HL Deb 16 April 1958 vol 208 cc758-78

2.46 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I am glad that it has fallen to my lot to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which seeks to improve the facilities now available for enforcing maintenance orders—that is, orders for the maintenance of women who are divorced or separated from their husbands and for their children and also for illegitimate children. It seeks to do so in two respects: first, by making all methods of enforcement which now exist, whether in the High Court, the county courts or the magistrates' courts, available to enforce maintenance orders, irrespective of the court in which that order has been made, and, secondly, by supplying a fresh method of enforcement in all these courts.

I am happy to move this Bill because, both in my capacity as Home Secretary and as Lord Chancellor, I have seen the limitations of the present system and their adverse effects. No one, I think, who has ever served in either capacity can remain long unaware of the ineffectiveness of the present provisions for the enforcement of maintenance orders. Orders are made, but all too frequently they are not complied with, so that the wife is forced to resort to National Assistance to maintain herself and her children, or the courts are forced to commit the defendant to prison, which, in the case of magistrates' courts at any rate, is in practice the only method of enforcement now available.

In 1956 over £7½ million was paid by the National Assistance Board to separated wives alone. In the same year, there were nearly 5,000 committals to prison for an average period of six weeks for failure to make payments under maintenance orders. As it costs the taxpayer about £5 11s. 0d. a week, on the latest figures available, to keep a man in prison, that situation shows a very considerable charge upon public funds. But it also tells a sadder story in wives who are denied justice and in men who are contaminated by prison, especially prisons in their present overcrowded condition. We believe that the arrangements we propose in this Bill will go a long way to improve this state of affairs.

Part I of the Bill is designed to enable an order made by the High Court or county court to be registered in a magistrates' court or, conversely, an order made by a magistrates' court to be registered in the High Court when it can be enforced either there or in the county court. This will enable a person in whose favour a maintenance order has been made, say, in divorce proceedings in the High Court to take advantage of the simpler, cheaper and quicker procedures of the magistrates' court, where the magistrates' clerk acts as collecting officer and the service of the summons is easier.

On the other hand, it will enable the recipient of, say, an affiliation order made in the magistrates' court to collect arrears for the payments from the defendant if, for example, he has a bank balance, by registering the order in the High Court and taking garnishee proceedings. My noble and learned friend Lord Morton of Henryton will observe that thereby we have gone one step further than the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, over which he presided with such distinction, which recommended only that a High Court maintenance order should be capable of being registered and enforced in a magistrates' court. We have made it a two-way traffic.

Clause 2 of the Bill therefore provides that an application may be granted in relation to an order made by the High Court or county court to register it in the magistrates' court if the court thinks fit. A discretion is given to refuse the application where in all the circumstances it would be inappropriate for a magistrates' court to deal with the order—for example, where the order was contingent upon some other order or agree ment, such as payment of school fees. In subsection (3) of the same clause the converse registration of a magistrates' order in the High Court is as of right, save that the applicant must show that there are a certain amount of arrears. This is because the special facilities available in the High Court have effect only in the collection of arrears, and, therefore, unless arrears are shown to have accumulated, there is no point in applying for the registration. There are also provisions in the clause to ensure that all proceedings in the original court have been terminated before registration takes place. Then under Clause 3 of the Bill all the powers of the court into which the order has been registered become available for its enforcement.

Clause 4 deals with variation of orders registered in magistrates' courts. The converse, variation of a magistrates' court order by the High Court, is not provided, mainly since it might be a hardship for the defendant to take proceedings there merely because the woman had had the order registered; and, of course, he can take these proceedings in the magistrates' court where the maintenance order was originally made. Clause 5 deals with the cancellation of the registration. I do not think that any matters arise there upon which I need detain your Lordships.

