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Imprisonment For Debt Bill

Volume 280: debated on Wednesday 27 June 1883

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( Mr. Anderson, Mr. Michael Bass, Sir Henry Wolff, Mr. Broadhurst.)

[BILL 79.] SECOND READING.

Order for Second Reading read.

, who was in charge of the Motion for the second reading of the Bill, said, the measure had been a very unfortunate one. It had been before the House for a number of years unsuccessfully. It was first in the hands of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. M. T. Bass), and subsequently had been in his own; but it had never, up to that time, had the good luck to get an opportunity of being fairly and fully discussed. The object of the measure was to get rid of the fiction by which in England debtors were imprisoned for contempt of Court, when, as a matter of fact, they were being imprisoned for debt. That was a thing which they had long got rid of in Scotland, and which he thought it desirable they should get rid of in England. Not only were thousands of poor men imprisoned every year in England under that system; but there were a greater number of thousands who were coerced into paying unjust debts by the very fear of that imprisonment. It was not the imprisonment itself that was so great a grievance, as the infliction on many poor debtors of the penalty of paying an unjust debt. He believed these two classes together far exceeded the number of really unjust debtors who were compelled to pay their debts. The desire to abolish this system had been growing, and latterly it had become quite evident that something required to be done. In the Bankruptcy Bill, which they had just been discussing up-stairs—

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,

, resuming, said, that the necessity for something being done was recognized by the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Chamberlain), who, in the Bankruptcy Bill, introduced certain clauses, which, he believed, were intended to abolish the grievance. He (Mr. Anderson) endeavoured to get those clauses somewhat altered, because, in his opinion, in place of abolishing this pernicious system, they would only give it now life. They would be found utterly illusory and unworkable in practice. But he failed to convince the Grand Committee, and he thought it was very probable he would equally fail to convince the House. The President of the Board of Trade was under the delusion that if they abolished the power of compelling a man to pay his debts they thereby entirely abolished his credit. In Scotland the working man who had been freed from this compulsion had abundant credit, and, in his (Mr. Anderson's) opinion, he had still a great deal more credit than was good for him to have; and, therefore, the abolition of the means of compelling him to pay his debts did not, in actual practice, abolish his credit. The objection to this means of compelling a man to pay debt was that wherever too great facility of such compulsion existed it created a class of men who were ready to trade upon it—to go round and tempt the working man and his wife and family to contract debts, often even unknown to the working man himself, who found himself led into debt; and after that, by moans of the power of compelling, which was held over him like a whip, that man was forced to go on dealing with those tradesmen for over, and to pay the most iniquitous prices for things. They had driven that class of trader out of Scotland; but now he flourished in England, and he was called the Scottish trader. He was only a Scottish trader because they had driven him out of Scotland, and now he flourished in England only. The clauses of the Bankruptcy Bill would not be sufficient to put this trade down; and he was sure the House would some day have to accept a Bill similar to that now before the House, in order to do away with this grievance. He was aware that the House was not yet ripe for this Bill. The English Members had not the experience that Scottish Members had to guide them in this matter, and they were not ripe for the change. Under those circumstances, and also because he wished to give the clauses of the Bankruptcy Bill, which had been passed for this purpose, a fair trial, he begged to move that the Order for the second reading of the Bill be now discharged.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Order for the Second Reading of the Bill be now discharged."—( Mr. Anderson.)

said, his hon. Friend, in moving the discharge of his Bill, had taken the opportunity to criticize the proceedings in Committee on the Bankruptcy Bill. The Bill of his hon. Friend was an attempt to impose upon England, against the wishes of the majority of the people of England, a Scottish law, which his hon. Friend had declared worked very well in Scotland. He (Mr. Chamberlain) had taken some pains to inquire into the law in Scotland, and he found that opinion was very much divided upon it; but he was quite ready to concede to the hon. Member that the majority of Scottish Members were in favour of the abolition of imprisonment for debt. He did not think there was any more reason on that account for forcing a similar law upon England than there would be for forcing upon Scotland the English Bankruptcy Law. He objected altogether to this Bill, on more grounds than one. His hon. Friend had attributed to him an expression of opinion that he never uttered. He never said that the abolition of imprisonment for debt would entirely abolish credit. He did think, however, that it would materially diminish credit, which was quite a different thing. He was convinced, also, that it would be taken advantage of, and that a great number of people, for whom nobody could have any sympathy, would escape payment of their just debts. He objected to this Bill on the ground that it would not do what it pretended to do. It was called a Bill for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt; but it was really only a Bill for preventing imprisonment, except by the higher Courts. At the present time, a great number of imprisonments took place on judgment summonses heard in the High Court. He believed, in connection with that power of the Judges of the High Court, probably the greatest abuses had taken place. Some of the Judges had complained to him of the working of an Act which they were forced to administer. They had effectually dealt with this matter in the Bankruptcy Bill. They had provided that this power should be taken from the Judges of the High Court and placed in the hands of the County Courts, which would have the administration of the Bankruptcy Law; and they had authorized and empowered the Judges of these Courts to deal with the matter as though it were an application in Bankruptcy; and upon proof being given that the debtor was unable to pay his debts, instead of making out an order for committal, the Judges would allow the proceeding to be the first step in the bankruptcy, so that the poor debtor would be dealt with in the same way in which the rich debtor would be dealt with. They had also provided that in all cases of proceedings in the County Court the Judge might, upon information being tendered to him to that effect by the debtor, and upon being satisfied that the debtor was unable to pay the claims upon him, make an order for the administration of his estate, if necessary, including the administration of his future earnings. They were assimilating the proceedings in these small cases to the proceedings in the larger cases, and the anomaly would be done away with. He did not doubt that, under the Bankruptcy Bill, imprisonment for debt would be very much reduced, and it would only remain in terrorem over the heads of absolutely dishonest debtors.

