The Scottish Parliament grew up on April 27 this year, when the voices of the poor, the pensioners and the low-paid penetrated this chamber's walls and convinced new Labour back benchers to rebel against a Labour Executive that was attempting to wreck this bill to abolish poindings and warrant sales in Scotland. Sadly, despite a last-minute withdrawal of the Executive wrecking amendment, every Executive member, including Angus MacKay, and all but two Liberal Democrat members abstained on the abolition of poindings and warrant sales. The Tories remained true to their tradition and voted against abolition.
The decision to support the abolition of poindings and warrant sales was a victory for the people of Scotland and for this Parliament. The question facing us today is whether that victory will be soured by MSPs ignoring the pleas of the poor and the pensioners and listening instead to the stale conservatism of the privileged and the sheriff officers.
I have received representations from an incredibly wide range of groups and individuals, pleading for this Parliament to support the implementation of the abolition of poindings and warrant sales by April 2001 at the latest. Please remember that John McAllion, Alex Neil and I, as the co-sponsors of the bill, have already compromised on the time scale for implementation. We sought immediate abolition of poindings and warrant sales. The three parliamentary committees that investigated the bill suggested a time gap between voting for abolition and implementation. The Local Government Committee, with the interests of local government at heart, suggested 1 April 2001. Amendment 2 therefore represents a reasoned compromise and the expressed will of the Local Government Committee.
I have in my possession scores of letters from organisations that represent the heart of Scotland. They all plead for Parliament to support the April 2001 implementation. They include: the Scottish Association of Law Centres; Citizens Advice Scotland; Money Advice Scotland; the Church of
Time forbids me the opportunity to quote extensively from those organisations, but I will provide a flavour of some of their comments. The Scottish Human Rights Centre said:
"We find 31 December 2002 completely unacceptable in that it would permit an inhuman and degrading practice which infringes individual rights to privacy to continue for even longer than originally anticipated when the bill was introduced. Scottish Human Rights Centre fully supports and calls for the implementation of this bill on 1 April 2001 at the latest."
The GPMU stated:
"For many years Scotland has debated the issue of warrant sales. There can be no doubt that the vast majority of Scottish society wishes its abolition. That being the case and the issue having been debated and agreed earlier this year, there can be no logical reason why its demise should go beyond April 2001."
Easterhouse citizens advice bureau stated:
"I would confirm the Management Committee's support for a 1 April 2001 implementation for the abolition of poindings and warrant sales. My Committee are becoming increasingly concerned about possible delays in the implementation of the Bill and very fearful of the effects this will have on our clients. Threats of poindings and warrant sales are continuing daily. We see clients who are already struggling to survive, trying to cope with further pressure as a result of these threats."
The Poverty Alliance stated:
"We are delighted to write in support of the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Bill being implemented by 1 April 2001. The Parliament has overwhelmingly supported the Bill and three separate parliamentary committees have investigated and two local councils have shown they can operate successfully without such a barbaric law. We feel there are no longer any obstacles to overcome."
The Salvation Army stated:
"Although our past support has been given through the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office and the Social Inclusion Network, in the light of the latest developments I want you to know that you have the full support of the Salvation Army in pressing for an implementation date of 1 April 2001. May God bless your efforts and those of the co-
The Church of Scotland church and nation committee stated:
"We are in no doubt that many will see an implementation date of 31 December 2002 as lacking the urgency which the subject demands."
West Dunbartonshire Council voted in September 1999 to ban the use of warrant sales. The leader of the council wrote:
"As at 30 November 2000, our Debt Recovery Group has secured debt repayment arrangements totalling £12.772 million. In parallel with this our Benefits Maximisation Campaign Team has awarded benefits and discounts to the value of £1.8 million. The banning of poindings and warrant sales has not had a detrimental effect upon our collection and performance. It is therefore my contention that the abolition of poindings and warrant sales can be argued from both a moral perspective and on the grounds of effectiveness. On this basis therefore, the earlier implementation date would be desirable as at present the only people profiting from warrant sales are the sheriff officers themselves."
I shall repeat to the chamber that point from the leader of the Labour West Dunbartonshire Council:
"the earlier implementation date would be desirable as at present the only people profiting from warrant sales are the sheriff officers themselves."
The Lothian Anti-Poverty Alliance said:
"We are extremely concerned that the Scottish Executive intends to delay the implementation of the abolition of poindings and warrant sales until December 2002. In that time, by our estimates an additional 90,000 people could be subjected to the shame and humiliation of a sheriff officer entering their home to poke through their family's possessions—needless to say, the vast majority of those 90,000 people will be members of low income families, benefit claimants, lone parents, low paid workers, disabled people, pensioners and carers. As evidence and moving testimony to the Social Inclusion Committee has already demonstrated, many thousands of children will see their parents humbled and reduced to tears, some contemplating suicide or forced into the grasp of loan sharks."
I urge colleagues to take these comments on board: 90,000 Scots, including people from low-income families and their children, will be exposed to the humiliation and distress of poindings and warrant sales because the Scottish Executive wants to impose an extra delay of a year and nine months before implementing the bill. Those figures are based on the reality of the 1998 statistics, which showed that 23,000 poindings were carried out that year in Scotland.
I am afraid to say that the Lothian Anti-Poverty Alliance fears that the Executive has been so lax in introducing any alternative to poindings and warrant sales because
"the replacement being contemplated is simply a reformed poindings and warrant sales system with a new name. This is not acceptable to those living in poverty. To paraphrase Shakespeare: 'Excrement by any other name would smell
The Scottish Trades Union Congress said:
"The poor cannot wait for the Parliament to ponder."
I defy anyone to deny that, as expressed through these organisations which daily represent those in poverty and those who fight against poverty, the will of the people of Scotland is that April 2001 should be the implementation date for this bill. If the Scottish Executive is genuinely willing to listen to the poor, the pensioners and the low-paid of Scotland, it will support the amendment. Of course, if it wishes instead to listen to the privileged lawyers and sheriff officers, it will give them a 21-month extension of their licence to print money through legalised terror and harassment. The only letter that I have received in support of the Executive's implementation date is from the Law Society of Scotland.
