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2 Jul 2002 : Column 88

Committal to Prison in Default of Fines, Local Taxes, Etc. (Abolition)

3.32 pm

Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): I beg to move,

The opportunity to abolish imprisonment for council tax default is provided in the Green Paper "Towards Effective Enforcement" published by the Lord Chancellor last July. It proposes a single piece of bailiff law and a reformed, regulated structure for enforcement. In addition, imprisonment should be abolished for default of fines relating to television licences and parking offences.

The High Court has declared unlawful more than 1,000 of the 5,000-plus cases of people jailed by magistrates courts for local tax default in the 12 years since the poll tax was introduced. It is worrying that none of the relevant Departments knew the number of unlawful imprisonments until they were told by the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust that one of its barrister trustees, Ian Wise, had taken 1,000 such cases through the courts.

One thousand is the minimum number of unlawful imprisonments because there is no legal aid for local tax or fine defaulters in the magistrates courts. The connection between people imprisoned for default of a local fine and a group of concerned lawyers was made by chance. It was not until after the Benham case reached the European Court of Human Rights in 1996 that magistrates were required to call the duty solicitor if they were minded to imprison.

Ilkeston justices jailed George and Doris Smedburg, aged 74 and 80 respectively, for 28 days in February 1994. Mr. Smedburg suffered from severe epilepsy and arthritis. Mrs. Smedburg suffered from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, and was doubly incontinent and wheelchair-bound. The police, to their credit, refused to execute the arrest warrant. The local authority claimed that the Smedburgs had refused to pay £600. The High Court discovered that they in fact owed only £349, and that the couple had been up to date at the time that the committal warrant was issued.

Dorothy Pittaway, 64 years old, was jailed by Oldbury magistrates court for 14 days in 1994. She was in hospital suffering from tuberculosis, and at the time of arrest weighed only six stone. The police surgeon discharged her from prison into council care. The High Court reduced the sentence to one day and subsequently commuted it entirely following the intervention of her Member of Parliament and a campaign by the Daily Mirror.

In 1996, Barnet justices unlawfully jailed Marjorie Ribbans, an elderly woman with a learning disability and suffering from terminal cancer.

Sarah, a 51-year-old single woman living in Lambeth, receives £53.95 a week in income support. She has a learning disability and suffers from chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Research at the London school of hygiene and tropical medicine suggests that her income should be £84.76 a week if she is to have enough for healthy living. Her doctor in Lambeth writes:

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There is a council tax debt of £468. The bailiffs, who are based in Northampton, blindly threatened Sarah with computer-generated letters. For example, on 9 May 2001, they wrote:

Two days later, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust became involved and Lambeth council withdrew. However, the computer kept running and sent further letters threatening the sale of Sarah's furniture.

News of such imprisonments spreads throughout deprived communities because council enforcement officers and bailiffs threaten vulnerable people, many of whom then borrow from door-to-door lenders—including such household names as Provident finance—at extortionate interest rates, ranging from 100 to 300 per cent. APR.

A seismic fault in current procedures is the absence of any statutory means inquiry by local authorities before they start enforcement. The Inland Revenue knows the means of the income tax payer before it starts its processes, and magistrates enforce fines through means inquiries, but when local authorities are required to attempt distress before they issue a committal warrant, they are often blind to the means of the council tax defaulter.

The committal hearing at the magistrates court is the only part of the enforcement process at which the means of a debtor must be taken into account. Owing to the absence of means inquiries by local authorities before they begin enforcement, bailiffs are sent to collect money from vulnerable people who have little or nothing, and things are made worse by bailiffs adding their costs to the debt. Such debts could and must be dealt with more fairly and efficiently through reductions from wages or benefits according to means.

England and Wales remain the only countries in Europe to continue to jail people for local tax default; Scotland abolished imprisonment for debt in 1987. It is high time that England and Wales did the same. I ask the House to consign the Dickensian practice of sending the poor to debtors' prisons to history once and for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Andy King, Mr. Bill Olner, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle, Mr. Tony Clarke and Mr. Joe Benton.

Committal to Prison in Default of Fines, Local Taxes, Etc. (Abolition)

Andy King accordingly presented a Bill to abolish imprisonment for default of payment of community charge, council tax and other local taxes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 July, and to be printed [Bill 159].

2 Jul 2002 : Column 90

Opposition Day

[16th Allotted Day]

Funded Pensions

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the main business, an Opposition debate on funded pensions. I inform the House that I have imposed a 12-minute limit on Back Benchers' speeches, and have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.40 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I beg to move,

I declare my interests, which appear in the Register of Members' Interests.

I welcome the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to his first debate in his new post. I approach his appointment in a spirit of optimism, and hope that he will use this afternoon's debate as an opportunity to signal a radical shift in the Government's approach to the crisis facing funded pensions.

The time has come for the Government to abandon their complacent denial of a problem. For too long, Ministers have had their heads in the sand: now is the time for the new Secretary of State to admit that there is a problem. I am sure that he has now been made aware of the evidence, which is compelling. The latest figures from the Association of Consulting Actuaries show that fewer than four in 10 final salary pension schemes are still open to new members, and that half of those are contemplating closure.

A wide range of well-known companies have closed their final salary schemes to new members—Barclays, British Airways, British Telecom, ICI, Lloyds TSB, Marks and Spencer, and Sainsbury. We know from the Government's own statistics that 59 per cent. of recently retired pensioners now have an income from an occupational pension, against 67 per cent. of recently retired pensioners when Labour came into office. Fewer pensioners are now retiring with an income from an occupational pension. The number of employees without a funded pension arrangement has grown from 40 per cent. to 44 per cent in the past two years alone. No wonder the latest policy document from the Trades Union Congress on the subject begins with a stark statement:

Ministers used to ignore that evidence by citing statistics that purported to show how much we were saving. I hope that after his salutary experience in the past 24 hours the Secretary of State will not make that mistake

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this afternoon. I welcome his announcement that he will review the Government's statistics on pensions contributions, but I hope that he will give the House a full account of what has gone wrong in his Department, not once, but twice. First, it got the assets in our pensions funds wrong, and more recently it got the annual flow of savings into our pension funds wrong as well. One mistake might be regarded as a misfortune, but two from the same Department on the same subject looks like carelessness.

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