HL Deb 27 February 1935 vol 95 cc1089-118

LORD ARNOLD rose to call attention to the Report of the Departmental Committee on imprisonment in default of payment of fines, rates and other sums of money; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the matter which I am venturing to ask your Lordships to consider this afternoon is one of much importance, but it is one which, I think I may say, is to a very large extent non-controversial. My object in putting the Motion upon the Paper is to help in reducing the number of persons sent to prison for non-payment of fines, nonpayment of wife maintenance orders and affiliation orders, and nonpayment of rates. On grounds of justice and of humanity as well as on grounds of economy, I think there is a strong case for something being done in that direction, and for implementing the reforms recommended by the Departmental Committee which was set up in the summer of 1933 to consider these problems.

Some little time before that Committee was set up, a debate on these matters was initiated in your Lordships' House by my noble friend Lord Snell and was replied to by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, who foreshadowed that in all probability an inquiry would be undertaken. The Committee was set up by the present Home Secretary in the summer of 1933, and it reported in July, 1934. Its Report is a valuable one, and will well repay very close study. The Committee, an influential one, unanimously came to the conclusion that it is practicable considerably to reduce the number of imprisonments on account of fines, wife maintenance and affiliation orders, rates and so forth. The exact words used by the Committee were these: We are glad to report that in our opinion it is practicable to reduce considerably the number of imprisonments, and we believe that the proposals we make for this purpose will commend themselves generally to the men and women who have practical experience of the work of the courts of summary jurisdiction. When a Committee which has carefully considered these problems, and all aspects of them, at great length, comes to a conclusion like that, I submit that its findings ought not to be pigeon-holed, but that they ought to form the basis of reforms; and I submit that the way for such reforms is open.

That this problem of imprisonment for non-payment of fines, wife maintenance and affiliation orders and rates is a big one can readily he appreciated when I tell your Lordships that the number of persons sent to prison in 1932—these are the last available figures—for non-payment in these three matters was no less than 20,416. This Committee did not deal with the question of imprisonment for civil debts dealt with in the County Courts—that was not within its terms of reference—but for the moment let me add the number of persons sent to prison for civil debts, which in 1932 was 3,856. Add that to the 20,416 and you arrive at a total of 24,272 persons imprisoned for debt of all kinds. That is not far short of one-half of the total imprisonments for all causes in England and Wales in 1932, which numbered 53,150. Indeed, if I were to add to that figure the number of persons sent to prison because they could not afford to find bail—though that does not come strictly within the terms of our discussion this afternoon—the result would be that more than half the total number of persons imprisoned are in prison for inability to find money for one purpose or another.

Let me analyse a little more closely the figures of 1932 as between the three headings, which I have put before your Lordships. The total number was 20,416 and of those 11,244 were in prison for nonpayment of fines, 6,083 for non-payment of wife maintenance orders and affiliation orders, and 3,089 for non-payment of rates. It is very satisfactory to be able to record that the number of persons sent to prison in default of payment of fines during the last twenty years or so has been reduced by over 60,000 per annum. It has been reduced from about 75,000 to, as I say, in 1932, 11,244. That is a very great achievement. Over 60,000 persons per annum have been saved from going to gaol and this incalculable saving of human suffering and anxiety—to say nothing about the saving of expense to the State—has been accomplished without any injury to the community or to the administration of justice, but rather with advantage to all the interests concerned. This very considerable reduction in the number of persons going to prison for non-payment of fines was largely brought about by the passage of the Criminal Justice Administration Act of 1914, which, as a general rule, requires courts to allow time for the payment of fines. When we think of the vast amount of suffering which has been saved by that merciful provision of the Act of 1914, I submit that it strongly fortifies the case for further legislation which will again reduce the number of persons who are being sent to prison.

I would again emphasise that the members of the Departmental Committee gave it as their deliberate opinion that the number of such persons can be considerably reduced. It is quite true that the percentage of persons going to prison for non-payment of fines is small. The total number of persons fined in 1932 was 437,834. Of those, as I have said, 11,244 went to prison. That figure works out at somewhere about 2½, per cent. It has been suggested that therefore there is not very much need for concern. I do not take that view. That figure of 11,244 constitutes a very considerable number of persons. One or two magistrates who have been interested in this Motion that I have put upon the Paper have come to me and said that they never dream of sending anybody to prison if it can possibly be avoided. That may be so in some cases, but the fact remains that a considerable number, as the Departmental Committee say, of those 11,244 persons who were sent to prison might be saved from prison if the various recommendations which the Committee make were carried through.

It is, of course, quite impossible to go through all the recommendations of the Departmental Committee, and I will confine myself to two or three of the most important. The first and most vital recommendation is that, speaking broadly, persons who have been convicted and fined should not be sent to prison unless the mind of the court has been specifically directed to the question of their imprisonment. That by no means always happens under the present system. If that were done, it would mean that a considerable number of persons who now go to prison would be saved from that fate, because the Committee recommends that in appropriate cases a man should in the first instance be fined only and also given time for payment, and if he defaults he must appear again before the court, and then may be sentenced to imprisonment; but he will not, in any event, go to prison until his second appearance and until the circumstances of his case have been reviewed and considered.

Let me make it clear that there is a considerable number of cases to which this procedure of the second appearance actually in the court would not apply. Those are cases of habitual drunkards and vagrants, certain grave offences, and certain very trivial offences which are met by a fine of five shillings or less, which may be served by just a few hours detention in a police cell. In cases such as those which I have been indicating, the court would at the time when it imposed the fine give a certificate that in its opinion it was not necessary for the person, if he could not pay the fine, to appear before the court again. But in practically all the other cases—and they would be a very considerable number; I am not going into statistics, but I dare say it might be nearly half, or somewhere about half—the case would in the first instance be dealt with, as I have said, by a fine only raid time allowed for payment. If that fine were not met in due course, then the convicted person would appear before the court and the whole circumstances would be reviewed; because in the first instance no sentence of imprisonment would be passed in default of the fine: the sentence would be a fine and a fine only.

