Select Committee on Social Security Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 269)

WEDNESDAY 15 SEPTEMBER 1999

MR PETER WATSON-LEE AND MS SIMRET PARMAR

  260. What would your answer be to compliance and enforcement if you do not have tougher sanctions?
  (Mr Watson-Lee) There are sanctions existing. Hopefully, a lot of the burden comes off the CSA with the detail being dealt with by the court, and the CSA will be able to push through the enforcement procedures.

Chairman

  261. Do you feel you have had a proper hearing in terms of the consultation process which has gone on to date?
  (Mr Watson-Lee) We would certainly want to firm up our response in more detail.

  262. Have you actually been part of the consultation process which the Government has been running for the past few months on the White Paper proposals?
  (Mr Watson-Lee) Yes, we have put in a response. We did have a meeting with Baroness Hollis earlier this year and we were able to put our points.

  263. Do you have the same concerns that have been mentioned earlier about the detail being in the regulations and continuing consultations which will have to go on if they are to be brought forward in a sensible fashion?
  (Mr Watson-Lee) Absolutely, yes. We are still looking at the overall policy. It is getting the detail of the regulations and the detail of these exceptions and exclusions which will be so essential.

  264. Do you agree the Social Security Advisory Committee is an appropriate mechanism for dealing with this or do you think more needs to be done?
  (Mr Watson-Lee) I will pass on that one!

  265. I am not asking you to cast aspersions on the Social Security Advisory Committee at all, it is not a trick question, it is just that they have got, as we have heard, some limitations in what they can do in the first six months of Acts of Parliament being given Royal Assent. There might be a difficulty there. If they cannot get their hands on it and you do not get a chance to comment on it, some of the stuff might slip through and it might be quite important.
  (Mr Watson-Lee) That is our concern, that it will slip through or that it will be pushed through or rushed through. The detail, which is going to be so essential, is something which needs to be examined phrase-by-phrase and clause by clause.

  266. There was a conventional wisdom which seemed to become established at the beginning of the original review, the 1991-93 period, that the courts really had not distinguished themselves in dealing with this matter up until that date in terms of the capriciousness of some of the decisions which were taken from one period to another and the lack of enforcement. Did you have a view in 1991-93 about that and do you have anything to say about it now?
  (Mr Watson-Lee) We do not know where that comes from but it puts our hackles up when we see it in here and maybe it is intended to do that. I do accept that there was this problem of what I called Group 2, the people who did not come in before the courts, and were left for the DHSS, as it then was, to deal with. I would just add one point. One benefit of the existing CSA is that it did increase the levels of maintenance dramatically, and that is an overriding benefit which has come from it by Government, by Parliament, legislating that the levels went up from £15, £20 a week to £60 a week.

Mr Pond

  267. I was a little unsettled by your answer to Andrew Dismore's question about sanctions a few moments ago. In the written statement you have given us, your position is pretty categoric, that you believe, "... the introduction of a new criminal offence and confiscation of passports or driving licences for non-payment of maintenance to be wholly unsuitable for this type of default." You say that this is a civil debt and there should be civil sanctions not criminal sanctions. I find it difficult to draw that distinction, for instance, with income support debts. It does occur to me, since your oral answer to that question was very different from your written answer, it may be that perhaps you will want to come back with a different written submission before we finalise our report just to make sure we are representing your views.
  (Ms Parmar) We feel the Law Society's point of view is that any sanctions for civil matters, such as debt, should be proportionate to those offences. We accept that at some point down the line it may be appropriate, having exhausted several procedures, that criminal sanctions are imposed, but we are worried that the simple imposition of a criminal sanction for a civil matter is not proportionate and in practice may cause uproar and may not work. To take an extreme, and it is not the practice now, if you did not return your library books and you threatened to put people in stocks and pillories, obviously, that would have the effect of making people return their library books on time, but that does not necessarily make it appropriate.

  268. If you do not pay income tax, you might expect for there to be quite harsh penalties?
  (Ms Parmar) Yes, eventually, yes.

Ms Buck

  269. Are you really saying it is more important to be able to drive than pay for the upkeep of your child?
  (Ms Parmar) No, we are not. We accept that maintenance orders and any decisions made must be enforced, people should be made to comply, however, we think the appropriate civil procedures should be exhausted before criminal sanctions are imposed rather than them being imposed straight away.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for your evidence. Thank you for coming.





 
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