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Column 1186only property consists of small household goods of minimal value. Under the threat of the use of warrant sales such debtors are induced to make a promise of payment instalments which they are unable to maintain because the level of each instalment is unreasonably high. Alongside that there is the sheer humiliation to which the families are subjected. There are psychological effects, especially on the children, and poinding draws attention to the indebtedness of the family. The neighbours and everybody else knows. That is humiliating and children have to go to the local school to face the reality of what has been done to their families. On pure grounds of principle, we should remove from the Scottish legal system this humiliating and barbaric blackmail which affects the poorest and weakest sections of our society.
I shall now deal with the element of inefficiency in warrant sales. The Scottish Office research paper on the characteristics of warrant sales is a fairly elderly document. It goes back to 1980 and took some 10 years of research. It emphasises the need for further work in this sphere and clearly shows that the sales in themselves were inefficient. The document showed that only 3 per cent. of warrant sales recouped the total debt, and that in 97 per cent. of cases the debtor continued to owe money. Virtually the same was true in commercial sales where only 16 per cent. of the total debt was recouped through warrant sales, with 84 per cent. still ending up owing substantial amounts. Therefore, warrant sales are inefficient as well as being unprincipled.
My proposals to abolish warrant sales are made against the background of the implementation of the poll tax in Scotland. All right hon. and hon. Members know that that tax is abhorred by the Scots, who delivered a clear verdict on it in the 1987 general election, when no fewer than 11 Conservative Members lost their seats and a good few others held on only by the skin of their teeth. There are more than 500,000 non-payers of poll tax in Scotland. Some of them are making a political point, but others have no alternative, because they are too poor to pay. The Government speak of uprated social security benefits to take account of the 20 per cent. contribution that many poll tax payers must make. The reality is rather different. This morning, I spoke to a gentleman who lives in a hostel in the central belt of Scotland. He pointed out that his income support has not increased by 20 per cent. to meet his poll tax liability. I remind the Minister that when social security benefits were uprated nationally last year, no particular allowance was made for Scottish claimants who have to meet the additional burden of poll tax.
Although 500,000 people in Scotland are not paying poll tax, a parliamentary answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) reveals that at 1 January, 193 sheriff officers had been appointed to collect debts in Scotland. I have a vision of those 193 sheriff officers in wheelchairs 30 years from now, still trying to collect poll tax debts incurred in the year 1989-90.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Does the hon. Lady agree that poll tax is no longer just a Scottish problem, and that England now faces exactly the same situation that exists in Scotland? I hope that the English will take the same stand on the poll tax that the Scottish people have taken.
Column 1187Mrs. Ewing : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) for his remarks. I can tell him that it was with a mixture of wry amusement and deep-seated anger that I and other right hon. and hon. Members opposed to the poll tax have witnessed the squirming of Conservative Members on suddenly realising the implications of the poll tax for their constituents when, prior to the 1987 general election, those same Conservative Members were happy to go straight through the Lobby to force the people of Scotland to be the guinea pigs for poll tax legislation.
The poll tax is unworkable, costly, and an administrative nightmare. Many are committed to stopping it by sheer determination and will power. Those hon. Members who support my Bill are showing the same determination and will power, because they, too, are determined to stop the poll tax.
The poll tax is only one element in the argument against warrant sales. I remind the House of my belief that warrant sales are barbaric and a relic of the Victorian era which should have no place in the late 20th century. Whatever may happen today because of time restrictions, we shall not give up the battle. Our arguments are based on humanitarian concerns for those in our society who most need our protection. We will be back.
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) : I am pleased to support the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), and I was pleased and privileged to accept her invitation to become the co-sponsor of a Bill to abolish what she has rightly described as a barbaric and medieval practice.
I should begin by declaring an interest. Last year I was threatened by sheriff officers with a warrant sale, because I had refused to pay a fine for not registering for the poll tax. I was not the only person in the central region of Scotland who received such a threat--there were more than 200 of us--but there was such a storm of protest throughout the area that the authorities were forced to withdraw the threat and none of the sales took place.
Mr. Canavan : Not yet--and I have not paid a penny in poll tax either. I do not intend to pay either the £50 fine or a penny of poll tax. I will gladly pay arrears to the local authority for services rendered as soon as any Minister can tell the House that the poll tax is to be abolished, but I am certainly not participating in the payment of an evil tax which has been imposed on the people of Scotland against their will.