The Departmental Committee gave certain instances of the kind of thing they want to stop, and, with your Lordships' permission, I will read an extract from the Report of the Committee following upon what I have just said: Most defaulters are poor people with little knowledge of court procedure and they frequently do not realise the serious consequences of failure to make provision for the fine. Cases of the following kind occur. A youth, who is out of work, is guilty of ' larking ' about the street in some disorderly and troublesome manner. He is summoned for obstruction or malicious damage or some offence against the local by-laws. He ignores the summons and is fined in his absence and given time to pay. He may, or may not, receive notification of the fine. (At many courts the practice is to print on the summons a note that if the defendant does not attend and wishes to learn the result of the proceedings, he must send a stamped and addressed envelope to the clerk, but it is seldom that a poor defendant complies with this requirement.) Even if he receives a notification of the fine, it makes little impression on him. Perhaps he hopes that the matter will be forgotten, or that he will get a job and some money before the time expires. Anyhow, he does nothing. The time runs out. The only facts known to the court "— under the present procedure— are that an offence has been committed for which a penalty had to be imposed, and that the offender has neither answered the summons nor paid the fine nor communicated with the court; the inference is that he has shown a culpable disregard of the law. A commitment warrant is issued, and a decent, though careless youth is taken to prison, possibly a few days after he has got a job.

Let me tell your Lordships one or two other cases which have come to my knowledge. A boy—or rather not a boy, a youth; he must have been more than seventeen years of age—was actually in prison for swinging in the park on the wrong swing. He had been fined. He was careless, and because the fine was not paid, and perhaps could not be paid, he had to go to prison for that offence. Another case which came to my knowledge was that of a man who was driving a commercial lorry to London. He had had a very long journey indeed and was extremely tired, and as he had to drive into London and it was getting dark he drew up by the roadside—I think it was on the Great North Road—to have a little rest; a very wise thing to do. Unfortunately for him he fell asleep. He was very tired, and he remained asleep until he was awakened at two o'clock in the morning by a police constable. His lorry was right on the side of the road out of the way, but still technically he was on the roadway, and he was charged with obstructing the highway. He said that he was very sorry, that he was very tired, and was having a little rest before driving into the City. What followed? He gave, as he was required to do, his name and address and the name and address of his employers. He did not know what was going to happen—whether he was going to be summoned or not. In the event he was summoned, and the summons was sent to his employer. But there was some delay, as there often is in these cases, and unfortunately for him in the interval he had been discharged from the service of the firm—not for any misconduct, but because they were reducing hands. As the result, the summons never reached him, he knew nothing at all about it, and probably hoped, like many motorists do, that the offence had been forgotten and no notice taken of it. He knew nothing at all until he was haled off to gaol. That is what happened.

Cases like that are, I venture to say, deplorable, and under the procedure suggested by the, Report, they would be stopped, because in the first place the man would be fined only and if he had not paid the fine—he probably would have paid it—he would have to appear a second time before the court before he went to prison, and then the circum- stances could be reviewed and considered, and of course, in the vast majority of cases there would be no question of imprisonment at all. These cases illustrate a point which it is very important to remember in dealing with this problem, and that is that under the present system it frequently happens that after a fine has been imposed the court knows nothing more about the course of events. In many cases it does not know what happens. It does not know whether the fine has been paid or not, and does not know whether or not the person fined has gone to prison. So that it is not using too strong language to say that the present regulations often operate harshly, and are indeed, I submit to your Lordships, indefensible.

The court is practically in ignorance, for instance, of how much it is possible for a convicted person to pay, and it is highly desirable that the court should have reliable information as to persons who have been convicted, to have a guide as to what time should be allowed for payment. The Departmental Committee has very fully considered that aspect of this matter, and recommends that a court should have an investigation officer to enquire into the means of persons who are fined. It is quite true that investigation officers will cost a little money, but any expenditure of that kind would be more than made good by the saving due to the lessened number of imprisonments, to say nothing of the saving in human suffering and anxiety on the part of the defendants and their relations. And all this is quite apart from the immense gain both to the individual and to the community, by not lowering to the prison level a man who has committed no crime deserving of prison.

In dealing with this branch of the subject I will refer only to one further recommendation of the Departmental Committee, which relates to the expenses incurred by clerks to justices. Under the existing system a clerk to justice's often suffers financially if he tries to help persons who have been convicted by bringing pressure to bear upon them to pay their fines or advising them of the danger and jeopardy of their position. A justices' clerk who is of a kindly disposition and who wishes to help poor convicted people in this way actually has to find the money out of his own pocket. That is clearly wrong and the Depart- mental Committee recommends that that should be changed. I would like, if I may, to read one further extract from the Report dealing with this particular point. It refers to the fact that the clerk is usually paid a fixed amount for his services. The Report says: In most places, however, the effect of the lump sum is that the more the clerk spends on assistants or on books, forms, postages, etc., the less he has for himself. As we shall show later in this Report, the more trouble a clerk takes to send notifications to defaulters, to accept and bring into account payments by instalments and to make inquiries before the issue of committal warrants, the more likelihood there is that the amount owing will be paid and imprisonments avoided. Work of this kind may involve not only trouble but extra expenditure on clerical labour and postage, and it is clearly wrong that a clerk should be liable to suffer financially for doing his work well. I do not think, my Lords, there will be much dispute about the desirability of that recommendation.

