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Earl Russell: I ask the Minister to withdraw the suggestion that this amendment does anything whatever to encourage those who deliberately refuse to pay their maintenance. An attachment of earnings order from a magistrates' court is not a negligible instrument to secure payment. The Minister's objection to it is that it would produce a delay of 39 days. I believe that 39 days to check whether you have got it right in a matter that is so important to the lives of all the parties concerned is not a negligible expenditure of time. It was extremely unjust and inaccurate of the Minister to make that suggestion. I repeat to him my invitation that he should withdraw it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am sure that the noble Earl has no intention of encouraging anyone to delay making their proper payments. I was simply pointing out that there are such organisations. I have the newsletter of one of them in front of me; it is called NACSA. Reading through its pages one sees that the organisation is encouraging absent parents to use any possible means at their disposal, including trying to bring the whole workings of the agency to a halt, to prevent them having to pay their assessment.

Earl Russell: If the Minister wishes, as I do, to discourage that method of responding to political discontent he needs to provide an alternative outlet for that discontent. He needs to persuade people that it is possible to change things by legitimate political channels. That calls for rather more flexibility on his part than he has yet shown.

It is both inaccurate and unnecessary to attempt to count the amendments moved by any Member of the Committee to see which favour one sex and which favour the other. In any event, the Minister has done so before we have reached the benefit penalty, on which I shall have a good deal to say. Therefore, he has a grossly distorted figure. In relation to these issues, to be on the side of one sex or the other regardless of the facts of the case is a cheap and footling way of going about it. Both sexes are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

Justice is proverbially blind. Until we started debating this Bill I had not realised how important that symbolism is. Justice is not interested in which sex you are; it is interested in the facts of the case. I know that the Minister's formula has become a fetish to the Government but the point about a formula is that it gets away from the facts. The Minister has deliberately invited me to seek the opinion of the Committee. I am capable of resisting temptation but I hope that before we return to many issues of this kind on Report there will have been a certain amount of thought on the other side of the Committee.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 68 not moved.]

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4.45 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale moved Amendment No. 69:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Enforcement of liability orders by distress

. Section 35 of the 1991 Act shall be omitted.").

The noble and learned Lord said: The amendment seeks to leave out Section 35 of the 1991 Act, which gives power to the appropriate official to levy distress on non-payment of a liability order. I have a letter from the Minister, for which I am grateful, but I am afraid that it arrived only yesterday even though I raised the matter on Second Reading and in debates on the 1991 Act. I confess that I did not altogether understand the letter but that may be because I have no recent experience on this technical branch of the law; the law of distress.

Distress is an extraordinary remedy. It goes back to a primitive state of jurisprudence; namely, the state of self-help. Members of the Committee will know that the most striking feature of that time was the vendetta—the blood feud—in which revenge was taken for an injury. The very first steps on control of the self-help was limitation on the number of persons who could seek revenge and on the relationship to the offender of those on whom vengeance might be taken. That is the state of the law from which distress originates.

In other words, it is a remedy of self-help. The creditor could help himself to the repayment of a debt without any judicial process. He did that by seizing the goods of the debtor and holding them until the debt was paid and, if necessary, selling them and recouping himself for the debt.

Obviously, that remedy of self-help, of distress, required to be as anxiously guarded against for its abuse as the vendetta and the blood feud. Both common law and statute intervened to limit the way in which distress might be levied in order to ensure that it should not be abused. As I understand the noble Lord's letter—and I confess that I have not had time to study it properly—he is saying that Section 35 does not provide any extraordinary remedy; that it merely provides the same sort of right of distress that is now available to any citizen who alleges that he is owed money. If I have that wrong, the noble Lord must correct me.

If that is so, I fail entirely to see why the section is necessary at all. Why cannot the matter be left to the ordinary law of debtor and creditor? Bearing in mind the extraordinary powers which have been asserted and claimed and, indeed, vindicated recently in the Division Lobby without a hint of any concession at all, I view the distress provisions with very great suspicion.

If they do anything more than that which is available to the ordinary citizen who is a creditor, they give exceptional powers to officials. As I asked before: what are a Conservative Government doing to put forward such claims? What is the Conservative Party doing to support such a Bill? I beg to move.

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Lord Houghton of Sowerby: I support the amendment. Distraint is the ultimate degradation of the citizen. The right to invade his house without his sanction should surely be reserved only for the police with a warrant in search of a fugitive from justice.

Section 35 is an indication of the depths to which the Thatcher administration would sink in the pursuit of a vendetta against a section of the community which the Prime Minister felt was getting away with something. "Make the blighters pay", said she. "Go and do it". This Bill was the outcome.

Although distraint nominally remains in the hands of the taxation authorities, it is extremely rarely necessary to use it these days. We are dealing not with fugitives from justice but with citizens who are in a different relationship to their obligations from others. It is not a criminal matter and should not be accompanied by the extreme power to enter and remove goods and sell them in order to recover the debt. That is the rock bottom of the evils of the Bill which contains so many injustices to a section of the community.

I cannot contain my indignation about the spirit of hostility behind this Bill against people who are believed to be so much in default of their obligations that they have to be treated as though they are thieves and vagabonds, and are subject to every possible device to track them down and bring them to face their charges of neglect.

Therefore, I support the amendment. I must express my regret that the debates at the Committee stage of the Bill have not shown the strength of the Labour Party on issues which affect personal liberty and the freedom of the citizen that I hoped they would show. Populist tactics are all right as far as they go but when you lie low on an issue of profound political and ethical importance, you should be prepared to stand and deliver. I am very sad indeed about that. But I shall not rest on this, as on some other matters, because if there is any point at all in being in Parliament, it is to protect incursions into the rights of citizens which are so easily taken away in panic and fear and in sheer cussedness sometimes because you want to get your own back on somebody who is, in your opinion, not performing properly his citizen's duties.

I do not know what my noble friend thinks about the amendment. It may be that there is something in the letter which he has only just received and which I have not been privileged to see. I have a whole bundle of letters which I have received in the last several days from various sources. I wish that I had received them a week ago. There is a letter in my file which is addressed, "My dear Jack". I assume that that is one of the letters to which the noble and learned Lord referred, but I do not believe that it is the letter relating to this amendment. "My dear Jack, what are you going to do?" I am prepared to support the amendment if the opinion of the Committee is sought.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The amendment removes totally the provisions relating to the levying of distress. It would undermine the ability of the Child Support Agency to obtain payment of maintenance on behalf of the parent with care and children in those cases where the absent parent does not co-operate in meeting his responsibilities.

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I repeat again that the agency makes every effort to reach an agreement with the absent parent about the repayment of arrears. There are a number of safeguards in place that limit the amount of arrears payable, the amount that the agency will seek to collect, and the maximum amount of current maintenance and arrears repayments in cases where he makes prompt arrangements to meet his liabilities. I should re-emphasise that enforcement action is considered only in those cases where the absent parent persistenty seeks to avoid his liabilities.

I accept that it is unpleasant for an absent parent to have bailiffs turn up at his house. But we must remember that the absent parent can avoid the need for this by co-operating with the agency. It is—dare I say to the Committee?—up to him.

With regard to the procedures, I should have thought that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, would be at least partially satisfied by the fact that the agency has to go to a magistrates' court in England and Wales and to a sheriff court in Scotland in order to obtain a liability order before the final steps are taken.

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