Colleagues, on 27 April, this Parliament voted decisively to abolish the inhumane and degrading practice of poindings and warrant sales. Surely to take a year between deciding and implementing abolition is more than long enough. If members support the Executive's position today, their message to the poor is that it takes two and a half years between deciding to do something and implementing it. The poor, the pensioners and the low-paid cannot wait that long. For the sake of the 90,000 people who will experience a poinding or warrant sale between April 2001 and 31 December 2002, I appeal to members to support the amendment.
I appeal to the conscience of every Labour member in particular not to subject the people of Scotland to an additional 21 months of humiliation and terror from poindings and warrant sales. Vote for this amendment today and stand proudly on the side of the pensioners, the low-paid and the poor, not on the side of the privileged minority.
I move amendment 2.
Amendment 3 has been lodged in my name and, as a co-sponsor of the bill, I indicate my support also for amendment 2. I intend to vote for both amendments.
Six months ago, the Parliament committed itself to the abolition of poindings and warrant sales as a method of debt recovery in Scotland. We did so in the face of opposition from the Executive of the day, from the legal establishment in the form of the Scottish Law Commission and the Law Society of Scotland, and from those who had a vested interest in retaining poindings and warrant sales—members of the Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers, who profit handsomely from the poor who suffer just as bitterly from poindings and warrant sales.
It is important for us to remember that, as members of the Scottish Parliament, we did not go through that process alone. If the bill had been considered exclusively by parliamentarians, as it would have been at Westminster, it would have failed at stage 1: the opposition of the Executive would have been more than sufficient to ensure that it did not progress beyond that stage. Thank God, the Scottish Parliament is not the Westminster Parliament. We are different. Our open system of committees allows the poor—those who suffer most from poindings and warrant sales—to have their say.
It was the testimony and witness of the poor what done it—to paraphrase one of the most execrable tabloids ever to appear in Scotland or Britain. It was the poor who changed minds in this Parliament, who countered the innate conservatism of the legal establishment and who left the Executive high and dry without back-bench support six months ago. It was their victory—not this Parliament's victory—and we should rejoice in that fact. I rejoice in the fact that the change that is proposed in the bill is not coming from the top of Scottish society downwards, but from the bottom upwards. That is justice. The poor demanded justice of this Parliament and we should listen to the poor.
However, now that the bill has reached stage 3, their victory suddenly does not look so great. It does not seem to be so secure, as an implementation date has been set for 31 December 2002. If that date is agreed, it will guarantee the continued existence of poindings and warrant sales for up to two years and for three Christmases.
I do not understand the logic that says that we are against a legal process in principle—because to use it is to demean, frighten, humiliate and intimidate the poor—but that we should vote to retain that same barbaric legal practice for a further two years, knowing that, in that period, up to 90,000 more poor people in Scotland are likely to be subjected to the fear and humiliation that the Parliament roundly condemns.
During the debate six months ago, no one entertained the possibility of that being allowed by this Parliament. Poindings and warrant sales were roundly condemned: they had to go. Almost all members of the Parliament were united behind that simple principle. Yet we are now talking about a stay of execution for a legal procedure that we describe as barbaric. That is simply wrong, and it is something that I cannot and will not vote for under any circumstances.
If we were only talking about a stay of execution, that would be bad enough. We could argue for minimising that stay of execution to one year instead of two, one Christmas instead of two
Movable property is just a legalistic way of describing the belongings of the poor. It does not matter how much of that property is exempted from the system of diligence: ultimately, this society and this Parliament are saying that we are prepared to take away the possessions of the poor because they find themselves in debt.
I give David McLetchie credit for at least knowing that the poor do not drive about in Jags—he will not see many poor people in his life—but his point demeans the argument. The poor have their own meagre possessions, but they will be subject to poindings and warrant sales if the Parliament does not do something about them. That is the reality that members in the chamber must take on board.
If, in pursuit of a debt, creditors seek diligence against the property of the poor, they will require to force entry into the houses of the poor, to poind whatever goods they can in the houses of the poor and, ultimately, to sell the goods of the poor to meet the debt. What is that but poindings and warrant sales, which this Parliament claims to reject in principle, by another name? Given that the delayed implementation is about leaving the Executive the room to propose such a system, I am against the delayed implementation of the bill.
When the Justice and Home Affairs Committee considered implementation at stage 2 it was unhappy with the date of 31 December 2002—a number of members indicated their unhappiness with putting off the implementation of the bill for another two years. I support the implementation date of 1 April 2001. The long list of organisations given by Tommy Sheridan also support that implementation date and should also be listened to by members. However, if there are members who cannot vote for 1 April 2001, there is a compromise—amendment 3, in my name, which proposes an implementation date of 31 December 2001. That is not the date that I want, but it is better than 31 December 2002.
I say to those members who will come after me and argue against what I and Tommy Sheridan have said that if we accept either of the proposed
Listen to the list that Tommy Sheridan gave. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that civic Scotland wants poindings and warrant sales to be abolished by 1 April 2001. Political Scotland is the barrier to the rest of Scotland seeing happen what it wants to happen. I plead with all members to look into their conscience and to think about what they are doing this afternoon. Politics is not an easy game. If people want an easy game and an easy salary, they should not come into politics because sometimes they will have to make hard and unpopular decisions that will make them a leper within their own party. Those decisions must be stood by and taken when it matters. I call on fellow members of the Labour party to look into their conscience and to vote to get rid of this barbaric and hideous form of debt recovery, which should have no place in Scotland in the 21st century.
Mr McAllion's comments revolved around the poor and the underprivileged. Conservative members have looked further than that. We recognise that there are those with possessions who would cheat on society. David McLetchie's intervention about the XJ6 was not frivolous; it addresses a real problem with the bill.
