HL Deb 13 December 1990 vol 524 cc581-611

3.29 p. m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lards, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Maintenance orders in the High Court and county courts: means of payment, attachment of earnings and revocation, variation, etc.]:

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 7, leave out ("either of its powers") and insert ("its power").

The noble Lord said: When I spoke on this Bill at Second Reading I ended my remarks by saying that we on this side of the Chamber hoped that we could give the Bill a calm sea and a following wind. I see that the following wind has now driven out all those noble Lords and noble Baronesses who wish at this point to leave the Chamber to go elsewhere and do something else.

In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 7, 11, 13 and 17. The first two are small amendments and the centre of the group is Amendment No. 3. The effect of that amendment would be to delete all reference in the Bill to the High Court or the county court being able to order that a debtor should make payments under a maintenance order by standing order or by direct debit. The subsection giving the court power to order a debtor to open a bank account would also be deleted.

We do not believe that the imposition of standing orders or direct debits will improve the enforcement of maintenance orders. We say that for two reasons. First, both the debtor and the creditor will need to have bank accounts. That may prove difficult, and a power to force the debtor to open a bank account, as contained in subsection (6), may provoke hostility and have considerable implications as regards civil liberties. Further, the provision is an extremely unusual one and is not present in any similar legislation.

Secondly, banks now consider it desirable practice to credit score someone before accepting an application to open an account. That means that the bank obtains some basic information on whether or not the individual concerned would be a suitable person to hold an account. Clearly, if credit scoring is carried out it may have the effect of making it difficult for some individuals to open bank accounts. In saying that, I refer to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, on Second Reading on 29th November (col. 1083 of Hansard). The banks' unwillingness to accept certain customers will be increased if there is a probability that the bank charges will accrue and will not be met.

Even if both parties open bank accounts, that will not necessarily lead to the payment of maintenance orders. To operate a standing order it is necessary to place funds in an account. The easiest way for a debtor to avoid payment of an order, despite having opened a bank account, is to ensure—by neglect, of course —that no funds go into his account. The provisions of the Bill do nothing to tackle the problem. It is our feeling that banks are unlikely to want to take on customers who really do not wish to be customers. It seems to us that that does not get the relationship off to a good start. We therefore submit that those provisions would cause more trouble than they are worth and ought therefore to be deleted from the Bill.

An alternative to that method of collection would be to include a provision specifying that maintenance payments can be collected by the Inland Revenue. That seems to us to be much simpler and more preferable. We may possibly put forward an amendment to that effect at a later stage of the Bill's proceedings. I beg to move.

Baroness Faithfull

Can my noble friend the Minister tell me whether the banks have been consulted? Further, if they have, can he say what they have said on the matter and whether they are willing to accept this ruling in the Bill?

Earl Ferrets

I understand the point which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, is trying to make. I think that we should first look at the principle behind the Bill. Its principal objective is to ensure that maintenance payments are made regularly. That is the raison d'être of the Bill. As Members of the Committee will appreciate, regularity of payment can be as important as the amount of maintenance ordered. Regular maintenance payments reduce the need for lone parents to rely on income support and for valuable court resources to be used for enforcement proceedings.

The amendments proposed by the noble Lord would prevent the courts having the power to order a maintenance debtor to make his payments by standing order or by a similar method direct to the maintenance creditor. I explained on Second Reading why we considered it so important, from the point of view of ensuring regularity of payment, that the courts should be given the standing order power. Under a standing order arrangement, the maintenance creditor does not have to rely on the debtor taking a positive step on each occasion when payment is due. It will come in automatically unless some positive action is taken to interrupt it. The debtor may not be well motivated to make regular payments. The power to order payment by standing order may be especially relevant where, for example, a person is self-employed, so that the possibility of an attachment of earnings order does not arise.

I ask the noble Lord to remember that this Bill does not concentrate solely on one method of payment; it contains four methods. There is no requirement that the court must consider one of those methods of payment—in this case a standing order or, alternatively, an attachment of earnings order—before any of the others. All the methods of payment are equally available. The court is also obliged, before specifying the method of payment, to have regard to any representations made by those concerned. In other words, if the creditor does not have a bank account, or the debtor does not have a bank account, or even if the creditor does not want payment made in that way, he or she may so inform the court.

It is important that we do not shy away from improving the mechanics of collection of maintenance. Payment by standing order will ensure that the careless maintenance debtor does not become the habitual object of enforcement proceedings. His maintenance payments will be paid with the same regularity as his other standing orders.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked whether the banks had been specifically consulted on the matter. I am afraid that I cannot give her the answer to that question. I shall endeavour to find out the position, though I believe that it is relatively an irrelevance. If the creditor and the debtor have a bank account and if the court orders that the standing order system should be used, I do not see that the bank concerned should have any cause to complain about the procedure any more than it would in respect of any other standing order which it might be obliged to pay.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I thank the Minister for that reply, which has all the virtues of succinctness. The points he made are ones with which I am not totally happy. I should like especially to ask him to consider the famous phrase of the philosopher Occam: Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter neccesitas", which could be translated into, "You don't need to have more golf clubs in your bag than you are ever likely to use". I believe that a much simpler method of effecting the end which the Bill seeks to achieve would be to consider collection by the Inland Revenue, which has the merit of great simplicity. I think that we shall probably return to the matter at a later stage in an effort to try to convince the noble Earl of the virtues of that method.

Earl Ferrers

Just before the noble Lord concludes, perhaps I may take the opportunity to enlighten my noble friend as regards the question she asked. By some miraculous method I have now found the answer, which I had momentarily forgotten. I said that I did not believe the banks had been consulted on the use of standing orders for the purposes of the Bill. However, it appears that they have. They expressed some reservations about the proposed power of compulsion to open a bank account. But it was explained to them that that would be a power of last resort. That is the position.

Baroness Faithfull

I thank my noble friend for that reply.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I am afraid that I do not quite understand the procedure. Obviously if the person against whom the order is made is prepared to pay, the standing order process is a good method. However, if he is not prepared to pay it is quite clear that he could remove funds from the account from which the standing order should be made and therefore it would not be paid. I am not clear as to what would happen in such a situation.