We now come to Part II of the Bill, the longer and, your Lordships may think, the more far-reaching part, although to some extent we are merely conforming at a somewhat late date to what has already applied for generations in Scotland. This Part of the Bill provides for the attachment of the earnings of maintenance defaulters. Attachment was recommended as long ago as 1934 by the Fischer Williams Committee and, somewhat naturally, has been urged for years by many women's organisations, by the Howard League for Penal Reform and, most recently, by the Home Secretary's Advisory Council upon the Treatment of Offenders. It was not, I must confess, recommended by the Royal Commission over which my noble and learned friend Lord Morton of Henryton presided, and I myself, in answer to my noble friend the Lord Chairman, indicated the reasons which weighed with them in a debate in this House. My noble friend Lord Morton of Henryton has, however, let it be known that, on reconsideration, it is his personal view that the advantages of attachment outweigh its disadvantages, and I myself have reconsidered the matter on the lines which I shall now deploy.

Under this Part of the Bill, it is provided, by Clause 6, that a person in whose favour a maintenance order is made and who is owed more than the equivalent of four weekly payments or two monthly or quarterly ones, may be granted an attachment of earnings order ordering the defendant's employer to pay sums out of the defendant's wages into court unless the defendant satisfies the court that the failure to pay was not due to his wilful refusal or his culpable neglect. This is similar to the formula which at present applies in committal proceedings in the magistrates' court. If, in those circumstances, the court makes the order, it will specify two rates: first, what is called the normal deduction rate, which is the rate at which the employer is to deduct from the wages, subject to the second rate; and this second rate, which is called the protected earnings rate, fixes the amount below which, come what may, attachment cannot reduce the earnings. Thus the normal deduction can vary, while the protected earnings cannot, unless, of course, in such circumstances as illness, the man's earnings as a whole fall below even that figure.

Perhaps the position can be most easily explained by an example. Suppose that the maintenance order which a man is required to pay is for £3 a week; and there are, also, of course, arrears which the court thinks could reasonably be paid off at 10s, a week. Here the normal deduction rate will most probably be £3 10s, a. week. Then, taking all the man's circumstances into account, including the claims upon him of any second family, the court fixes the protected earnings rate at, let us say, £4 a week. Now suppose that after deduction of income tax, national insurance, health and superannuation contributions, the man would normally receive £9 a week from his employer. So long as this remains the amount of his relevant earnings, as the Schedule calls them, the full normal deduction of £3 10s. will be made, since that will still leave more than the protected earnings of £4; and even if the relevant earnings fall to £7 10s, the £3 10s, will continue to be deducted. But if the earnings drop below £7 10s., because of short time, say, the normal deduction will be reduced accordingly. Only £2 will be deducted from earnings of £6; that is, the £6 less the £4 of protected earnings. If, however, the next week he should receive his normal earnings of £9, then the woman would receive the £1 10s. which she failed to get in the week of short-time.

The system we have tried to devise is as simple as we can make it, but we also contemplate issuing a pamphlet explaining the effects of the provision in simple terms, so that employers should, we hope, have little difficulty in understanding what they have to do. We entirely appreciate that we are imposing an additional burden upon employers. We also appreciate that some of your Lordships sitting opposite—and I say some advisedly, because there were differing views expressed on the matter from the corresponding Benches in the other place—will feel that our proposals, by bringing the employer into the administration of a workman's personal affairs, are an infringement of his privacy. On that point, may I say two things? First, at present the ultimate sanction for failure to comply with a maintenance order is prison, and I can scarcely conceive of a greater infringement of privacy than that. Secondly, the remedy is in the defendant's own bands: his privacy need not be invaded if he complies with the original order. An attachment of earnings order will not be made if he could not have paid the amounts due.

With regard to the employers, while I accept that the Bill will impose an additional burden upon them, the number of attachment orders likely to be made will be infinitesimal compared with the total labour force of the country. We have also tried to keep the employer out of his employee's affairs as much as possible. He is not a party to the proceedings, and he will pay the money to the court and not directly to the wife. We did consider an alternative, under which the payments could be dealt with through the Pay-as-you-earn system, but that would involve such complications as to make it impossible.