I have no idea, nor can I say how many people have had their goods sold by warrant sale. I recognise that some people have, but I also recognise that, under current rules, their number is minimal. I want an end to a situation whereby the poor and the underprivileged are treated in that way. That is the aim of all Conservative members. It does not matter whether we are talking about an XJ6 or about somebody moving capital into goods to avoid debt. I have no doubt that that has happened in the past year but, whether it has or not, if the bill were to be passed as it stands, that would be an option in future.
One of the things that we discovered when taking evidence on the bill was the enormous number of people from the Scottish establishment who made assertions much like the ones that Phil Gallie is
I will not take another intervention from Mr Quinan.
Tommy Sheridan referred to the 90,000 people who might be affected by the bill and the suffering that they are subjected to by the fact that they have the threat of poindings and warrant sales hanging over them. However, he made no reference to what might happen to those people after the bill is passed, when lenders and creditors refuse to lend them money or allow them to have goods on credit because their longer-term interests are not protected.
Evidence on the issue that Phil Gallie raises is hard to come by, which is why I quoted West Dunbartonshire Council. That council tells us that, although it has not used poindings and warrant sales for more than a year, it has improved its debt collection rates and improved the income of the low-income citizens in its area. That is proof of the fact that we do not need poindings and warrant sales.
I must raise the example of South Ayrshire Council. To improve its debt collection, it has changed the dates for payment and so has made debtors of many people who regularly pay their dues and who, every year, meet their financial commitments and pay their council tax. It has issued summary warrants to people across the board because they had not paid up to a specific calendar date—in some cases, that date is some two or three days out of phase. People have had to deal with a full year's commitment plus extra penalty payments. That is the way in which South Ayrshire Council has increased its revenue. I do not know what the situation is in West Dunbartonshire Council, but if it is the same as it is in South Ayrshire Council, it is an absolute disgrace.
I put it to Tommy Sheridan that there will be a problem for the poor and underprivileged who want to go into debt in specific circumstances to help their families. When small businesses are not willing to risk loaning such people money, I wonder what the feeling about the bill will be.
It is right that the minister takes time to find alternatives, which I expect will be found. I look to the cross-party parliamentary working group that is
I must advise Mr Gallie that the group is not a cross-party group any more. Neither the SSP nor the SNP are represented on it. [Interruption.] It is not our fault. I have made clear the reasons why, after considerable thought, I removed myself from the group. I object to the minister's response to my comment, as I thought that Tommy Sheridan and I conducted ourselves with considerable dignity when leaving the group. We did not storm out; we addressed arguments at that meeting.
That matter is between Christine Grahame and her conscience and her party and its conscience. Christine Grahame agreed to be on that group to try to find alternatives. That commitment, which was given by all the parties in the Parliament, was supposedly genuine. By walking out of the group, Tommy Sheridan and Christine Grahame walked out on that commitment. When people incur debts, we must not give them the opportunity to walk out on their commitments. I sympathise; I want to protect those who are poor and underprivileged. At the same time, the Parliament owes it to Scotland to ensure that something practical and realistic is put in place to protect the interests that I have mentioned.
I find it astonishing that we are hearing the same old argument, which is based on no information. Mr Gallie tells us again about the terrible number of businesses that will go to the wall because of people running off into the night when they are served a warrant. I say to him and to other people who make that argument: show us the evidence.
There is copious evidence on the other side of the argument, which has been available for Mr Gallie to read, had he the time. He continually comes to the chamber with entirely unsupported arguments. He relies on an urban myth, which is what the Tories are rapidly becoming in this country.
This matter puts the people of Scotland against the establishment of Scotland. It is about the people's Parliament making accountable an establishment that has not been accountable for more than 200 years. That was made clear when we took evidence on the bill. The Law Society, the Law Commission and the Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers are not happy at having to be accountable. In a way, that reflects
We must decide whether we support the Executive supporting the establishment, as we were meant to do at the stage 1 debate on 27 April, or move with what the people of Scotland want—the earliest possible implementation date, which is, I suggest, 1 April 2001. This is simply a matter of political will. It has been made clear that the Executive has no political will to act; only a rebellion of its back benchers forced it to lead us to this stage, in a rearguard action.
The simple fact is that the people of Scotland want the Parliament to implement the bill at the earliest possible stage. The opportunity is before us. We can agree to Tommy Sheridan's amendment to section 3, which will allow for the removal of what is a barbaric practice on 1 April next year, or we can support the Executive's support for the Scottish establishment, which, in effect, gave misinformation during the inquiry into this matter.
The chamber overwhelmingly holds the view that poindings and warrant sales must be abolished. I have held that view for some years. The fact that, in the public mind, poindings and warrant sales are inextricably linked to the poll tax would be reason enough for their abolition, but the most important reason for abolition is the way in which the process works.
The concept of abolition was overwhelmingly endorsed in the vote following the stage 1 debate. However, poindings and warrant sales are the tip of an iceberg of problems with debt in society. We have to review completely our attitude to debt and the handling of debt. As I understand it, that is what the Executive's diligence review is doing. There has to be much greater emphasis on instalment plans and managing credit. There has to be a revolution in the type of advice that is given to people when they get into debt difficulties. There has to be a major change in the attitude of
Lloyd Quinan asked the important question whether there are people who play the system and what evidence there is for that. I have seen the evidence when dealing with debt in the energy industry. Many people experience hardship and difficulty in paying, but only a tiny percentage works the system. They may not all have Jaguar XJ6s but, unfortunately, there are rogues—a tiny criminal element—who have to be dealt with.
Accordingly, there has to be some provision for attachment to movable property as a last resort. The point is that if, after an overall review of diligence, we set up a better system, which we desperately need, the people in hardship will never reach that stage of the process. The only people who will appear before a new, more humane system of attachment to property will be precisely those who ought to be there—those who are stealing from the general public and from those in debt. If we do not have such a provision, we will allow a situation to develop in which certain people will take advantage of the system.