Earl Ferrers

The court has four methods by which it can direct payments to be made: directly to the creditor, payment to the court, payment by standing order or similar procedure, or by an attachment of earnings order. If, in its wisdom, the court orders a debtor to pay by standing order and the debtor has no bank account, the court will first say, "We think that you should have a bank account. Will you go and open one?" The court will then adjourn the proceedings for 14 days, or whatever the period may be, until the account is opened. The proceedings will then be reopened. The debtor will say, "I have opened an account", and the standing order will then be made by the court. I think the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, is asking what will happen if two months later the gentleman decides to rescind the standing order.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

With respect, not to rescind the standing order, but to remove his money from the account.

Earl Ferrers

If he removes his money from the account and does not comply with the order, he will return to the court because he will be in breach of the order.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

Lord Mottistone moved Amendment No. 4: Page 2, line 14, leave out from ("case") to end of line 18.

The noble Lord said: I must apologise to the Committee for not being present on Second Reading to give a forecast of what I might be talking about. I had duties in the Isle of Wight which took me away at that time. I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 12, which has the same effect in relation to magistrates' courts as Amendment No. 4 has in relation to the higher courts. Both amendments seek to remove the introduction of compulsory attachment of earnings.

As the Committee will be aware, I am advised on this type of matter by the CBI. In a sort of—I hate to say it—underhand way different departments of state are inviting businesses to act as agents for central government in a variety of ways. Only the day before yesterday, I was pleading that the system of statutory sickness pay should not be changed in the way proposed by the Government. I pointed out that in administering statutory sickness pay businesses have an administrative obligation for which the Government do not pay them. It adds to their work, and in a way reduces the efficiency of companies which need to be wholly efficient in the modern world to provide, the wealth necessary to keep the state going. The principle is being introduced more and more.

At the moment the CBI is in discussion with the Department of the Environment about the introduction of attachment of earnings orders for the community charge. That has been and gone, but it happened. Good progress is being made in ensuring that the administrative procedures are as simple and certain as possible and impose the minimum amount of extra work upon the employer. We now have a further requirement. On Second Reading, my noble friend the Minister made clear why we want a system of maintenance enforcement and why an attachment of earnings order is an attractive way of enforcing maintenance. However, as my noble friend said, as reported at col. 1073 of the Official Report for 29th November, attachment of earnings orders can be used now, but only by consent of the debtor.

That was good for the courts. They were therefore not liable to be called aggressive and authoritarian bodies, forcing people to do things that had hitherto been done by consent. What is more important—apart from the extra work that companies will have to undertake—companies are worried that taking on those extra obligations on behalf of the state will cause them industrial relations problems. Individuals who until now have seen such requirements imposed by consent only will say, "Why is my company taking this money to pay this woman whom I left?" One can imagine all sorts of circumstances in which a man may feel aggrieved. I feel strongly that children should not suffer, but the woman involved may have behaved atrociously. Why should a man's company take away from him the money that he has earned?

There is a great deal of anxiety about this issue. In the climate of this legislation, it is difficult to see a compromise. It would be nice if the Government were to say that although they are giving themselves the power to do so they will not introduce the orders until they are proved to be necessary and will try all the other methods first. One possibility is that my noble friend will give an undertaking along those lines. Another possibility is that he may say that if they want to make an order under the subsections that I seek to remove they will consult the CBI before proceeding, in the same way as the Department of the Environment is consulting the CBI about the details of attachment of earnings orders in relation to the community charge. Those are possibilities, but it would be much better at this stage if we did not go down that route and left attachment of earnings as a voluntary matter, for the sake of the magistrates' courts and the companies.

We should bear in mind that the country is in a difficult financial position. We do not want to impoverish our companies further by industrial relations disputes, and so it might be better to accept the amendments at this stage and return to the issue at a later date when the country is more prosperous and may be better able to afford it. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

On Tuesday we heard a most effective speech from the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, on the Statutory Sick Pay Bill. He protested vigorously at the administrative burdens being placed on employers. There have been a number of such burdens. He is justified in drawing attention to them. For a long time we have had the Customs and Excise. We now have VAT, which imposes a considerable burden upon all except small retailers. We have the Inland Revenue PAYE scheme, which has been generally beneficial and welcomed. We also have the proposals to which the noble Lord referred —that sick pay should be administered, and funded partially, by the employer. Now he addresses himself to the attachment of earnings. I am afraid that I cannot go along with him on that at all. In my experience, attachment of earnings is by far the best way of enforcing maintenance arrears and keeping the maintenance defaulter out of prison.

This is not a new proposal. Attachment of earnings for this purpose was introduced under a Conservative Government by a predecessor in the office of the noble Earl in the 1950s. Initially when it was introduced it was proposed by a private Member and it ran into difficulty with trade unionists. When it was taken up as a government measure it was welcomed by the official Opposition, led on that occasion by my noble friend Lord Robens. At that time there was no thought of demur at all from employers. So far as I know, there has been no difficulty since then.

Obviously the noble Lord is quite right in saying that the matter must be regarded in its wider context. Nevertheless, if attachment of earnings as an administrative burden on employers is justified, it is certainly justified here. Not only is it not new but it is justified by the very nature of the nuclear family, which is based, among other things, on the co-operative division of labour between men and women. It is women who bear and suckle children. They generally have the main burden of bringing up young children. That frees the man, the husband, for his economic advancement to earn emoluments in the labour market. When the employer pays the man his wage or salary he pays the wage earner who is enabled to earn by virtue of the wife's self-abnegation. She is fully entitled to share in those emoluments, and that is the view of the employers. That is the ultimate reason.

However, there is another reason. This is by far the best way of keeping the habitual maintenance defaulter out of prison. It would be a matter very much within the knowledge of the noble Earl, with his cognisance of prisons, as well as the knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. In my experience, no section of the prison population is more hopeless or more discouraging than the maintenance defaulter. He is sent to prison because there is no other way of dealing with him.

However, now the Government have several other ways, of which this is much the most effective. If we wish to clear these inadequate psychopaths—as they mostly are—out of prison, this is by far the best way of doing it. I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment, as I should in any case find myself compelled to resist it.