said, he had boon very much astonished at the observations of the hon. Member for the City of Glasgow (Mr. Anderson). He (Mr. Whitley) had had communications from almost all the large towns of England, and also from traders in Glasgow; and he could not help saying that he thought the giving up imprisonment for debt would be the ruin of a great number of small traders in the country. He did not think the hon. Member for Glasgow put the question quite correctly before the House, because he said honest men were imprisoned on account of not paying their debts. Now, it was not so; they could not absolutely be imprisoned for debt. They could only be imprisoned under the order of a Judge, who must be satisfied that they could pay, and would not pay. It was only in cases of that kind that imprisonment was ordered. His (Mr. Whitley's) own view was that, in the vast majority of cases, the County Court Judges avoided imprisonment wherever it was possible and it was only where they were satisfied the man was an absolute rogue, and incurred debts without any means of paying or intention of paying, that they put imprisonment powers in force. He begged to remind them that, under the present law, a man who had no house could go from lodgings to lodgings, from street to street, dealing with poor people who could not afford to lose their money, and this went on from year to year and from day to day; and he ventured to say that in all large towns there were a number of men like this, who were living on the credit drawn from poor people. In such cases, he thought the taking away of the power of imprisonment would extend immorality and dishonest trading. He was very glad to hear the observations of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade; and he believed that, under the Bankruptcy Bill, as the right hon. Gentleman had explained, in every case justice would be done and dishonesty would be punished. What he wanted now to say was, that he believed every trading community in England had more or less memorialized against the Bill for taking away the power of imprisonment for debt; and, therefore, he hoped that the hon. Member for Glasgow would not think they were all so enamoured of the system of the Scotch law as to wish that it should be introduced into England. In many cases, no doubt, they would be glad to see it, for it possessed a great deal of merit; but the whole of the system was not applicable to the trading communities of this country; and he was, therefore, very glad that his hon. Friend did not intend to press the measure, because, if he had, he (Mr. Whitley) should have felt it his duty to oppose it.

said, he rose simply on account of the observations that had been made in regard to Scotland. This was really a matter that did concern Scotland. As a matter of fact, English debtors imprisoned hitherto had cost the country in maintenance a sum of money that would have paid their creditors 10s. or 11s. in the pound on the aggregate amount in respect of which they had been imprisoned, and the share of that cost had to be paid by the Scotch taxpayers as well as by the English. He thought that gave them some little claim to consideration in this matter. What he had to complain of in regard to the law was that it was a law which dealt with the rich man in one way and the poor man in another. A rich man could get his discharge, and his future earnings were not impounded. Of course, in oases where there was a large estate an order might be made that a portion of the income might be given over to the discharge of the creditors; but if the debtor was a merchant or a professional man, his future earnings were not impounded; whilst if he were a poor man, the Judge was directed to exact payment to the full amount. As to the question of satisfaction or dissatisfaction at imprisonment for debt, imprisonment for small amounts had been abolished in Scotland for the last 80 years, and there was absolutely no difference of opinion with regard to the propriety of that abolition. In the last three years he had succeeded in extending the abolition of imprisonment to debtors above £8 6s. 8d. There had been a considerable amount of difference of opinion regarding that; but, as far as the debtors under £8 6s. 8d. were concerned—and they constituted the vast majority of the cases of imprisonment under the English law—there was not the smallest diversity of opinion in Scotland. He would suggest to his hon. Friend (Mr. Anderson) that if he could not accomplish his purpose in any other way, he should object to the Vote for the maintenance of these debtors in English gaols, towards which Scotland was compelled to contribute, and who cost a sum of money sufficient to pay a handsome dividend to the creditors.

said, that his object in asking a Count of the House was to bring in a larger number of Members to hoar the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson). The County Court Judges, though very much abused, had exercised the jurisdiction they possessed with great discretion. He had much experience of County Courts, and he could say that not one man in 60 was imprisoned unless he had the means of paying and would not pay. The County Court Judges were also very careful that the instalments which they ordered to be paid should be only in proportion to the debtor's income. There was no grievance with regard to imprisonment for debt. He was glad to receive the assurance of the President of the Board of Trade that an alteration of the law was contemplated, because the time of the Judges was tremendously wasted at present in settling what instalments should be paid to creditors.

Motion agreed to.

Order discharged; Bill withdrawn.