First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 10 April 2002
[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]
Draft Child Support
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2002.
May I take the early opportunity of welcoming you to the Chair, Miss Begg?
As the name suggests, the regulations make several amendments to some of the sets of regulations that govern child support. They include amendments both to regulations covering the new scheme and to the provisions governing the transfer of cases from the current scheme to the new arrangements, which will take place once we are satisfied that the new system is bedded in and working well. The package also includes a couple of amendments to regulations governing the current scheme, in spite of its forthcoming replacement. The current scheme will continue to apply to existing clients for some time yet. As I shall explain, the changes introduce important measures to protect parents who find themselves in certain unfortunate circumstances.
The Committee will recall the statement made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on 20 March about the introduction of the new, simpler child support scheme and, as hon. Members will be aware, we have undertaken to keep the House updated on progress towards its implementation. Many of the amendments in this package serve to reflect the intended detail of the new scheme or make minor technical corrections. Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I shall not explain the intentions of each of the amendments in the regulations. I would, however, like to draw the Committee's attention to some of the more significant changes.
Provisions exist to enable the parents involved in a child support case to apply for an ''adjustment'' to the standard calculation to take account of certain prescribed circumstances. Such a provision exists in the current scheme, by means of a ''departure direction'', and in the new scheme, by means of a ''variation''. Such an application may be appropriate where, for example, a parent has an assetwhich includes capitalthe value of which exceeds a prescribed threshold of £10,000 for departures and £65,000 for variations.
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Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced details of a compensation scheme for victims of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and their families. Regulation 3 of this package amends the regulations for departures in the current scheme, and regulation 9 amends the regulations governing variations. The amendments provide that, in certain circumstances, payments made under the variant CJD compensation scheme will be ignored when calculating someone's child maintenance liability. Payments from the compensation fund are made in recognition of the pain and suffering endured by the victims of that terrible disease and their families, and are intended to help reduce any financial hardship that they may face. It is right that such payments should be ignored in the calculation of child maintenance in circumstances where they would be disregarded when considering entitlement to income support.
Regulation 5 amends the Child Support (Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases) Regulations 1992, which govern the assessment of liability in the existing scheme. Part of the current formula-based assessment involves determining the exempt income of each parentthe income that parents need for their own personal expenses, plus allowances for any of their children who are living with themwhich is not taken into account when making a maintenance assessment. The exempt income figure is based on income support rates.
Last year, as part of their commitment to provide additional help for the most severely disabled, the Government introduced the disability income guarantee, which takes the form of a new higher rate of premium in the income-related benefits. The amendments provide for an amount equivalent to the enhanced disability premium to be included in a parent's exempt income calculation where either that parent or a child of his would, if on income support, satisfy the conditions for payment of the premium.
All children are entitled to the financial and emotional support of their parents and all parents are responsible for supporting their children, whether they live together or apart. The new and simpler child support scheme has been widely welcomed. For the first time, in many cases, parents understand how their maintenance is calculated and have confidence in that. However, some parents are determined to avoid their responsibilities. Regulation 4, therefore, amends the Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations 1992, adding to the categories of persons who are required to provide information or evidence for child support purposes and bringing Northern Ireland and Scotland into line with England and Wales. It means, for example, that for both current and new scheme cases the Child Support Agency will be able to seek information from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Northern Ireland and from the prison services of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The rules governing the transfer, or conversion, of the existing caseload to the new scheme are set out in the Child Support (Transitional Provisions)
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Regulations 2000. Regulation 8 of the package makes a number of amendments to the legislation in that complex area. It includes an amendment to the time limit for appeals against a conversion decisionthat is, the decision setting out someone's liability under the new rules. The intention is that parents will be advised of their liability under the new scheme some months before they are transferred. The amendment means that the deadline for appeals against a conversion decision will be extended from one month after the conversion decision is given to one month after the case is converted. In making that change, we are extending the rules so that parents retain the right to appeal from the time when they first learn about their conversion decision until one month after it takes effect. I am sure that the Committee will welcome that change.
Those are the most significant changes in the package. I shall not wear down the Committee by going over the regulations one by one, especially as most of them are technical. I shall be happy, however, to answer questions about any of them.
The regulations underpin our commitment to ensuring that child support works both for parents and for their children. I am satisfied that they are compatible with the European convention on human rights. They reflect the Government's commitment to the fair and effective operation of child support and I commend them to the Committee.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): May I join the Minister in saying what a pleasure it is to serve under you, Miss Begg? It might not be for long in my case, but many other Committee members cannot contain themselves in waiting to put the questions that the Minister has invited them to ask.
As the Minister has said, the regulations cover a variety of issues; some could be described as tidying up or technical. They include amendments to both the old system of child support and the new system, the delayed introduction of which the Government have just announced. Some of the regulations amend regulations relating to the new system that have been passed but have not commenced.
It is fair to say that the amendments are, in many respects, technical. I shall not dwell at great length on each of them, notwithstanding what the Minister has said, least of all on regulation 10, the only effect of which seems to be to remove the word ''the'' from the existing regulations. The explanatory memorandum describes that as a minor tidying up amendmentthat is self-evident. This time I can manage to restrain the curiosity that I show on other occasions, and not ask any questions about it.
More seriously, the Minister has said that the regulations deal with the position of those receiving compensation for variant CJD. That is plainly appropriate; regulation 3 provides that payments made under the new variant CJD compensation scheme will be disregarded under certain circumstances. I note in passing that, similarly, regulation 9 makes provision in respect of income
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under the Macfarlane trusts, which I believe relates to haemophiliacs suffering from HIV or AIDS, and the independent living funds, which deal with people with severe problems.
Those regulations are appropriate. I do not propose to go into great detail on the other regulations. I am tempted to use this debate as an opportunity to ask about the Government's progress in introducing the new system but, as the Minister said, the Secretary of State made a timely statement on 20 March. I am sure that the Secretary of State was keen to make that statement at the right time and as soon as possible once he was in possession of all the facts, and that its timing to coincide with an Opposition emergency debate under Standing Order No. 23 was purely a coincidence[Hon. Members: ''Standing Order No. 24.'']I am told Standing Order No. 24. In any event, I am sure that the Secretary of State will show great alacrity in future in coming to the House to let us know about the progress with the scheme, which was supposed to start this month.
I am sure that the Government will keep us up to speed in future. It would not be appropriate for me to use the debate to ask questions about the scheme, although I think that I could have done so and not been out of order, and I do not propose to go into any further detail on the regulations. However, other members of the Committee may wish to do so.