should be weekend imprisonment, if imprisonment there has to be. Alternatively, community service orders could be made to obviate the need for imprisonment. Incarceration is costly to the community and not necessarily helpful to those receiving such sentences.

The Solicitor-General

I can answer straightforwardly the three questions of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and the one question of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy).

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow produced an illuminating statistic when he said that only one person—I think that I have this right—was imprisoned in Scotland last year for failing to pay debts that he could well afford to pay. We are talking of the ultimate sanction. There are many methods which can be used to try to get people to pay before it is necessary to send them to prison. If, however, someone refuses to pay when he has the means to do so and he has to be sent to prison, and if after six months or a year he is equally obdurate and continues to refuse to pay, it might be necessary to send that person to prison again. No one would wish to do that, of course, and I am sure that the courts would try to implement every other method available to them to avoid that happening. As I have said, there are plenty of other methods. Whether the prison sentence should be served at weekends is out with the scope of the Bill and would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland or my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Dr. Godman

Will the Solicitor-General, in his characteristically courteous way, convey my views about weekend imprisonment to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary?

The Solicitor-General

I can certainly offer to do that. I hope that I have answered the questions of the hon. Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow and for Wentworth.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 53, in page 26, line 12, leave out `21' and insert '18'.

No. 84, in page 27, line 4, at end insert— '(14) Where a liability order has been made, the Secretary of State (and he alone) shall be regarded as, and may exercise all the powers of, the creditor for the purposes of section 4 (imprisonment for failure to obey decree for alimentary debt) of the Civil Imprisonment (Scotland) Act 1882.'.—[The Solicitor-General.]

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