Mr. Sillars : The Government have not yet caught up with the limited number of people who did not register and were fined £50 but now they have threatened to go for the rest of us, including the hon. Member, for non-payment of the tax. If they have not yet caught up with the first category, there can be no chance of their catching up with the 1 million people who I believe have not paid the tax. The sheriff officers are so few in number that it would probably take 80 years to get around to every person who has not paid the poll tax.
Column 1188are fewer than 200 of them throughout Scotland and some 1 million people are in serious arrears with poll tax payments--including at least half a million such as myself who have not paid a penny. Some of us have not paid as a political protest against an unjust tax foisted upon us by a Government with no democratic mandate from the people of Scotland. As the hon. Member for Moray said in moving Second Reading, however, we are standing shoulder to shoulder with many people who have no choice in the matter because they simply cannot afford to pay. It is important that such people should not be isolated. That is why I have taken such a stand, and why I am not the only hon. Member to do so.
During the 1970s and 1980s I campaigned strenuously for the abolition of warrant sales--long before I was threatened with one myself--because it is humiliating and degrading for many people, particularly those on low incomes, to live in fear of a knock on the door by the sheriff officer. Throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s there was the potential ignominy of a sale taking place at a person's home or out on the front green--a public humiliation which was at least as great a punishment as the selling off of the goods. I should pay tribute to people such as the late Jimmy Dempsey, formerly the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie, who campaigned strenuously and vociferously from the Labour Benches to get warrant sales abolished. Unfortunately, those in power at the time did not listen to him and all we got was a slight amendment to the legislation to extend the number of exempted items.
In many cases, the warrant sale is not even an efficient method of enforcement. It is an expensive way of collecting what in most cases are relatively small debts. It costs quite a lot to obtain a warrant and it takes the time of the sheriff officer who has to visit the houses and carry out poindings of the goods in question. Then there are all the legal costs, and so on. Constituents of mine have complained to me that the expenses accumulated during the process have exceeded the initial sum due. On the basis of that argument, it is not even in the interests of the creditor to pursue a debt by means of a warrant sale.
No doubt the Minister will have done his homework and will tell us that warrant sales take place infrequently. That may well change with the advent of poll tax. In any case, it is not the execution of a warrant sale alone that the victim finds distressing--it is the whole process leading up to it. Even if the person manages to borrow the money from a neighbour or relative and the sale is called off at the last minute, he will nevertheless have been through a traumatic experience, being pressured, initimidated and harassed by the so-called forces of law and order. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind in relation to the frequency of warrant sales. The frequency of threatened warrant sales will almost certainly increase in the months ahead if non-payment of poll tax continues at the present level. Pickets and direct action to stop warrant sales taking place have already been threatened and if I find out about a proposed warrant sale in my constituency, I shall certainly not stand idly by and allow the sheriff officers to start badgering and bullying my constituents and selling off their goods just to try to collect this evil tax. If enough people stand firm, we can show the Government not only that the poll tax is an unjust and unwanted tax but that the system is absolutely unworkable.
Column 1189I appeal to the Minister to do the decent thing, which should have been done years ago, and abolish warrant sales completely so that the people of Scotland will never again be threatened in this way. These days the Government seem regularly to combine various pieces of legislation in one Bill because they cannot raise a team of Scottish Tory Members to man a Committee. If my hon. Friend is unsuccessful today, Government action will be required. If my hon. Friend's private Bill does not get a Second Reading today the Government could solve the problem by introducing a nice simple two-clause Bill which would probably require just one day in a Standing Committee. Clause 1 would abolish warrant sales and clause 2 would abolish the poll tax. 1.53 pm
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : To take up the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), I assure him that if the Bill does not make progress today the Opposition intend to introduce a new clause into the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill which is being considered in the other place.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) on introducing the Bill and on the manner in which she presented it. I associate myself with my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West in remembering Jimmy Dempsey who, when I was reporting these matters, rather than participating in these debates, had the longest and most honourable record of concentrating attention on warrant sales. That tradition has been followed by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West. His record of drawing attention to the matter, long before the poll tax impinged on it, is extremely good.
I pay tribute to the print unions in Scotland. Few tributes are paid to them in this place. Those who have done most to undermine the evil process of diligence are not the Members of Parliament, journalists or other commentators who have deplored it over the years ; those who have come closest to bringing the system to its knees are the print workers who have blacked the poisonous advertisements that have been an integral part of the warrant sales process.