Baroness Faithfull

I have listened with great interest to the noble and learned Lord. I am in some difficulty because in my experience in a proportion of cases, although not all, if an attachment of earnings order is made, often the man will move his employment. I should be grateful for an explanation of what happens when a man continually moves his employment and therefore the attachment of earnings order falls.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

We on these Benches are perhaps more attached to collection by attachment of earnings orders than Members on Benches opposite. I listened with great care to the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. I have some sympathy with the difficulties that he described which are faced by British industry. It does not like collecting these moneys. However, do not those difficulties underline the case that I have just made in proposing payment via the Inland Revenue? It could be done much more simply by altering the coding.

Earl Ferrers

I am grateful to my noble friend for having put down the amendment so that we can discuss the problem. If it achieved one object, it was to evoke the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in which he depicted so graphically and accurately the relationship between the wife who looks after the child and her husband who goes out to work to earn the money.

There are occasions where attachment of earnings orders are a justified way of enabling the wife to have part of the money which her husband has earned so that she can look after the child. I accept that employers do not like having to undertake what we might call tax deductions or rather deductions on behalf of the Government. The noble and learned Lord referred to VAT and PAYE as well as sick pay benefits. These are all what one might call irritants to employers who do not wish to have to carry out the task. However, there are occasions when they have to.

My noble friend made a reasoned speech, but he went slightly over the top, if I may say so, when he said that he did not wish to see companies impoverished by industrial relations disputes over attachment of earnings orders. I do not believe that that would be likely. He suggested that we ought to introduce them when the country could afford them. With great respect to my noble friend, that is not a relevant argument because I do not believe that the success of the country will depend on the few companies that have to make deductions under attachment of earnings orders.

The trouble is that the amendment would remove the power given in the Bill which allows the courts to make an attachment of earnings order when making a maintenance order. My noble friend was right to remind us that at present courts can only require a debtor to pay an attachment of earnings order at the time of making a maintenance order provided that he consents. The fact is that few debtors do consent. In 1989 less than 10 per cent. agreed to an attachment of earnings order being made.

Everyone is aware of the distress and anxiety caused to those who are dependent on maintenance payments when those payments do not materialise. As the noble and learned Lord said, the attachment of earnings order is a good way of achieving the aim but it is not foolproof. It ought to ensure regularity of payment in normal circumstances. The debtor who is forgetful or careless in making his maintenance payments or who seeks to play the maintenance system does not when an attachment of earnings order is in existence receive the opportunity to avoid his payments.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked what happened if the fellow then left his job and went to another one. The employer has a duty under the 1971 Act to inform the court that the person has left. The employee also has a duty to inform the court that he has left. It is possible that people do not do so, in which case the man concerned will be caught for being in arrears again.

An attachment of earnings order is an efficient and effective enforcement tool. Its use should not be dependent either on the debtor's consent or the debtor's default. We must remember that this is not the only method of payment. The courts have four alternatives at their disposal. The attachment of earnings orders should be available whenever a court judges that they would be the most preferred method of payment and appropriate in all the circumstances of the case before it. The Bill does not require an attachment of earnings order to be made in every case where the debtor is in employment. It is only one of the available options open to the court. The court will select the best option in the circumstances.

I appreciate the concern of employers that an increase in the number of attachment of earnings orders may place unreasonable administrative burdens on them. My noble friend mentioned that useful discussions had taken place with employers about possible ways of streamlining the administrative arrangements for the discharge of attachment orders in the context of community charge enforcement. I am happy to give my noble friend the assurance that we shall undertake similar consultation in the maintenance context before this Bill is brought into force. I can also confirm that active consideration is being given to an increase in the administrative charge which employers are entitled to deduct when operating an attachment order—I know my noble friend will welcome Tie that—bearing in mind that the present charge of 50p has remained unchanged for several years.

My noble friend remarked that some people may question the fact that the company they work for is taking away money which they have earned and paying it to their wives when they do not wish their wives to have that money. Nevertheless, there is a simple answer to that question, as the employees concerned will realise. The money is taken away because the court has decreed that that is what should happen.

4 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

I thank my noble friend and others who have spoken, even if they have not all spoken in favour of my amendment. Nevertheless, the discussion has widened the argument. I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving an undertaking that his department will consult the CBI before the Bill and any orders that come from it are brought into effect. I am grateful to him for saying that consideration is being given to increasing the administrative charge which employers are entitled to deduct when operating an attachment order as the present amount is ridiculously small. I did not think it was worth even mentioning the present small amount. In the circumstances, I believe we have gone as far as we can on this matter at this stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, leave out lines 30 to 34 and insert: (b) the debtor, within a period of fourteen days immediately following the hearing, has not taken the opportunity of opening an account from which payments under the order may be made in accordance with the method of payment proposed to be ordered under that paragraph and the court is satisfied that the debtor has failed, without reasonable excuse, to open such an account,").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 5 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 14, which is the mirror image of Amendment No. 5. The amendment is intended to be helpful in giving a closer definition to the word "opportunity" in Clause 1(6). Under Clause 1 the High Court or the county courts can make a method of payment order. If the court decides that payment of a maintenance order should be made by standing order or direct debit, it will be necessary for the debtor to have a bank account. Clause 1(6) provides that if the debtor does not have a bank account the court should give him an opportunity to open one. If the debtor refuses to take up this opportunity, the court can then order him to open an account.

The amendment will mean that if a debtor has not opened a bank account within 14 days of the hearing he will be deemed not to have taken advantage of the opportunity to do so. The court will then be able to proceed to make an order that a debtor should open a bank account with the minimum of delay. By defining the word "opportunity" the amendment should remove any possible arguments over what period of time constitutes a reasonable opportunity. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

I have considerable sympathy with the approach which the noble Lord has taken in these amendments. However, I am bound to tell him that believe the provisions of Amendment No. 5 would impose an unnecessary and possibly undesirable timetable on the exercise of the courts' discretion.

