Orders of the Day — Maintenance Orders (Enforcement)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th March 1949.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. R. J. Taylor.]

12.30 a.m.

Photo of Mrs Lucy Middleton Mrs Lucy Middleton , Plymouth, Sutton

I apologise for keeping the House at a late hour, for the second night in succession, and I should not have done so tonight were it not for the fact that I plead in the interests of a large number of women who suffer under great handicap. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the enforcement of court maintenance orders. I recently had on the Order Paper a Question to the Home Secretary

asking whether he could provide information of the number of cases where arrears of maintenance orders had gone on for three months. As my right hon. Friend said that the information was not available, I have endeavoured to make some rough calculations of my own.

I have obtained figures of cases more than two months in arrear from two typical cities—the first my own city of Plymouth, and the other Leeds. The clerk to the justices in Plymouth notifies me that, on Saturday last, there were 176 such orders more than two months in arrear; that is, one for every 1,126 of the population of Plymouth. In Leeds, I understand that on the same day the num- ber of orders in arrear for two months or more was 871, or one to every 554 of the population. Perhaps the reason the incidence in Leeds is nearly double that in Plymouth is that, first, Plymouth is smaller and the population is better known to one another and, secondly, that many Plymouth men, it being a town closely conected with the Forces and particularly the Royal Navy, if there is a maintenance order against them, have the amount deducted from their pay at source. But—and I hesitate to say it in your presence, Mr. Deputy-Speaker—it may be that Plymouth is more law-abiding.

The average for the two cities is that there is one person unable to get the money due to her in every 660 people of the population and, if these two cities can be regarded as typical of the whole country, they would indicate that there must be in this country, more than 70,000 women who have obtained maintenance orders and who, on Saturday last, had been without income from that source for two months or more. I am not putting these figures forward as firm statistics, but as a yardstick by which we can to some extent measure the size of the problem with which I am endeavouring to deal tonight.

The figures which I have given, whether in their specific relation to the two cities concerned or in their general application to the country as a whole, take no account of the cases where summonses cannot be served because the husband has disappeared and cannot be traced. One thing which I ask is that Government Departments should give more help in tracing their husbands to women who have been deserted. This might be done through the system of national registration, through the system of National Insurance, or through the records at employment exchanges. I think we have the machinery by which this help could be given, and I plead that the help be given to these unfortunate women to the fullest extent.

I have never taken the view that where a marriage breaks down, the husband is always and inevitably in the wrong. Nor, as a very happily married woman myself, have I assumed, as some women seem to assume, that the failure is due to some fault on the part of the wife. I think it probably works out at about fifty-fifty, with incompatibility of temperament playing some part between otherwise very estimable people. But I would remind the House that when a marriage breaks down the woman inexorably bears the greater part of the suffering. In the majority of cases she has already sacrificed her career for marriage, and she often finds it impossible to return to her trade or profession. Very often she has dependent children in her care, so that it would be impossible for her to return to her trade or profession even if that course, were open to her. She also has no claim, in such circumstances, even to the savings which she might have made in her housekeeping during the period of her marriage.

Some of the saddest cases that have come to my notice are those of women in the fifties or sixties who have had what seems to have been a reasonably happy married life and then, as they have got on in years, have found themselves deserted, shall I say, for a bit of fluff and glamour? There are women who find their children's education interfered with; and this may be the case even when a maintenance order is being observed. I had one such case sent to me from the city of Leeds, and I should like to give the House a few particulars about it. The woman had a child of sixteen years of age who was very clever at school. He had won a scholarship. The wife asked that maintenance should continue for the child, so as to enable the child to go forward with his education, but the magistrate ruled that the child was old enough to work and should do so.

Then there are grown-up children who are being expected to help to maintain the mother who has been deserted. I have before me another case, which this time comes from Rochdale. A woman who was nearly 60, with a husband who was earning £8 a week and who had been ordered to pay her only 8s. a week, had married children, and the magistrate ruled that the married children should provide support for her. That is the kind of case of which I have had innumerable instances since I first became interested in this subject. The only remedy open to the wife—and it is not redress at all, I suggest—is, finally, a prosecution. If the prosecution results in a sentence of imprisonment, that sentence wipes out all the arrears of maintenance, and consequently the woman is no better off as a result. This is, I suggest, no help to the woman at all.