I need not detain your Lordships long with regard to the subsequent provisions of this Part of the Bill. Clause 7, your Lordships may think, gives a useful power to the court to make an attachment of earnings order on an application to commit to prison. Clause 9 provides for the order being varied or discharged with provision for these proceedings to be automatically set in motion immediately the arrears are wiped off, when obviously the order will need changing. The court may at this stage not only reduce the normal deduction rate but also, if the defendant requests it, discharge the order altogether. Clause 10 imposes upon the employer a duty to comply with the order, and should be read with Clause 15, the penalty clause. Clause 11 enables the court to get particulars of the defendant's employment, either from him or, if his name is known, from his employer, and Clause 12 enables the court to determine whether money passing from the employer to the defendant is or is not earnings within the definition given in Clause 17. I hope and think that your Lordships will agree that this Bill is a useful measure of reform. We may have to give further consideration to some matters in Committee, but I now ask your Lordships to commend it in principle. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.4 p.m.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount's last words were that this Bill is a useful measure of reform. I think he was not putting his case too high in saying that; I think we should all agree that it is a useful measure of reform, but I hope that none of your Lordships will imagine that it is more than that. I hope to be able to explain why I take that view.

The Bill, as the noble and learned Viscount explained, has been the subject of considerable heart-searching in another place. Eventually the principle has been accepted, but it is not surprising that a number of my friends have had considerable doubts about the infringement of the principle of the sanctity of wages. Ever since 1870, when the Wages Attachment Abolition Act was passed, it has been a cardinal principle of our wage system that by no court order can a man's wage packet be attached. This Bill, for the first time, creates a breach in that principle, in enabling a man's wages to be attached in respect of a maintenance order or one of the other types of order referred to in the Bill. It is therefore understandable that the Bill should have been examined very carefully, with all the pros and cons weighed in the balance, in order that those who are responsible for the welfare of the workers should satisfy themselves that this is not a breach of what is commonly known as the Truck Act and will not be extended. After all, once a breach is committed in the principle, there are other grounds upon which wages could be attached, such as for rates, income tax, and so on, which might have an equal claim.

It was satisfactory that the Home Secretary in another place gave what I regard as an unqualified pledge that there would be no extension of the principle of attachment of wages. Of course, indirectly wages have been a possible subject of attack for years past. When a man is solely dependent upon his wages and there is a court order requiring him to pay so much a month, say, on a judgment summons, failing which he goes to prison, if he is in a regular job his wages are as much attached, in practice, as if there were a court order for attachment. He either pays or he goes to prison. But in actual fact there has been no attachment of wages since 1870, and this is a serious and important breach of that fact.

The noble and learned Viscount explained, I think fairly, what were the fears, apart from the principle involved in attachment of wages, which actuated many of my friends. It was that a man may be penalised in his employment by the fact that it is known to his employers that there is an attachment order against him, and the employer is being put to considerable trouble in working out the amount of the deduction. There is also the fear that, other things being equal, an employer would prefer to employ a man without an attachment order than with one. There is the further fear, to which the noble and learned Viscount referred, that men are reluctant to allow their employers, and of course members of the staff concerned with the working out of the wages, to know their intimate personal affairs. It is easy to say that they can avoid all this by keeping up their obligations, but of course men do get into difficulties, sometimes through no fault of their own. Sometimes it is because of their own fault, but there are such things as illness and so on which prevent people from paying; and men are reluctant to have their fellow workers, as well as their employers, know about their personal affairs.

There is one other difficulty about this matter which I think was not mentioned during the course of the discussions in another place. As the noble and learned Viscount has explained, the way in which attachment will work is that a man will be left with a certain basic income which will depend upon his commitments—whether he has another family, what his other obligations are—and he will be required to pay the balance, up to the amount of the order made against him, into the court office. If this balance is not sufficient, then arrears will mount up, but there may be no means by which he can pay them and the order will never be satisfied. There will be in fact no real obligation on the man ever to make up that balance. For instance, if the court order is for £2 a week and the basic allowance which he is entitled to keep for himself is £5 and his earnings are £6 (I am taking a hypothetical figure) he will never be able to satisfy the order. But he will have no incentive to earn more unless he earns a great deal more; he will have no incentive to earn the extra £1 to satisfy the order. In some ways this might operate as a disincentive to earnings. I realise that a man has to be a careful accountant to work out how much he can earn before he benefits by the increased earnings, but quite often where a question of overtime is involved a man will say. "I am not going to work overtime merely to hand over what I get for it in satisfaction of the order". These are real difficulties and no doubt account for the fact that the Bill was in Committee in another place for a very long time—I think something of the order of twenty days—and every possible difficulty was threshed out.

