HL Deb 20 July 1966 vol 276 cc426-9

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government the terms of reference of the Departmental Committee, appointed on July 8, 1966, to consider the financial limits for maintenance orders; and to ask whether the present system of enforcement of such orders will also be considered.]


My Lords, the terms of reference of this Committee are as follows: To examine the financial limits prescribed by Statute, for orders which may be made in magistrates' courts for the maintenance of wives and children, to consider the appropriate machinery for adjusting such limits to changing circumstances and to make recommendations. The Committee will not be concerned with the present system of enforcing maintenance orders, which is already being reviewed by a Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Payne, which is inquiring into the law and practice relating to the recovery of all civil debts, including payments due under a maintenance order.


My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend for his Answer. I should like to ask my noble friend whether he would cause courts to be reminded of Section 52(3) of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1952, which gives clerks of courts power to institute proceedings for arrears against defaulting husbands if the clerk has the written consent of the complainant? Further, I should like to ask my noble friend whether he will also cause complainants to be informed, when they secure an order, of their right to have attachments of earnings made in the event of the husband's continuously defaulting?


My Lords, I should have thought that the terms of reference of Mr. Justice Payne's Committee on the enforcement of judgment debts covered the points raised by my noble friend. The terms of reference are: To consider whether any changes are desirable in the law and practice in the High Court, and the county courts and, in relation to their civil jurisdiction, the magistrates' courts, relating to the recovery of debts and the enforcement of orders for the payment of money or the delivery of goods; whether the court should have power to postpone the operation of an order for possession of mortgage property, and to make recommendations. I am aware of my noble friend's great knowledge in these matters, and I feel sure that the points that he has made will be taken into consideration by Mr. Justice Payne's Committee.


My Lords, if the House will bear with me, may I ask my noble friend whether the Departmental Committee which has recently been set up to inquire into the limits of maintenance is concerned with orders made under the Affiliation Act?


Yes, my Lords, but it is not considering questions of enforcement, because these are already matters within the remit of Mr. Justice Payne's Committee, and we have thought it inadvisable to have two Committees dealing with the same subject.


My Lords, while one is grateful for the fact that Mr. Justice Payne's Committee is looking into all this, would not the noble Lord agree that one of the real difficulties about curing this abuse is the actual physical problem of finding the man? Is the Home Office giving some thought to this problem? I think it is generally acknowledged that it would do away with a great deal of the trouble if only there were some better way of finding the man who is evading his responsibilities.


My Lords, we are aware that in some circumstances the difficulty is to find the man, although the proportion of summonses of this kind which cannot be enforced for that reason is less than might generally be supposed. The noble Lord will be aware of the arrangement made sometimes with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance which obviates this difficulty to a great extent. I assure the noble Lord that this matter is very much in our mind.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether, in view of the importance of this matter, he will invite Mr. Justice Payne's Committee to consider making an Interim Report on this subject?


My Lords, it is not for Her Majesty's Government to dictate to a Committee of this kind, but if it will help the noble Lord I will assure him that Mr. Justice Payne and his Committee are aware of the urgency of finding a solution to some of these problems.


My Lords, as in the Law Commission recommendation to set up this Committee reference to affiliation proceedings is explicit, would not the noble Lord agree that the law should be reformed, so that affiliation orders can require the payment of a sum sufficient to give the child a standard of life appropriate to the status in life that a son or daughter of that father would normally have? And would not the noble Lord agree that the rate should be fixed on the same basis as alimony to an entirely innocent wife in a divorce case and also take account of the expenses that will be incurred by the fact that the mother will have to stay at home if the child is to have the personal maternal care which is due to him?


My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate is doubtless aware, there is at present no limit to the awards, if I may use that expression, which may be made in the High Court. At present the maximum in summary courts is £7 10s. 0d. a week for a spouse and £2 10s. 0d. a week for a dependent child. These matters, the limits in summary courts, are directly within the terms of reference of the Departmental Committee and I am sure we shall be receiving recommendations. The question of alimony is quite outside the terms of reference of the Committee, and I cannot make any observations on that matter.


My Lords, could the noble Lord say at this stage how long it would take him and his Department to implement the recommendations?


My Lords, we shall have to consider the recommendations. I do not want to fence with my noble friend (I am sure it would be most unwise to do so), but I would say that we are very anxious to receive these recommendations and, in my view, it will be likely that we shall implement them as quickly as possible after we have considered them.