I am proud of the fact that the newspaper that I published, a small one, was the first in Scotland to ban the appearance of warrant sales advertisements. However, the people who, in a big way, prevented them from appearing in mass circulation newspapers were the print workers. I salute them for having done so.
We in Scotland take pride in the distinctive qualities of the Scottish legal system. It has many strengths. However, we should acknowledge unanimously that the warrant sale is a peculiarly Scottish evil. It is a dreadful system. It has no redeeming feature. It is not efficient ; it does not even lead to the collection of significant amounts of debt. However, it was never meant to collect debt. The system is based exclusively on the use of threat and fear.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : The hon. Gentleman is speaking from the Opposition Front Bench. Will he condemn the refusal by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) to pay the community charge? Does not he agree with the leader of his party that people should pay the community charge? Furthermore, will he explain how he would enforce the iniquitous roof tax?
Mr. Wilson : I have no wish to emulate the hon. Gentleman as a hand- wringing humbug. I have no intention of condemning individuals for the stances that they take on grounds of personal conscience. I have made it clear on many occasions that both I and the Labour party strongly disagree with non-payment. I shall develop that point in my own way. However, for me as an individual to condemn one of my hon. Friends is not a course that I am prepared to take, just to satisfy the hon. Gentleman, with whom I agree about virtually nothing. The warrant sale process is based on the use of threat and fear. The warrant is issued because someone has fallen into debt. That is not exclusive to the poll tax. It can be used by private companies--and frequently is--and by public bodies, such as electricity boards. Most people would respond when they were served with the warrant. They would pay up, if they had the money. The great majority of people do. However, the process grinds on for those who do not. The sheriff's officer becomes involved, at which point the expenses begin to accumulate. When the sheriff's officer arrives at the door and goes through the corrupt procedure--that is a well-chosen word--of poinding, everybody who is in a position to pay does so.
The sheriff's officers--and we will not say who they are in cahoots with-- place a ludicrously low value on household goods. People may have taken a lifetime to collect their household furnishings and they must watch those people, who do one of the dirtiest jobs in Scottish society, place false valuations on their goods.
I will leave the poll tax out of my considerations for the moment because it introduces other arguments. However, at the stage that I have just described, when the sheriff's officers make ludicrously low valuations on household goods, everyone who can pay the debt will do so rather than have their goods sold at such prices. We might expect the process to end there and perhaps for 95 per cent. of people, it does.
However, the logic of the warrant sales system is that it cannot end there. The system is based on fear and, to encourage others, there must be a few victims or examples for whom the procedure goes its full course.
It is at that point that a warrant sale is advertised and that is where the poison occurs-- [Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker, is it possible for the Whip's debate with the Clerk to end?
Mr. Wilson : As I was saying, it is at that point that those poisonous little advertisements appear in the press in the full knowledge that the great majority of those sales will not take place. However, the advertisement is the instrument of fear and it is still used in some communities. Advertising and parading the debt and difficulty of poor people for public entertainment is the real lever of fear which causes people to meet the debt if they can. Once people hear that the advertisement is to appear, they somehow scrape up the money to pay off enough of the debt to fend off the appearance of the advert.
At that stage there are handfuls of people who still cannot meet their debt. They clearly cannot meet their debt and their goods have been poinded for a ludicrously false amount. They face the prospect of seeing their goods sold. At that stage, some of the sales occur because the evil
Column 1191logic of the system is that if sales never take place, the process of fear that conditions every stage of the procedure might be diminished. Therefore, sales have to take place.
Mr. Heffer : It is horrible having to listen to what is happening in Scotland. However, is my hon. Friend aware that a similar procedure affects poor people in England? If people cannot meet their debts there is a pernicious system under which the bailiffs are sent in and they do much the same thing as the sheriff officers in Scotland. They take the furniture and other goods to pay off the debt. Such a system is evil whether it exists in Scotland, England or Wales. It hits ordinary working people and that is absolutely disgraceful.
Mr. Wilson : I agree with my hon. Friend. If there must be debt collection procedures, they should be based on arresting wages or capital, related to people's ability to pay over a long period. The Minister must understand that if the debt collection procedure were efficient, there might be something to be said for it even from a commercial point of view. However, by definition, the procedure is not efficient. It is based exclusively on the use of fear against the people who are least able to meet their debts. At the end of the day, the warrant sales do not sell off tapestries and precious belongings, they sell off the pathetic belongings of the poorest people in our communities who, even under the threat of poinding and the sale being advertised and carried out, have not been able to meet their debts. It is an inhumane system that is almost beyond belief.