I have one very pathetic case set out in a letter written by a woman at Stockton-on-Tees who has four children, 6, 9, 11 and 13 years of age, under her care. Her husband has served one term of imprisonment in Winson Green—which, I believe, is at Birmingham—and at the present time is £195 in arrears with the sums that he has been ordered by the court to pay. What happens to such a woman when the man does not meet his obligations? I find that it is usually one of three things. Either the woman becomes a burden on her parents—and I have had letters from parents telling me of the hardship imposed on them because their daughter has been deserted—or she becomes a burden on her grown-up children—I have already quoted one instance of that sort and could quote many more—or more often she becomes a burden upon the State. I ask the House and my hon. Friend who is to reply why the general body of taxpayers who, if they are married, are meeting their marital obligations, should bear also the financial responsibilities of those men who have deserted their wives and are quite often living in comparative luxury?

I am told that in Scotland the position is that finally a maintenance order can be made a charge on the husband's wages. That is also done in Canada and France. It may be that that will finally be the only remedy that can be found in this country for this very difficult problem. But my purpose in raising this matter here tonight, is to ask my hon. Friend and the Government Department in which he serves to give all the help possible to women who are in this desperate position, and for the Departments of State that can make a contribution towards the tracing of husbands or providing information as to their whereabouts, to do so. In short, I ask that everything possible should be done to ease the very arduous burden and the very great suffering which some 70,000 women in our country are bearing at the present time.

12.43 a.m.

Photo of Major Lyall Wilkes Major Lyall Wilkes , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

It is quite obvious and is widely recognised, that great hardship is caused to thousands of families by reason of certain gaps which would appear still to exist in the enforcement of maintenance orders. I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to say why a husband who has a maintenance order made against him should not be required to give to the court by which the maintenance order is made his change of address, so that the court shall at least have some means of tracing him. Great hardship is caused by men leaving the district in which the court from which the order was issued is situated. For example, if a man goes from London to Newcastle, there is no obligation on his part to keep the court informed. There are many thousands of men who are deliberately evading their domestic responsibilites by roaming round the country. If some instruction or advice were given that men ought to keep the court concerned informed of their whereabouts, it might provide some answer to the problem. This is a practical suggestion which does not require any legislation, and I hope my hon. Friend will consider it carefully and try to give an affirmative answer.

12.45 a.m.

Photo of Mr Denis Pritt Mr Denis Pritt , Hammersmith North

I reinforce what has been said by the two hon. Members who have spoken. As I understand the position at present, unless a warrant has been issued there is no obligation on the police or on anyone else to find a man, and the wife has to find him by private enterprise, so to speak. When a warrant has been issued, it is the duty of the police to trace the man. I think I am right in saying that in 100 per cent. of the cases which have come to my notice, the police have not succeeded in fulfilling the duty, which gives a suspicion that they are a little lukewarm about it.

12.46 a.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Younger Mr Kenneth Younger , Grimsby

My hon. Friend the Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Mrs. Middleton) made, I think, an unanswerable case from the point of view of the hardship which is known to result from maintenance orders which cannot be enforced. I do not think anyone disputes the fact that there are a large number of orders which are not enforced and which it is very difficult for the women themselves to do anything about. In a large number of cases serious hardship results. I have no overall figures to give the House about the numbers of persons involved, but my hon. Friend gave local samples and I have no reason to dispute either those samples or to counter any suggestion that they may, on the whole, be typical of the general figures for the country. The questions that arise are, first, what is being done about that matter, and secondly, what more can be done. We are in a rather difficult position on many aspects of the second question because the majority of steps that can be taken, at any rate in theory, to increase the number of orders enforced would require legislation and would therefore be out of Order in this Debate.

I will deal with the first question—what are we doing? That principally involves inquiries by the police. The police do a very great deal in this matter. They give very considerable assistance to people in tracing missing husbands where there has been a warrant. I should make it plain that it would be impossible for the police to accept this as an obligation of the same kind as other obligations to trace criminals. In practice, that would not, I think, be a thing that they could possibly undertake, and I am not authorised to say that my right hon. Friend would indicate to the police that they should make inquiries on that scale or in that manner. If one takes a thing like the circulation of descriptions of missing criminals or wanted men in the Police Gazette, and so on, I do not think that that procedure can reasonably be applied to this form of case.