We are proposing that a court should be able to order a maintenance debtor to open an account from which standing order payments may be made unless it is satisfied that he has a reasonable excuse for failing to do so. It is common ground that the debtor must be given a reasonable opportunity to try to open an account, so that if he fails to do so the court is able to decide whether that is for some good reason outside his control or whether he has simply decided to drag his heels or invent difficulties where none exist. How long a period is needed may vary from case to case, having regard to all the individual circumstances. In some cases the question may be simple. In others it may not be straightforward, for example where a person has been refused facilities by one bank but another bank is willing to open an account subject to various conditions. It is possible that 14 days will not be long enough to provide an adequate safeguard in those circumstances as the effect of the amendment would be to allow a court to make an order at the end of this period.

While we sympathise with the aim of the amendment, we believe that the better course would be not to attempt to fetter the discretion of the court to decide for itself how long to adjourn proceedings in order to allow a debtor to take steps to open an account. One must remember that proceedings have to be adjourned in order for an account to be opened. It is only when an account has been opened that the proceedings can be recommenced to allow the maintenance order or the standing order to be paid. The court will not be able to make an order requiring the debtor to pay the required sums unless it is satisfied that he has failed without reasonable excuse to do so voluntarily. That should be a sufficient safeguard. I hope that the noble Lord will agree that on the whole his amendment would fetter the courts and that it would be better to leave the matter to their judgment.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I believe that 14 days is quite a long time. It is surprising what can be done in that space of time. I do not believe that to impose a time limit would fetter the courts unduly. If the limit were effective and enforced, it would make some of these people get a move on. In many cases it is the delay which constitutes the menace to the person looking after the family. These proceedings can be dragged out in so many ways by so many procedures. I believe that a 14 day limit could help to concentrate the mind of those who might otherwise be inclined to increase delay by every possible means. However, I have heard what the Minister said and I shall carefully read his remarks tomorrow. We may come back to the matter at a later stage; in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 6: Page 2, line 36, at end insert: ("(6A) In deciding in the case of a maintenance order, which of the powers under paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (4) above, it is to exercise the court shall have regard to any representations made—

  1. (i) by the debtor,
  2. (ii) by the creditor, and
  3. (iii) if the applicant for the qualifying periodical maintenance order is a person other than the creditor, by that other person.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment is an attempt to add what I might describe as a helpful touch of consistency to the Bill. It will ensure that the provisions of Clause 1 relating to the High Court and the county courts are similar to those relating to the magistrates' courts contained in Clause 2.

Under Clause 2 a magistrates' court will have the same powers as the High Court and county courts to decide what method of payment should be used for a maintenance order. When the magistrates' court decides which of the powers to exercise—that is, the method of payment it will require —Clause 2(5) will require the court to take account of the comments of the debtor and/or the creditor on any possible methods of payment. The amendment seeks to ensure that when a High Court or a county court decides whether or not to make a method of payment order, they, too, will have to take account of the comments of the debtor or the creditor on any possible methods of payment. What goes for the goose should properly go for the gander. I beg to move.

Lord Mottistone

I do not think magistrates would like to be described as geese.

Earl Ferrers

I liked the suggestion of the noble Lord that he was trying to be helpful in seeking to add a touch of consistency to the Bill. I believe his amendment virtually repeats the provision in Clause 1(8) which requires the court, in deciding whether to exercise any of its powers to order the method of payment either by standing order or by attachment of earnings, to, have regard to any representations made by any interested party". That covers a decision to exercise either of the powers in Clause 1(4).

If the noble Lord's intention is to replace subsection (8) then in our view the amendment is too narrow in that it does not give a right to make representations in respect of proposed orders under subsection (6), which deals with opening a bank account, or subsection (7), which concerns revoking, reviving, varying or suspending means of payment orders.

I suggest that the amendment could also be undesirable in that its drafting may suggest that the High Court or county court will in every case exercise its powers over the method of payment. The High Court and county court may not do so in every case, as they have discretion whether to exercise that power, in contrast with the magistrates' court, which has a mandatory obligation to specify a method of payment.

I hope that the noble Lord will agree that what is set out in the Bill is better than what he has proposed.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I am not entirely convinced by that explanation. I should welcome further time to consider how the points made by the noble Earl would impinge on the other clauses of the Bill. While reserving the right to come back to the matter at a later stage, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 8: Page 2, line 48, after ("shall") insert ("having given notice of any such application to all interested parties").

The noble Lord said: In speaking to Amendment No. 8 I should also like to speak to Amendment No. 15. The phrase "having given notice" is at the centre of the matter.

The amendment would mean that when a debtor or creditor applies to the High Court or county court for a method of payment order to be changed, the court will have a duty to notify the other party of the application. We are concerned with the matter of notification to applicants because, while it is a general truth that justice must be seen to be done, we believe that it should be seen to be done by all of those to whom it is done.

Under Clause 1 of the Bill the court has discretion to make or change a method of payment order. The court can do so when the order is made or at a later date. The court has the right to exercise that power in two ways. It can do so either while other proceedings concerning the order are being heard by the court or if the debtor or creditor makes an application. The amendment will ensure that the court has a duty to notify the debtor or creditor of any application so that he or she will have the opportunity to make whatever comments seem fit. It would also bring the procedure in the High Court or county court into line with that set out in Clause 4 concerning the magistrates' court —another pleasing touch of consistency, if the Government will accept it. I beg to move.

Earl Ferrers

Once again I am grateful to the noble Lord for putting down the amendment, with which I have considerable sympathy. The requirement that the court must have regard to any representations made by the debtor, the creditor and the applicant, if different from the creditor, was included in the Bill as an obvious safeguard in order to ensure that the court specified the most appropriate method of payment in the circumstances of any particular case. Clearly the safeguard is worthless if one or more of the interested parties is not aware of what is going on.

Let us consider each of the parties in turn. The applicant would be aware of the proceedings, for obvious reasons—he or she (usually she) wants the money. The debtor will also be aware of the proceedings since they will arise only in connection with an application for him to pay maintenance. In the great majority of cases the applicant and the creditor will be the same person. However, I accept that there may be exceptional cases in which they could be different. One could take the example of an application for maintenance of the child being made by the mother, with a request that the funds are paid, for example, into the account of the grandmother who is looking after the child. The grandmother might not approve of that method of payment and obviously her views should be made known to the court. It is possible that there may be simpler ways of ensuring that interested parties, such as the grandmother, are given notice of the proceedings than the method suggested in the noble Lord's amendment.