Mr. Sillars : I agree with the general tone of the hon. Gentleman's speech, but is he aware that, in the past few seconds, he was in danger of endorsing what happens in England as though it applies to Scotland? Because of the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987, people cannot have their furniture, bed, bedding, cooking implements, cutlery and so on lifted. It would be a great tragedy if we transmit a false message to people in Scotland that those necessities could be lifted. The position is much narrower than it was, but the important point is the humiliation of the invasion of people's privacy.
Mr. Wilson : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Because of the efforts of people to whom I referred who have campaigned over many years, essential items cannot be poinded and subjected to warrant sales. In Scotland and England the law defines possessions as essential and non-essential. The "non-essential" may be much closer to the hearts of the people involved. In an average household, the one family heirloom might be deemed to be non- essential and the gas cooker might be deemed to be essential. I would not urge anyone to become involved in the process of diligence because they can retain essential items. There is intrusion, fear and horror, but, at the end of the day, next to nothing is collected. It is not a process of debt collection ; it is a process of intimidation.
I hate every aspect of the poll tax. It is an evil imposition. It is hated by people in Scotland. It has been the key to the downfall of the Conservative party in Scotland, and it will continue to be. The most amusing days I have seen were when the headless chickens on the Government side of the House came home to roost when
Column 1192they heard what the poll tax figures will be in their own areas. I have no doubt about the political impact of the poll tax in Scotland.
I disagree with some hon. Members--it is an honourable disagreement--that a Member of Parliament on £25,000 a year who refuses to pay his or her poll tax and encourages others who are in much poorer circumstances to do likewise, is doing any favour to the poorer people whom he or she so urges. I do not revel in the prospect of 1 million or 500,000 people not paying anything towards the poll tax. In terms of local government services, it means either the disappearance of home help services, social work services and so on or that many poor people, who would not countenance the idea of debt, will have to pay more. I do not endorse that strategy. It is a waste of time. I do not endorse it because, as a political weapon against the Government--my political enemies--it is useless. It is preposterous to suggest that the Prime Minister will be brought to her knees because local authorities will be deprived of 10 per cent. of their revenue. For the past 10 years, her policies have been geared to depriving them of their revenue.
I deplore the fact that local authorities, which have a legal obligation to collect their revenue and cannot make grand pronouncements about which parts of the law they will adopt for debt collection, have become the enemies and the targets of people who are running campaigns not to get rid of warrant sales or to attack the Government but to attack local authorities. I want nothing to do with that. Warrant sales are evil and they should be abolished. Eventually they will be abolished, but the Government should not try to pin them on local authorities. Local authorities are as much the enemies and victims of warrant sales as anyone else.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : I have listened with great interest to what has been said and wish to make it absolutely clear that when the law on warrant sales was reformed not a single Opposition Member voted against the Bill--
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) rose --
Mr. Canavan rose--
Mr. Sillars rose --
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : If Opposition Members felt so passionately about this, it would have been perfectly legitimate for them to table an amendment at some stage of the Bill's passage and to have forced a vote on it, but they neglected to do so. I wish to stress the improvements that were made in that legislation.
Mr. Canavan : Of course, no hon. Member would vote against the Second Reading of a Bill that would improve things. Although the provisions fell short of the complete abolition of warrant sales, they extended the number of exempt articles to bedding and heating implements. It is untrue to say that efforts were not made in Committee to achieve the outright abolition of warrant sales. Although I was not a member of the Standing Committee, I know that Labour Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. McKelvey), were instrumental in tabling an amendment in Committee to abolish warrant sales completely.
Column 1193Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : There was no vote on the Floor of the House on the abolition of warrant sales. The hon. Gentleman missed that opportunity.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing rose --
Mr. Sillars : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to accuse Opposition Members by saying that they did not try to abolish warrant sales at an appropriate legislative point in the Bill's passage when, as has been pointed out, the Minister is inaccurate? Is it within your power in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, to ask the Minister to have the grace to apologise?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton rose --
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order. Perhaps I may respond to that point of order. It is not within the power of the Chair to do what the hon. Gentleman has asked. It is a matter for debate, and the hon. Gentleman has made his point.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I shall check the record of the Committee proceedings with care, but no Opposition Member forced that matter to a vote on the Floor of the House and if Opposition Members had felt passionately about the issue that is the least that could have been expected of them.