Those who have spoken in favour of the amendments have missed another point. The diligence review may require legislation. I hope that in due course the minister will confirm that the bill could be amended if that review could be completed more quickly. In time, the date that is determined in the amendments could be altered.
I am trying to understand the idea of an alternative diligence against movable property. If that is introduced into the system, will it be exercised only against a certain type of debtor—the kind of fraudulent, mischievous, criminal to which Euan Robson refers? I do not know how it can operate. Either it operates against people at large or it does not operate at all.
Any system of diligence attached to movable property must per se apply to everybody, but the whole point is that, if there is a better debt recovery and management system, which is desperately needed, those people who fall into debt and experience hardship will never reach that stage. In effect, the small minority of people who are criminals and rogues will be siphoned out and will go into that process. As I said, I have seen such people. When, in my previous career, I dealt with cases of disconnection for debt in the energy industry, such people represented a tiny percentage—1 or 2 per cent—but they existed. Some people had four or five aliases, three or four properties and heaven
Finally, I do not take kindly to those who say that the working group on diligence is not making progress when they are not even there to make a judgment on that.
I rise on behalf of the SNP to support amendment 2 and, if it falls, amendment 3. Today should be a proud day for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people. The abolition of poindings and warrant sales has been on the agenda of every civilised person in Scotland for many years. We can make a proud day still prouder by refusing to allow any delay in the implementation of the bill. Delay means much more than that—it means worry and expense and it means a delay in lifting the sword of Damocles that hangs over the poor.
I say to Phil Gallie and the Tories that they should listen to small businesses in Scotland. If they had watched "Newsnight Scotland" last night they would have seen John Downie of the Federation of Small Businesses backing Tommy Sheridan's argument for no delay in implementing the bill.
As someone who has been part of a small business, I ask Alex Neil to explain to the people whom he seeks to protect which of the following options is preferable. In the absence of an enforceable system of diligence, which is what the amendment he supports would achieve, is it preferable that the people whom he seeks to protect are denied the supply of goods and services on credit and that to procure such supplies by payment of cash they resort to moneylenders, or that if they are given goods and services on credit, the ultimate remedy to the
Miss Goldie should have watched "Newsnight Scotland" as well, as it is the victims of poindings and warrant sales who are pushed into the hands of the moneylenders, particularly the most unscrupulous moneylenders. To say that the bill would lead to a situation where there was no diligence is absolute nonsense. If someone is in work and gets into debt, their wages can be arrested; if someone is on benefit and gets into debt, benefit can be deducted; if someone who has a bank account gets into debt, their bank account can be arrested; if someone in business gets into debt, that business can be sequestrated. To say that there is a vacuum is total nonsense.
The so-called official working party was announced by Jim Wallace on 27 April. He said that the Executive would treat the issue as a matter of urgency. Between May and October, that urgency meant exactly two meetings of the working party. The Executive has the audacity to come to the chamber to ask us to agree to a two-year delay in the implementation of the bill when, in the first six months after that announcement, it held only two meetings of the working party.
At the same time, another working party was established, involving many of the same organisations, with cross-party representation—it involved two political parties—and support from across the board in Scotland. Without the resources of the Executive, the improving debt recovery working party produced a 47-page document that maps out—as Annabel Goldie should note—all the alternatives required to achieve the proper objectives of debt recovery in Scotland. I recommend that every member of the Executive and all the Tories read it. I bet my bottom dollar that the official working party will not be able to come up with better alternative proposals than we did. Our report contains a set of recommendations that, if implemented, would allow full implementation of the bill from April 2001 along with the implementation of a comprehensive debt recovery programme to ensure that there is proper, civilised diligence in Scotland.
Because that was a different working party. The remit of the official working party was changed to suit the objectives of the Executive; the remit of the working party on improving debt recovery, which produced this report, was not only to get rid of poindings and warrant sales, but to introduce a civilised programme of reform for debt recovery and debt management.
I hear what Alex Neil says. What happened is water under the bridge but, as the ministers have been nodding in approval at the idea that they would at least consider the issues, why does Alex Neil not present the report to the ministers now? If it is so good, he could still get the dates that he wants.
They can have it; that is not a problem. I will even give Phil Gallie a copy for nothing—provided that he reads it, of course.
The view that there needs to be further delay is only an excuse. There is no justification whatever for the Executive to ask us to delay.
As Tommy Sheridan said, 80 per cent of poindings and warrant sales are initiated by local authorities. Two local authorities, a Labour local authority in West Dunbartonshire and an SNP local authority in Clackmannanshire—there are no Tory local authorities involved in this, obviously—have both, in effect, abolished poindings and warrant sales. If two of the 32 local authorities can do that, and if they can say that there has been no adverse impact on debt collection, why can the other 30 local authorities not be ordered to do the same forthwith?
Will Mr Neil explain why the council tax collection levels in the two local authorities that he has mentioned—West Dunbartonshire and Clackmannanshire, which have, as he says, abolished poindings and warrant sales—have gone down? Clackmannanshire Council's figures comparing 30 June 1999 with 30 June 2000 show, I believe, that the collection rate has dropped by 12 per cent. The reason for that is that no alternative for collection is in force. Will Mr Neil explain the figures?
I am sorry, I had hoped that I was dealing with adults.
When Alex Neil answers Angus MacKay's question, will he explain to the Labour members why local authorities that have retained poindings and warrant sales still have low collection rates? The idea that there is a correlation between the abolition of poindings and warrant sales—
Today is a test for the Parliament. Are we a people's Parliament for the poor, or a Parliament for sheriff officers, bureaucrats, lawyers and the wealthy? If we delay the bill's implementation, the reputation of the Parliament among the populace will suffer further. If we implement the bill from next year, we will send out a clear message that this is indeed a people's Parliament.