I wish to pass on to the other branches of the subject, but before doing so I would like to stress this important point as one which should be steadily kept in view, that so far as a man is sent to prison for non-payment of fines is concerned in the public mind that is a form of imprisonment and there is a stigma attaching to it, much the same as to imprisonment for a criminal offence. That is an important consideration. The man has been to prison and that will always be known against him. A great deal might also be said about the evils of short-term imprisonment. The noble Viscount on the Woolsack dealt with that forcibly when my noble friend Lord Snell brought up the subject in debate in 1932 and I would like to quote some of the noble Viscount's words, but the fact remains that he was very much concerned, as are all those who have anything to do with the administration of law, about this question of short-term imprisonment.

I will pass to the second branch of the subject and deal with it briefly, not because it is unimportant but because I do not wish to make a speech of undue length. It is the question of the nonpayment of wife's maintenance orders and affiliation orders. The Departmental Committee has much to say about these problems, but the main object of its recommendations is to ensure that no one shall be sent to prison for noncompliance with wife's maintenance orders or affiliation orders unless that non-compliance is due to "wilful refusal or culpable neglect." Those words appear again and again in this Report, and I do not know what better words could be used. Moreover, they say that the court must satisfy itself by inquiries that those are the reasons for non-compliance, so that, as the Committee says, a man would not be sent to prison until his circumstances had been enquired into.

The Committee states definitely that the present system operates partially and that the number of imprisonments under these heads can be considerably reduced. In the Report an extract is quoted from a report by the Governor of Lewes prison relating to a man who had been called upon to pay a certain amount week by week for his wife's maintenance and had failed in his payments. This particular man was in another district by that time, but a warrant was issued for his arrest and he was taken to Lewes prison. I will read the exact words of the report: It happens quite frequently that a man is committed after being brought a considerable distance when, had it been possible to investigate his case in his own locality, it would have been found that he was not in a position, through unemployment, to comply with the order and that he was not in a position to ask for variation or suspension because he could not afford to make the journey to apply at the court in person. In one case a man was committed and subsequently released on representation from the wife that, although he had defaulted earlier, he was at the time of his committal providing for her. In this case committal deprived the man of his work and his wife of her maintenance. I think that should be steadily borne in mind, that quite often the consequence of sending a man to prison is bad not only for the man but also for the wife, because then the man will lose his job and the wife will not get her money, which in other circumstances she possibly, or probably in certain cases, would in time have done. Two further recommendations of the Committee deal with the question of the piling up of arrears, a difficult and important matter, and the making of weekly payments under orders proportionate to the means of the man. It is difficult to see what valid criticism can lie against recommendations like these, which if carried out would result in a considerable reduction in the number of imprisonments for non-compliance with wife's maintenance orders and affiliation orders.

Finally, I come to the question of rates, and I think it is high time that the problem of imprisonment for non-payment of rates was considered by Parliament. As I have said, in 1932, the last figures which are available, no fewer than 3,089 persons were put in prison for nonpayment of rates, and it is quite certain that a large number of these people would not have to go to gaol at all if the Committee's recommendations were carried out. It is certain that a vast proportion of them ought not to have been in gaol. The Departmental Committee make definite recommendations that in future no one shall be sent to prison for nonpayment of rates except he is guilty of wilful refusal or culpable neglect to pay. The precise recommendation is in these terms; No defaulter shall be committed to prison until he has been brought personally by summons, or if that fails, on warrant, before the court and given an opportunity to explain his default. On his appearance the court should satisfy itself, by independent inquiry if necessary, whether or not the failure to pay is due to circumstances beyond the defaulter's control and should not commit him to prison unless satisfied that his default is due to wilful refusal or culpable neglect. That is the recommendation, and, my Lords, it is much needed, all the more so as at the present time there is a striking difference in the figures as between the various rating authorities.

Obviously some rating authorities take a very different view of what should be done, and what they can do in this matter, as compared with other authorities, and it is most unfortunate that in this matter there should be almost a routine procedure, because it is said that the state of things almost amounts to a miscarriage of justice. Those are strong words, but it is what the Committee says. Those words "miscarriage of justice" appear in the Committee's Report as representing its considered opinion in regard to what is going on at the present time in many places. The Committee stresses the fact that in certain cases the procedure is faulty, because commitment warrants are applied for without examination of the defaulter by the court or any inquiry into his circumstances. They give the case of an old age pensioner of 84 who was taken to prison for not paying his rates. He was only getting 10s. a week; that was all he had; it was quite impossible for him to pay. The case came to my knowledge of a man, whose child was dying, who was taken off to prison two days before Christmas for nonpayment of rates. There was no wilful refusal or culpable neglect to pay; he was unemployed; he had not got the money. I was speaking not long ago at a town on the South coast. I was told there of a man connected with the organisation for which I was speaking, who had been summoned for non-payment of £5 in rates. He was unemployed, he could not pay. He felt the position so keenly that he was going to commit suicide. When this became known, his friends, all poor people, managed to find the £5 and got him out of gaol.

It is quite true that there is a provision now in the law which ought to stop this kind of thing. It is in the Rating and Valuation Act, 1925, Section 2 (3) (b), which says: notwithstanding anything in the Distress for Rates Act, 1849, the justices shall not issue a warrant of commitment …. against any person who proves to their satisfaction that his failure to pay is due to circumstances beyond his control. It is a fact that that provision is not operative in London, but I believe in London it would be true to say that it would be very largely acted upon by many magistrates if it were known. The difficulty is that it is not known, and, even if it were, the defaulter has no money to put his case. He does not know how to go about it. He never appears before the court, and so, after a certain time, he is haled off to gaol.