As the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North has said, substantial improvements were introduced in that legislation, although they are not widely known in Scotland.
First, it is not the case that all the debtors' movable goods are at risk from poinding and sale. The list of household goods exempt from poinding and sale was considerably extended to include, for instance, children's toys, medical equipment, tools of trade, books or other equipment, curtains and floor coverings, and other items that are reasonably required for the use of the debtor or any member of his household. Similarly, articles that are reasonably required for the care or upbringing of children who are members of the debtors' household are now excluded. Those improvements were introduced to avoid undue harshness.
Secondly, sales normally will take place not in the debtor's home but in the auction room, unless the debtor and any other occupier of the house gives his or her written consent for the sale to take place in the dwelling house.
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) rose --
Mrs. Margaret Ewing rose --
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : No, I have a lot of points to answer and want to go through all the improvements so that they are known. As I have said, in the absence of consent, sales will take place away from the debtor's house.
Thirdly, any advertisement of the sale will not reveal who the debtor is, so there will be anonymity, which is an important point that was stressed by the Law Commission. The debtor has new opportunities to apply to the court to have his goods released or to have the sale called off on the ground, for example, that it would be unduly harsh for the sale to go ahead. In addition, the duration of the poinding
Column 1194was extended from six months to one year, increasing the opportunity for the debtor to come to arrangements with his creditor, and to settle his outstanding debt by instalments. It also acts as an incentive to creditors to settle the debt and to hold off instructing the sales until absolutely necessary. It should decrease the possibility of a sale taking place and increase the possibility of the debt being paid.
Mr. Fyfe : Is the Minister saying that he approves of sheriff officers taking away a family's television set, which would not be considered an essential item, but which is often the only source of entertainment for many families because they do not have the fares or the money to go elsewhere for entertainment? Does the Minister approve of taking away a family heirloom, such as a grandmother's wedding ring, or a teenager's second-hand guitar?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The Law Commission looked into the matter with specific care when it considered which items should be exempted. One of its conclusions was that if warrant sales were abolished the alternatives--for example, sequestration--might be very much worse.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I shall answer the question first. Warrant sales are the last-resort method of enforcing a debt and are seen as such by creditors. The alternatives, such as sequestration could be much more harsh. The commission considered that it would be nonsensical to regard sequestration as an alternative because it would extend to all the debtor's properties, possibly including his or her home.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North stated that Scotland was alone in having such a system.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North suggested that Scotland was unique. That is far from the case. The Scottish Law Commission examined the system in all other countries and found that they had similar procedures. The Law Commission made it clear that such procedures exist in England and Wales.
The Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 added to the protection for the debtor from a warrant sale in certain circumstances, including, first, undue harshness, secondly, undervaluation of poindered goods and, thirdly, that the expenses of the sale were unlikely to exceed the proceeds of the sale. The debtor has 14 days in which to examine his right to object.
Mr. Salmond : As he is the responsible Minister, the Minister should give us an answer to a specific question. Has he considered the proceedings in Fife region over the past few weeks? It has been admitted by Fife region that poindings have been carried out under illegal procedures by the sheriff officers A. A. Hutton. When those poindings were challenged in the sheriff court this week, they were discharged. The poindings were carried out under illegal documentation and other factors were wrong. They were no better than licensed burglary. Fife region says that there have been 300 poindings in Fife since 1987 when the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 came into force. Will the
Column 1195Minister investigate those 300 poindings over the past three years? The chances are that each one was illegal and was carried out under the wrong documentation.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : It goes without saying that the correct procedures must be followed. In 1988 there were 14,759 poindings but only 714 warrant sales. Poindings are carried out not only for non- payment of the community charge but for debts to a whole range of creditors, many of whom are not wealthy.
I find it hard to have sympathy with those who deliberately refuse to pay their community charge when they can afford to do so. Regrettably, the sponsors of the Bill fall into that category.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : No. I wish to make this point. I have no doubt about the sincerity of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) in her dislike of the community charge, but we must never forget that the non- payment campaign supported by the Scottish National party Members of Parliament and the sponsors of the Bill may result in their having a free ride at the expense of the rest of the community. I regret that some of the non-payers are Members of Parliament, not only because hon. Members should set an example but because they are relatively well-off members of the community. They earn well in excess of £20,000 a year, paid for by the taxpayers.