I must declare an interest as I am a member of the committee that was established by the minister to seek an alternative diligence against removable property. This afternoon, that committee was referred to in disparaging terms as being somewhat sluggish. I do not mind being known as a Conservative or as a lawyer, but I draw the line at being known as a slug. I take my responsibilities as a member of that committee—of which Euan Robson is also a member—seriously.
As far as I am concerned, when Parliament voted in favour of the general principle of Mr Sheridan's bill, it did so in the context of the establishment of the committee to consider and recommend to Parliament an alternative diligence against movable property. I submit that an effective diligence against movable property—which includes Jaguar XJ6s and a whole range of other goods—is an essential feature of the debt recovery system in every society that operates on the free enterprise market principle, to which everyone in the chamber subscribes—with the possible exceptions of Mr Sheridan and Mr McAllion.
We have heard a rerun of the argument about whether there should be any diligence against movable property within the debt recovery system in Scotland. As far as I am concerned, Parliament has said that there should be such a diligence and our responsibility is to find a sensible alternative that will remove some of the features of the present poindings and warrant sales system that many members find objectionable. We can do that by looking at the categories of debtor to which a new remedy might apply, the types of debt that might be pursued or the goods that might be attachable under the system. We can bring forward within an appropriate time scale an alternative to poindings and warrant sales, thus fulfilling the mandate that was given to us by the Parliament.
I am curious as to how that
Christine Grahame is absolutely right. The essential features of any diligence against movable property are that the property is attached by the debtor, sold if necessary, and the proceeds of sale applied in repayment—in whole or part—of the debt that is being pursued. That is the essence of a diligence against movable property and of the system of poindings and warrant sales. I accept that any alternative would share those key features. There is no point in kidding ourselves that anything else will be the case.
We should consider the alternative diligence in the context of the whole debt recovery system so that we build in new procedures that might be more acceptable to society as a whole and that might be regarded as being fairer to debtors. That would address some of the concerns that have been fairly put by Mr Sheridan, Mr McAllion and others, without undermining the essential point, which is that we need to have such a weapon in our armoury if we are to have an effective system of debt enforcement and collection. That would be in the interests of the recovery system and of the free enterprise system. As Mr Gallie pointed out, that would also be in the interests of poorer people in Scotland, because without an effective system they will be denied access to credit. That is what it is all about.
Having practised law I know—as a practising lawyer so will Mr McLetchie—that poindings rarely go to the warrant sale because the value put on the goods is worthless. In fact, as Alex Neil suggested, poindings and warrant sales are generally used as a sword of Damocles to threaten the poor into paying up. Poindings are rarely pursued to the sale and are used as a form of humiliation. Would Mr McLetchie concede that point?
I do not accept that in principle, but if a poinding demonstrates that the goods are not suitable for sale because their realisation will not achieve any practical result, the poinding, self-evidently, has failed. Any sensible creditor would take that into account in determining whether it is worth pursuing a debt by that means, or whether other means should be considered. That is the essence of the system.
Does not Mr McLetchie agree that he is being slightly disingenuous, because he has made no reference to the fact that arrestment covers incorporeal movable property, that is shares, money in bank accounts, building society accounts and holdings of that order, which are much more significant than sticks of furniture? That remedy exists, as does sequestration for debts of more than £1,500, which is probably the most effective diligence that there can be. To suggest that there are no alternatives is downright misleading, and paints a very partial picture of the law of diligence in Scotland.
I do not think for one moment that I said that there were no alternatives; I simply said that I thought it was desirable that there be a diligence against movable property as part of the armoury of options that are open to a creditor in legitimately pursuing a debt that is owed to him.
The issue is whether that option should be in our legal system. I submit that there should be such an option, and I submit that in the stage 1 debate on Mr Sheridan's bill, the majority of members of the Parliament subscribed to the view that an alternative diligence against movable property should be available to creditors in Scotland for the pursuit of debt. As a member of the committee that was established by the Minister for Justice, I am happy to be faithful to that mandate and to do my level best to produce a system that will fulfil the criteria that were set out for us. I regret very much that members of the SNP will not be making a positive contribution to that debate and to the work of the group.
I will conclude by saying that Conservative members will be voting against both Mr Sheridan's and Mr McAllion's amendments, not because we do not believe that the system needs to be reformed, but because the time scale that is proposed in the amendments is not acceptable, and because we should support the position put forward by the Executive for a deadline of 31 December 2002.
My previous vote on the subject—or lack of vote—was one of the most grievous things that I have had to do in Parliament. I felt that my loyalty to my leader—who was being hung out to dry by his colleagues—came above my commitment to the cause for which I would have liked to have voted. My vote today may make up for that.
The way in which we structure our debates must be more carefully examined. Conservative speakers have set out their stall, but other than my colleague Euan Robson—who made an admirable speech, with which I will disagree shortly—the case for the bill as it stands, as opposed to the amended bill, is not being put. I am sure that a minister will put it in the end, but in a situation like
Euan Robson said that 2 per cent of people will break any rules and must be dealt with. We can argue about the figure, but undoubtedly there is a percentage of people in any society who will cheat, lie, rob and so on.
They are not all in politics, but politics has its fair share.
The question is, in order to try, however ineffectively, to nail the 2 per cent, will one be grossly unfair to the other 98 per cent? In any calculation, giving a decent show to the 98 per cent is important. Does the present system of warrant sales nail down the 2 per cent of chancers? No, it does not. It fails dismally. The proposals for the future may fail even more dismally, but the present system does not deliver a full grip on the bad people on whom we wish to get a grip.
My next point reveals my prejudices. I do not feel that the establishment will get a grip on the subject until it must. If amendment 2 were agreed to, the minds of the establishment would be concentrated. Jim Wallace would have to get his officials round and say, "Look—by this date, we must have an answer, so earn your pay for once, boys." Otherwise, they will footle around, and say, "Oh, we've got until the end of 2002, let's go and have lunch." Setting a date will help people to sort out the issue.