The Committee recommends that this should be altered and that the burden of proof as to whether a man can or cannot pay his rates should not necessarily be upon the defaulter or necessarily upon the local authority. The justices, they say, should be free to use discretion, and should be under a duty, if desirable, to investigate the matter through the investigation officer. But finally, as I have said, it is recommended that the justices should not commit to prison unless they are satisfied, after independent inquiry if necessary, that the failure to pay rates is due to wilful refusal or culpable neglect. It is perfectly true that that change in the law, if it were made, would keep out of prison a very large proportion of those who go there now for non-payment of rates. Taken in conjunction with a further recommendation of the Committee, which I will refer to, we should arrive at a state if things where imprisonment for non-payment of rates would be very largely brought to an end.

The Committee further recommends that the system of compounding for rates should be made, within certain limits, compulsory in this country. As your Lordships know, under that system the rent and rates are paid together. The tenants do not pay rates; they are included in the rent. Under compounding there really is practically no question of going to prison for non-payment of rates. In Scotland, where compounding is mandatory, imprisonment for non-payment of rates is almost unknown. In 1932, out of a population of 4,800,000 only eight persons went to prison for that reason, against 3,089 in England and Wales, with a population of about 45,000,000. In Glasgow, with a population of over a million not one person went to prison for non-payment of rates in 1932. I may further tell your Lordships, in passing, that another advantage of this system is that in Glasgow, out of a total rate collection of over £6,000,000, the amount which it was impossible finally to collect was as small as £10,040. In this country, owing to the procedure which the Committee wants altered, things are very different. In the County of London—not the Metropolitan District—with a population of 4,386,000, there were 1,214 persons sent to prison for non-payment of rates. In Southampton, with a population of 176,000, as many as 151 persons—a very high proportion—were imprisoned for non-payment of rates.

In view of these facts your Lordships will appreciate the recommendation of the Committee that this system of compounding for rates should be made compulsory in this country, within certain limits. If that were done, and the other change in the law were made, this system of imprisonment for rates would very largely be brought to an end. As further showing how very urgently this reform is needed, I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that scarcely one of the prison governors who gave evidence before the Departmental Committee supported incarceration for non-payment of rates. The Committee gave instances which came to its knowledge where the rate collector himself has paid the rates out of his own pocket to prevent a man going to prison. That is very creditable to the rate collector, but it is discreditable to the system which brings about such an extraordinary state of things. Before concluding, I would just refer to the fact, which I have already touched upon, that the Report of this Departmental Committee does not deal with the question of imprisonment for civil debts. That was not within their purview; it was outside their terms of reference. But the total number of persons imprisoned for non-payment of County Court debts in 1932 was 3,856. It is therefore a very considerable problem, and one which I hope will be dealt with very soon.

I trust I have not trespassed unduly upon your Lordships' time. This is a very big question. I have tried to compress the chief recommendations of the Report into a short space of time, and I very much hope that this Report, which is unanimous, or virtually unanimous—seven-eighths of it is unanimous—and which has aroused very little opposition outside—indeed, very few Reports have met with such a large measure of agreement—will lead to something being done. A considerable number of the recommendations of this Committee could be carried out without legislation. They could be carried out administratively. I do not know if the noble Lord who will reply for the Government will say that the Government are unable to bring in legislation because they have not got time. I have had a pretty long experience of Governments now, and my experience is that they can always say they cannot find time if they have not got the will to do a thing. If they have got the will, they can nearly always find time. But the amount of time which would be requisite to implement the recommendations of this Report would be quite small, because the subject is not really controversial. I cannot give any definite pledge, but I have no hesitation in saying that the Party to which I belong would, I believe, give every aid to the passage of legislation—and legislation this year, which in many ways is going to be a very notable year. I think the Government and the Home Secretary have now an almost unrivalled opportunity of effecting real reforms which will lessen human suffering and decrease our prison population, and at the same time achieve those results with advantage to the community, and with increased respect for the administration of the law. I beg to move.


My Lords, I feel sure that all your Lordships who have listened to the lucid speech of the noble Lord opposite will agree that something ought to be done in this matter, and I believe that the more your Lordships know of the practical method of operation, the more you will feel it to be a reproach upon our legislative system if this survival of a barbaric past is allowed to continue for want of preparation and presentation of a Bill which would be the subject of common consent. In the main what the noble Lord has been dwelling upon is embodied in one recommendation of the Report of time Committee to which he has referred—namely, Recommendation No. 27, which is in these terms: Before issuing a warrant of committal to prison for failure to pay, the court should investigate the question how far failure is due to circumstances beyond the defaulter's control and should only issue a warrant if satisfied after such investigation that his default is due to wilful refusal or culpable neglect. If the various grounds of imprisonment as they exist now were set forth, and it were provided in one clause with regard to them in the terms of this Report, it would remove the most substantial part of a very serious hardship.

Anybody who knows anything about this thing knows what happens in a variety of cases. One class of case to which the noble Lord referred was that arising between husband and wife. I saw a great deal of that at one time, and was able, from time to time, to modify orders in which imprisonment had followed automatically upon failure to pay; but that brought home to my mind the fact that in the great majority of cases what happened was that a man who had been ordered to pay and had failed to pay was simply made the subject of a warrant of committal and arrested, and might be arrested and imprisoned several times. That is a survival of a barbaric system. One hundred years ago imprisonment for debt was effective in this country. Charles Dickens did a great deal to expose the savage wickedness of it, and it came to an end substantially; it came to an end, practically, for well-to-do people; but it has not come to an end for the poor people who are the subject of these various classes of orders. Really it does seem, if it is so simple a matter as it strikes me it is, that if one can embody in a Bill the penal provisions to which the Bill relates, and then make the modification which is recommended by the Committee, that ought to be done. It is a reproach to all of us if it is not done, and so I heartily support the demand which the noble Lord has made.


