Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords]

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Clause 92

Departmental information requests
Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 151, in clause 92, page 59, line 22, at end insert—
‘(da) the driving licence number and vehicle registration of the debtor;’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 152, in clause 92, page 59,line 28, at end insert—
‘(ca) the driving licence number and vehicle registration of the debtor;’.
Mr. Bellingham: We have referred briefly to these amendments. In fact, the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central alluded to them, although she was out of order in doing so, and we have discussed clause 92 stand part.
The amendments are very simple. If clauses 91 and 92 are to stand part of the Bill, and if clause 92(3) sets out the sort of harmless, straightforward information that could be made available, putting the driving licence number and vehicle registration of a debtor on that list would add to the information that is easy to access, and it would be perfectly acceptable for that information to be made available to the court incertain circumstances. My suggestion would assist the Government, and I hope that they examine it carefully.
Jenny Willott: Will the Minister give us some information about the circumstances under which she believes it would be of benefit to the courts to have information about an individual’s driving licence number?
Vera Baird: It is not my amendment, and I have no reason to think why I might want something thatthe hon. Gentleman offers. However, we do not need the amendment because we can already access the information through an electronic link to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. I therefore invite him to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister elaborate further? She says that there is an electronic link, but between what? Is it between the DVLA and the Courts Service, so that if courts want to get the information they can do so readily? Can they get it without the permission of the individual in question?
Vera Baird: Yes, that is correct. The county courts and the High Court have access to the information through an electronic link with the DVLA.
Mr. Bellingham: I am most grateful to the Minister for that explanation. On that basis, she has satisfied me and explained that the amendments are unnecessary. We want to keep the Bill as tight and as focused as possible, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 92 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 93 to 100 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 4

Assessing household income
‘(1) The debtor must, at the prescribed times, provide the proper county court with household particulars of—
(a) earnings,
(b) income,
(c) assets,
(d) outgoings, and
(e) liabilities.
(2) For the purposes of this section, “household” is to be considered as the aggregate income for a family or couple co-habiting.
(3) In this section “prescribed” means prescribed by regulations made by the Lord Chancellor.’.—[Mr. Bellingham.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause is simple and straightforward, but significant because we want to define household income in relation to attachment of earnings orders to make it absolutely clear that the key relevant figure to be considered by the court is net household income.It is important to consider liabilities and define household income.
When an attachment of earnings order is made, there should be a clear definition of the earnings that are to be attached so that, if there are extra overheads or other liabilities, they can be taken into account. I imagine that a court would normally do that, and of course it will use common sense and judgment to consider the income, overheads and commitments of a family. They may have young children, an elderly, ill relative or other commitments, or mortgages might suddenly go up or the household runs into major problems over managing its income and making it go as far as possible.
We all come across such examples in our constituencies, not least as a consequence of actions—even rightful actions—by the Child Support Agency. People come to our constituency surgeries and talk about the problems that they face as a result of attachment of earnings orders, and they often argue convincingly that some of the liabilities and outgoings in their household are not catered for or taken care of. Most of the time, the courts will get that right. They will consider the overall picture and make a decision that is fair and balanced.
Obviously, courts have guidance on deciding on the attachment of earnings order, but what other guidance is there? Will there be any guidance in the regulations? Would it not make sense for a new clause specifically to lay down what can be considered? Is there not merit in having a clause to assess household income and make the rights of a debtor absolutely clear? Above all, it should be made clear that the debtor must make the information available, but at the same time the court must listen to what the debtor is saying so that we end up with a completely balanced, fair picture of the situation.
In the spirit of what I have said, I hope that the Minister will consider the new clause carefully, constructively and favourably.
Vera Baird: I am not entirely sure which clause the new clause is intended to support. It may relate to an assessment that is required at any time—
Mr. Bellingham: Yes, indeed.
Vera Baird: It certainly does not seem to attach to one particular part of the Bill, although the hon. Gentleman has mostly talked about attachment of earnings orders, so that is perhaps what he is primarily concerned about.
Similar amendments were tabled in Grand Committee in the Lords by the hon. Gentleman’s noble Friend Lord Kingsland. We understood then that the amendments had come from a lobby group that was worried about the rise in creditors and thought that indebtedness should be assessed at household level rather than that of the debtor. If that is the hon. Gentleman’s purpose, we are deeply opposed to it. It should be the debtor and the debtor’s income only that are taken into account.