David McLetchie and Phil Gallie said that the poor will never be given any loans. That might benefit them. One of the troubles in our society is the evil, indiscriminate offering of money to poor people—almost forcing it on them—which gets them into debt. If that were got a grip of, there would be far fewer debts to sort out. The immorality of the lending structure and some of the people who operate in it must be dealt with.
Those of us who are not rich, but are comfortably off, must give some thought to what life would be like if we were not comfortably off and we lived like people who tend to get into debt because they cannot balance an inadequate income against their expenditure. On the whole, according to history books, the people who got brownie points—whether they were medieval kings or 19th century statesmen—helped the debtors rather than the lenders. They got good brownie points. We should think about that.
I will support Tommy Sheridan's amendment 2, and if that is disagreed to, I will support John McAllion's amendment 3. I understand that the Executive's case is that more time is needed to find
I remember introducing a bill in the House of Commons to abolish warrant sales more than 20 years ago. It had cross-party support. The late Jimmy Dempsey, who was the member of Parliament for Coatbridge and Airdrie, pioneered the campaign long before I was a member of the House of Commons. Margaret Ewing, who is with us in the Parliament today, was also active in the campaign. Believe it or not, I also had the support of some Scottish Tory MPs, who agreed that the barbaric, medieval practice ought to be abolished as soon as possible. The alternative on which we agreed, which managed to win cross-party support, was a debt arbitration system, whereby the debtor and the creditor got together to reach an out-of-court settlement for repayment of the debt by instalments. The experience at that time—I suspect that the evidence now is similar—was that most small debts are incurred by people who unwittingly get into debt through no fault of their own, because of unemployment, sickness, poverty or other causes. Those people would genuinely like to repay the debt. Most of them do not like being in debt and want to repay the debt as soon as possible.
The proposed debt arbitration service found the support of Scottish Tory MPs at the time and achieved a consensus among MPs from Scottish constituencies. The only reason why the bill did not make more progress was a lack of time in the House of Commons. It was only a 10-minute bill. It had an unopposed first reading, but due to the lack of parliamentary time at Westminster, it made no further progress. I looked forward to the day when a Scottish Parliament would be able to take up this important issue and to place the abolition of warrant sales on the statute book at last.
The Scottish Law Commission also worked on the issue in the 1980s, although I do not know what happened to its reports. Are they gathering dust somewhere on the shelves of the Scottish Office, which is now the Scottish Executive? The minister ought to have a look at the conclusions that the SLC arrived at then, because even it questioned the desirability of warrant sales. To those people who say that there is no alternative to warrant sales, I say, "That is not true." In certain circumstances, there is provision for arrestment of bank accounts and attachment of earnings.
Although the debt arbitration service that I proposed all those years ago has never come into existence, there are systems of debt counselling run through citizens advice bureaux and other voluntary agencies.
Tommy Sheridan's amendment proposes the implementation of the bill in April next year. Surely the period of time between now and then will concentrate the minds of the people on the working party, so that they come up with other viable alternatives, if such alternatives are essential.
The Scottish Parliament was supposed to herald a new era of radical change and greater standards of social justice for the people of Scotland. Granted, it will take some time to deliver greater standards of social justice in some areas, but we have been waiting for centuries for the abolition of warrant sales. We should get rid of that barbaric, medieval practice as soon as possible.
Members will no doubt be aware that amendments 2 and 3 seek to set dates for the commencement of the bill that we believe are, quite simply, unrealistic.
Members will recall that Mr Sheridan lodged an amendment that sought the same commencement date of 1 April 2001 at stage 2 of the bill. The Justice and Home Affairs Committee agreed at the time that that was unrealistic. It is clear that Mr Sheridan believes that he knows better than the committee, so he is attempting to go over that ground again. Amendment 3, which seeks a commencement date of 31 December 2001 is, in our view, equally unrealistic.
For quite some time, there has been a certain rich irony in the way in which Mr Sheridan in particular has conducted the debate. While he is content to issue press releases and appear on news programmes, he is not content to do the work that must be done in the working group in order to establish a humane and workable solution to getting rid of poindings and warrant sales. The rich irony is that, on this subject, Mr Sheridan is all spin and no substance. It reeks of irony for members of the Labour party to have to face his behaviour when we are accused of similar behaviour, day in, day out.
I must restate for members what needs to be done, and why, during the period before abolition takes effect.
When the Justice and Home Affairs Committee considered the aims of the bill, it recognised the need to introduce an alternative diligence to replace poindings and warrant sales before their abolition. I use the term diligence advisedly, as I have seen the letter that Mr Sheridan circulated, which suggested that the committee was not calling for a replacement diligence. That assertion
No, not at this stage.
I will go back to first principles. We are talking about the law that applies to the enforcement of civil court orders, including orders for payment of money. When court orders for the recovery of debts are enforced, the law of diligence sets out the procedures that can be used for enforcement. In this case, we want to end the existing approach and find a better, workable and humane alternative. People can call it what they will, but the real question remains as to how else a new procedure for enforcing court orders for payment of debt can be classified in law. The points that Mr Sheridan has made to date on that issue are non-points.
None the less, let me quote what the Justice and Home Affairs Committee's report said. It made it clear that
"overhauling the law of diligence is something that only the Executive can do. We welcome the steps that the Minister for Justice has already taken . . . What is needed now is a clear commitment from the Executive to bring forward legislation within this Parliamentary session to ensure that a system of diligence from which poindings and warrant sales have been removed strikes a satisfactory balance between the interests of creditors and debtors."
I think that that is pretty unambiguous.
"The first step is for the Executive to acknowledge that poindings and warrant sales must go, and that efforts should be concentrated on finding a workable but humane alternative."
It did not say "alternative diligence against movable property". It said "alternative"—full stop.