My Lords, I hope I may be allowed a few brief observations. First, I should like to express appreciation of the way in which this Motion has been presented by the noble Lord who has moved it, not only because of the lucidity of his exposition but also because of the care he has taken to get up the facts which he has presented to your Lordships in a way which I think could not be surpassed. I am very much indebted to him for much of what he has said. One would like to have said it, but I could not attempt to do it as well as he has done it to-day. I desire to say that those associated with me feel very strongly upon this matter as it has been presented by the noble Lord and by my noble and learned friend Lord Merrivale, who naturally addresses your Lordships on a subject of this kind with special knowledge and experience. He has lent the weight of his authority to the support of this Motion. I desire to say that we on this side of the House would certainly agree to give any amount of time that may be necessary, and any facilities, to remedy what is certainly a survival of a more savage time than the present.

The difficulty, as was indicated by my noble and learned friend Lord Merrivale, is that these orders of imprisonment affect people simply because for some reason or other they are unable to pay. It is not suggested that if they wilfully refuse or neglect to comply with the order of the court, they should not be imprisoned. But if a man fails to pay through no fault of his own, it is most unfortunate that he should not only be put in prison but be besmirched afterwards with having been in prison, for, as the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, said, most people do not draw a distinction between imprisonment for a crime and imprisonment for non-payment of rates or whatever it may be. All they know is that the man has been in prison. In these circumstances, affecting as they must the poor of this country, I think it is imperative we should take what steps we can to remedy the situation, realising as we do that it does not apply to the wealthy, or even to the middle class, but to people who very often through no fault of their own are unable to meet the orders which have been made. I hope that the Government will not only give a sympathetic response, but will insist on time being found in order that we may be able to deal with what is undoubtedly a very great hardship.


My Lords, after the very clear statement of the noble Lord opposite and the very weighty pronouncement of Lord Merrivale on this side, there really is not very much more to be said, but I should like for one moment, as a humble Back Bencher, to express the surprise which I felt at learning the facts which have been brought to your Lordships' notice to-day. It really is a matter of astonishment to me to learn that no fewer than three thousand people every year go to prison for failure to pay their rates. I quite understand, as the noble Marquess has pointed out, that they are not going to prison in a sense for debt, but because they fail to comply with the order of the court, but it really does come to the same thing. Two cases have come to my notice within the last few months. One is that of a lad of seventeen who has been unemployed and cycling round the country looking for work. He was fined 10s. for failing to have a light. Cycling without a light was very foolish no doubt on his part, but when he cannot pay it is not right that a lad of seventeen should go to prison for failure to pay the fine in such a case. If you look at the other end of the scale of misery, one hears of an unemployed man with an income of 29s. a week and a wife and four children going to prison for failure to pay his rates when there is not a penny in the house, or even any food. That is so definitely wrong that I cannot help thinking the Government will find time to put the matter right.

On the question of how to remedy the imprisonment for failure to pay rates, I was interested to hear the noble Lord's reference to the Report and to the comparison with what happened in Scotland. I suppose I may assume that the ratepayers of Glasgow are not more anxious to part with their money than the ratepayers in the southern parts of the country. It is not the reputation of my countrymen to be more ready than others to part with their money. I think we can, therefore, assume that it is some merit of the system. As the noble Lord said, the compounding of rates is in many cases compulsory. While it has the disadvantage that the small rentpayer perhaps does not know what he is paying in rates, and it may be argued that he cannot therefore take such an intelligent interest in the affairs of the community, nevertheless here we have at all events a very good example of the benefits which result. I think, if I may say so, that this is only one of the instances in which there is something to be learned from how we manage affairs in Scotland, and possibly it is an example which will not be lost sight of. I do not wish to take up more time. I did, however, want to say, what I think a great many of us feel, that we really did not know that this state of affairs existed, but now that we do know it we confidently look to the Government to put an end to it.


My Lords, I only want in a sentence or two to associate myself very cordially with everything that has been said this afternoon on this matter and with the gratitude we owe to the noble Lord opposite for bringing it to our attention. There was a time when, as prison chaplain, I was continually brought into close contact with this problem, and again and again it seemed to me strange indeed that otherwise quite honest and decent folk who, for mere want of means, had been unable to pay the fines imposed upon them or meet the orders granted against them, were immediately and without further investigation put into prison. I cannot say, with the noble Lord who has just spoken, that the matter has not been known. I have always been surprised that so little action has been taken; but now that a Departmental Committee after going into the matter with the greatest possible care has reported, and reported subject to one or two reservations quite unanimously, I earnestly hope the Government will not delay doing all it can to put right a wrong which, as the noble Lord behind me has said, has been allowed to continue too long.

So far as investigations are concerned, which the Departmental Committee propose should precede a committal to prison for default of payment, that comes within matters that we hope another Departmental Committee will be able to bring again before our notice. But much may be done, I suggest, without appointing other expensive officers by the development of the probation system to see that in all these cases prior investigation is made. If it were done I am satisfied that the number of people both old and young who now find their way to prison, with all the ignominy that rightly attaches to committal to prison, would be saved from that degradation when the fault is one which really cannot be laid to their charge. I only wish in these few sentences to associate myself with what has been said, and to trust that the Government will do all they can to facilitate a Bill of this kind when it is introduced. We know the immense pressure upon their programme. I believe with the noble Lord that there would be no controversy raised on this matter once the facts are known, and we have a unanimous Committee behind it. I hope the Government will not avail themselves of the plea of pressure upon their time elsewhere to deny your Lordships the opportunity of pressing forward an urgent matter of domestic legislation.


My Lords, when I had the honour of presenting this problem to your Lordships' House in December, 1932, nothing astonished me more at that time than the general absence of knowledge—I do not mean in your Lordships' House merely but throughout the country—that there was concerning the conditions that really prevail. At that time I received hundreds of letters of astonishment from people who believed that imprisonment for debt had ended in the time of Dickens. To some extent it had. Imprisonment for Certain classes of cases has been abolished, but the figures which I then presented to your Lordships' House—and they have been more or less repeated to-day—will show that there is something really very substantial yet to be done. As the result of the Motion which I made at that time, we received from the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack a most clear and full statement of the issue, and since then this Departmental Committee has been sitting. It has presented a practically unanimous Report and the matter now passes out of our hands.

