HL Deb 30 June 1988 vol 498 cc1711-25

3.33 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(The Earl of Caithness.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 12 [Personal community charge]:

[Amendment No. 47 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Lord Elwyn-Jones moved Amendment No. 48: Page 8, line 44, at end insert ("and any arrears shall be recoverable as an ordinary contract debt in the appropriate court, in accordance with Schedule 4 below").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I advise that, with Amendment No. 48, Amendments Nos. 85, 86, 90, 91, 97 and 101 are grouped to be discussed together.

Your Lordships will see that in addition to my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, there is also included among the proposers the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Wilberforce, who has asked me to express his regret that, owing to other public duties elsewhere today, he is unable to be present.

The amendments propose in substance to remove from the Bill the provision of imprisonment for default in payment of the community charge. The amendments are supported by the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Both organisations have great experience in this field.

The Bill at present provides that where arrears in the payment of personal community charges arise, the authority concerned may apply to a magistrates' court for a liability order against the person by whom the sum is payable. This carries with it the power of the magistrates' court by virtue of the provision of Schedule 4, paragraph 7(1), to commit the debtor to prison for a term of up to three months unless the amount stated in the warrant of committal against the debtor is paid before the end of the term of imprisonment.

In my submission, in view of the substantial ending of imprisonment for debt the proposal in the Bill to imprison defaulters for non-payment of the community charge is an anachronism and, in the circumstances, both inhuman and grossly inefficient. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, said in Committee, in these days imprisonment for any form of civil debt is simply totally unacceptable. It was abolished in the Adminstration of Justice Act 1970, but contrary to the recommendations of the Payne Committee the possibility of imprisonment for non-payment of rates was retained. As a result of that decision, and that being part of our law, last year in England and Wales 370 people were imprisoned for not paying their rates.

When the community charge replaces the rating system it will apply to many people who are not now ratepayers but who will then be liable and will add greatly to the numbers at risk of imprisonment if the provisions of the Bill become law. In addition, it must be emphasised that some of the poorest ratepayers will face larger bills than they meet at present and they will be in greater danger of default. Indeed, the sanction of imprisonment, if it is applied, will fall almost entirely on the poorest members of our society. I feel sure that none of us will readily accept that appalling fact. The rest will have goods which can be sold.

If the Bill is carried, the number of people liable to imprisonment may well multiply fourfold and the 370 people now held in prison or police cells will rise to about 1,200. That is the estimate made by my noble and learned friend Lord Wilberforce.

Your Lordships may well ask how the Government, knowing the appalling pressure upon prisons and police cells by reason of the excessive numbers held in custody, can now contemplate aggravating the position in the way that the provisions of this Bill will do. The conditions in our prisons are a national disgrace. That has been accepted on all sides of the House as an almost unchallengable proposition, but here we have a measure which will aggravate the position.

Has the Home Secretary been consulted about this? He has expressed anxiety about the prison numbers and prison overcrowding. Has this possible effect on the prison population been brought to his attention? I hope we may be told.

What is striking is that, very wisely, there is no provision for the proposed power of imprisonment in respect of arrears of payment in the Scottish Bill. Imprisonment for debt was finally abolished in Scotland by the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987. It is also striking that when the Bill we are discussing was originally introduced in another place there was no provision for commitment to prison for non-payment of the community charge. There was simply a short paragraph of about four lines providing for distress and attachment of earnings. That was the position when the Bill reached Second Reading in another place and also when it went into Committee. Suddenly there appeared at Report stage what I call these appalling provisions contained in the enormous Schedule IV, which includes provision for imprisonment. Why was the change made at that time and what had happened in the meantime to turn sense into nonsense?

Already the county courts, to which cases of arrears of payment of the community charge should go, have an adequate set of recovery measures in their procedures. The county courts have expertise in handling debt cases with the intention of resolving the problem for all concerned. They include, as we have suggested by Amendment No. 101, a garnishee order, which means that the bank account of the debtor can be frozen, or alternatively and for example, an administration order which can provide for other debts to be taken into consideration so that the debtor makes one payment into court from which all creditors are paid pro rata. Those provisions already exist in law to take some of the menace and poison out of the proposed alternative of imprisonment.

I face without fear the fact that the Bill provides that the defaulter may only be imprisoned if his failure to pay the charge was due to his wilful refusal or culpable neglect. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, put it, that is a very variable concept. Magistrates vary in the standards they apply. The noble and learned Lord asked pointedly who in this Chamber has not been guilty from time to time of perhaps culpable neglect in not paying his bills.

