HL Deb 21 January 1991 vol 525 cc68-74

7.25 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

We have now reached the final stage in our deliberations on the Bill before it is sent for consideration to another place. It is a modest Bill but that does not mean that it is inconsequential. No Bill which goes any way to ensuring that maintenance payments are made regularly can be without consequence. The Government are appreciative of all the thought and time which those of your Lordships who have taken part have given to the Bill. A number of useful technical amendments have been made and in one respect—namely, with regard to ensuring that all interested parties have notice of the proceedings in order that they may make representations about the method of payment—the substance of the Bill has been improved. We have the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, to thank for that suggestion and I should like to thank him also for the other constructive contributions which he made during the passage of this Bill through your Lordships' House. His amendments, even when not accepted by the Government, were always thoughtful and helped considerably to clarify the Bill's purposes and effects.

If it is not invidious for me to do so, I would also like to take this opportunity to thank in particular the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who drew on his impressive legal knowledge in his contributions to the Bill. He improved our debates by his useful general observations on legislative drafting which, I am sure, have impressed the parliamentary draftsman as much as they have those of your Lordships who were able to listen to him. We are all aware that his contributions were always made out of a sincere desire to ensure that the interests of the citizen are well served by the legislation which we consider and pass into law.

As your Lordships are aware, the Government are committed to reinforcing parental responsibility and to improving the position of lone parents. This Bill is a small part of that larger initiative. Its objective is to improve the present maintenance system by ensuring regularity of maintenance payments to those who are dependent on them, especially lone parents who rely on maintenance payments, to ensure that they can support their children. The Bill also continues the process started by the Children Act 1989 of bringing the domestic workloads of the civil courts into alignment. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Reay.)

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, a newly qualified young lawyer, given his first case to argue in court, received advice from his senior colleague, who said, "John, your first case is a divorce petition. It is an undefended divorce petition. Try not to lose it". This Bill was given to me to take through your Lordships' House on behalf of the Opposition as a sort of teething ring on which to learn how to do this kind of task. Unlike almost everywhere else these days, there are no induction courses or training schemes for new Peers. One learns the job by sitting next to Nellie; by doing it. I should like to record my thanks to all who have spoken at the various stages of the Bill and especially to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the noble Lord, Lord Reay, for their lucidity in presenting the Government's case and for their generosity in letting me down lightly.

The Bill is now a better one than it was when it began its progress. It now says more clearly what it wishes to say, but the question remains as to whether what it says is really worth saying. With the invaluable help of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, we have purged it of many infelicities in its drafting but, as he reminded us at Committee stage, the Bill only nibbles at the edges of a much larger problem and, above all, it is very unlikely to work. The only real guarantee that payment will be made on a regular basis by the debtor is to adjust an individual's tax code and to deduct money through this method. That would require an additional power to be given to the courts to instruct the Inland Revenue to collect maintenance through the tax system.

A second factor which militates against this Bill ever achieving its desired effect is its failure to recognise the adamantine link between maintenance enforcement and access agreements. As the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, pointed out, there are countless cases of mothers who deny, impede or poison access. It follows as night follows day that fathers who are denied proper access will retaliate by refusing to pay maintenance. It would surely be better if from the outset the whole question of maintenance enforcement had been seen in the context of legislation on family matters. At Committee stage I referred to the fragmentation of jurisdiction. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, commented on the proliferation of the courts. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, found both these terms, abundantly justified". He ventured to point out that we had missed, a wonderful opportunity to consider a unified system of family courts in place of the present proliferation and fragmentation".—[Official Report, 13/12/90; col. 595.] He was powerfully supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, the chairman of the Family Courts Campaign. Against such a background and such a pressing need, the fine tuning which the Bill provides in the matter of bank accounts, standing orders, attachment of earnings and the like seems pitifully inadequate and, frankly, rather fiddling. It is the exact opposite of taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is taking a teaspoon to empty a river.

The third serious shortcoming in the Bill as it now stands is its shortsightedness in considering how its provisions can be enforced. I have mentioned the problem of what to do when a debtor, having been given "opportunity" to open a bank account, does so, but neglects to put more than a pound or so into it. Far more important is the matter of levying distress on a debtor in arrears. I make no apology for returning for a moment to the matter of the control of private bailiffs, because it is an issue which causes considerable distress and it is in the public eye and on the public conscience at the present time.

I have mentioned the report of the National Consumer Council and the very deep concern voiced by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. But as recently as last weekend, 16th January, your Lordships may have heard the BBC Radio 4 programme "Face the Facts", which devoted its entire time to the suffering, the fear, the shame and the distress which this medieval system of debt collection brings in its train. That programme, produced by an experienced editor, Graham Ellis, was an objective, responsible and balanced piece of reporting. It was investigative journalism at its very best and the BBC can be proud of it. It made clear, beyond all thought of contradiction, that the private, uncertificated bailiff is a dangerously unreliable way of enforcing the orders of the court.

The Government have refused to make any mention in the Bill of bailiffs and have declined to control their activities in any way at any stage of the Bill's progress. They have done so on the grounds that a Home Office group is currently considering the whole matter. I can only hope that that group will bring forward, and speedily bring forward, a body of clear and firm recommendations which will curb, crib, cabin, confine and strictly control what private bailiffs may do in the prosecution of their peculiar calling.

The Labour Party is strongly in favour of proper controls on the activity of private bailiffs. It is concerned to see set up as soon as possible a proper system of family courts so that the concerns of the family are recognised as requiring special and sympathetic treatment, which they can seldom get amid the many and various activities of the normal magistrates' court. We are also very concerned with the prompt and effective enforcement of maintenance orders. In this imperfect world, which we shall improve by better legislation, we realise that the present Bill goes some little way towards improving the situation.