I should like to give further consideration to this matter. It is important and I should like to consider how best to deal with it. It is possible that an amendment to the Bill may be required, but it may also le possible, and perhaps more satisfactory, to deal with the point through the rules of the court. If the noble Lord would be good enough to let me consider the matter I should be grateful.

Lard Morris of Castle Morris

I am delighted that the noble Earl has seen the matter in that way. I am grateful to him for what he has said. In the light of his assurance I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 9: Page 3, line 14, after ("where") insert ("the person who was").

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 9 I should also like to speak to Amendment No. 16. They are both drafting amendments designed to make the particular provisions a little clearer. In both cases we a -e trying to differentiate between the person who is the applicant and the person who is the creditor. I beg to move.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My only objection to the amendment is that it is unnecessary. Since it is unnecessary to add those words to an already lengthy Bill they should not be added. The Bill is perfectly clear as it is. Indeed, the terminology is reflected in the third line of Amendment No. 6 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morris.

I cannot see that either in logic or grammar the words add anything at all. Obviously it is not a matter to be challenged to a Division, but I ask the noble Earl not to press the amendment today. There will be plenty of opportunities to add such an amendment if necessary. Perhaps he will discuss the matter with the draftsman before the next stage.

Earl Ferrers

I was dreading such an observation from the noble and learned Lord, whose knowledge of the law is so great. When he says that to include the words "the person who was" is unnecessary I am bound to defer to a substantial degree to his legal knowledge. I would only pit against his observation the point that, while he suggested that. I should get in touch with parliamentary counsel, it was parliamentary counsel who suggested the wording. I would not have been so impertinent as to put in such words myself on such a legal matter without the advice of parliamentary counsel. It is the view of parliamentary counsel that the words are necessary.

I should like to suggest that, in view of the high standing in which the parliamentary draftsman is always held in your Lordships' House, we accept the amendments and if on reading Hansard the parliamentary draftsman says "My goodness me, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has made a most impressive speech and I was wrong", I should be quite happy to bring forward an amendment at a later stage. However, I do not believe that he will say that.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

The parliamentary draftsman may well be prepared to reconsider the matter in view of what has been said. I would not press the noble Earl unless it seemed to me absolutely clear that the words add nothing to the Bill as printed. The Bill as printed is lucid, intelligible and beyond any ambiguity. It means exactly what it says. With all respect to the noble Earl and parliamentary counsel, they are frightened of the shadow of words. I ask the noble Earl to reconsider the matter carefully with parliamentary counsel, who is well capable of considering an argument and changing his mind if he thinks it justified.

Earl Ferrers

From behind me I hear the advice of my noble friend Lord Harvington, who says that parliamentary counsel does not often change his mind. I shall consult with the parliamentary draftsman on this matter. I shall not go to the stake for it. If the noble and learned Lord feels that those words are inappropriate and wrong, I shall go back to parliamentary counsel and ask his opinion. If the noble and learned Lord wishes, I shall bring back this matter at Report stage. I should have thought that it would be the Committee's desire to take parliamentary counsel's view but if the noble and learned Lord wishes me to take back this matter, I shall be content to do so.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

I am very much obliged to the noble Earl.

Earl Ferrers

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

At this point I want to revert to a matter that I ventured to raise at Second Reading; namely, the question of family courts. I think that there was some misunderstanding. I could have raised this matter in regard either to Clause 1, which deals with the High Court and the many county courts, or Clause 2, which deals with all the multifarious magistrates' courts as well.

When introducing this Bill so lucidly the noble Earl referred to the proliferation of courts and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, referred to the fragmentation of jurisdiction. It seems to me that both those terms are abundantly justified. I ventured to point out that it was a wonderful opportunity to consider a unified system of family courts in place of the present proliferation and fragmentation.

Family courts were suggested originally as long ago as the 1950s. The idea gradually gathered support. An early supporter was Judge Jean Graham-Hall, who was immensely experienced in that jurisdiction. However there then occurred two momentous adhesions. The first was the recommendation of the Finer Committee which set out at considerable length and with great cogency the arguments in favour and unreservedly recommended a system of family courts. The second was consideration of the matter by the Family Committee of the Law Council, which also recommended the system of family courts. That proposal was endorsed by the Council of the Law Society and enthusiastically put forward in this Chamber by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. The third important adherent was the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, with her vast experience. I understand that she is not only unreservedly in favour of what is proposed but leads the campaign in support.

I venture to say that at Second Reading I understood from my noble and learned friend at the stage of consideration of the Commons amendments to the Courts and Legal Services Bill that he was in favour. I must tell the Committee how that situation arose. The proposal was to identify some special county courts with a specialist jurisdiction in matrimonial matters. That was welcomed on its merits by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. The noble Lord went on to say that he regarded it as an important step toward a system of family courts. I ventured to echo that sentiment and when my noble and learned friend replied I understood him to accept it.

The Committee will remember that when Gladstone was challenged about something which apparently he had said as reported in Hansard and which was inconsistent with his present assertion, he always used to say, "Read on". Sure enough, in the next paragraph one found that he had qualified what he had appeared to say categorically. I was concerned lest I had done my noble and learned friend an injustice. But first I must quote from what the noble Earl said at Second Reading on receiving a brief from the Box. I shall not deal with everything he said but he ended by saying that: that does not mean that it will lead to what the noble and learned Lord has described as family courts".—[Official Report, 29/11/90; col. 1090.] I turned back in Hansard to read what my noble and learned friend had in fact said in the context which I described. He said: I believe that these are important steps towards a unified family jurisdiction"— I emphasise the word "jurisdiction" which may be the right answer to the attainment of the goals which have sometimes been described under different phrases in the past".—[Official Report, 24/10/90; col. 1359.] The different phrases in the past were family courts. I did not hear it but I cannot read that other than as accepting what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said.

It seems to me that there is a danger of some backtracking on what my noble and learned friend said and that there may be a different view in the Home Office from that in my noble and learned friend's department. That would be nothing unusual. Departments tend to have different views. However, I am anxious to have what my noble and learned friend said vindicated. I do not mind if the noble Earl puts it in exactly the same words as I have just quoted.