The responsibility for the continuance of this unfortunate state of things now belongs to His Majesty's Government, and the time seems to me to have come when we should be rightly impatient if the Government does not find time to deal with this question in a very drastic way. It is a shocking thing that every year many thousands of our fellow citizens who are not criminals have to suffer this degradation, which must leave a stamp upon their spiritual nature for the rest of their lives. In regard to imprisonment for debt, we are really the most backward of all the nations on the earth. But one point which distressed me very much two years ago I still feel to be most important. It is that the peak of unemployment always coincides with the increase of the number of men who are sent to prison for non-payment of debts of one kind or another. Let me give your Lordships one or two figures. In 1913 when the unemployed percentage was 2.1 the number of people imprisoned for non-payment of debt was 3,554. In 1917 when the proportion of unemployed had been reduced to 0.7, the number of men imprisoned for non-payment of debt had fallen to 1,195. In 1921 when unemployment had risen to 17 per cent. the number had increased to 5,383, and in 1931 when the unemployed proportion was 21 per cent., the number of men who were sent to prison for non-payment of debt had risen to 6,563.

Whatever our political opinions may be, I feel that we shall all agree that when a man becomes a victim of the prevailing economic depression he ought not to be sent to prison because he cannot meet his ordinary civil obligations. His debts may have been contracted partly through the education of his children, or through sickness in his family; he may have signed papers, or his wife may have done so, at the instance of touts who call at the door, upon the expectation that he would be able to pay, and that then unemployment had come and financial disaster had fallen upon him. I need not continue the story any longer. The facts put before your Lordships by my noble friend Lord Arnold show that this grievance cries aloud for remedy, and we ought really to face it. A man ought not to be sent to prison on that account. I would like, before I close, to say that for myself I have never asked for the total repeal of the law under which a man can be sent to prison for non-payment of debts. Some people will not pay except under the greatest coercion and that right should properly be held in the hands of magistrates and Judges. Let us remember when we are thinking of undue leniency that the creditors may be, and are in many cases, a man's own wife and children and they have to be protected. Let us remember on the other hand that undue severity results in a man's imprisonment, and that imprisonment brings financial and spiritual loss both to him and to his wife and family.

When I was in America some years ago I visited the domestic courts of that country. I had the privilege of sitting by the side of Judges in the great cities of America whilst cases were being dealt with and I examined the whole matter at some length. I very clearly came to the conviction that so far as this section of the problem is concerned, in regard to wife maintenance, a vast amount of that could be saved in this country if the proper facilities were provided. I introduced in the House of Commons year after year a Bill to try to deal with that important matter, but the House was always too busy with other, and I do not doubt more important, things. But I am quite sure that there is a case for looking at this matter as a whole and not dealing with it in piecemeal fashion. Again, my Lords, when I was in America a year or two ago, a Judge of the Supreme Court was good enough to express to me in the most emphatic way his admiration and the admiration of jurists for the Common Law of England. I was thrilled with pride, but also very thankful that they did not know about this blot upon that system which has been brought before your Lordships this afternoon. I feel that prison should be the rod of the law and should be the instrument for the punishment of acts of direct crime. It should not be a torture house for people merely because they are unable to meet their civic obligations. I hope with the rest of your Lordships that the noble Earl who is to reply for the Government will tell us that in spite of all the pressure of business His Majesty's Government will this year try to bring in a Bill to deal with it. This is a most appropriate year in which to try to remove this stigma from the Statute Book. If the Government determine to do it before December next—I do not ask it before May—they will have all the assistance that at least my friends and myself can give.


My Lords, both personally and on behalf of the Home Office I welcome this Motion, and at the outset I should like to associate myself with the tribute paid by the noble Marquess to the noble Lord who moved this Motion. I agree with the noble Marquess that your Lordships have been fortunate this afternoon to have the position explained lucidly and comprehensively by the noble Lord, Lord Arnold. I wish to say at once that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary fully recognises the importance of the subject to which the noble Lord has called attention, and he is anxious that the proposals of the Departmental Committee shall be the subject of discussion, so that he may have an opportunity of considering the views of all those who can contribute suggestions about the problems which the Committee was appointed to consider. No one can look at the statistics in the Annual Reports of the Prison Commissioners; showing that about 45 per cent. of the persons sent to prison each year are committed for failing to pay sums of money, without feeling that some steps ought to be taken to reduce the number of these imprisonments if it is practicable to do so without weakening the power of the courts of summary jurisdiction to enforce their orders.

The orders made by these courts for the payment of moneys fall into three classes. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, there are, first, orders for the payment of fines; secondly, wife maintenance and affiliation orders; and thirdly, warrants against persons who fail to pay rates. As regards fines, great improvement has been effected in the last twenty years as a result of the requirement that persons who cannot pay at once shall be given time for payment, unless there is some good reason to the contrary, and in recent years the number of persons sent to prison in default of fines is less than 3 per cent. of the total number of persons fined.

Your Lordships will know that of all the methods which are available to the courts of summary jurisdiction for dealing with offenders the imposition of fines is the method most frequently used. The great majority of offences dealt with in the courts of summary jurisdiction are minor offences and over three-quarters of the offenders are fined. The total number of fines imposed by these courts in a year is nearly half a million and over 97 per cent. of these fines are paid. Undoubtedly the knowledge that the alternative to payment is imprisonment is a potent factor in securing the payment of fines, and it is most important that no change shall be made which might hinder the courts in the use of this valuable method of dealing with minor offences.