Mr McLetchie has disclosed that his understanding is that the same procedures—charge, poinding or warrant sale—will be used with whatever system the Executive comes up with. That was certainly my understanding.
If Christine Grahame had remained in the working group, she would know
Not at this stage; later perhaps.
Getting back to the substance, the arguments for the need for an alternative diligence should be well known. Everyone has responsibilities as well as rights and the payment of debts is one such responsibility. There will, as has been said, always be some people who refuse to pay their debts, although able to, until they are forced to do so. There must be no loopholes in the law through which those people can slip. The honest vast majority who pay their debts should not have to subsidise the few who choose not to do so. Because of that, the enforcement system must be comprehensive. If we do not have a diligence against movable property to replace poindings and warrant sales, such a loophole will automatically be created.
We must not forget the matter of the availability of credit. If the loophole is created, then credit becomes harder to get. If credit institutions know that the diligence system in Scotland is incomplete, they will be more reluctant to give credit unless they are convinced that they will recover their equity. Inevitably, it is those most in need who will suffer as a consequence. Those already in poverty will in future be forced to go back to the loan sharks.
There has been a lot of scaremongering about the Executive's lack of commitment to the abolition of poindings and warrant sales. Repeatedly, there have been wrong and deliberately inaccurate allegations that the Executive has deep-laid plans to delay unnecessarily the implementation of the bill. For example, at the stage 2 debate, I clearly stated that it was not the intention of the Executive to use transitional powers to circumvent the purpose of the bill. In addressing the Subordinate Legislation Committee, Mr Sheridan openly said
That is an example of a deliberate attempt to twist the facts. The true position will be made abundantly clear today. We have made our position clear all along. Members need only examine the Official Report to see that.
The Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace, said what the Executive's plans were in a statement to Parliament on 8 June 2000. He said that, as an interim measure, we would introduce a statutory instrument amending the list of goods that could be exempted from poinding. The Executive laid that instrument in June and it came into force on 10 July. He also said that the Executive was carrying out a wide-ranging and comprehensive review of the law of diligence as a whole. That is now under way.
Let me remind members that the review is considering the whole of that area of law. We are looking, as we have already said, at the particularly difficult problems that arise because of multiple debt. We are also examining debt arrangement schemes. We have said that we will consult next year and that we will take on board thoughts and suggestions from any source—including Mr Sheridan, if he so chooses. That is up to him.
Jim Wallace also said that the Executive would set up a cross-party parliamentary working group to identify the essential elements of an alternative diligence against movable property. The Executive has set up that group, which the Parliament knows is in operation.
The Executive has made abundantly clear its commitment to the abolition of poindings and warrant sales and its replacement with a humane and workable alternative. The cross-party parliamentary working group is currently working towards identifying the essential elements of such a replacement. I have already outlined some of those. We have increased the frequency of meetings and have tightened the time scale for the group's report. The group has been meeting fortnightly, rather than monthly, and will continue to do so into next year, so that its report is ready by June rather than December: six months earlier than originally suggested.
I have no doubt that members will agree that it is important for the replacement system to be subject to widespread consultation before being presented to Parliament. Members will also agree that Parliament should consider it in detail. The issue is too important for a botched-up substitute to be rushed through.
The commencement date of not later than 31 December 2002 that appears in the bill gives the
I am aware that Mr Sheridan says that a group with which he is involved has devised a substitute that can be in place for 1 April 2001. I wish that that were true, but it is not. It is simply not possible to have a workable solution in place that quickly; it needs to be developed, consulted on, turned into legislative form, scrutinised by Parliament, enacted and then implemented. That cannot be done by April 2001 or December 2001, even if what Tommy Sheridan is proposing is a workable solution—which it is not.
Yes. We have examined the report and invited its authors to present their conclusions to the working party in January, so that they can put forward their argument. Mr Sheridan would have been able to do that if he had bothered to stay on the group to do the hard work—not something with which he is terribly familiar.
There is nothing like the quick fix described in the paper that Mr Sheridan has produced. I have given members a flavour of the difficulties that we face. We are working at the hard task in hand. If Mr Sheridan, or anyone else, has a constructive contribution to make, we will be happy to consider it. However, the offering that he and Alex Neil are touting today is not a miracle cure. Much must be done to achieve the workable and humane replacement that we want. Our working group is doing that.
I want to reflect briefly on a point that John McAllion made earlier in the debate. He talked about politics, politicians and hard decisions. We should not let today's debate pass pretending that the political soft option is to support the Executive's position. It is not. Abolishing the current system without dealing with the consequences of abolition is the easy choice. The hard choice is finding a system that works—for the poor, for those who need to enforce debt payments and for everyone in the chamber concerned with the quality of law and the quality of life of people in this country.
I urge the chamber to reject the amendments.
Mr MacKay asked us to examine the record. Let us do that. With the exception of Euan Robson, all the members who have spoken against the implementation amendments that are before the chamber today abstained or voted against the abolition of poindings and warrant sales. Angus MacKay was one of them. That is the record that we should be examining for evidence of the Executive's commitment to this bill.
It is no wonder that Angus MacKay would not take part in the debate on "Newsnight Scotland" last night. He talked about the proposals being all spin and no substance. The original proposal was laid before Parliament in August 1999. Wendy Alexander wrote an article in September 1999 saying that there was no need for the bill because the Executive was going to introduce legislation to abolish poindings and warrant sales. That was more than 12 months ago.
In the course of Angus MacKay's deliberations, I and others like me have been working hard voluntarily. We have produced an alternative. We have produced a 47-page report, which is available to members at the chamber desk. Angus MacKay should not mislead the Parliament by accusing of doing nothing those who oppose his narrow remit. Not only have we been prepared to engage in the debate; we have devised and introduced a worked-out alternative, which is based on the work of groups who work at the coalface day in, day out in dealing with poverty and low-income families.