While dealing with family courts perhaps I may mention one other matter. In the 1960s the Home Office published a consultation document proposing family councils—a council of the extended family to deal with juvenile problems. In the atmosphere of the 1960s it was not very well received. As an institution the family was not particularly advocated at that time in some quarters and the matter was dropped. I ask the noble Earl whether he will have that document taken out of its pigeon-hole in his office, have it dusted down and reconsider it in the context of family courts.

Baroness Faithfull

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for bringing up this matter under this part of the Bill. As he said, I am chairman of the Family Courts Campaign. We welcome the objects of giving priority to the children's welfare if the family breaks up and clarifying parental responsibilities for the care of the child as well as the particular reference to financial provisions. However, this Bill goes completely against the Children Act 1989 which passed from this Chamber.

The most important area for comment of the family campaign is the proposal to set up an agency. That appears to be a retrogressive step in view of the advance toward family courts taken in the Children Act. One of the fundamental features of the family court is that it will be a unified institution, applying a unified set of legal rules to all families. The idea is to eliminate overlapping jurisdictions and the risk that families may find themselves involved simultaneously in different proceedings in different courts. The Children Act clearly recognises that need for uniformity in providing one concurrent jurisdiction —as has been said by the noble and learned Lord—and power to consolidate proceedings. To divert claims for child maintenance to an agency goes wholly against that trend. The campaign therefore opposes the proposal that assessment of child maintenance should be undertaken by an administrative agency.

Families going through the upheaval and breakdown need a package of support services which a family court and attendant welfare services would provide. There would be no advantage to families in having child maintenance assessed and enforced by a separate agency. Indeed many lone parents are very anxious that those functions are in effect to be taken over by the Department of Social Security. Their experience of the Department of Social Security inevitably forces them to regard it and the officials as hostile to them.

The campaign feels sure that the way to improve the lot of families struggling to cope with marriage breakdown is to set up a family court able to deal sensitively with all issues, supported by a welfare service able to offer conciliation and other support services. I am therefore grateful to the noble and learned Lord for bringing the matter before the Committee.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

Before the noble Earl replies, perhaps I may say that nearly all of us agree with everything that the noble and learned Lord and the noble Baroness have said. However, now is not the moment to state it. If we support the noble and learned Lord's position against the clause stand part, we kill the Bill. The Bill relates to maintenance. That is important and we all consider that the Bill should go through its stages quickly. But however much we support what the noble and learned Lord said, we cannot agree to killing the Bill at this moment.

Earl Ferrers

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for his intervention. I understand the reason why the noble and learned Lord and my noble friend introduced this matter—parliamentary ingenuity knows no bounds. Clause 1 is a fairly modest clause giving certain powers about maintenance: enforcement to the courts. It is nothing to do with family courts.

The noble and learned Lord is a great advocate of family courts. He therefore took the opportunity, ingenious as he was—possibly fortified by the fact that I withdrew the last amendment in order to be conciliatory to him—to discuss a matter which has nothing to do with Clause 1.

The Government are considering the means of rationalising and improving the family justice system and that is very important. However, it is too early to say where that will lead us. It raises matters far beyond the scope of the fairly limited aspects of the Bill.

My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has made proposals to concentrate family business before a limited number of county courts. That seems a sensible step in our programme to improve the family justice system, but it does not amount to setting up a single unified family court.

Lard Simon of Glaisdale

If the noble Earl will allow me to intervene, perhaps I may say that no one has proposed a single family court. What has been proposed is a limited structure—a hierarchy of family courts.

Earl Ferrers

I dare say. I am explaining the position to the noble and learned Lord without going into t00 much detail about the virtues or otherwise of a family court. The principle is being considered by my noble friends and my noble and learned friend. A committee has been set up to consider the matter. The noble and learned Lord seemed to consider that there was disagreement between the Home Office and my noble and learned friend's department. I cannot think what makes him believe that there was disagreement between two such eminent departments. I assure him that there is no difference of view between them. The review of the family justice system is being co-ordinated by a committee on which both the Lord Chancellor's department and the Home Office are represented.

I understand the anxiety of my noble friend Lady Faithfull about child maintenance. She stated that she did not want it enforced or assessed by an agency. She leads a campaign —as she does with all matters to which she addresses her mind—with great vigour. The legislative proposals to introduce a new agency will be brought before Parliament later this Session in a separate Bill. Noble Lords will have an opportunity to debate that Bill then.

Baroness Faithfull

I recognise the Minister's surprise at the matter being brought up at this stage. I understand the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. However, if one passes such a Bill, it cannot float in the air without administration. It was perhaps understandable that we took the opportunity to put forward the way that it should be administered. I understand that we may not be able to undertake anything now while discussing clause stand part.

However, I hope that my noble friend will forgive us for putting the subject forward. If one has a Bill it must be administered. How will it be administered? If it is to be administered through an agency it is in contradiction of the Children Act 1989.

Earl Ferrers

The agency will operate only if the Bill instituting it is passed into law. Until that happens the law exists as at present, and the clause will be administered by the courts as they administer it now.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Orders for periodical payment in magistrates' courts: means of payment]:

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 10: Page 3, line 42, after ("a") insert ("qualifying").

The noble Lord said: It is a gentle, probing little amendment with which we seek some clarification. The amendment will ensure that paragraphs (a) and (b) of new Section 59 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 both refer to "qualifying maintenance order". At present paragraph (a) refers to "qualifying maintenance order" and paragraph (b) refers to orders that are not maintenance orders. It is unclear why the term "qualifying maintenance order" is used only in paragraph (a) and not in paragraph (b). It begs the question of how maintenance orders which are not qualifying maintenance orders—whatever they are—are to be treated. The amendment clarifies the matter and achieves a pleasing consistency. I beg to move.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

I am glad for two reasons that the noble Lord has put down the amendment. I confess that I found the position extremely puzzling. It illuminates the complexity of the Bill. That is no more than a characteristic of modern drafting. Leading up to the appointment of the Renton Committee on Preparation of Legislation in 1975, there were constant complaints of the prolixity, complexity and lack of clarity of our statutes. The Renton Committee made a number of recommendations, of which one was extremely important. It endorsed a memorandum put forward by the two senior Scottish judges. They said in effect, "If you draft in simple general rules that is something we can cope with. We cope with it every day and we can apply it to particular situations. But if you try to cover every foreseeable situation you are sure to miss some that turn up in the courts. The courts will then be completely at a loss as will be the litigants when led into litigation". Later in the Bill we shall see striking examples which illustrate the cogency of that observation and its acceptance by the Renton Committee.

