asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many debtors were committed to prison by county courts for commercial debts in 1953, and in 1963; what was the estimated cost last year of maintaining in prison such debtors; and whether, in view of the growth of professional debt purchasing companies and the increase in the granting of credit, he will, in the interests of taxpayers, review the workings of Section 5 of the Debtors Act, 1869, and Section 144(1) of the County Courts Act, 1959, which give powers of imprisonment for debt, with a view to amending them.
928 persons committed by county courts were received into prison in 1953 and 7,047 in 1963. On the basis that prison costs worked out at about £500 a year for each inmate, the estimated annual cost of maintaining the daily average of 200 persons so imprisoned in 1963 was about £100,000, but the saving, had they not been sent to prison, would of course have been much less. The matter raised in the last part of the Question is one for my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor.
Will my hon. Friend agree that these mounting figures are most dis- maying? Is she aware that there is a growing body of opinion which holds the view that it is wrong that the community should be subsidising the folly of those who may recklessly and of their own free will give credit? In particular, is she aware that there is a growing number of debt-collecting companies which are buying debts cheaply, trading on small commissions, and harassing people who are suffering from misfortune or their own fecklessness, and that people are beginning to believe that it is no part of the duty of the community to imprison people of this kind?
I have a good deal of sympathy for my hon. Friend's point of view, particularly in view of our overcrowded prisons at present, but I must emphasise that the reform of the civil law is a matter for the Lord Chancellor. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will keep in touch with the Lord Chancellor to see if anything can be done.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that this may not be entirely a matter for the Lord Chancellor and may be a matter for the Administration as a whole? Does she not agree that imprisonment for debt in this part of the twentieth century is a massive anachronism that we ought to get rid of, and that the legal fiction whereby it is supposed that people are not in prison for debt but for some alleged contempt of court is itself contemptible and we ought to get rid of it?