But though the number of imprisonments in default of payment of fines is small compared with the number of fines imposed we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, that the number amounts to over 11,000 cases a year, and as the Departmental Committee point out, if it were possible to divide the persons fined into two classes, putting into one class all those who are well-to-do or of moderate means and into the other class the poor defendants, then it would no doubt be found that of the poor defendants the proportion sent to prison in default of payment is by no means negligible. How to deal with these poor persons who have committed some offence for which a penalty has to be imposed was the main problem before the Committee. Under the existing law courts are required in fixing the amount of a fine to take into consideration amongst other things the means of the offender so far as they are known to the court. The application of this principle often presents great difficulty. Apart from the difficulty which a court may find in assessing the capacity of the defendant to pay, the pressure of business at many courts makes it difficult to devote time to an examination of the circumstances of any particular offender; and though justices are no doubt anxious to adjust penalties as fairly as they can, it seems sometimes questionable whether sufficient weight is given to the extreme difficulty which a working man who perhaps has a family of four to support may experience in scraping together £3 or £4 for the payment of a fine.

In this connection the Departmental Committee call attention to the comparatively little use that appears to be made at many courts of the power of ordering fines to be paid by weekly instalments. Such a system gives substantial additional trouble to the clerk of the court and, as the noble Lord, Lord Arnold, has already pointed out, sometimes additional expense, and there is a not unnatural tendency to throw on the defendant the responsibility of putting some money by each week so that he can pay the lump sum at the end of the period allowed by the court. In practice, however, the difficulty which poor people often experience in saving money week by week with a view to the payment of a lump sum at the end of six or eight weeks is serious, and there would appear to be much force in the Committee's suggestion that the additional clerical labour involved in taking weekly payments at a court of summary jurisdiction ought not to be an obstacle to the use of this method of recovering fines.

When the question before a court is whether they should sentence an offender to imprisonment, justices are as a general rule most reluctant to impose such a sentence if any other course is open to them. When, however, a fine has been imposed and time is given for payment and a default occurs at the end of that period, the issue of a commitment warrant against the defaulter is an administrative and not a judicial act; and the existing law provides an inadequate opportunity for the justice or bench of justices to give specific consideration to the question whether the defaulter ought to be sent straightway to prison. If the defaulter fails—as is not infrequently the case—to make representation to the court, the justices whose duty it is to sign the commitment warrant may have no opportunity of knowing anything about the defaulter's circumstances. To avoid this risk of automatic commitment, the Departmental Committee propose that the law should be amended so as to empower courts to issue in the first instance warrants of arrest instead of warrants of commitment. In many cases the warrants of arrest will no doubt result—as commitment warrants often result—in the payment of the money. In other cases the defaulter will be brought again before the court so that the justices may have an opportunity of ascertaining the reasons for the default and considering whether the circumstances do or do not warrant an immediate commitment to prison.

As regards wife maintenance orders and affiliation orders, the number of persons sent to prison each year in England and Wales is about 6,000 and the Committee called attention to the extraordinary differences between the number of imprisonments in Scotland and the number of imprisonments in England and Wales. In 1932 only fifteen men were sent to prison in Scotland for failing to pay aliment as against 3,600 in England, and only 184 men were sent to prison in Scotland for failure to pay under affiliation orders as against 2,400 in England. The main difference between the Scottish and English law is that in Scotland the man's wages may be attached by arrestment in so far as they are not necessary for his own subsistence. In practice little use is made of this power which is at present in force in Scotland, but the very existence of the power is said to have a good and salutary effect. The Committee recommend that the English law shall be so altered as to empower the courts to make an order for attachment of wages if default occurs under a maintenance or affiliation order and the court think that attachment is the most suitable method of securing compliance with the order.

The Committee do not suggest that this procedure should be applied automatically to all wage earners. In many cases the threat either of imprisonment under the existing law or of attachment under the proposed amendment of the law will be sufficient to secure compliance. If however it becomes clear to the court that the man, despite warning, is not making a reasonable effort to meet his obligation, the Committee consider that the power of attaching his wages would often be a valuable addition to the existing powers of the court. Apart from this question of the power of attachment it would seem that the main cause for the difference between the Scottish and English figures must be found in the greater reluctance of the Scottish courts to commit a defaulter to prison unless they are well satisfied that his default is wilful.

Under the English law the court have discretion when default occurs to decide whether they will or will not commit the defaulter to prison, and in practice no doubt Justices try not to send a man to prison unless they are satisfied that he could, had he made greater effort, have done more than he has done to comply with the order. But there appears to be a tendency for some courts to take the view that if a man has failed to pay the sum which at the original adjudication the court decided he ought to pay he must go to prison unless there is a clear case for excusing him. The Committee accordingly suggest that the law should be amended so as to impose on the courts a definite obligation to make inquiry as to a defaulter's circumstances, and not to commit him to prison unless they are satisfied that his failure to pay is due to wilful refusal or culpable neglect. They also suggest various amendments of the law to facilitate dealing with the cases where a man's resources and circumstances vary from time to time, and with the cases in which the parties move away from the area of the court which has made the order to distant places.

As regards rate defaulters, the number of imprisonments in England and Wales, as your Lordships have heard, is about 3,000 a year. In Scotland on the other hand the number of imprisonments in 1932 was only 8. Again the main difference between the Scottish and English law seems to be that under the Scottish rating system there are greater facilities for enabling a weekly tenant to pay his rates as part of his weekly rent. As your Lordships are aware, the general question of rating law is a complex and difficult subject which raises many problems, but from the point of view from which the Committee were appointed to consider this matter the system by which weekly tenants can pay their rates as part of their weekly rent has obviously many advantages. As the Committee pointed out, all the financial arrangements of the weekly wage earner are on a weekly basis. The Committee, in the Report, state: The rent is paid because it is collected weekly; and a weekly sum may be set aside for the rates. The more careful or more fortunate families may manage to keep these weekly savings intact. In other households some exceptional expenditure … leads to a depletion of the store, and when the rate falls due, there are no means to meet it. Apart however from this difficult problem of allocating the responsibility as between the landlord and tenant, there is, as the Committee's Report shows, considerable variation in the manlier in which the existing law is administered in different districts in England and Wales. In some areas the number of imprisonments is high and in others it is low, although there appear to be no circumstances to account for these differences, except the methods adopted by the rating authorities in enforcing the law.

