A private member's Bill to abolish imprisonment for people who default on payment of council tax or other local charges and taxes was given an unopposed first reading.
Introducing it, Andy King, Labour MP for Rugby and Kenilworth, said England and Wales were now the only countries in Europe to jail people for local tax default. Imprisonment for debt had been abolished in Scotland in 1987.
The high court had declared unlawful more than 1,000 of the 5,000-plus cases of people jailed by magistrates for local tax default in the 12 years since poll tax was introduced. It was worrying, said Mr King, that none of the relevant government 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', explained Mr King, who listed a number of cases involving very elderly or sick or disabled people.
News of imprisonment spreads throughout deprived communities because council enforcement officers and bailiffs threaten many vulnerable people, many of whom then borrow from door-to-door lenders at extortionate interest rates ranging from 100% to 300% APR.
Mr King continued: '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 commital warrant, they are often blind to the means of the council tax defaulter'.
The magistrates court hearing was the only part of the enforcement process at which the means of the debtor must be taken into account. Such debts must be dealt with more fairly and efficiently through reductions from wages or benefits according to means, said Mr King.
'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', he concluded.
The Bill will have its second reading on 19 July. It is unlikely to become law because of lack of parliamentary time. However, its supporters will hope to influence the government's legislative programme in the next parliamentary session.
Hansard 2 July 2002: Column 88-89