I found the provision extraordinarily difficult to puzzle out. The form of the clause suggests that subsections (1) (a) and (1) (b) are comprehensive, but they are not. As one reads and rereads the provision one sees that there is a missing element; it is the non-qualifying maintenance order which the noble Lord, Lord Morris, identified. One then goes on to ask why it is not there. Without certainty, I believe the reason is that a non-qualifying maintenance order would be outside the jurisdiction of the magistrates' court because it would be a maintenance order in respect of which the respondent, the debtor, was not ordinarily resident in England and Wales. Perhaps the noble Earl will tell me whether I am right.

This is an extraordinary Bill to put before ordinary men and women. In respect of legislation such as the Landlord and Tenant Act 1988 one would expect the person affected to take his case to a solicitor, but that is not so with a Bill of this kind. On the contrary, the people concerned are primarily husband and wife and, by extension, the citizens advice bureaux. It is wrong to face them with this kind of obscurity and complexity.

Nor should they be driven to consult a solicitor. One extremely unfortunate effect of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 will be a diminution in the number of high street solicitors and the concentration of their legal services in large towns and cities. They will not be available to advise on the meaning of a Bill, which is extraordinarily difficult to grasp. For those reasons the Committee is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for bringing the matter forward.

Earl Ferrers

I am sure that the Committee is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for bringing the matter forward, but I am not sure that I am. I accept that it is complicated. Perhaps I may explain the situation.

Under Clause 2 of the Bill a magistrates' court is required to specify a particular method of payment when making a qualifying maintenance order. There is only one essential condition which must be satisfied for a maintenance order to become a qualifying maintenance order as the noble and learned Lord said.

It is that the debtor must, at the time when the maintenance order is made, ordinarily be resident in England and Wales. That means that he must be within the jurisdiction of the magistrates' courts. In other words, the order could be enforced by a magistrates' court.

If a debtor is ordinarily resident outside the court's jurisdiction—for instance, in Europe, in Scotland or in Northern Ireland—when the maintenance order is made, the court is not required under the Bill to specify a particular method of payment. It is not prevented from doing so but the Bill is based on the principle that it is best to let the magistrates who are hearing the case decide whether such a requirement should be included in a maintenance order which can only be enforced where the debtor is living.

The court can only enforce an order in England and Wales. If the order has to go outside the magistrates' court's jurisdiction—say, to a country in Europe—it will be for that country to enforce the order. We have reciprocal arrangements with many countries. That is the reason the two subsections are slightly different. However, as a matter of general principle we do not believe that it is sensible to require the courts to make orders which are unenforceable.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for his support. In so far as I fleetingly understood what the noble Earl said, I should like to take the matter away and think about it. There is at the moment a blinding flash of clarity in my mind. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 11 to 17 not moved.]

4.45 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 18: Page 5, line 10 at end insert: ("(7A) In any case where a magistrates' court has power to order money to be paid periodically by the debtor to the creditor and the debtor fails to attend court either in person or by his representative despite having been served with notice of the proceedings, the court shall make an order unless satisfied that it is undesirable to do so.").

The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 19. Both amendments are concerned with the failure to attend hearings or to provide documents. There are many cases of this kind in which the debtor is properly served but deliberately fails to attend a court hearing in order to avoid payment. That leads to long delays in settlement and those delays are the cause of stress in many cases. We need to give the magistrates' courts a new duty in such cases to make orders to discourage debtors from the deliberate evasion of their responsibilities.

I am sure that the new power will be widely welcomed, particularly by the custodial parent who all too often sees the ex-partner playing cat and mouse with the court and often getting away with it for a long time. The new power will tackle the problems of delay and evasion in a way that nothing else in the Bill approaches. It will have a salutary effect on the willingness of any debtor to co-operate with the courts.

I now turn to Amendment No. 19, which deals with another problem that the Bill fails to tackle; that is, the ability of many debtors to hide from the courts the real level of their earnings or capital and deliberately to reduce those in order to lower the cash level awarded within the maintenance order. It is human nature so to do and it is the job of the law to regulate human nature.

The National Council for One Parent Families has wide experience in the field of maintenance settlements. It informs me that there are many cases in which the debtor takes that course of action, claiming to the courts that his income is extremely low. The lone parent knows only too well that reserves of income are carefully hidden away from the prying eyes of the court or that the new mortgage for the £200,000 house could not have been achieved on a declared annual income of £10,000.

It is becoming more and more important because of the growing level of self-employment which the Government have been so keen to encourage. It will become more important still as the Government are intending to make the payment of child maintenance by absent parents an important facet of social policy and of the social security system. We are no longer dealing with the highly paid executive who has ways of manipulating his income. Increasingly, we shall be faced with the need to ensure that the self-employed skilled tradesman cannot evade his parental responsibilities.

The effect of this amendment will be to encourage debtors to provide accurate information at the earliest possible opportunity or to ensure that the courts will offer the creditor redress in cases where he or, in exceptional cases, she fails to do so. I beg to move.

Baroness Faithfull

I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris. Under the Children Act 1989, the welfare of the child is paramount. The anxiety of a mother who cannot obtain money at a time when she is also going through a divorce or separation is devastating for any child. Anything which can be achieved to speed up the process is to be recommended.

Earl Ferrers

Both these amendments would require the magistrates' court to proceed as a result of a party's failure either because the defendant fails to attend the hearing or because one of the parties fails to produce the relevant documents required by the court I have great sympathy with the thought behind the proposal. I agree with my noble friend Lady Faithfull that when there are divorce proceedings and maintenance orders must be made, nothing is more distressing than for people to find that they cannot obtain the money to which they are entitled.