In Tommy Sheridan's report, one of the recommendations is that
"The Scottish Parliament introduces legislation to impose a statutory obligation on local authorities"
How long would that take? Parliament can use consultation processes, yet Tommy Sheridan suggests that the whole matter could be cleared up by 1 April. That is nonsense.
We, as politicians, talk about waiting, taking our time and deliberating. The problem is that, meanwhile, thousands of families suffer the indignity of poindings and warrant sales. We must address that. We discussed the issue in April this year. Is Ian Jenkins saying that it was beyond the ability of Parliament to introduce alternative legislation in the 12 months between April this year and April 2001? Is that Ian Jenkins's argument?
It has not happened because the Executive has done nothing in the past 12 months to produce an alternative. Instead of accusing us of being all spin and no substance, perhaps Angus MacKay should look in the mirror.
It has also been suggested that I think that I know better than the Justice and Home Affairs Committee and that that is why I have lodged my amendment today to seek implementation of the bill on 1 April 2001. I do not know whether Angus MacKay or other members were listening, but I will not recite again the list of organisations that I recited earlier. I remind members that every single one of those organisations—such as Citizens Advice Scotland, Money Advice Scotland, the Scottish Association of Law Centres, Lothian Anti-Poverty Alliance, the Salvation Army and the Church of Scotland church and nation committee—appealed to members to vote for implementation in April 2001.
Perhaps, because members are politicians, they know better than all those groups and civic Scotland. Perhaps members know better than all those groups put together. Mr McAveety shouts yes. He is another member who abstained in the vote on the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant Sales Bill. He represents the poorest constituency in Scotland, but he abstained in that vote—he should be ashamed of himself.
Can Tommy Sheridan tell me what warrant sales have occurred in the poorest constituency in Scotland? I was an elected member in the City of Glasgow Council for 12 years. Three warrant sales occurred and I have intervened as an elected member to prevent three. Tommy Sheridan should not lecture me. He should not put his badge of poverty on the table or tell any member off in this chamber.
Sit down, my friend. You have had your say.
Frank McAveety abstained in the vote. He refused to vote for the abolition of poindings and warrant sales. He should sit down.
I move on to Angus MacKay's comment about West Dunbartonshire Council. He tried to have a go at West Dunbartonshire Council for having the courage—which Frank McAveety's council did not have—to abolish poindings and warrant sales, rather than wait for Parliament to abolish them. That council abolished them because it thinks that they are inhumane and degrading.
In July of this year Mr McConnell visited West
Above all, we must be honest in this debate. The Executive was opposed to the bill, which is why—to a person—ministers abstained from voting on it. It now wishes to delay the bill and subject 90,000 family members and children to the further indignity and humiliation of poindings and warrant sales. That is the substance, not the spin. I appeal to each and every member to vote for the early implementation date to send a message to the people of Scotland that their Parliament is listening to them—not to the privileged lawyers and the Society of Messengers-at-Arms and Sheriff Officers.
Division number 1
For: Adam, Brian, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Elder, Dorothy-Grace, Ewing, Dr Winnie, Ewing, Fergus, Ewing, Mrs Margaret, Fabiani, Linda, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Gorrie, Donald, Grahame, Christine, Hamilton, Mr Duncan, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Mr Adam, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, MacDonald, Ms Margo, Marwick, Tricia, Matheson, Michael, McAllion, Mr John, McGugan, Irene, McLeod, Fiona, Morgan, Alasdair, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Quinan, Mr Lloyd, Robison, Shona, Russell, Michael, Sheridan, Tommy, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, Mr John, Ullrich, Kay, White, Ms Sandra, Wilson, Andrew
Against: Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Barrie, Scott, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brown, Robert, Butler, Bill, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Davidson, Mr David, Deacon, Susan, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Eadie, Helen, Fergusson, Alex, Finnie, Ross, Galbraith, Mr Sam, Gallie, Phil, Godman, Trish, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Margaret, Jenkins, Ian, Johnston, Nick, Johnstone, Alex, Kerr, Mr Andy, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, MacLean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Mr Tom, McConnell, Mr Jack, McIntosh, Mrs Lyndsay, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Mr Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNulty, Des, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Munro, Mr John, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mr Mike, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Iain, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stephen, Nicol, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Tosh, Mr Murray, Wallace, Mr Jim, Watson, Mike, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan, Young, John
Division number 2
For: Adam, Brian, Butler, Bill, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Elder, Dorothy-Grace, Ewing, Dr Winnie, Ewing, Fergus, Ewing, Mrs Margaret, Fabiani, Linda, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Gorrie, Donald, Grahame, Christine, Hamilton, Mr Duncan, Hyslop, Fiona, Ingram, Mr Adam, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, MacDonald, Ms Margo, Marwick, Tricia, Matheson, Michael, McAllion, Mr John, McGugan, Irene, McLeod, Fiona, Morgan, Alasdair, Munro, Mr John, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Quinan, Mr Lloyd, Robison, Shona, Russell, Michael, Sheridan, Tommy, Sturgeon, Nicola, Swinney, Mr John, Ullrich, Kay, White, Ms Sandra, Wilson, Andrew
Against: Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Boyack, Sarah, Brankin, Rhona, Brown, Robert, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Davidson, Mr David, Deacon, Susan, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Eadie, Helen, Fergusson, Alex, Finnie, Ross, Galbraith, Mr Sam, Gallie, Phil, Godman, Trish, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Gordon, Jenkins, Ian, Johnston, Nick, Johnstone, Alex, Kerr, Mr Andy, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, MacLean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Mr Tom, McConnell, Mr Jack, McIntosh, Mrs Lyndsay, McLetchie, David, McMahon, Mr Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mr Mike, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Iain, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stephen, Nicol, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Tosh, Mr Murray, Wallace, Mr Jim, Watson, Mike, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan, Young, John
Abstentions: Jamieson, Margaret, Peattie, Cathy