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30 Oct 2002 : Column 958continued
Mr. Djanogly : In his interesting speech, my right hon. Friend mentioned the cultural differences between America and the United Kingdom on the question of bankruptcy, an issue that was discussed at some length during deliberations on the Bill. One implication of the personal insolvency provision is that the insolvency period will be cut from three years to a maximum of 12 months, which has caused great concern to many of my hon. Friends and practitioners in the insolvency world. People are saying that we may move towards an American systemif you cannot pay your bills, why not just go bust and do the same thing afterwards? It would be interesting to hear my right hon. Friend's comments.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important matter, which I intended to deal with later in my remarks, but I shall do so now. Of course the time scale is relevant, in both a general sense and a specific sense. The word Xformer" is important. We could get into some difficultyI refer to my hon. Friend's remarks about time scalesabout the exact point at which the spouse becomes Xformer." My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire may be able to help us.
When we get into the territory of nisis and absolutes, it is possible that considerable confusion could arise from the amendment as regards the exact impact of the timing of the divorce and the point at which it takes effect within the time scale that is envisaged. In one sense, it does not matter whether we are speaking of one year or three, but in another sense it does. If we are talking about longer time scales, the impact of the divorce and the legal impact of nisis and absolutes must be taken into account.
Mr. Knight: My interest is rather in the scope of the Lords amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) touched on the widening provision of amendment No. 167. The question that the House must ask, and which I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will address, is whether the widening goes far enough or too far. The problem that we have had for too long under English law is the stigma associated with bankruptcy, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon properly said, does not apply in America.
Mr. Forth: I have probed gently so far; wait till I really get going. The difficulty that we are getting into, which I hope the Under-Secretary will deal with in detail and at some length, is the subtle interplay between the mechanisms of the divorce in the case of the former spouse referred to in the amendment, and the bankruptcy proceedings.
Mr. McWalter: Will the right hon. Gentleman note that the reference is to a dwelling house, which must be comprised in the bankrupt's estate? We are discussing one way in which people can be protected from the seizure of their home. That is all.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for seeking to simplify matters for me. I am a simple man, as he knows. I can see that he is trying to come down to my level, to help me to understand the provisions, but I am still struggling with the interplay, which I am sure exists, between the estate, the period of bankruptcy and the legal moment of bankruptcy. We are attempting to relate that to another variable, the concept of the former spouse. I am sure that even the hon. Gentleman would agree that there are circumstances in which those factors could come into conflict. The legalities involved in the bankruptcy process, the estate and the process of divorce could come into conflict. That might not make the provision unworkablethat would be going too farbut could complicate it.
In my view, as the original wording was straightforward and easily understandable, it was also easily implementable. My fear about the amendment is that it would introduce considerable additional complications. I therefore wonder whether their lordships gave sufficient thought to it. After all, we are here to ask such questions. Indeed, they demonstrate the great value of the two-Chamber parliamentary system. Their lordships, to whom we defer in so many ways, have, in their wisdom, proposed the amendment. Our humble role as laymenI exclude my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire, who is an expertis to cast our eye over each provision and say, XHold on a minute: is this too clever, does it go too far and would it work in practice?" In this case, we must consider whether the provision would simply beif my right hon. Friend will forgive mea lawyers' charter.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is of course right. Will he not concede, however, that when we are trying to deal with one hard case, we often introduce at least as many difficulties, problems or even harder cases?
Mr. Knight: My concerns are different from those of my right hon. Friend. He seems to be anxious that the amendment is too loosely drafted and could encourage too many claimants. My concern is that, if there is any criticism to be made, it is that the amendment is too tightly drawn. What about the dependent relative of the bankrupt? The amendment contains no provision in that regard.
Mr. Forth: May I suggest that the society might like to send a card to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in order to bring you round? A CD might help as well, perhaps including XMemories are Made of This" or something similar. I shall not pursue the matter any further.
I recognise that my right hon. Friend is trying to be helpful, but we need to focus and should not be drawn into seeking ways of over-complicating a matter that is already somewhat over-complicated. I am beginning to wonder whether the amendment is entirely appropriate. It strikes me that, even though it is a well-meaning attempttheir lordships could not have a motive that was anything other than well meaningto solve one set of problems, we might be in danger of creating even more.
Mr. Forth: I do not know whether that is a problem with the provision that we are considering. It would be if we incorporated the suggestions that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire made a moment ago. However, I suspect that the wording is sufficiently tight to obviate the problem because we are considering Xthe spouse" or Xformer spouse".
There is a problem with the former spouse; the serial ex presents a difficulty. However, the problem of definition is not that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) because a spouse is a spouse is a spouse.
I hope that we shall not unearth another problem; that would be too much. However, would a marriage conducted in another legal jurisdiction cause difficulties in the definition of Xspouse"? I am happy to say that I was married in New Mexico, and it was a wonderful experience. I do not know whether there would be any difficulty in recognising the marriage in our United Kingdom jurisdiction. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire can help me.