The incorporation of these amendments into the Bill is unnecessary and, in some ways, inadvisable. Their inclusion would limit the discretion rightly given to magistrates. The Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 already allows a magistrates' court to proceed in the absence of the defendant if it so wishes. I do not believe that the amendment tabled by the noble Lord adds anything useful to that power.

Similarly, there is no restriction on what inferences magistrates may draw if a party fails to produce evidence. So magistrates are already able to do what they believe to be desirable in the individual circumstances of the case. My fear is that the amendments would give the appearance that the courts were not treating the parties fairly, thus raising rather than lowering the temperature of proceedings which can already be difficult. The courts already have the power to operate in the manner suggested by the noble Lord.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I take it that the Minister refers to the sort of matter instanced in Dwyer v. Collins in 1852. Matters can be dealt with in the county court through the rules of evidence. At present however, there is no discovery procedure in the magistrates' court whereby evidence must be disclosed in advance.

We shall need to think more carefully about the matter. I am advised that the powers exist but that they are hardly ever used. Our amendments are intended to give positive power to the courts and to encourage them to resuscitate what is virtually moribund. I may return to the matter on Report; at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 19 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Orders for periodical payment in magistrates' courts: proceedings by clerk and penalty for breach]:

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 20: Page 6, line 6, after ("commenced") insert ("by virtue of the authority").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 21. These are drafting amendments which I am sure will commend themselves to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. They clarify the extent of the clerk's power when taking enforcement proceedings on behalf of a creditor.

The first amendment confirms that the clerk must discontinue any proceedings which are commenced under the authority when that authority is cancelled. The second amendment makes it clear that whether the clerk is acting in enforcement proceedings which are commenced at the request of the person whose benefit payments are made or under an authority given by that person, that person continues to have the same liability for all costs which are properly incurred in or related to those proceedings. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 21: Page 6, line 10, leave out ("or (3) above") and insert ("above at his request or under subsection (3) above by virtue of his authority").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 22: Page 7, line 49, at end insert: ("(6) If an employer or fellow employee of the debtor harasses or victimises the debtor because he is subject to an attachment of earnings order the debtor may make a complaint to a relevant justice giving details of the harassment or victimisation. (7) If the relevant justice is satisfied that the nature of the alleged harassment or victimisation is such as to justify the relevant court exercising its power under subsection (8) below, he shall issue a summons directed to the employer or fellow employee requiring him to appear before the relevant court to answer the complaint. (8) On the hearing of the complaint, the relevant court may order the employer or fellow employee to pay a sum not exceeding £100. Subsection (4) of this section shall apply to this provision as it does to subsection (3).").

The noble Lord said: This amendment deals with harassment or, as so many people call it these days, ha-rassment.

Lord Tordoff

I was hoping that the noble Lord would not use the second pronounciation.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

After 20 years as a poor provincial Protestant professor of English literature, it probably hurts me more than Members of the Committee to hear the word being so hideously mispronounced. However, harassment is the subject of the amendment and we are offering to make additional provisions which we hope may be helpful. The effect of the additional provisions will be to give to people who are subject to attachment of earnings orders some protection from victimisation or harassment by their employers or fellow employees.

We consider it important that a debtor who is paying maintenance by an attachment of earnings order should not be harassed or victimised by the people with whom he works as a result of that order. As I pointed out on Second Reading, this is not a piece of lily-livered, soft sentimentalism in favour of some recalcitrant father. It is put forward in the hope that it will encourage people to use attachment of earnings orders in the proper way.

An employer who does not comply with an attachment of earnings order can already be fined £100. This provision means that any other breach such as that set out above will lead to the imposition of the same penalty. Previously, an attachment of earnings order could only be made if a debtor had already defaulted on payment of an order. The effect of the Bill's provisions will be that an attachment of earnings order can be imposed even though no default has occurred. In spite of that, people still associate attachment of earnings orders with someone who does not honour his or her responsibilities. It is in the nature of humanity that the stereotype will stick. It is important that all people, particularly those who have not been in default in any way, should be protected from harassment or victimisation.

The Australian legislation on child maintenance, I am told, contains a provision in similar terms. It may be that here, as in the game of cricket, we should heed the maxim: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em".

Earl Ferrers

The Committee will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, for a penetrating intervention that keeps us on the straight and narrow as regards the English language. I agree with him. I think that the word ha-rassment is a terrible Americanisation. Of course, it should be harassment. It is almost as bad as when the word "missile" is referred to as "missal". I always thought that a "missal" was a Roman Catholic prayer book. There is a trend towards use of the wrong words in English.

5 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

I am not sure that the writers of the Official Report will be grateful to us for casting our words in such terms. I look forward with interest to seeing how the discussion is reported in tomorrow's edition of Hansard.

Earl Ferrers

It is because it is so difficult for those who report for Hansard that there is a great deal to be said for not speaking too much. Some of the things which the noble Lord has said and which he has prompted me to say would not have been said had the noble Lord been a little more thoughtful of the Hansard writers.

After that diversion, perhaps we may come back to the amendment. It is unacceptable for an employee to suffer harassment or victimisation because he is subject to an attachment of earnings order. I am not aware of any evidence to show that that takes place. The procedure has been available for approximately 20 years and I should have thought that some evidence would have appeared before now in that regard.

While I understand the feelings that prompted the amendment, I am not convinced that it is necessary. However, there is a more serious objection to the amendment. The Bill applies only to attachment of earnings orders that are made in respect of maintenance proceedings. It would be invidious to protect those who are subject to attachment of earnings orders in respect of maintenance orders from harassment and victimisation but not those who are subject to such orders in respect of judgment debts or administration orders. For that reason it would be unfortunate to distinguish attachment of earnings orders.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

On the contrary, it would be desirable to protect some people even if all cannot be protected. We do not want anyone to be put off paying through fear of that kind of stigma. In our view it would be useful to start along a righteous path even though the Bill does not go the whole way. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, retaining leave to come back to it at a later stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 23: After Clause 3, insert the following new clause:

  1. Use of bailiffs in recovery of fines etc 3,406 words