It is also important to consider the cost and trouble of administering the imprisonment procedure. It is now calculated that the cost of holding someone in prison is about £250 a week. The average annual amount of the community charge will be about £230 a year. It is not a very economic proposition that we face in this Bill. It would be much more costly to send the defaulter to prison than to remit the amount of the charge. A prison sentence will add to the burden of the community charge upon the community.

I return to the question that if imprisonment for this debt is not required for Scotland, why is it required for England and Wales? What special offence have they caused to be singled out (or "doubled out" if that is the right way of putting it) for this abomination? This proposal in the Bill makes no sense in economic terms; in social and moral terms it is an abomination. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, made an extremely powerful speech and it is not necessary for me to go into further detail as to why an amendment of this kind is clearly necessary. He asked a series of questions to which we require the most clear answers from the noble Earl.

The first point that the noble and learned Lord raised was why there are to be different procedures for Scotland as distinct from England and Wales. Why? He also made the point that some of the people who will find themselves facing substantial community charges, as the noble Earl will be aware, are among the most underprivileged of our fellow citizens. In such circumstances is it really sensible to bring in a requirement that if they default they should go to prison? Before the noble Earl undertook his present responsibilities he was in charge of the prison department of the Home Office. Therefore, he will be well aware of the gross overcrowding in the prison system.

The idea seems quite astonishing that we are cheerfully contemplating moving to a situation where a new category of person will be pushed into the prison system. The noble Earl will be aware that overcrowding in the system of England and Wales is now so severe that every night hundreds of people are kept in police cells in all parts of England and Wales. Metropolitan Police prisoners are set as far away as South Yorkshire because it is impossible to put them in remand accommodation in the South of England. That is also the situation in other parts of the country.

The costs are exceptionally high. The noble and learned Lord referred to the cost of keeping a prisoner in prison department accommodation. He said that it was well over £200 a week. It is costing the Government over £200 a night at the moment to keep people in police cells in greater London. Unless this Bill is amended it will create a situation where still more people will find themselves pushed into grossly overcrowded prison accommodation and also into police cells. Police cells are now being used not only for remand prisoners, but many of them are spending the whole of their sentence in police cells. In the light of this it seems astonishing that the Government are contemplating a change of this kind.

My final question is this. Why was this matter not put on the face of the Bill? Those of us who have been Ministers know perfectly well that before legislation is presented to Parliament there are prolonged discussions between government departments. Therefore, there would have been discussions among the Department of the Environment, the Home Office and many other departments concerning many features of this legislation. Therefore, why was there this change in the position of the Government?—because change there most clearly was. I believe we are entitled to ask the noble Earl why the Government changed their position.

Finally, perhaps I may return to the question of the burden that this measure will impose on our system of criminal justice if the Bill is not amended. Every night, as I have indicated, hundreds of prisoners are being kept in police cells and many hundreds of police officers are being taken off the streets in order to act as prison officers. That being so, how can it be right to push into the system yet another possibly major category of offender? The Metropolitan Police force has indicated that the burden upon it is growing at a most alarming rate. In fact, the manpower demands on the Metropolitan Police are greater than they were at Wapping. That being so, how can the Government possibly justify their position? I very much hope that the noble Earl will give us some detailed answers to that question, because otherwise I feel that many who are involved in the administration of our criminal justice system really will believe that the Government have lost their senses.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, on 23rd May I was one of the people who spoke about people's inability to pay and I forecast that our prison population would be increased. I wonder whether I too may ask my noble friend the Minister three questions. The first is the same as that posed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris: has the Home Secretary been consulted? Those of us who work in the penal system have it enjoined upon us day by day to keep people out of prison and to find alternative means of dealing with the situation. I am not saying that we should excuse people for not paying their dues; but I am saying that this is not the way to deal with those who do not pay.

Secondly, has my noble friend the Minister consulted the Department of Health and Social Security? In this country we have one in three marriages breaking down. We have an enormous number of single parent families. I forecast that many of those who will not pay their community charge will be single parent families. If the parent is taken into prison then the children must be taken into care. This is a devastating thing for the children and it is very costly for the country. Further, it is quite out of line with the policy of our country, a policy which has been laid down for all social workers to carry out; namely, to keep the children with their families.

