HL Deb 22 March 1978 vol 389 cc1800-1

3.7 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. May I be allowed to say how pleased I am to see the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies, back, and I hope that she has fully recovered and is her usual energetic self.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why in view of the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971, there are 700 men imprisoned for not paying court orders for the maintenance of the children they have fathered.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, during 1976—the latest period for which figures are available—the total number of men committed into custody by magistrates' courts for failure to pay maintenance for a child was 542. The annual figure has fallen from 900 in 1970, and has been less than 700 since 1973. The estimated average number of men in prison at any one time during 1976 for failure to pay maintenance for a child was less than 50. Attachment of earnings orders are a useful means of extracting money from men who are in regular employment, but they are ineffective as a measure against persons who are self-employed, unemployed or who regularly change their jobs.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Can he say what action can be taken, other than sending these men to prison, because, as he rightly remarked, if they cannot pay there is not much point in sending them to prison? The figure I was given was that about 300,000 children have been fathered by the men who have been sent to prison. I should like to say how pleased I am to see the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, here, because he was so helpful in bringing in the earlier maintenance orders, and I only hope that these orders will be made more effective in the future.


My Lords, there is evidence that the threat of imprisonment is an effective sanction against failure to pay maintenance. This appears from an informal survey which was conducted by the Home Office in six magistrates' courts in 1974, and which showed that in nearly 90 per cent. of the cases where a court issued a committal warrant, but suspended it on conditions, the defaulter never, in fact, reached prison.


My Lords, as one who was a magistrate for well over a quarter of a century, may I ask my noble friend whether quite a number of men deliberately pile up some hundreds of pounds worth of arrears, and then, very willingly and eagerly, go to prison in order to wipe out those arrears of, perhaps, £600 or £700? Is not that, therefore, an additional reason why the Attachment of Earnings Act should be more stringently enforced?


My Lords, the figures which I have given from the survey which was conducted in 1974 show that, in 90 per cent. of those cases, the person went to considerable lengths not to go to prison. But my noble friend is quite right; it is a difficult area. Undoubtedly, attachment of earnings operates extremely effectively, but only for people who have a regular job which they do not constantly change.