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Caroline Flint: The CSA also takes into account any subsequent families and their children, so why did not the Ministry of Defence find a balance between the marital status 1 category and the marital status 4 category, which would have met the needs of both families concerned?
Mr. Spellar: I understand that my hon. Friend has been in correspondence with my ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Defence on the particular details of the case in question and the circumstances surrounding it. I am outlining the general principles under which we operate, including the fact that we have responsibilities not only to the children of the first relationship, but also to the children of the second relationship.
Caroline Flint: I must press my hon. Friend on this point. When the 25 per cent. rule was applied, my understanding was that the service man in question had not remarried and did not have a child. That was when the first order was imposed. I gather that at the time the Army had the discretion to apply category 4, which would increase the deductions to 50 per cent. So there is a real issue about the judgments being made in deciding which marital status category to apply.
The Army regulations allow for up to 50 per cent. deductions from pay where there are no other children or dependants. However, in circumstances where the soldier is legally married and living with his or her spouse, or where the soldier is widowed, divorced or separated and has care of the children, or the soldier does not have care of the children but is providing voluntary financial support, there is a limit of 25 per cent. deduction on pay. It is only in very rare cases that this limit is not sufficient to cover CSA maintenance awards. The statistics that I outlined earlier bear that out.
When the new system is in force, it will require there to be three or more children and the absent parent to be in arrears before there is any difference between the maximum that the CSA might impose and the maximum that the armed forces could deduct from earnings. That shortfall could be up to 5 per cent. in the worst case. It is very important to emphasise that, even if arrears occur, minimum pay regulations do not absolve the parent from meeting the CSA assessment. Accordingly, the debt remains and can be recovered subsequently and by other means.
Caroline Flint: I have highlighted an individual case, but the principle and the policy would apply regardless of who was affected. When there was recourse to the courts for a liability order, and two such orders were instigated, it led to bailiffs being sent to the barracks to retrieve goods to the amount that was owing, but they were refused access to the base. Even with a liability order, the courts do not seem to be able to pursue these matters with the individual in question. In an odd sort of way, the way in which the system is organised seems to be aiding and abetting an individual to default on payments.
Mr. Spellar: I reiterate that the debt, even then, is still not liquidated and can be recovered subsequently. Indeed, it can continue after the immediate obligation is ended. The courts have various means of trying to secure payment, of which bailiffs are but one.
We expect the number of cases in the armed forces in which the full amount imposed by the CSA cannot be met in full to be extremely small, but we realise that, in such cases, an extra strain could be added to what may already be a very stressful situation. However, as my hon. Friend knows, our armed forces give up a lot of the comforts and privileges often taken for granted in civilian life, in the service of their country, and it is only right that they and their families should be properly looked after. I assure my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Defence will continue to liaise closely with the CSA to ensure that maintenance cases involving members of the armed forces are dealt with quickly and sensitively.