Let me make a slightly more technical point. The way in which deductions are calculated for all varieties of attachment of earnings order are in the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971. The new clause, standing free in the Bill, would not interface with that Act. Attachment of earnings orders are used by lots of Departments and many branches of the judicial system, and not only by those with which we are dealing. We run the risk of a fundamental change to the law having an effect on those areas outside this Department’s remit.
The proposal would replace the existing attachment of earnings order system with fixed tables. The court would not determine the debtor’s means exactly, as such, and it would be the debtor’s earnings from which the deductions were made by the employer. There are obvious practical reasons why that would be difficult to change, but there are legal principles, too. When an attachment of earnings order or any form of execution are concerned, we should consider the debtor’s income, because it is their debt. That seems central to us; it should not relate to other income in the household. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman appreciated that that would follow, because what is being spoken of is household income.
The problem is that if I, as a mother, had a debt and my grown-up sons lived with me, they would have to submit to an assessment under the provision to see whether it would be appropriate for their income to be lent to me to get rid of my debt. What should be considered is what I am earning and at what rate I can pay off the debts. That is the mischief of the new clause, and I hope that I have made that clear. A new means form will be developed for the attachment of earnings procedures, which will cover lots of information. I imagine that it will cover all the information that anybody would wish it to. The court will carry out a thorough investigation before it makes any orders at all.
1.45 pm
I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman that the proposal is mischievous rather than helpful, and that there are satisfactory provisions in place that will be superseded by a thorough means form. It will ensure that appropriate generosity is given to poor debtors and that appropriate, fair enforcement is provided for creditors.
Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation. The new clause was not meant to be mischievous. I slightly resent the word “mischief” being brought into the discussion; far be it from me ever to try to create mischief. The new clause was designed to give the Minister the opportunity to explain more fully to the Committee exactly how household income will be assessed. On the basis of her explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 7

Requirement for permission of court before enforcement
‘The Civil Procedure Rules must provide that no order for possession, whether made in the County Court or the High Court or in any other court of civil jurisdiction, shall be capable of being enforced without the appropriate court first granting permission to issue a warrant of possession to a party whohas applied, on notice to the occupying party, for such permission.’.—[Simon Hughes.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Simon Hughes: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the new clause. It was tabled specifically followingan approach by Vivien Gambling, the chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, a well-regarded organisation of which the Minister will know. I shall describe the new clause as the association does, as the proposition comes via us from the association.
The new clause is concerned with the manner in which orders for possession of land are enforced. The current law allows a lender or landlord to enforce an order for eviction in the county court by completing an administrative form in the court office. That might result in the enforcement of the order without notice to the occupier, and without lender or landlord having to give evidence of any breach. The risk of injustice to the occupier is obvious. In the High Court the party seeking a possession order has to apply for permission on notice for a warrant to issue.
The new clause would align the procedures across all civil courts, so the risk of injustice would not arise. A short supplementary note was prepared by Nowsheen Bhatti, the association’s parliamentary officer, which it will be helpful to put on the record as it completes the argument:
“The vast majority of possession orders are made against tenants of social landlords (councils and housing associations) and home-owners (mortgage borrowers). The bulk of those are orders ‘suspended’ or ‘postponed’ on terms which provide that the order shall not be enforceable so long as the occupier complies with certain conditions (e.g. to pay the mortgage instalments or the rent or to comply with other tenancy conditions). A lender or landlord wishing to enforce an unconditional order or a ‘suspended’ or ‘postponed’ order (e.g. in the belief that the terms have not been complied with) may obtain a bailiffs warrant for eviction in the County Court by the simple completion of an administrative form...In the High Court, the practice currently reflected in the Rules of the Supreme Court RSC Ord 45 r3)...The need for such amendment was well demonstrated by the case of a council tenant who was evicted while going in and out of hospitals for treatment {Leicester CC v Aldwinkle [1992] 24HLR 49). In that case, the Court of Appeal said that the injustice would not have arisen had the practice of the County Court been the same as that of the High Court. This amendment is long overdue.”