Thirdly, I think we all agree—of course we must—that people must pay their dues. However, if they do not do so, what will be the system of collection? We know that in the country there is £20 million owing in rent arrears. I profoundly believe that if we had an efficient system in our housing departments, we need not have that £20 million owing. Will there he an efficient system for collection of the community charge, and will there be a quick follow-up?

I speak with feeling on the matter because for some part of my life I was responsible for collecting rent arrears. It is possible for the poorest families, if quick action is taken and immediate visits are made, not to get into debt. They can be helped to pay their dues. I press my noble friend the Minister to answer those three questions.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister one short question. Would not a community service order be appropriate and wholly adequate to cover the situation? I have read the debate which took place at an earlier stage of the Bill's proceedings on the subject, especially the contributions made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Wilberforce and Lord Elwyn-Jones. Surely a community service order would be an adequate and appropriate deterrent for the offence.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I am afraid that on this occasion I am unable to agree with my noble friend about the community service order, because, after all, that will cost money. What we are trying to get is money from the people who owe it. In 30 years of trying to administer justice in the courts—including cases involving debtors—as humanely as I can, I have always found that the possibility of being sent to prison is a great deterrent. For example, if I said to a person, "You will go to prison for five, six or seven days", the money was always forthcoming. When I say "always" I mean perhaps not 100 per cent. but at least 95 per cent. If, on the other hand, someone I knew had trouble in paying I would say to that person, "You will serve one day". They would then be placed in a cell in the police station until the court rose on that day. That of course means that the debt is wiped out. But, as the noble Lord said—and as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull—there will be people who will be in difficulties in paying the charge. Nevertheless, so far as I can make out from the Bill, they will be able to ask for a rebate. That provision certainly applies to one-parent families. I am sure that there will be no possibility of such people ever going to prison.

I still feel—indeed, I always have—that prison is a deterrent and I should like to keep it in the Bill. I was interested to hear the noble and learned Lord say that 370 people were sent to prison because of failure to pay their rates. That is a very small number compared to the number of people who appear before the courts at this time for not paying their rates. I should think that there are at least six cases a week in my court of people who refuse to pay their rates for all kinds of reasons; but very rarely because they cannot afford to do so. As I say, if I sent such people down for seven days, there was always someone at the back of the court who could pay. I do not think that we can lose this provision as a deterrent.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, for bringing the amendment forward and also for the manner in which he has done so. I believe it to be a most important consideration, especially as it is not provided for in the Scottish legislation and was not provided for in the English legislation when it was first introduced. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that it is important for us to know why there was this change of mind by the Government while the Bill was going through Parliament.

I have three points to make. The first concerns the under-privileged, who will constitute the greatest number of those who will be imprisoned under the provisions. There is not doubt about that. Indeed, that has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. It must be borne in mind, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said, that many of them are most likely to be single parents. This will mean the children being taken into care and will involve extra cost, which must be taken into account.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said that we all want the charge to be collected and I am also very much of that opinion; I do not want defaulters. However, I think that the very poor must be helped to pay. I should like to know whether there are schemes for easy payment, not merely by the month but by the week. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister can give me some assurance on that. Further, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, asked, I should like to know whether there will be a quick and efficient follow-up service so that people do not get too heavily into debt after three weeks, for example, instead of just one month's overdue payment.

The cost of all this will be considerable. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, said, the cost of keeping a man or a woman in prison is something like £250 a week, which amounts to something like £13,000 a year. I am sorry; I think that that calculation was in fact made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, said that the number of those who will be attached and imprisoned for default under the Bill will be four times greater than at present. My mathematical ability is not great, but I am told by the noble and learned Lord that there are some 370 people now in prison. However, four times that figure does not make 1,200 to me; it makes 1,480, or very nearly 1,500. If you multiply that figure by £13,000 a year you get £19.25 million, or very nearly £20 million a year, which will be the cost of imprisoning such people. That is a very considerable amount and ought to be taken into consideration. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, is shaking his head and will no doubt tell me where my maths have gone wrong.

As we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the noble Earl was until recently Minister of State at the Home Office and responsible for prisons. He will know about the crisis in the prisons. He will also know that Home Office policy is to keep people out of prison. We have been given many trailers for a Green Paper or White Paper which is expected next month. The whole object of this Green Paper or White Paper, or White Paper with green print, is to substitute non-custodial sentences for custodial sentences in the case of criminal offences. If that is the policy of the Home Office for criminal offences, surely it cannot agree with the proposals in the Bill for imprisonment for civil offences.