I should like to pay tribute to the Government—because this is a non-Party measure—not necessarily for the way in which it was handled in Committee but for the way in which the various points submitted from all sides of the Committee were in clue course considered and met on the Report stage, with the result that much of the work that might have fallen to this House to do in Committee has already been done. But there are still a number of points, a number of undertakings given by the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary, which I think need to be dealt with.

There are some I should like to refer to in particular. One is that by going to prison for a limited period the obligation of the husband is entirely wiped out. It is theoretically possible for a man to run up an indebtedness of, say, £100 and go to prison for six weeks and that wipes out the debt. That is not bad going; it is £17 a week free of tax, and moreover he is maintained in the meantime at the public expense. If there are 5,000 men who have actually been committed to prison in the course of a year, I think that such considerations as those do act as an incentive to some of them. It depends how they value their time, but to some people it is a direct incentive to go to prison and get rid of their obligations in that way.

An Amendment put down in another place provided that if the man goes to prison it should not necessarily wipe out the debt. I think it was treated a little roughly on the Committee stage. I do not know what the present position is or whether undertakings have been given, but I would propose to put down an Amendment on the Committee stage and have the matter reconsidered. Of course, one can see readily what I think is a specious answer, that you might be sending a man to prison several times for the same indebtedness. Frankly, I am not very worried about that. The man, generally speaking, has the remedy in his own hands, and I believe that you can rely on the courts to act sensibly and not keep on sending a man to prison if manifestly he is unable to meet his obligations.

There was one other Amendment which was considered in another place and which again I think is worthy of consideration here. I am not sure how the matter stands at the moment, or whether there are undertakings or not. Once a magistrates' court has made a committal order against a man, whatever happens thereafter that order has to be carried out. There are no means by which the magistrates can reconsider the matter in the light of changed circumstances. That strikes me as being absolutely absurd. The reasons given were legalistic. I think the main one was that this would involve an overhaul of the powers of magistrates and that it cannot be done without doing a great many other things. That, of course, is sheer nonsense. We are constantly remedying particular instances of evil in our legislation without necessarily overhauling the whole thing. If there are changed circumstances, magistrates ought to have the right, on application by the person affected, to change their minds about the committal to prison.

I have referred to the difficulties which many of my friends felt over this measure. Nevertheless, in another place we agreed to the Second Reading and accepted the Bill, and we consider that on balance it is a good step. It will want very careful watching. I think that many of the fears that were expressed in another place had some justification, and the House will bear in mind that they were actually the fears that were expressed by the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce; the Commission unanimously accepted the views of those of my friends who had apprehensions about this Bill. I think many have had second thoughts on it, including, I am glad to say, the Chairman of that Royal Commission, and my friends feel that, on balance, this is the right thing. But do not let us have exaggerated ideas about what it is going to do.

I should like to pay a tribute to the Home Secretary for his work in connection with prison reform. He felt that perhaps the 5.000 committals to prison might be reduced to 2,000. It was, of course, a pure guess, and nobody would wish to hold him to that figure, but it is worth while reducing the prison population by 3,000 a year, especially as our prisons are so overcrowded that most of the men committed in this way are sleeping three in a cell. The noble and learned Viscount referred to the demoralisation of going to prison, and I agree that anything we can do to reduce the prison population, both on that account and generally to reduce overcrowding, is all to the good. But if we can help these unfortunate women who are dependent on their maintenance orders and affiliation orders and so on, and save them from the humiliation and all the difficulties involved of having to go to the National Assistance Committee for their weekly maintenance, I think it is all to the good and the Bill would justify itself on that account.

