Draft Child Support Appeals (Jurisdiction of Courts) Order 2002 and Draft Child Support (Temporary Compensation Payment Scheme) (Modification and Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Webb: The order is about whether paternity disputes should go to appeal or to court. Why is the issue of DNA testing, or anything else that the hon. Gentleman has said, relevant to that?

Mr. Boswell: In one sense, what the hon. Gentleman says is right—although, with respect, it is for you, Mr. Gale, to determine what is in order.

We do not often debate the operation of the Child Support Agency, but we know that it is the cause of a huge and sometimes disproportionate part of our constituency casework. However, we know that many parents with care are not receiving the maintenance to which they believe they are entitled. I was saying that it is the traditional practice of the courts to use the newest weapon or technique, which in this case is DNA. It is quite important that, from time to time, the House should address the extent to which it provides effective justice.

My first point was that there can be delays, and justice deferred is justice denied. I was about to make my second point, which is that there is a cost. It would help if the Minister could say how great that cost should be. My third point is that the Minister should tell the Committee where that cost should lie.

I can imagine someone, particularly someone who has to deal with a manipulative absent parent, being reluctant to pursue the matter if they thought that the cost might fall on them. That is not a fantasy. Just such a case was put to me only the other day. I was told, ''He even pinched my car, in which I had left a number of my documents including my marriage certificate. The documents were destroyed and the car was returned''—it could have been found abandoned—

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''and as a result I do not have my marriage certificate.'' She would therefore have been unable to provide evidence of the kind of relationship to which the Minister has already referred. She could not prove that she had been married to him, so there could be no presumption that she would automatically have been carrying and maintaining his child. She would have been told by the Child Support Agency that she would have to pay for the DNA tests, because she could not prove that she had had that relationship. That may be completely false.

The Chairman: Order. I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully. I was under the impression that he was discussing the costs of the court, which would be in order. It is not in order for him to go much wider than that and discuss who will pay for DNA testing.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Gale. I had concluded most of my comments on that subject. I add only—it is an important coda—that once someone goes through a court procedure as opposed to a tribunal procedure, there is a presumption that costs may be greater. It would help if the Under-Secretary could suggest the relative costs and the agency's general approach to suggesting to the parent with care the likely costs of disputing the issue. Our common objective is that there should be as simple a procedure as is fair to both parties, and that it should be as swift and decisive as possible.

As I begin to draw my remarks to a close, I confirm that we have no objection to the principle of the courts dealing with the matter. That is probably for the best. However, having discussed that, I ought to close on one or two specific points on the text of the order.

First, I take it that the Minister can confirm that the existing regime grounded in the 1991Act—slightly anomalously, the order relates to that Act—will continue until the point at which a commencement order under article 1(3) of the order is laid. In other words, there will be a seamless transition from one to the other, with no hiatus. Secondly, it would help the Committee to know when that commencement order is planned to be laid.

Given that the new order takes into account the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000, even if it refers back to the 1991 Act, it seems odd that it also refers to regulations laid in 1999. Those regulations are, as it were, somewhat stranded between the two Acts. Legally, that may be perfectly sensible, but it is not clear whether the 1999 regulations were written in anticipation of the 2000 Act or why they could not have been upgraded altogether. The reason may simply be the volume of printing. The Minister said in the explanatory notes:

    ''it is necessary to put replacement provisions in place.''

Nevertheless, that has not applied to replacement regulations.

I have two final points. We are not discussing tribunal law. However, in casework I have encountered tribunal law cases in which the maintenance formula was difficult to operate in accordance with the tribunal decision. I happen to

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have a legally qualified constituent who has run into difficulties on the matter and corresponded with the Department about it at some length.

My final point comes back to the basic objective of the order and the Acts. I hope that the Minister can tell us when the new structure is likely to be in place. With the procedure for reference to courts updated in cases of disputed paternity, and given that there is a tendency for people to use paternity as a weapon to try to avoid their responsibilities, will he also assure us that there is a chance of the system being more successful than it has been until now?