It is an outrage to go straight against the Home Office policy in a Bill of this Session which it can hardly have agreed without a certain amount of arm twisting. I should very much like to know how the proposal in the Bill can be reconciled with current Home Office policy which is soon to be stepped up, if anything, in the White Paper next month to which we are very much looking forward.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, before deciding how to vote on this amendment I should be grateful for some clarification. It has been suggested by certain proponents of the amendment that what we are dealing with is various categories of poor people who are unable to pay. None of us would wish to see a penalty exacted from the kind of people about whom the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, has been talking.

However, what the Bill says in the schedule is that the possibility of such a penalty is confined to people who either wilfully refuse to pay or are guilty of culpable neglect. Someone who wilfully refuses to pay or is guilty of culpable neglect must by definition be someone who has the resources to pay. It may be that one of the reasons why this provision was not in the Scottish Bill was the subsequent campaign to persuade people in Scotland not to pay, not because they could not afford to but because they thought the levy an unjust one. We need to know how seriously we must take the limitation to those who wilfully refuse to pay or are culpably neglectful, if these two matters can be distinguished. The argument for the amendment very much rests upon that.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, perhaps I may deal with the Scottish position on wilful refusal to pay. There is no argument to say that the provision was put in because in Scotland certain areas of the political spectrum put forward the idea of not paying. If that were the reason for putting in the provision, I am sure that the noble Earl would have included it in Schedule 15, which amends the Scottish Act. Even with the threat in Scotland of wilful refusal to pay, the Government have not put forward any such position. My understanding is that the courts in England tend to take a variable view about wilful refusal or culpable neglect, and it depends on one court's view on a person's amount of money and whether that amounts to a wilful refusal or neglect.

Lord Renton

My Lords, at the Committee stage my noble friend Lord Caithness introduced some fairly lengthy amendments on Scottish law which are now to be found in Schedule 15. He explained to us that many of the amendments were intended to achieve harmonisation between the laws north and south of the Border. I find it a little surprising that we should have on this matter not harmonisation but something quite in conflict.

My noble friend Lord Beloff said we were not dealing entirely with poor people but with people who might be able to pay. The attachment of earnings order system has been in operation in this country since 1958–30 years—and has worked surprisingly well.

Strangely enough, I had something to do with its introduction. I was not completely hopeful about it at the time of its introduction but it has worked well. An attachment of earnings would deal with those people who can afford to pay and would deal with them without sending them to prison. Having said that, I find this a difficult matter.

Arguments have been put on both sides. Owing to our procedure at Report stage one cannot wait until the Minister has spoken and then make a further speech oneself comparing the two points of view and attempting to assist the House by saying on which side of the fence one comes down. Therefore, having said what I have, I am trying to keep an open mind on the subject for the moment. My noble friend must bear in mind the strong arguments which have been made and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

The Earl of Perth

My Lords, I have been listening to the debate and I am extremely worried that we shall create a new crime which sends people to prison. I am also worried because if the Bill passes in its present form for England and Wales, we may find the same thing being attempted—going backwards—for Scotland. I would be very unhappy about that.

I have listened to all the arguments. I listened to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, about a serious deterrent, and to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. Nonetheless, on balance, the unease of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and their proposal for something less than the drastic prison sentence appeals to me very much.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with the point made by my noble friend Lord Beloff. He was right to say that no one who is unable to pay will be imprisoned. One can be imprisoned only if one shows wilful refusal or culpable neglect. It is clearly established in case law that this expression only applies to someone who had the money, could have paid but either chose not to or failed to do so without reasonable excuse. That is the ultimate deterrent. That is the sending to prison. However, these amendments have nothing to do with sending people to prison. That is what was debated in Committee and your Lordships voted against the amendment then. The amendments in this group aim to move the recovery procedure for the community charge out of the magistrates' court and into the county court; and therefore I could not follow half of what was being said because noble Lords were talking about amendments which were discussed and voted on in Committee and not the amendments in front of the House this afternoon.