I wish it had been possible to work out a scheme under the Pay-as-you-earn system, not only because it would save this difficulty of bringing the employer into the picture but also because it would get over another difficulty, namely, that once a man leaves his job the attachment order then comes to an end and the wife has to go through the same process all over again—to discover where the man is working afresh, to make another application, and to get a new attachment order and a new assessment of the man's income. That is not always easy for a wife to do. If it had been possible to work it through Pay-as-you-earn, then the deduction would have been automatic; the man would have been given a code number and the weekly deduction would have been automatic, and the employer need not necessarily have known, unless he wished to make elaborate investigations as to the significance of the code number, that it was in respect of a maintenance order. I hope that, even if this Bill becomes law, the Government will not close their minds to the possibility of working this through Pay-as-you-earn. It would be a vast improvement, because obviously the code number could be transferred from one employer to another, and wherever the man went to work there would be an automatic deduction from his wages in respect of the maintenance order.

As I have said, this Bill has been accepted in principle. There will be a number of Amendments which I understand the Government are going to put down, and there will be one or two which we shall put down. I hope that it will not be long before the Bill comes into law. I can promise the Government that, so far as we on this side are concerned, we will give every assistance and cooperation in enabling the Bill to become law at the earliest possible opportunity.

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say just one or two words of welcome and support for this Bill, which has been so clearly explained by my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack. I think those of your Lordships who sit as magistrates will feel especially inclined to welcome this Bill, because such people must have had the experience time and again of making maintenance orders when they know perfectly well that the man concerned is going to "dodge the column", and that the money will never be collected and put to the use which the court intends. The next step, as the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack said, is that public money, in the form of National Assistance, has to be paid, although all the time the man is probably perfectly capable of paying. That is a grave misuse of public money and, as I expect your Lordships will all agree, it is high time that it was stopped. Therefore, while some of us can welcome this Bill as magistrates, all of us, I think, can welcome it as taxpayers.

When we come to the details I feel that many of the points that were made by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, have a good deal of weight. I say at once that, although in theory I applaud the idea of freedom and liberty and secrecy in regard to people's personal affairs, I feel that these do not weigh greatly in the balance in this particular case, when we are dealing with a man who is behaving in a manner that is socially wrong. Other people are more entitled to the benefit of those conceptions of liberty, and so forth. That brings me to the point which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, made about using the Pay-as-you-earn in the case of these orders. Whether or not he is right in, suggesting that we should use the Pay-as-you-earn procedure, I do not know. My own inclination is not to agree with him entirely, because I think that probably the time lag in using the Pay-as-you-earn system might defeat the other ends, that of ensuring that the money reaches the recipient with all speed, about which we should all wish to make sure. In any case, I feel that the employers are now quite well accustomed, whether it is legally right or not, to deducting money for Pay-as-you-earn tax and National Insurance contributions, and that this will not be any great burden upon them. As an employer who does deduct Pay-as-you-earn from those he employs, I can say that it would not worry me in the least to have to do it.

On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has put his finger on a very important point in speaking of the need to make sure that, when a man leaves his job, it is possible to connect up with the new employer the arrangements for maintenance payments. Here, I think another factor will come in. No doubt it would be perfectly possible to arrange a scheme, like we have for Pay-as-you-earn, whereby the new employer is notified; but many of these men against whom maintenance orders are made will be of the type who do not move regularly from one employment to another—they flit about. I feel that the efficiency of the scheme will be greatly reduced unless the court can have the full cooperation of the police in tracing those who are subject to maintenance orders and who remove from their known addresses. I have no doubt at all that the courts will have the co-operation of the police in that matter as in many others, but I think that a great deal will depend on that co-operation if we are to deal effectively with these transitional cases which have been mentioned.

