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30 Oct 2002 : Column 961—continued

Mr. Redwood: I cannot help with that point, but I am worried about an ambiguity on which my right hon. Friend may like to comment. It appears that we have to choose between Xthe bankrupt's spouse" and Xa former spouse". That could be invidious, but whether paragraphs (a) and (b) or (a) and (c) of Lords amendment No. 167 can apply simultaneously is left ambiguous because Xand" or Xor" are not included after paragraph (a). Is the amendment therefore defective?

Mr. Forth: I believe that I can help my right hon. Friend. The potential conflict between paragraphs (b) and (c) or the existing spouse and the former spouse is obviated by the word Xor" in paragraph (b). However, that introduces another problem. I presume that there is an order of priority, and one spouse must pre-empt the other. The existing spouse will probably take precedence over the former, or any number of former spouses, but perhaps the Minister will explain whether she is satisfied that the amendment is sufficiently clear and therefore immune from challenge.

Mr. Knight: I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive me, but I believe that, uncharacteristically, he is making heavy weather of the matter. I appreciate that his friends will not recognise that description of his contribution, but he is labouring the issue. We are considering the provision that applies when

If we are dealing with a former spouse of several years, surely the court, in the divorce proceedings, will have settled the property on the former spouse. It is therefore no longer in the amendment's ambit.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for helping us. I was about to consider the definition of the

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estate and whether there was potential difficulty in the probate stage that existed at the time of the bankruptcy. There are potential problems throughout the process in the time scales for various legal matters. Anyone who has experienced probate, divorce or any combination of those understands that they are inevitably lengthy and complex matters that must interplay in the circumstances that we are discussing. Even something as apparently simple as the concept of the bankrupt's estate must be open to doubt, because it would depend on any number of interrelationships, perhaps involving the bankrupt being the potential beneficiary of probate, on the one hand, or the other way round, if I can put it that way.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Can the right hon. Gentleman satisfy my curiosity by telling me whether he has resigned from the Front Bench as shadow Leader of the House? If he has not, is his sitting on the Back Benches a new feature—and why not? It could all be part of modernisation—in which he doubles up, appearing on the Front Bench as a senior Member one day, and on the Back Benches the next? The other rumour is that all this is simply a ruse to keep the House going until 10 o'clock.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically unfair.

Mr. Knight: Characteristically.

Mr. Forth: Well, I am going to be fair to the hon. Gentleman and I would not accuse him of being anything other than fair and a man of great integrity. It saddens me, therefore, that he seems to suggest that my motive is anything other than to seek the truth—after all, that is why we are all here—and examine the legislation, which I thought was also our job. As for his questioning my role, the modern Conservative party is flexible and progressive, and it allows a number of different roles to be played by right hon. and hon. Members.

I have taken an interest in this matter, and the view that I took, having listened to the Minister's brief introduction to the amendment, was that it was perhaps slightly inadequate. So I am simply playing my role as a seeker of truth and a legislator, and I shall give way to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), who, I suspect, comes into the same category.

Mr. McWalter : In my desire to get this matter curtailed, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to bear it in mind that, if someone had loads of houses and loads of spouses, subsection (3) would come into play? The interests would be realised, people would get a share of the action, and out of that mess everything would eventually be settled. This provision involves a right that people would have in extremis. It is not designed to be—it could not be, because of subsection (3)—a way of liquidating all one's assets to try to ensure that one's creditors could not get at them.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This amendment will henceforward be known as the Xhouses

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and spouses amendment", which will help to fix it in our memories. As for Xin extremis", I am rarely accused of being in extremis in any context.

Mr. Knight: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth: I will give way, but then I really must draw my remarks to a conclusion, because I want to give the Minister the maximum possible time. She might need all the time that is left to us to answer the questions that have been posed.

Mr. Knight: I am not sure that that last intervention was particularly helpful. What would happen in the case of a bankrupt who had three houses that formed part of his estate, if he lived in one of them, his spouse lived in another, and a former spouse lived in the third?

Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend has made a valuable contribution in pointing out the difficulties that could arise from this no doubt well-meaning amendment.

Mr. Hoban: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Forth: I will give way, but this really must be the last time.

Mr. Hoban: This has been an interesting debate on the terminology used in the amendment. The debate has confined itself to talking about legally recognised relationships. In our modern society, it is remarkable that there is no reference in the provisions to the position of cohabitees or former cohabitees. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that they, too, should be covered by the Bill?

Mr. Forth: I almost hesitate to get into that territory. My hon. Friend tempts me, but I shall resist the temptation except to say that he has illustrated that, if we look at this matter in a modern way—after all, we look at things in a modern way in the House, do we not?—it may seem to be taking an overly restrictive approach. We hear all sorts of talk these days about partners, and we ought perhaps to give some thought to whether unmarried people come into this. I have not even touched on the matter of gender, either. After all, we talk of people of this or that gender having this or that relationship. I wonder whether the amendment is sufficiently broadly drawn to satisfy those with a modern and progressive attitude on these matters, and whether the issue of gender should be dealt with in the legislation.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), because he has added yet another dimension to the considerations that are raised by the amendment, which at first blush seemed to be perfectly straightforward. It now seems that there are worrying complications, and I hope that the Minister, when she concludes this little debate, will satisfy the House that she has the answers to all these questions, so that we can decide whether to give the amendments our approval. I hope that that will be the case, and that my modest contribution has helped the House to focus on some of these questions.

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9.30 pm

Mr. Redwood: I shall not detain the House long, but I think that my right hon. Friend has put his finger on some difficult issues raised by the amendment. The context is clear. The Bill provides for a new section 283A in the Insolvency Act 1986 when the bankrupt's home ceases to form part of the estate. It says:

The aim of amendment No. 167 is to amend and broaden that proposal.

In the light of my right hon. Friend's remarks and the study that I have made of this matter as he was speaking and before, I have worries that the amendment, while generous in intention by including spouse or former spouse, leaves ambiguities and difficulties that may make the legislation even less perfect than the original version. The thrust of the amendment may be sensible, but the drafting is not as felicitous as it might be.

My first worry is that it is by no means clear whether we are talking about the principal residence of the bankrupt and the bankrupt's spouse if they happen to have different residences, or whether we have to make a choice. Secondly, the draft clause is silent on how people in positions of responsibility should determine a case if they have to choose between the residence of the bankrupt's spouse or a former spouse. My right hon. Friend has made some reflections on that, but I think that the legislation, if it is to widen the provision in that way, should give more guidance on how these invidious choices may fall to be made.

The drafting is not as inclusive or modern as some Labour Members and others may like. I have no objection to the use of the word Xspouse", but these days people often prefer the word Xpartner" because they want to cover a variety of relationships that could be important to the individual concerned. It is strange that the legislation should look backwards, especially under this Administration. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) asked whether it is right to single out a former spouse rather than some other dependent relative, because there could be more deserving cases. There could be difficult cases of people with important responsibilities who have become bankrupt. That has not been included in the amendment to this part of the revised bankruptcy legislation.

I hope that the Minister will deal with the detail when she replies to this vignette of a debate. It shows that the House has an important role to play in examining the words in detail, and that, when and if they are let loose in a court, there could be scope for intelligent, well-briefed and expensive lawyers to go round and round in the interests of the person they are defending and show that we the legislators have been sloppy or negligent by allowing these ambiguities and imprecisions to remain in the legislation.

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