Perhaps I may deal with the amendments which are before your Lordships this afternoon. Amendment No. 48 is rather different from the rest in that it would delete all the carefully worked out recovery options in Schedule 4, many of which have been established for many years in the context of the rating system, and leave the community charge to be recovered as an ordinary civil debt. My noble friend Lord Glenarthur explained at an earlier stage what would happen if a charging authority had to pursue arrears through the county court. It would have to claim before the court that the person concerned owed the money and had not paid. If the court agreed, it would order that person to pay the arrears. If he still refused to pay the court could order a bailiff to sieze the person's goods or attach his earnings. Although this sounds comparable to the recovery procedure set out in Schedule 4, I am advised that in practice civil debts are notoriously difficult to recover through the county court. That contrasts with the recovery of rates through the magistrates' courts which over the years has proved extremely effective.

I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Perth, that we are not introducing anything new. What I have just said has indicated that there has been a final solution for the courts—if "solution" is the right word—for the recovery of rates, and for the person to be sent to prison if that does not succeed. All we are doing is transferring the existing power under the rate Acts to the community charge under this Bill. There is no new proposal in front of your Lordships.

A further and perhaps even more important reason for opposing Amendment No. 48 is that the detailed recovery procedures contained in Schedule 4, which the amendment would sweep away, are designed to provide safeguards for debtors as well as give charging authorities effective means of recovery. For example, we are providing for appeals to the magistrates' courts by anyone who feels aggrieved by distress or attachment of earnings. We shall he debating those matters shortly.

No such specific provisions exist for the county courts. Amendments Nos. 85, 86, 90, 91 and 97 would have a different effect. As with Amendment No. 48, they seek to involve the county courts rather than the magistrates' court; but they envisage retaining the detailed recovery procedures and mechanisms spelt out in Schedule 4. I fear that that approach does not have a great deal more to commend it than the approach of Amendment No. 48. It at least retains the important provisions of Schedule 4. It is misconceived because it would sweep away at a stroke the expertise and experience in rate recovery which the magistrates' courts have built up over the years.

Rate recovery has been undertaken by magistrates' courts for many years and has operated successfully and efficiently. The detailed enforcement provisions in Schedule 4 have therefore been devised in the light of experience in the magistrates' courts. It would be an expensive, bureaucratic and inefficient step to involve a new court and merely to throw out of the window everything that has been built up over the years in the magistrates' courts.

Amendment No. 101 seeks to add to Amendments Nos. 85, 86, 90, 91 and 97 by giving county courts the power to attach the bank accounts of community charge defaulters and to issue administration orders in cases where the defaulter cannot immediately pay the whole of the debt. Those are interesting options which are worth discussion, but I must ask your Lordships to accept that it is not possible to switch recovery procedures from one court to another and to throw in additional recovery methods at the drop of a hat.

That brings me back to a point my noble friend Lord Glenarthur made in Committee and which was raised by some of your Lordships today, in particular, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. It relates to the difference between Scotland and England and Wales. In Scotland, the current range of debt recovery options and procedures followed a Scottish Law Commission report published in 1985. That was the culmination of work stretching back over 15 years. In turn, that work was only made possible because much of what was done was the consolidation of the law and of legal procedures that they had developed over more than 100 years. I ask your Lordships to contrast that situation, which has taken 15 years, with some amendments to the Bill. One should wait for something similar in England, as my noble friend Lord Glenarthur said at an earlier stage.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Morton of Shuna

My Lords, the Scottish position was not concerned with recovery of rates or a tax. It was concerned with the whole business of civil debt. There is no need in the Bill and with these amendments to review the whole business of the recovery of civil debt in England. As I understand the amendment—I am only a Scottish lawyer—all that is being done is to take one procedure which applies to rates and put it into the general procedure which applies to the recovery of all other civil debts.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord has come up with a marvellously simplistic solution, but I am advised that it is not as simple as he would have your Lordships believe. The reason the Scots were able to do what they did was entirely due to the fact that the whole procedure had been looked at on a wide front.

The point, as I am sure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, will recognise, is that one cannot invent a new recovery system overnight. The noble and learned Lord may argue, for example, that the garnishee order is a power available at present to the county court; but it is little used. To switch all the community charge cases to the county court and to expect the county court to be able to cope with the extra burden, with or without the power to issue garnishee orders, is an unrealistic proposal which would lead to chaos.

