Draft Child Support Regulations 2000

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Mr. Webb: Will the hon. Lady tell the Committee the current working assumption of when existing and new cases will be brought on stream?

Angela Eagle: We have announced, as we did during proceedings on the Bill, that we expect the scheme to come into effect for new cases from April 2002. We will make on-going assessments to ensure that we can then swap the estimated 1 million cases that will need to be transferred from the old to the new rules. The hon. Gentleman will understand that ahead of that date, which is some time away, I do not have a detailed assessment. It will depend on how the new scheme is introduced, how it works and how our systems work. Clearly, we want to transfer the cases as quickly as possible without causing undue risk to the system.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, there are aspects of the new legislation that can help to prepare the ground for the reform, such as provisions that can help the current scheme work better so that a full assessment of liability can be made in more cases and maintenance due can be collected more effectively. We are determined to ensure that the agency does not go into the reforms with an enormous burden of outstanding work.

New legislation can help to clear up the mess caused by the failure of the current system. I can announce today that we will be bringing into effect on 31 January 2001 the following provisions in the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000: section 13, which provides two new criminal offences of failing to provide information to the Child Support Agency when required so to do or providing false information; section 14, which streamlines the appointment of child support inspectors to gather the information required for assessing and collecting child support; section 15, which will help the CSA to collect maintenance in cases of disputed paternity, and section 22, which will allow the CSA to collect maintenance from certain non-resident parents living abroad.

Once an assessment is made, some non-resident parents refuse to pay child maintenance. We want the courts to have an alternative to sending such parents to prison when all other enforcement has failed, so from April 2001, we are bringing section 16 of the Act into effect. That provision will empower magistrates to disqualify a non-resident parent from holding or obtaining a driving licence for up to two years in cases in which that is considered more appropriate than a custodial sentence.

Some of the regulations before the Committee will support the changes. In particular, the information regulations will assist the agency in gathering information, providing access to records held by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Prison Service and accountants. Regulation 6(3) will ensure that people and organisations providing information to the agency are aware of the new criminal offences of giving false information. Regulation 8(3) is needed to support the extension of agency jurisdiction to certain non-resident parents living abroad. Those provisions will come into effect on 31 January 2001 so that the agency can start to use the new powers as soon as possible. Similarly, regulations 4 and 6(3) of the set relating to collection and enforcement support the new driving licence provisions and will come into effect in April 2001.

The Government believe that the principles underlying the original child support scheme were sound. We are convinced that the reformed scheme introduced in the regulations will enable the Child Support Agency at last to put those principles into effective practice. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.45 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I am glad that the regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure, as we requested for most of the regulations introduced under the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000. We welcome the fact that the debate is subject to a simple procedure. However, as the Minister has said on a couple of occasions, most of the subjects to which the content of the regulations relates were debated at great length during our consideration of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill. A strong argument can be advanced for getting away from the modern habit of simplifying Bills by saying that the Secretary of State will make regulations—for ever being fobbed off and told, ``Ah, that will be in the regulations in due course''—and instead including all the details in the Bill so that they can be discussed at the time in the desired detail. We therefore welcome the opportunity to have a second go at the detail, but we hope that the Government will take on board the message that it is sometimes better to include such matters in the original legislation.

Having discussed the proposals in great detail on many occasions, I do not plan to take up much of the Committee's time, but some points need to be made about each of the regulations. The Minister is right to say that cross-party support was expressed for the creation of the Child Support Agency. Although we differed in degree during previous debates, the changes had broad support, and we want to find out how they will work.

The first regulations relate to maintenance calculations and special cases, and the Minister has detailed the groups that will be affected. I welcome the introduction of the changes made in the House of Lords that relate to people with large incomes and the introduction of a top limit to the amount that such people should pay. As we said in previous debates, the provision will apply to few people, but those few saw the original provisions as a way of, in effect, supporting a divorced spouse rather than children.