I am not sure, too, how much work all this will put on the magistrates' clerks, for instance: that remains to be seen. As with all new administration, no doubt we shall do well to look at the situation after the scheme has been running for, say, twelve months. In the same way, I am a little doubtful whether the provision that action under Clause 6 (1) shall not be taken until there are four weeks' arrears of maintenance is not leaving it a little too long. However, those are smaller points that we can thresh out as we go along with the Bill. I am quite sure that, taken by and large, this Bill will be welcome; that in the long run it will not prove too difficult to work, and that the magistrates' courts, at least—those who will have to administer the Act—will feel that it is helping them a great deal in seeing that those people against whom maintenance orders are made do in fact pay and that they discharge the obligations which the courts from time to time have to place upon them.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words to welcome this Bill which I believe to be a very useful measure. I was very glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that on the Committee stage he proposed to put down an important Amendment to raise a question which is certainly worthy of the most careful consideration. I think that prima facie the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was perfectly right in saying that it is a very curious provision that a debt which a man owes to his wife should be wiped out by the fact that that man chooses not to pay it and is therefore punished by going to prison; and I am delighted to hear that on the Committee stage the noble Lord proposes to put down an Amendment which will enable the Committee to which this Bill is referred to consider that question further.

The only other matter on which I would comment was the passage at the beginning of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in which he said how much of an innovation this Bill was, because wages are never interfered with. I believe he said that wages were sacrosanct. If I understood the noble Lord correctly, he said that an undertaking had been given that nothing similar would be done with regard to income tax. But, of course, a great breach was made in the principle he mentioned when P.A.Y.E. was introduced. After all, that is an absolute breach of the principle which he mentioned—and a breach in the interest of the payment of income tax. That decision was made after careful consideration and for good reason; and I believe that what is proposed in the present Bill is also proposed for good reasons. For those reasons I very much welcome the introduction of this Bill, and I welcome also the fact that certain important points can be further considered in Committee.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I too should like to express my support for this Bill and to congratulate Her Majesty's Government on having introduced it. My noble friend Lord Silkin has indicated that there are differences of opinion in the Labour Party on this particular matter, but he went on to say that it is not a political issue. I thoroughly agree with him. I feel that this reform in the law is long overdue. For hundreds of years women—wives and mothers—have been under an injustice which is really intolerable if one thinks about it, and I was very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in the concluding passage of his speech, drew attention to that fact.

The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack indicated that he himself, when he was practising as a lawyer, had frequently come across cases of a kind in which intolerable injustice had been done to wives and mothers by the law as it stands at present, and I believe that those of us who have practised in the courts should welcome this Bill with a great deal more enthusiasm than has been shown for it by many speakers, both here this afternoon and also in another place. It is true, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, says, that this measure will not operate 100 per cent, to reduce the injustice. I have no doubt that in its working it will be found that there are gaps and difficulties and that many women will still find themselves unfairly treated. Nevertheless, it seems to me a genuine attempt to deal with this difficulty, and probably the only practical one for dealing with it in a very large measure.

I cannot myself feel that there is here any real infringement of the Truck Acts. It seems to me quite absurd to suggest that there is any real similarity between this and the type of evil which the Truck Acts were introduced to prevent, and which everybody who has studied the history of labour relations during the nineteenth century must have felt was a most revolting passage in our industrial history. It seems to me that there is no relationship whatever between that type of wrong and injustice and the kind of thing which is contemplated in this Bill, which, after all, is intended only to ensure that a man who by getting married has taken upon himself the responsibilities of family life should carry them out according to the requirements of justice and equity. The connection between the wrongs which were righted by the Truck Acts and this kind of situation seems to me one of logic only, without any real foundation in the basic facts of the situation.

The only other thing I would say is that practically every other civilised country in the world has been forced into this method of dealing with this kind of situation. It has been pointed out that this procedure has long been the law in Scotland, where it has worked satisfactorily, as I believe it has done in almost every other European country. It will not work perfectly, of course. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, pointed out (and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, crossed the "t" s and dotted the "i" s of what he said in this matter) that there are a certain proportion of these men who will adopt every expedient to avoid paying what they owe to their wives and children; and as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, said, they will flit about. I believe that that has been the experience almost everywhere.