It became clear during the course of the debate that the purpose of the amendments is not merely to argue for the substitution of one court as opposed to another; it is to reopen a question which, as I said earlier, was debated at considerable length—whether there should be commitment to prison for nonpayment of the community charge. I know that the issue is important. It is of considerable concern to your Lordships, as was exemplified this afternoon. It is an issue which the Government take seriously, but it is also an issue which was fully debated in Committee.

My noble friend Lord Glenarthur explained in great detail that we believe it is essential at present to retain a power of commitment. That power is not widely used at present. Fewer than 400 people were committed for non-payment of rates in 1986. Contrary to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, feels, we are confident that there will be considerably fewer cases after 1990 because of the new arrangements for instalments, reminders, attachment of earnings and direct deductions from benefit. Commitment will be a rarely used but nevertheless important back-up power.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, one can pay rates by instalment at the moment. That is no answer.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord has been following the details of our proceedings with great care. He will be aware that new instalment procedures are being introduced in the Bill which have not been applicable to rates.

Many of your Lordships were present during the debate in Committee. Those of your Lordships who were not will have had an opportunity to study what was then said. The result was that after the fullest debate the Committee accepted the Government's case for retaining commitment, at least for the immediate future, as an essential reserve power. I am sure that all your Lordships will respect the will of the Committee as clearly expressed.

If your Lordships will permit me to delay you a little longer, I shall answer some of the points raised this afternoon. The most important point, raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and my noble friend Lady Faithfull, was whether we had had consultation with the Home Office. I can assure your Lordships that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been consulted and is content that enforcement should take place in the magistrates' court, which is the subject of these amendments, and that commitment to prison should be retained in the few cases where it is necessary. What is more, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is also fully content, and agrees that the magistrates' courts are the right place for these matters and that commitment should be retained.

I must say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that these amendments do not delete the committal provision, as some of your Lordships claim. That is a point I should like to make clear to your Lordships. My noble friend Lady Faithfull was concerned that families might be broken up if those on low incomes were unable to pay the community charge. I must remind my noble friend of two vital points. Those on low incomes will be eligible for rebates of up to 80 per cent. plus the uprating of income. That is a great move forward from the present system.

Secondly, in relation to the point I mentioned earlier, and which my noble friend Lord Beloff raised, I must remind your Lordships that no one will he committed unless they show wilful refusal or culpable neglect; that is, they have the money, could have paid, but did not do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, picked up a point made by my noble friend Lady Faithfull about single parent families. The noble Lord is right to be concerned about them. They are the type of people the Bill helps. Over 80 per cent. of single parent families will benefit from this Bill.

The other point to which I must reply was the concern raised as to why the committal to prison was not on the face of the Bill at its introduction. It is true that the provision for imprisonment was not on the face of the Bill at that stage. However, that did not represent a change of policy. We had already made clear that with the community charge, as indeed with rates, we would provide full imprisonment as a last resort. It was a point in the Bill which as published did not fully represent the Government's policy. Naturally it was therefore amended at the first opportunity in another place.

Lastly, to my noble friend Lord Renton I would say as regards the attachment of earnings that the Bill provides for attachment of earnings, but only earnings. That does not cover the self-employed and those, for example, on substantial occupational retirement pensions.

Perhaps I may summarise as follows. We understand the concern of your Lordships that has been expressed both at Committee stage and today about committal to prison. But that is not the subject of the amendment. The subject of the amendment is whether we should transfer from the magistrates' courts to the county court the procedures for recovery of the community charge. I hope your Lordships will agree, in view of what I have said, that it is right to leave that with the magistrates' courts.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I and I suspect many in the House will find that reply deeply disappointing, coming from a Minister who had previously shown some humanity on this scene. I am still puzzled by the fact that these proposals did not appear even at Second Reading of the Bill in another place; it was not only on first printing. Therefore, some second thoughts must have come from a mysterious source, I know not where. What I submitted, and what has been submitted by others who have spoken, is that experienced bodies in this field like the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux and NACRO are passionately anxious about the effect the Bill will have in increasing the size of the prison population. There is widespread opinion of a substantial character to that effect. Once the Bill becomes law, it will be too late to say, "I'm sorry, we made a mistake". Now is the moment to prevent the error arising.

The effect of the amendments is to transfer the responsibility for dealing with this matter to the civil court and to have it dealt with as a civil matter, not as a criminal matter. The criminal aspect will not arise when the matter falls to be dealt with by the county court. The county court is especially skilled and familiar with the processes of handling debts and trying to deal with them in a manner to achieve a solution rather than a penalty or a term of imprisonment. I implore the noble Earl and the Government to have second thoughts about this. If they refuse to do so, I urge your Lordships to accept the view that this should be dealt with as a civil matter.