The Bill's heart is in the right place, even if its head is not screwed on very tight. It is a small gesture in the right direction, and on the principle that half a loaf is much better than no bread, I commend it to your Lordships and hope you will approve it.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, when the Treaty of Berlin was debated in the House of Commons, Lord Beaconsfield described the speech of the Leader of the Opposition there as a string of congratulatory regrets. A Third Reading of a Bill tends to approximate to that description. It is unfortunate that this evening we have to start with the regret—the great regret—that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is still absent and in hospital. However, that can be qualified, I understand, by an immediate matter of congratulations. His operation has been successful and he is on the road to recovery. It must also be qualified by another matter of congratulations. The noble Lord, Lord Reay, has put us very deeply in his debt by stepping into the breach. The apparent ease with which he conducted the Report stage was in some way misleading because this is a fantastically difficult and highly complicated Bill, proceeding almost entirely by amendment of other measures. The noble Lord must have worked extremely hard to have put himself in command of it in a matter of days.

We are also very greatly in the debt of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. We rely very much on the principal Opposition speaker on a Bill of this kind to sound the depths and explore the reefs while we can frolic about in the shallows. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, has done that admirably and did so again in his speech this evening. We offer him our congratulations on his handling of the Bill for the Opposition. To have a Bill like this conducted as it has been from both Front Benches is of almost immeasurable benefit to those of us on the Back Benches and Cross Benches. We are deeply in the debt of all three leading speakers from the Front Benches.

When one comes to the substance of the Bill, again it is a mixture of congratulations and regrets. It is a matter of congratulations that the Bill does what it does. It helps with the collection of maintenance payments and orders for periodical payments of a domestic nature and with the enforcement of orders for maintenance and for periodical payment. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, has again emphasised other matters in which the Bill effects an improvement of the present situation. But when one turns to the form of the Bill, it must be almost wholly a matter for regret.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that we are tackling the Bill in the wrong order. The correct or logical order would be for us to discuss the place of the family in our society, what should be done to strengthen it, what should be done by way of the obligations of maintenance in favour of a deserted wife, and only finally the machinery for doing it. We have in fact tackled it in diametrically the wrong way although we had an opportunity in Committee to consider part of the obligations of marriage so far as they impinge on the duty of maintenance. But the matter is more serious than that. The Bill is virtually incomprehensible for those who will have to work it or will be affected by it. No thought seems to have been given to them at all.

The typical object of this Bill is a deserted wife, often with a child to support. She entered into marriage with high hopes and has found them frustrated; not only that, she is almost immediately plunged down to subsistence level. What do we give her? When she asks for bread, we do not even give her a stone, which she might at least throw at someone. We say to her, "The Bill offers you a choice: a maintenance order; a qualifying maintenance order; a relevant UK order; a relevant English maintenance order; a registered order; a qualifying periodical maintenance order; an order for periodical payments; and, a lump sum paid by instalments". That is simply not good enough.

In relation to the first two options—namely, a maintenance order and a qualifying maintenance order, which are referred to in Clause 2 where it amends Section 59 of the 1980 Act—the Law Society has a highly competent committee which sends out a briefing table. However, the members of that committee got it wrong. It was not until the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, explained how the clause worked that your Lordships were able to understand it. If those three experts at the Law Society got it wrong, what hope is there for the maintenance creditor, the maintenance debtor, the citizens' advice bureaux or, for that matter, the high street solicitor? I complain very strongly about that aspect of the matter.

One can also look at the size of the Bill. When it was introduced on Second Reading, your Lordships had an Explanatory Memorandum which was very clear. Indeed, it told your Lordships everything and ran to only two pages. However, the rest of the Bill—that is, the enacting provisions—ran to 29 pages. As I said, most of them were quite incomprehensible to the persons affected by them.

I raised the question of the Long Title. I ventured to write to the noble Lord, Lord Reay, about it. I hope to be able to pursue the matter with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. Perhaps he will consider it in the Statute Law Committee. However, that is a comparatively small matter compared to the type of Bill that we have. It is all too typical of the legislation which we see produced today. When one considers the persons affected by the Bill and the extraordinary complication of the legislation, it is an outrageous example.

Having said that, I do not wish to end on a curmudgeonly note. We are very grateful to the noble Earl, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, and the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. We count our blessings.

Lord Reay

My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly to some of the remarks that have been made. I should like first to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for his very kind words about me which, most assuredly, I did not deserve. He had some fun with certain complications in the Bill. I acknowledge the fact that the drafting of the Bill is complicated, but it is no more complicated than legislation in this area needs to be. There is a large body legislation devoted to maintenance. As the Bill deals not only with the making of maintenance orders but also with their variation and enforcement, it is important that reference is made to all the relevant statutes. For example, Schedule I takes us through the difficult area of registered orders, which is covered by no less than five statutes. Further, the Bill provides for its powers to be exercised by three different courts; namely, the High Court, the county courts and the magistrates' courts. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will accept that those are reasons why the legislation had to be complicated.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, repeated some criticisms which he had, and still has, about the Bill. It is a modest Bill and the Government make no pretence that it can solve all the problems to which the noble Lord referred. It addresses one specific area of difficulty; that is, the collection and enforcement of maintenance. Its provisions are intended to improve the problems which many experience in obtaining maintenance. The noble Lord concluded by commending the Bill to the House. I thank him for so doing. Accordingly, I ask the House to give the Bill a Third Reading.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask him a question which I have raised in correspondence. In view of the complication of the Bill and the number of statutes which are amended by it, will he take urgent steps to raise with the editor of Statutes in Force the desirability of reprinting with amendments as many of the amended measures as possible?

Lord Reay

My Lords, perhaps I may consider carefully the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord and write to him on the matter.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

House adjourned at fourteen minutes before eight o'clock.

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