Two or three years ago I had the 'interesting experience of sitting in a divorce case in Moscow and later having an interesting talk with the judge. After he had told rue something of the arrangements there, he asked: "How do you in England deal with the case when a man fails to pay the alimony awarded against him?" I said, "Our system is really a perfectly hopeless one. In effect, all we can do is to send him to prison." He explained to me that their system was to attach the man's wages, just as is now proposed in this Bill. He said, "One of the difficulties which we have is that a certain proportion of these people will not pay: they leave their employment, and go into some other part of the U.S.S.R. and find a job; and it takes a long time to track them down and get an order." He told me that he was hoping I might be able to tell him of some method used in England to enable them to get over their difficulty.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Bridge-man, has said, in a number of these cases we shall no doubt be faced with exactly that difficulty which the divorce courts in the U.S.S.R. have failed to surmount, and which I believe from my reading has been experienced in other countries where this method of getting at the husband has been used. No doubt in a small country like England with, I hope, a more sympathetic, as well as possibly a more efficient, police system—on that one would not like to speak—we may be able to track down these people fairly quickly. Time is certainly of the essence here: it is in the early period that the woman left without any money most feels the pinch of her circumstances. But as the noble Viscount said, no doubt as we go along we shall be able to discover methods of dealing with the difficulties which undoubtedly will be found in the working out of these measures. In the meantime I believe vie can say that this is a very useful measure, and we give it our strong support.

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, I rise only to ask the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack if he would answer one question in the course of his reply, or, if he feels disposed, to answer it at a later stage. This principle has operated in Scotland for a considerable time. We in England are not very different people from those in Scotland, and in all probability what applies in Scotland applies here. Can he tell us whether any of the difficulties which have been raised on this occasion with regard to this Bill in England have been found to be insuperable in Scotland? What is the experience of the Scots in working a similar provision to that which is proposed in this Bill?


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend in his reply to clarify the prison position? I was not quite clear whether there were 5,000 men committed during the year, or whether there is an average prison population of 5,000 committed by these orders.


My Lords, the difficulty of the floating employee seems to me to be a very real one. Is it not true that every man, whenever he takes on a job, wherever it is, must produce an insurance card? If his insurance card had on it the particulars of the court into which he had to pay the money, the employer would merely have to write and say, "Bill So-and-So is in my employ", and surely that would deal with the matter.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, may I first thank those of your Lordships who have spoken and welcomed the Bill in the kind words which were used. We have had an interesting discussion on the legacy of the Truck Acts and the period which necessitated their passing. I am not going to go into the argument at all. I recognise as does the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that there is a legacy left, and it has left a state of mind in trade union circles and among their members which we must take into account. Therefore I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, gave a studied and sympathetic consideration of that point of view.

On the question of attachment, I see that it would be unpleasant for the defendant that his employer should know that there was an attachment order against him, but of course it would be equally unpleasant (and very difficult to conceal the fact) if he left his work for six weeks in order to spend the time in prison. I should have thought that that would have at any rate an equally bad effect on his working character. But the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, mentioned the position, which would arouse all our sympathy, of a man who had illness or something of that kind. The noble Lord will remember that it is open to such a man to show that his failure to pay was not due to wilful refusal or culpable negligence, which I think helps on that point. As I say, I should like to read carefully what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said with regard to disincentive, because at the moment, if he will allow me to say so, I am not convinced that there is not just as much disincentive under the present system; but I will consider his point. He was good enough to give me notice about specific matters which he was going to raise on the Committee stage, and I am glad he did, because I think I can help him on one of the points.

He said that he was not quite sure of ate position as to undertakings. I am told that on Report stage in another place an undertaking was given to put down Amendments in this House to provide that imprisonment shall not wipe out the arrears, and that the maximum period shall be reduced from three months to six weeks—it would not wipe out the arrears and the maximum period would be reduced—and I can tell the noble Lord that the Amendments are in course of preparation. That may help him. If he cares to get in touch with me informally before the Committee stage, I shall be pleased to discuss the Amendments with him and let him know their form as soon as I can. I think that meets that point. The other point, the change of circumstances, I should also like to consider be, fore the Committee stage, because if the noble Lord feels as strongly about it as he does, I should very much like to have a look at it carefully myself. I do not think he will expect me to say more at the moment.