From my constituency experience, I can say that that is a common state of affairs. It might be slightly different in other constituencies; I think that I still represent a larger proportion of council tenants than any of my colleagues in England. Such situations arise often with council property and, as the notes said, they arise with similar frequency with social housing, housing association and housing trust property. They also arise in the context of people who are paying off a mortgage. People regularly get into trouble. Cases regularly end up going to court and the court, in the first place, normally makes a suspended possession order and lays down the conditions. If we believe—as we do, and the law has obviously established the principle—that nobody can be deprived of their occupancy without a court making that decision, it seems absolutely vital in the interests of justice that, if someone is on notice that they might lose their possession and matters then develop, there should at least be an opportunity for a hearing before a judge who can weigh the balance of the argument.
The case cited—the Leicester city council case—was a case where somebody was in hospital. There may be many circumstances where entirely unforeseen and unpredictable events arise: somebody may have a heart attack or a stroke, suffer bereavement, have a terrible accident, become mentally ill, be coping with the severe illness or death of a relative, and so on. Therefore, it is not sufficient that a piece of paperwork turns the threat over someone’s head into the reality of people coming to throw them out. I hope that this measure is something that the Minister can be sympathetic to and I commend the new clause to the Minister and hon. Members in all parts of the Committee.
Vera Baird: The new clause is not related to any provision in the Bill; it is an attempt to compel the Civil Procedure Rules Committee to amend the rules about enforcement of possession orders. I heard what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said about justice, but this procedure has been found to be entirely compatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 by the Court of Appeal. Consequently, there is no clash with justice implicit in the procedure.
Additionally, we have a Civil Procedure Rules Committee to which the hon. Gentleman’s constituent can rightly direct submissions for changes to the civil procedure rules through the hon. Gentleman, by writing in any way and at any time that she wishes. Perhaps she has already done so. The Committee will take her comments into account. There is absolutely no doubt that it considers carefully all the procedural rules that are required and amends them as and where necessary.
Parliament has given the responsibility for changing the civil procedure rules to that Committee; thereis no justification, in this instance, for removing that responsibility. There is a parliamentary procedure for objecting to rule changes by the Committee, and the Government are content with that position.
Simon Hughes: That is a less sympathetic response than I would have hoped for. The Minister is right and, of course, there is a Civil Rules Procedure Committee and a Courts Rules Committee. However, we are just about to deal with the rules of the county court. The Bill is amending the way in which our courts act. We have just dealt with a part headed “Enforcement of judgments and orders”. The new clause is entirely in line with those issues: it concerns enforcement of judgments. Elsewhere, the Bill deals with both the legislation and regulation of courts. The Minister and her colleagues have spatchcocked into the Bill a measure that we will come to later, related to works of art, which appears to be entirely unrelated to anything else in the Bill. It is certainly far less connected with these matters than the new clause.
The Government are used to accommodating something that is appropriately linked to a Bill. I ask the Minister to think again about the new clause. If I may say so, her reaction was an instinctive procedural reaction as to why another route is better. Here is a legislative opportunity to do something that we could do easily. I am not aware that there has been any great objection anywhere in the profession or, indeed, in the judiciary, to the measure. It seems to be an opportunity for a Labour Government to implement a bit of social justice. The Minister keeps telling us how committed she is to social justice. I hope that this is an opportunity for her to confirm her commitment to that ideal and to say that this measure is a way of ensuring that we have fewer people out on the streets as a result of some failure of the system than we would otherwise have. I hope that she might reconsider.
Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree, I am afraid. This has absolutely nothing to do with social justice, but with us in Government not wanting to order the High Court judge who runs the civil procedure rules committee to get his act together and do a summersault just to please the hon. Gentleman. He can write to the High Court judge, using all his measureless rhetorical power, to try and persuade the judge to change the rule. That is the right procedure and the one that we will stick with.
Simon Hughes: I am always willing to take suggestions. However, I am always willing to tryand persuade Governments to act. Sometimes one succeeds; sometimes one does not. I will reflect on whether or not to come back to this during the Bill, and the Minister might reflect on that too. I may see if I can get some support from the judiciary between now and Report. In the mean time, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause , by leave, withdrawn.
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