It is increasingly difficult for my right hon. Friend at the present moment to suggest that any very substantial addition in respect of this matter should be put on the police. They have their primary duties of detecting, repressing and preventing crime, and generally keeping law and order. What they do in fact do—and I think they do it with considerable skill—is to assist the woman whose husband has moved from the address he originally was at, and where the woman can suggest where he might be, they do check up, even in distant parts of the country. They have inquiries made and that does lead to a considerable train of inquiries. They go to one address and find he has gone; they manage to get an indication of where he might have gone, and they chase him on again. But it is rather a different matter when there is no clue whatever. Where that happens with a criminal very considerable efforts indeed are very often required in order to trace him, and I do not think we could undertake inquiries on that scale.

The question was raised of facilities being given by other Departments. That is a thing upon which it is rather difficult for me to say anything precise. As regards, for instance, the Registrar-General, it is, I think, within the memory of those who were here before the war when the National Registration Act was passed, that the House was somewhat anxious about the different uses to which the information supplied under that Act might be put, and it was made an offence to reveal any information obtained under that Act except for certain purposes. It was undoubtedly the intention of the House that information should not be revealed from that source unless it was for the purpose of criminal proceedings, or for matters of similar importance.

This is not a question which is at all within the control of my right hon. Friend, but I think it would be recognised—and this is true of other Departments as well—that the Departments do receive the information which comes into their hands for a quite specific purpose concerning those Departments, and this House, in many Bills which have been before it where provision has been made for the obtaining of information, has always insisted that the information should be used only for that purpose and not others. An outstanding example is the question of Income Tax and taxation generally, and information obtained for that purpose. That is a matter which has to be approached with a great deal of caution. However, with all these difficulties I think it right to emphasise that there is a great deal done.

The hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt) suggested that in his experience the assistance sought was almost always unsuccessful. In those cases, perhaps, help has been enlisted where there is really no clue, and short of circulation of information in the Police Gazette it would be extremely difficult to trace them. This may account for a large proportion of the cases in the hon. and learned Gentleman's experience. From my information, however, the general record of success of the police is nothing like as poor as that, and they do a great deal.

There is not much more that I can say to deal with the points made by the hon. Lady without going into the sphere of legislation. Such matters as deductions from wages, I am told, is entirely ruled out by certain Statutes, and it could be done only if there were legislation to make it possible. I think it is also true that the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Central Newcastle-upon-Tyne (Mr. Wilkes) would require legislation. Even apart from that difficulty, I doubt how far it would be effective because, in the case we are talking about, the man is already under an obligation as a result of court proceedings, and the trouble is that he has ignored that obligation and has vanished. If, in fact, he is found he can be brought back and in the last resort the penalty of the courts is very much the same as it would be if we imposed upon him new obligations of this kind. Presumably the sort of man who evades this particular court order would also evade any other obligation about changing his address, and he would not thereby incur any additional penalty, other than those to which he is liable at present.

Photo of Major Lyall Wilkes Major Lyall Wilkes , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

In the vast majority of cases the obligation is not to the court but merely to the wife. If the court had power to make another obligation, to record the man's address, it might be more of a deterrent.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Younger Mr Kenneth Younger , Grimsby

That is possible; it might be so, but it is a matter for argument. In any event, it would require legislation, and therefore I do not think I can go further into the point tonight. I can assure hon. Members that if my right hon. Friend thought there was anything further that he could do at the present time without legislation and without putting an altogether intolerable and disproportionate burden on the police, he would certainly do so. He would certainly wish the police to be as helpful as they could, consistent with their other duties, and I may say that, from what I have heard, they are helpful.

I am sorry not to be able to give any more comfort to my hon. Friend because we realise that this is a real problem. Perhaps the final comment I might make is that this is not the only type of court order which it is very difficult to enforce and which also causes extreme hardship. I think that if we contemplated any substantial change in the methods of enforcement for this particular type of order, we should find it very hard to distinguish, in principle, from the many others, and therefore we should find ourselves greatly increasing the complication of the machinery and the burden upon the public service.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes to One o'Clock.