The attitude of magistrates' courts to concepts like wilful neglect and other matters is highly variable. In our submission this is essentially a civil matter. Those two organisations which I have quoted say very affirmatively that the people most affected or likely to be affected are the poorest people in the community. This will be directed mainly against them and will have the appalling effect of increasing what is already an intolerable position in the overcrowding in our prisons. I must accordingly invite the House to express a view on the matter in the Lobbies.

4.24 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 48) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 98; Not-Contents, 118.

Addington, L. Faithfull, B.
Airedale, L. Gallacher, L.
Ardwick, L. Gladwyn, L.
Attlee, E. Graham of Edmonton, L.
Aylestone, L. Gregson, L.
Blease, L. Grimond, L.
Bonham-Carter, L. Hampton, L.
Bottomley, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Briginshaw, L. Hatch of Lusby, L.
Broadbridge, L. Hayter, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Henderson of Brompton, L.
Buckmaster, V. Hooson, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Carter, L. Hughes, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Hutchinson of Lullington, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Ilchester, E.
Coleraine, L. Jacques, L.
David, B. Jay, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Jeger, B.
Dormand of Easington, L. Jenkins of Hillhead, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Ennals, L. John-Mackie, L.
Ezra, L. Kennet, L.
Kilbracken, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Kinloss, Ly. Rochester, L.
Leatherland, L. Ross of Newport, L.
Listowel, E. Ryder of Warsaw, B.
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Seear, B.
Longford, E. Sefton of Garston, L.
Lytton, E. Serota, B.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Shaughnessy, L.
McNair, L. Shepherd, L.
Mayhew, L. Stallard, L.
Melchett, L. Stedman, B.
Milner of Leeds, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Milverton, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Mishcon, L. Strabolgi, L.
Molloy, L. Tordoff, L.
Morton of Shuna, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Murray of Epping Forest, L. Ullswater, V.
Nicol, B. [Teller.] Underhill, L.
Northfield, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Oram, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Perth, E. Wells-Pestell, L.
Peston, L. Whaddon, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.] White, B.
Williams of Elvel, L.
Porritt, L. Wilson of Rievaulx, L.
Prys-Davies, L. Winterbottom, L.
Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Harvey of Prestbury, L.
Alport, L. Havers, L.
Ampthill, L. Henley, L.
Arran, E. Hesketh, L.
Auckland, L. Hives, L.
Bauer, L. Home of the Hirsel, L.
Beaverbrook, L. Hood, V.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Hooper, B.
Beloff, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Belstead, L. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Bessborough, E. Jessel, L.
Blatch, B. Kitchener, E.
Blyth, L. Long, V.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. McAlpine of West Green, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Brookes, L. Macleod of Borve, B.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Macpherson of Drumochter, L.
Broxbourne, L.
Bruce-Gardyne, L. Mancroft, L.
Butterworth, L. Marley, L.
Caithness, E. Marshall of Leeds, L.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Merrivale, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Mersey, V.
Cayzer, L. Moran, L.
Colnbrook, L. Mottistone, L.
Colwyn, L. Mountgarret, V.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Munster, E.
Cornwallis, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Cowley, E. Nelson, E.
Cox, B. Norfolk, D.
Craigavon, V. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Onslow, E.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Orkney, E.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Or-Ewing, L.
Dundee, E. Oxfuird, V.
Eccles, V. Pender, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Pennock, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Penrhyn, L.
Elton, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Erroll of Hale, L. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Ferrers, E.
Ferrier, L. Portland, D.
Foley, L. Pym, L.
Fortescue, E. Renton, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Rochdale, V.
Gainford, L. St. Davids, V.
Gardner of Parkes, B. St. John of Fawsley, L.
Grantchester, L. Seebohm, L.
Gridley, L. Selkirk, E.
Halsbury, E. Skelmersdale, L.
Somers, L. Trumpington, B.
Stanley of Alderley, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Strathspey, L. Westbury, L.
Terrington, L. Whitelaw, V.
Teviot, L. Windlesham, L.
Thomas of Gwydir, L. Wolfson, L.
Thomas of Swynnerton, L. Young, B.
Trafford, L. Young of Graffham, L

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

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