Mrs. Fyfe : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to mislead the House by saying that people who have not paid their community charge or poll tax will have a free ride when he must know that there are provisions for people who have refused to pay to be charged an extra 10 per cent. plus costs? Can he possibly defend--
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The hon. Lady touches on a matter with which the Bill deals. If people were to follow the bad example of defying the law which requires them to pay taxes, they might have to face a surcharge. That matter was referred to in The Scotsman yesterday by a Labour spokesman from Easterhouse. It reported : "An Easterhouse councillor, Alexander Viola, said many non-payers were telling him that they had been misled by campaigners. Harry Revie, another Labour member, said We have to face facts that we are up against a sinister campaign and we must draw the teeth of these people. We must point out that there has been a positive response to the first warrants.' "
There is no doubt that warrants are effective.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing rose --
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : No, I shall not give way. It is monstrously unfair for Members of Parliament to refuse to pay. By their actions they are effectively putting an extra burden on less-well-off people in their constituencies. In those circumstances, it is right that local
Column 1196authorities should have the power to enforce payment against privileged members of the community such as the hon. Lady.
Although the Minister wants to resort to political attacks, his colleagues have pointed out that the level of non-payment is no different from the level of non-payment of the rates. Were people misled about the rates as well?
Will he now apply himself to the issue that the Bill attempts to address, how we recoup debt from people in a sensible and civilised fashion? When the Scottish Law Commission looked at this issue it recognised that warrant sales were used only to compel people to reach agreement on instalments. It suggested that there should be a court enforcement office to consider the possibility of doing things in a more civilised fashion. Why do the Government continue to turn their back on bringing forward something for debt collection that is much more relevant and humane?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Responsibility for debt collection lies with local authorities and it must be up to them to decide on the most appropriate method to choose. In the vast majority of cases that will no doubt take the form of the arrestment of earnings or bank accounts. The hon. Lady is suggesting that warrants should be removed as the final sanction. The hon. Lady also asked about the position of non-payers, but I must remind her that under the rating system a remarkable number of people did not pay rates.
Mr. Wilson : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This debate is about the law of diligence and warrant sales and the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) has done well to introduce it. We are not here to listen to a political tirade about the poll tax.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : It is grossly irresponsible for any Member of Parliament to support non-payment of our country's taxes. Non- payment leads to three possible results. The first is that services could suffer if enough people followed the example set by certain hon. Members. The second is that there might be redundancies as a result, which would also be undesirable, and the third is that those hon. Members' constituents would have to pay more because they, as privileged Members of Parliament, were refusing to pay. If enough people followed their example, the rest of their constituents would have to pay more. Those hon. Members are setting an extremely bad example and by their encouragement of non-payment they are rendering a disservice to their constituents.
Column 1197three-year period, is it in order for the Minister to ignore completely that point in his reply? As the responsible Minister, is it in order for him to be unaware that poindings have been carried out, first and foremost, in the Fife and Grampian--
"Councillor Simpson failed to get a seconder when he attempted to move at today's Finance Committee that the rules for warrant sales either be clarified or changed to give clearer notice to the public that poindings were about to take place."
He did not have a seconder because everyone knew that the procedures had been greatly improved in that Act.
The hon. Gentleman raised the valid point that procedures are lengthy. Of course they are, because their purpose is to ensure that the debtor has the opportunity to pay. First, authorities issue a soft reminder when people fall in arrears by two months. When people fall in arrears by three such instalments, the authority can issue a seven-day letter requiring people to pay the arrears in seven days or lose the right to pay by instalments. If no payment is made, people receive a 14-day letter advising them that as they failed to respond to the seven-day letter they are liable for the full annual amount which must be paid in 14 days. It is only following a failure to respond to that letter that the authority applies to the court for a summary warrant. Even at that stage, a warrant sale is a long way off. There is a range of technical procedures to be gone through, and it is open to an authority to enter a phased payment agreement with the debtor.
Experience shows that a large number of people who enter into a payment arrangement with the authority pay and the warrants are highly successful in ensuring that that happens. As Mr. Revie said in The Scotsman, there has been a positive response to the first warrants issued.
Mr. Sillars rose --