§ 2.42 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill was initiated in another place by Mr. Peter Mahon as a Private Member's Bill, and it gives me particular satisfaction to move its Second Reading in your Lordships' House. Having spent my working life as a Colonial civil servant helping to draft legislation, I now present a somewhat complex little Bill in your Lordships' House. I am not fully conversant with the legislative procedure in this House and I ask for your Lordships' forbearance if I err in any way.
This Bill is not controversial. Its main purpose is to raise the limit of small sums due to a deceased person which may be paid out without probate. Provision for such small payments without probate exists under a number of Acts since 1829. The limits at present are generally £100; in a few cases £200. Those limits were mostly fixed in the last century, and with the decline in the value of money £100 is now too low: the Bill proposes a new figure of £500. This figure of £500 is, I submit, not unreasonable. Out of the 28 enactments referred to in the first two parts of Schedule 1 to the Bill, half are dated prior to the First World War. Then the pound was worth five times more than it is to-day, so a fivefold increase in the maximum is, I submit, justifiable. It is also desirable to standardise all similar limits at £500. This new maximum is not compulsory. It only raises the limit of the discretion of the body concerned.
The Bill also tidies up one or two other matters. There is a long-standing distinction in certain Acts, for not very satisfactory reasons, between payments where a deceased left a will and where he did not. This distinction is abolished by the Bill. The Bill is designed to deal 669 comprehensively with all limits of this sort, whether they occur in the Statute Book or in subordinate legislation, by moving them up to £500. Hence the long Schedule to the Bill. But there is still a possibility that some Acts prescribing a lower limit have been overlooked. Hence the Bill includes power to deal with such cases by amending the limits later by Treasury Order.
Finally, the Bill gives power to the Treasury to raise the new figure of £500 by Order if in the passage of time the new limit becomes too low and an unreasonable hindrance to the administration of small estates. I do not think this latter provision is a great incursion into the rights of Parliament. The Treasury is not noted for allowing anyone greater freedom. Hence your Lordships should welcome the extension of the leash on which Britain's No. 1 watchdog is kept. The Treasury is unlikely to abuse these discretionary powers. In these circumstances, I commend this Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a,—(Viscount Samuel.)
§ 2.47 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF DUNDEE
My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Viscount on what I think is the first piece of legislation which he has introduced in the British Parliament? He has done so with every sign of experience, and he has explained the Bill with so much lucidity that I honestly believe I now understand everything that is in it. But I am not going to risk betraying any possible misunderstanding by adding anything to what he has said, because I am satisfied in any case that this is a good Bill and we are glad that your Lordships should give it a Second Reading.
§ 2.48 p.m.
§ LORD HOBSON
My Lords, I, too, should like to offer my most sincere congratulations to the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, on introducing this Bill. It had quite a friendly passage through the other place, and of course it is unopposed legislation, in that sense. It is not easy, of course, to get a Private Bill as far as this. Those who have tried their hand at it in the other place know that there are many hurdles to jump. Nevertheless, this Bill has been very successful and I 670 am sure that in your Lordships' House it will have an equally propitious passage. I think one feels constrained, without any attempt at flattery, to say that the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, because of his academic, professorial duties, cannot be with us the whole time the House of Lords is sitting, but nevertheless when he does come here he is most assiduous in his duties, and if he finds time to introduce private measures of this sort we shall be only too happy, so far as the Government are concerned, to make time available.
I think it is incumbent upon me to say a few words from the point of view of Her Majesty's Government. I know that the Bill has what is termed the Parliamentary accolade in so far as it has received the approval of the Treasury, but we have not yet quite got to the stage where civil servants govern the country. They may be useful advisers; but we do know it is just as well, whatever the nature of a Private Member's Bill, to see that it has at least their sympathetic understanding. We are told by the noble Viscount that it is not only a question of sympathetic understanding; it is even commendation. It does look a complicated Bill. It contains seven clauses and a formidable number of Schedules. But the object, as the noble Viscount has said, is to raise the small sums due to a deceased person which may be paid or distributed without legal aid or formalities of probate or letters of administration. Those who have had vast experience in dealing with people in the lower income bracket know that it is often a great hardship when small sums of money are left and people have to meet quite heavy legal costs for the purpose of getting probate or letters of administration.
The money limit that the Bill seeks to amend is £100. It may be interesting to note that the limit was first set at that figure far back into the 19th century. Once the limit was based on £100 that figure tended to be followed in other similar legislation; so we have a wide variety of statutory provisions, as the House will see from the Schedules, which contain a limit of this sort. With the decline in the value of money, this figure of £100 has come to be thoroughly unrealistic, and indeed a positive hindrance. It can be a cause of distress to people. A relative has died leaving a small sum 671 to which they are entitled, but they cannot obtain it without expense and trouble in obtaining probate or letters of administration. Therefore, it seems to Her Majesty's Government right and reasonable that the conditions of to-day should be borne in mind, and that this limit should be increased to the more realistic figure of £500. That is what this Bill sets out to do.
If with changes in the value of money this limit in its turn becomes obsolete, there is power in the Bill for it to be raised again by Treasury Order, subject to Affirmative Resolution. I think it is important to bear that in mind. This gives both Houses complete power if alteration of the limit is sought.
The Bill also tidies up one or two related matters, and I should perhaps say a few words about them. There is a longstanding distinction, for no very satisfactory reason, in certain Acts between payments out with appropriate documents where the deceased left a will and where he did not. This distinction is abolished by this Bill. Certain requirements to produce an estate duty certificate before payment is made are also repealed. My Lords, this is a useful Bill of some social importance which has been warmly welcomed in another place, and I hope it will commend itself to your Lordships.
§ LORD BOOTHBY
My Lords, anything that receives the approval of the Treasury is in itself suspect. But on this occasion the noble Viscount, Lord Samuel, seems to have produced a splendid Bill, and I think we all ought to congratulate him on his efforts, because obviously, from the arguments that have been used, it is the right thing to do.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl opposite, to the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, and to my noble friend the Minister, for the support given to this Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.