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Clause 87

Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 22nd March 2007.

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Attachment of earnings orders: finding the debtor’s current employer

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

We now move to part 4, which is about the enforcement of judgments and orders. I have a couple of points about the importance of this part of the Bill and of getting it right. I seek the Minister’s help in setting the issues out, and I think that this is the right clause to do that.

If the Bill goes forward, procedures can be applied to ensure that all the information that is needed in the courts is in the same place. My question is about all court proceedings and comes from my experience in the courts in my previous life and as a constituency MP dealing with such issues. Like all hon. Members, I deal with matters relating to tax, tax credits, benefits, the Child Support Agency and payment orders after a divorce or marital breakdown.

My general objective is that we should give the courts the ability to obtain from all those who are properly authorised and from the appropriate departments the information that they need to make appropriate orders. My concern is greatest historically, and I have two circumstances in mind. First, in criminal matters, people who have come before the court will put to it a statement of their position when it decides what penalty, fine or other punishment to impose. My experience until recently has been that the court often does not have any information other than that given by the defendant or the person representing them.

In a way, the more worrying sorts of case are those in which somebody is trying to escape a civil liability, often to a member of their family or someone to whom they have a personal obligation. It is normally a man trying to reduce his proper liability toward his wife or   partner or, quite often, his responsibility for his child. However, the third sort is a case in which someone is clearly trying to give the run-around to someone to whom they owe money by pretending that they do not have it.

In terms of attachment of earnings orders, the Bill contains a welcome proposal to give the court powers to find a debtor’s current employer—to track them down by their employer, if they are employed. My understanding is that two major Government bodies, a Department and an agency, will now be the normal source of information. The Department for Work and Pensions should have social security records and all the other information. The agency is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which should have information about people’s incomes and how much tax they are paying. Those are the two major places to look for such information.

I do not yet know, and I have not been able to check in the time available, whether each will have the power to exchange information without authority. I am always careful about not giving Departments power to swap information around. That would have to be authorised. I am quite keen to know whether, for example, if a request were made to the Department for Work and Pensions under the measures to provide information to the court, it would have the right to check things with HMRC or vice versa.

Other people also have information that is relevant if a matter is before the court. The local authority will know, for example, in whose name the council tax for a property is paid and who is registered as the owner of the property. There might be other information. My question is a request at the beginning of this short debate for the Minister’s help. I have read the explanatory notes, the Library notes and the Bill, and I am keen for the court to have the maximum availability of information.

I have two last points, one of which is procedural. A lot of court time is wasted when matters come before the courts, the information is not there and the courts must order that it be provided or sought. Is the Minister satisfied that the Bill will avoid court appearances wherever possible—in other words, that it will ensure that as much work as possible is done on paper without people having to appear? That would save huge amounts of time and effort. In particular, if there is difficulty tracking down someone who is reluctant to appear in court—they may not want to own up to their obligations and not be willing to pay the money that they owe—getting them to court once might be difficult, but getting them there a second or a third time might be just as difficult, if not more so. It seems to me from my experience that the court system, whether civil or criminal, could save a lot of money if we minimise the time for which we expect people to appear in court to deal with such matters.

How can people on whose behalf information is given to the court challenge it if there is a dispute? We all encounter such cases. I am dealing with a tax credit case at the moment involving a serious dispute about liability. It all has to do with what box was ticked on the form and so on. It is a proper dispute, an MP has become involved and it is therefore being taken seriously by HMRC. If the information comes before the court, as it should in the name of maximum information to minimise problems, and it is alleged to   be untrue—that may happen if somebody owns a property but has sold it, or owns a property of which somebody else is the tenant—how will we ensure that the court can obtain that information? I ask out of concern from my own experience. Can the Minister help? This is an opportunity to get those things right, and to have the most effective and streamlined system, while ensuring that it is compatible with people’scivil liberties and rightful protection of personal information.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs 10:00 am, 22nd March 2007

We are talking in this clause only about attachment of earnings orders, and the point of it is pretty clear, of course: it applies where somebody’s earnings are attached under an AEO and they change their job, but do not tell the court the new employer’s details. I am not quite sure what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey was referring to when he talked about tenancies or people having moved out of their addresses. The provision is about attaching earnings and facilitating the court in tracing somebody who has moved jobs and who does not want to let the court know that they have done so.

My understanding is that the DWP and HMRC share the same database, so it is the same issue. The clause will enable HMRC to provide to the courts, for the purpose of redirecting the AEO, information that it has on file about the employment of the judgment debtor. It enables an AEO to be reactivated if the situation lasts. It is likely that the judgment creditor will be the person who knows that the money has stopped, so they will need to come and tell the court in order to initiate the procedure. That probably requires them to fill in another form or make another application, but it seems hard to get around that requirement, since they will be the person who knows.

Apparently, there will be an ability to seek a hearing with a judge if either party is unhappy with the way in which things proceed. That is what one would normally expect, but it is hard to envisage the sort of mistake that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey described. All the provision is about is whether somebody has moved to a job wherever else; if that is confirmed, the court will contact the employer and transfer the AEO. If it is not confirmed, the information could be incorrect; the person may have moved on again, even before HMRC has had time to pin him down. That is really all that this issue is about.

Of course, there is a very great need—the hon. Gentleman asked how much information we should make readily available in these circumstances—to ensure that the Human Rights Act 1998 is complied with, and to ensure a proportionate balance between the privacy of the individual and the rights of the judgment creditor. Of course, article 8 of the European convention on human rights is a conditional one and in this case is rightly in balance because the rights of the judgment creditor are put high up. However, that is all the information that is required in order to make the power work. I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman that his fairly wide-ranging concerns are without foundation and that this is a pretty straightforward measure.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I was trying to make points about this and the subsequent clauses rather than make such points on each one. I am grateful to the Minister, and I  share her view that we have to balance people’s human rights. I have said explicitly that we should not have greater access to information than we need.

Will the Minister deal with one other matter that I raised? Is she satisfied that in this clause and the others in this part of the Bill, we are avoiding people having to come to court other than in the most exceptional circumstances? Has this part of the Bill been proofread to avoid any unnecessary or excessive court appearances, so that we keep down the risk? I am not objecting at all to people filling in the form; I would rather it was done in that way to minimise time and expense.

I have one last small point. Proposed new section 15A to the Attachment of Earnings Act 1971 refers to “the commissioners”. I presume that they are commissioners of Inland Revenue, whom I think we are abolishing elsewhere in the legislation on tribunals. Can I have an assurance that we have done the cross-referencing across the whole Bill, so that if we are ending up with a new structure, we are not left with anomalous terminology?

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs

Yes, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman about that point, but I do not think that it presents a problem. What is happening is that the Bill is correctly reciting earlier legislation; the commissioners have been included in order to amend it. Any subsequent changes introduced when the Bill is enacted, however, will knock on to those provisions and change the terminology if it is no longer appropriate. I think that that is the right sequence.

Essentially, this is about a form-filling exercise. I imagine that people will be able to get the form online; lots of forms are available online now. I cannot exclude the possibility that someone who is not connected to the internet will have to go to the court or a citizens advice bureau to get one, but a court hearing is not necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 87 ordered to stand part of the Bill.