With regard to the question of applying P.A.Y.E., I said that we had considered it but had found that it raised too many complications. Perhaps I might go a little further into that matter, since it was discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and mentioned by my noble friend Lord Bridgeman. As I say, we should have liked to do it, but the system, which was designed for a quite different purpose, is not sufficiently flexible to deduct differing amounts week by week, as would be necessary, and to take account of the protected earnings. Any attempt to adjust the system for attachment purposes would involve requiring the employer to make a special return; and that, of course, would defeat one of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, had in mind, because it would at once reveal it to the employer that the man was subject to the order. For both these reasons (and, I assure noble Lords, after great consideration) we found that it would be much more complicated than the system in the Bill and, indeed, impossible to work.

If your Lordships will permit a personal recollection, I was Solicitor-General at the time that P.A.Y.E. was introduced. I think the work had to be done at the end of Sir Kingsley Wood's term as Chancellor of the Exchequer and before the late Lord Waverley took over the office; and my mind still reels at the thought of getting the first comprehension of that system into my mind in order to help put it before the House of Commons. Therefore I accept readily, from those who are giving it, information on the horrors of the additional complication.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount will be gratified to know that this system is now working remarkably smoothly, and it takes full account of weekly differences in wages and overtime and so on; and, if he does not mind, I think it might be useful to have a discussion on this on Committee. I do not suppose that I could draft a comprehensive Amendment on the matter, but if I could put down a token Amendment on which to peg discussion it might be useful.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord knows that I am always more than ready to meet and to discuss in this House any topic he thinks of importance. If he does that I shall endeavour to give him a full answer and, of course, will consider the points he wishes to put forward. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bridgeman for what he said. I think that he indicated that he shared my view about difficulties in using the P.A.Y.E. system, and I am sure he also will be pleased to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has to put forward on that point.

My noble friend Lord Conesford was good enough to welcome the Bill and to put forward an interesting argument on whether the Truck Acts had not been infringed already by the subject we have just been discussing. I leave that interesting aspect of the matter, because what we are really concerned with here is the psychological effect. But I must say, as my noble friend the Lord Chairman of Committees is here, that when we were discussing the Report of the Morton Commission he emphasised then that this method had been in existence in Scotland, and indicated, with that delicacy of innuendo for which he is so famed, that my countrymen in Scotland were not often accused of disregarding the sanctity of wages or any other sums of money. The noble Lord indicated then, and I think it is the generally accepted view, which answers the point of the noble Lord, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, that the system has worked smoothly and well in Scotland.

The reason why the Morton Commission did not seem to have been very impressed by the Scottish experience, as I mentioned in answering my noble friend the Lord Chairman of Committees, was that the legal system in Scotland is different and I do not think that there is the, same acuteness of feeling with regard to the pre-Truck Acts position. I think that that is a fair summary of the position, but, as I said in my opening speech, we reconsidered the matter, and for all the reasons I gave we are adopting this procedure. Certainly I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Pethick-Lawrence. that there is nothing in the Scottish experience which would tend the opposite way or make us reluctant to introduce this scheme.

My noble friend Lord Hawke asked me about committals. What I said was that in 1956 there were nearly 5,000 committals to prison for an average period of six weeks for failure to make payments under maintenance orders. I was referring to the number of committals and not to the general increase in the prison population. If my noble friend Lord Stonehaven would be good enough to allow it, I should like to have further time to consider the interesting point which he raised. I promise that will do so and get in touch with him before Committee stage. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, also supported the Bill, and I noted that your Lordships all paid attention to the serious argument which he adduced in favour of the principle. Once again, I am grateful to your Lordships, and I hope that after this debate the Bill will now receive a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and corn-mined to a Committee of the Whole House.