The difficulties experienced by justices in administering conscientiously the existing law are very great indeed. Very large numbers of people neglect to pay their rates until process is applied for, and commitment warrants are consequently regarded rather as final demands for payment than as orders which may result in actual imprisonment. In the great majority of cases the issue of the warrant results in payment, and to sift out of the very numerous defaulters those whose circumstances deserve consideration is almost impracticable under the existing procedure. The Committee accordingly recommend that to get over this difficulty the justices should be empowered, instead of issuing commitment warrants to issue warrants of arrest. In the great majority of cases these warrants of arrest will have the same effect as a commitment warrant—namely, the payment of the money. In the remaining cases the system will ensure that the defaulter appears before the justices and they will thus have an opportunity of considering whether there are circumstances which justify the exercise of their power to remit the rate or to give the defaulter further time, or whether the case is one which warrants imprisonment.

So far as the Committee's Report involves amendment of the law their proposal have been noted for careful and sympathetic consideration when an opportunity for legislation arises, and it will be borne in mind by the Department I represent that your Lordships' House has very emphatically stated this afternoon that legislation should ensue as soon as possible. In the meantime, however, there are certain matters in the Report to which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary thinks it may be useful to call the attention of justices. No doubt many justices have obtained copies of the Report and have made themselves familiar with the considerations to which the Committee call attention, but in order that the main point affecting procedure under the existing law may be brought to the notice of all the courts the Home Secretary is considering the issue of a general circular to justices, so that pending the question of legislation there may be no delay whatsoever in bringing to the notice of all courts of summary jurisdiction suggestions and considerations which may tend to reduce the number of imprisonments and may assist courts to confine the use of this extreme measure to cases where it is unavoidable if the authority of the courts is to be properly upheld. I hope, my Lords, that having traversed much of the ground that was so ably covered by the mover of the Resolution, I have not unduly wearied your Lordships. It is a matter which will be thoroughly considered and carefully appreciated by the justices of the peace throughout the country, and I hope the debate in this House will have some good effect in that respect.


My Lords, in concluding the debate I would like first to be allowed to thank the noble Marquess, Lord Reading, and other noble Lords, for the way in which they received my Motion, and for the kind words that they have uttered. I appreciate them very much. With regard to the Motion, I am hopeful that some good will result. The noble Earl who speaks for the Government has given a sympathetic reply, and I hope that that is the beginning of something which will have a practical issue. He has pointed out that there are certain matters in the Report which could in effect be implemented now without legislation. The first suggestion which I wish to urge upon the Government is that that should be done. As a matter of fact, if you go through the recommendations of the Report, you will see that something like half could be implemented by administrative action, and therefore no Parliamentary time would be necessary.

The second proposal is that the noble Earl should urge the Home Secretary to give most careful and sympathetic consideration to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Merrivale, who pointed out that you could implement a good deal of what is needed by a one-clause Bill. That is a very modest request. The noble and learned Lord, with his great experience and great position, has put that suggestion forward and, speaking with some experience of your Lordships' House, it is difficult for me to recall an occasion on which there has been greater unanimity. Indeed, there has been absolute unanimity. There has been no criticism of the Report whatever. I am not saying that there never would be any criticism of any of it, but the fact remains that in this long debate there has been no criticism. I can assure the noble Lord that if he could persuade his noble friend to introduce such a Bill, it could be passed without difficulty.

I would suggest that the Bill be introduced in your Lordships' House. I do not think your Lordships would claim to be overworked at present, and I would like to ask the noble Marquess who is leading the House to-day (Lord Londonderry) if he would give favourable consideration to the proposal and bring it forward. If that Bill were passed through your Lordships' House, as it undoubtedly could be without the slightest difficulty, there is no doubt whatever that it would pass through another place, and something of great advantage would be achieved.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Earl if he would consider whether the circular, which he says will be sent round by the Home Secretary to the justices, could be sent to each justice individually. At present I think the practice is for these circulars to go to the justices' clerks, and they do not always reach the justices. I hope the noble Earl will ask the Home Secretary to consider that point. As regards the general debate, I must say, with my noble friend Lord Arnold, that I have never heard such enthusiastic unanimity in your Lordships' House before, and I hope that that will impress the Government, because "careful and sympathetic consideration" is one of those various Ministerial phrases that we know so well, and which mean so little. "Favourable consideration," which the Minister of Transport uses, is rather a better and stronger phrase; I should have liked to hear that. But really, there is no reason whatever why a short Bill should not be intro- duced in your Lordships' House in the next two weeks, when we have very little to do and it would pass through another place without any difficulty whatever. I hope the noble Earl, who has given us such a very full treatise on the whole case, will impress the Home Secretary with what he has heard in your Lordships' House to-day.


My Lords, I do not know if the noble Earl would consider whether the circular referred to could be issued as a White Paper? If it were issued as a White Paper, it would obtain publicity much better than by sending it to the justices' clerks.


My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord opposite, it is the general practice that circulars to courts of summary jurisdiction are sent to the clerks of the courts, and it is true that in certain circumstances, such circulars do not reach the individual magistrates. I shall be very pleased to lay the suggestions—the suggestion of the noble Lord opposite and of the noble and learned Lord behind me—before the Home Secretary.


My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before six o'clock.