The Minister did an admirable job, from her point of view, of defending the original Bill, saying in Committee:

    Setting a maximum amount that limits the effect of the percentage-based calculation for non-resident parents with income over a certain level is inconsistent with the Government's plan to introduce a simple and transparent system of rates that protects the rights of all children to receive support from non-resident parents.—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 20 January 2000; c. 89.]

As she will remember, we argued strongly against that, and we were delighted when her colleague in the Lords, Baroness Hollis, accepted the need for change, which is why the regulations now include rules for top limits. The Minister will be glad to hear that we welcome the changes and look forward to seeing them work in practice.

The second set of regulations relates to the maintenance calculation procedure. As we have regularly discussed, the problem relates to the Child Support Agency's ability to intervene in private agreements. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Law Society's argument that there is no benefit in either parent being able to call on the state after one year to intervene and override agreements that have been reached. One can see many benefits, however, in allowing the current situation to continue, which enables separating parents to agree their own financial arrangements, subject to the protection of court approval, which will ensure that arrangements are both reasonable and realistic.

When the 2000 Act was debated in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) reinforced that argument by saying that the proposals were a double whammy and would run a coach and horses through the legal system with regard to private agreements. We also fear the effect that they may have on the Child Support Agency's systems. We are concerned about the effect of that part of the regulations, and hope that it will be kept under review to ensure that it works effectively.

The draft Child Support (Collection and Enforcement and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations contain measures relating to driving licences, which, when the proposals were debated, were most controversial. We remain concerned that those measures will have an adverse effect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said,

    What is the point of taking away a driving licence if it removes a person's ability to earn a living? What is the point of taking someone out of employment and putting them on to benefits? It is self-defeating.—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 3 February 2000; c. 323.]

After many months, I continue to have sympathy with my hon. Friend's point of view; I remain unconvinced that such a sanction is the best way in which to coerce non-resident parents into paying maintenance.

We debated in Committee whether further thought should be given to curfews. The Home Secretary has recently extended downwards the age to which curfews can apply. That measure might be introduced into this legislation, too. I welcome assurances from the Minister that the situation will be kept under review in case the proposals relating to driving licences do not work, are seen to be draconian or have an adverse effect on the payment of maintenance. When the curfew system is used more widely, its use within the CSA system might be assessed.

The fourth set of regulations—the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure and Maintenance Arrangements and Jurisdiction) (Amendment) Regulations 2000—is also problematic. The CSA's original system and the changes subsequently made to it were criticised on the ground that the terminology was confusing. Regulation 2 contains a new set of euphemisms in place of the old set. ``Absent parent'', for instance, becomes ``non-resident parent''; ``assessment'' becomes ``calculation''; ``assessed'' becomes ``calculated''—that is logical—and ``departure direction'' becomes ``variation''.

Although the Government may wish to change attitudes and thinking when introducing new systems, those changes in terminology will cause even more confusion for parents in the system who already find their dealings with the CSA confusing. The Minister referred to parents being ``angry and baffled''; I suspect that yet more angry and baffled parents will troop into our surgeries when, having got used to the old system, they are faced with those new euphemisms.

The fifth set of regulations—the draft Child Support (Variations) Regulations 2000—provides further descriptions of new terminology and methods. I am afraid that parents will find the new system difficult, given the complex cases with which, to an increasing extent, we are dealing. Will the Minister tell us what training CSA staff are undertaking and what efforts are being made to inform CSA clients of the changes, so that they are prepared for the new system and structures? Will she tell us what transitional arrangements are being made? Clearly, new cases will be dealt with first, so those clients will not have a problem. However, constituents often complain in our surgeries that CSA staff have said different things to them and interpreted differently the rules and regulations. If, in addition to those problems, established cases must be moved to the new system, I foresee more reams of letters and more distressed people who must cope with the changes.

The Minister announced the dates on which several parts of the measures will come into effect; those dates were much earlier than we had expected. We welcome the fact that we have been given that information, but is she convinced that the CSA is robust enough to cope with the early introduction of significant and sensitive measures that may cause controversy as well as difficulty and grief to the people affected, especially in the context of staff training, the need to change systems and the use of new terminology and methods?

4.57 pm

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