4.59 pm

Mr. Webb: I begin by apologising for any implication in my intervention on the hon. Gentleman that you failed to call him to order for straying off the subject, Mr. Gale. I recognise that, had he done so, you would have called him to order. The reason for my impatience is that I was told before I came into the Room that the Conservative party was determined to make all Committees considering statutory instruments last 90 minutes, no matter how uncontentious they were. That was at the back of my mind, but clearly it is not the case this afternoon.

The main issues that I want to raise relate to the regulations, and also to the questions precipitately asked by the hon. Gentleman about the new CSA computer system. Rather than twisting my points to talk about them in relation to the order, I merely say that I hope that we can return to them on the regulations. The Liberal Democrats have no problem with the order, and we regard it as entirely uncontentious.

5 pm

Mr. Wilshire: Several relevant matters require thoughtful and sensitive consideration, but I want to get one other out of the way, because it does not go into that category.

I notice that someone has mercifully spotted the mistake in the order and corrected it by hand, which gives me the opportunity to say that the House cannot state too often how much it deplores sloppy draftsmanship and preparation of documents. The fact that the order was corrected by hand does not absolve the people concerned from some criticism, as the order should not have gone so far as to be printed ready for consideration by the Committee. The mistake is fairly minor, but I served this morning on a Committee that considered a statutory instrument, and a mistake of catastrophic significance was swept under the carpet. That is probably the only contentious comment that I want to make.

The hon. Member for Northavon said that he had got wind of some ploy.

The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the printer's error, I am prepared to raise that as Chairman with the appropriate authorities. However, I hope that he is not implying any criticism of the civil servants who prepared the document.

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Mr. Wilshire: But I am, Mr. Gale. I am indeed criticising people who put documents that contain mistakes before us. The criticism ultimately lies with the Minister, who should have spotted the mistake a long time ago rather than at the last minute, and it has required someone to alter it by hand.

There are two categories of sloppiness about such documents. One is a mistake not spotted by the Minister and his advisers, which is in the first league of nonsense. The other category includes mistakes spotted and corrected as in the order, which means that someone responsible for the proofing and drafting did not see it. I am implying criticism of the system. Mercifully, the criticism to be meted out on this occasion is less than was needed this morning, because this morning's clanger had not even been spotted. I leave the matter at that, Mr. Gale, but I understand your point.

I want to move on to the suggestion that, for whatever reason, there may be some attempt to keep Committees sitting longer than necessary. I make no apologies for making my first point at some length, because I do not believe that it is contentious in the party political sense. In no way am I saying what I want purely to delay proceedings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) rightly pointed out that, when people deny that they are the parent, it is on occasion an attempt to wriggle out of responsibility. However, on other occasions it is not. The order touches on the hugely sensitive matter of personal relationships, and on issues that people would rather not talk about or have ventilated. However, those issues sometimes need to be discussed. The consideration of the order gives me the opportunity to make some comments that need to be thought about and put into public debate.

If statistics are to be believed, it is not rare for someone to use such means to say that a maintenance order is correct. I forget the figures, but research suggests that the father is the person named on the birth certificate much less often than we would like to think. The information on the birth certificate is not necessarily put there by mistake or because of ignorance. Sometimes it is put there for the sake of the child, in cases where it is better to tell a white lie than to give the child an awkward history. These sensitive issues need ventilating and I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to them at the end of the debate.

The first question on which I would like the Minister to reflect is: why should we make the change now? The Minister gave a fair and reasonable justification for the change—that the family courts are far better placed than any others to consider such matters because they have a wealth of experience and case law to draw on to make decisions. If that is so, it has been so for the past 11 years. I am not making a party political point, because my party was in government for some of that time. If it is obvious and sensible that a court should consider the matter rather than a tribunal, surely to goodness that ought to have been clear a long time ago.

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