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. Boswell: I just want to put down a marker. I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that we should be satisfied with the speed of determination of the tribunal in matters connected with the CSA. Sadly, many of my constituents still raise that matter with me.

Mr. Turner: Indeed. I have had much the same experience. Nevertheless, the courts have a pretty poor record on expeditious dealing with proceedings. I am not certain whether they are better or worse than CSA tribunals, but I would be surprised if they were significantly better.

I shall finish by responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. Article 1(5) refers to England and Wales. In view of your ruling, Mr. Gale, that the statutory instrument refers to family law in England and Wales, is that part of the order otiose?

5.39 pm

Malcolm Wicks: This has been an interesting debate and I apologise if I inadvertently suggested that parts of it were out of order. Even during the World cup, I sided with the linesmen, which is a difficult task. The hon. Member for Spelthorne picked up the point that a manuscript amendment, relating simply to the mis-spelling of the word ''support'', was drafted for the order. I do not know the origin of the word ''Spelthorne'', but the hon. Member for Spelthorne was right to pick up the necessary change. I doubt whether it has greatly inconvenienced the Committee. In introducing the order today, we felt that it would be helpful to discuss it together with the regulations, which we should perhaps move on to at some point.

Mr. Wilshire: Will the Minister give way?

Malcolm Wicks: Yes. I am mindful of the time, but I know that the hon. Gentleman always is, too.

Mr. Wilshire: I accept that this is a minor and obvious point: when a clock strikes 13, we all know that it is wrong, but it calls into question all the other things that the clock does.

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Malcolm Wicks: The Committee will judge that remark.

With regard to the order being laid by the Lord Chancellor, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, whereas once upon a time many child maintenance matters were matters for the court, a previous Administration, with much party support, introduced the notion of an agency to determine maintenance payments. Most of us feel that, on important and sensitive matters about parentage, it is probably right that the court should determine them, although the hon. Member for Isle of Wight questioned that to an extent.

Whether appeal tribunals deal with disputed parentage instead of the courts is a child support policy issue and therefore a matter for my Department and me, but the vehicle for diverting such appeals to a court is a matter for the Lord Chancellor. It is, however, sensible and pragmatic that it be dealt with alongside the other measure that we are considering. I hope that the Committee accepts my explanation.

The hon. Member for Daventry implied that this matter required a trained legal mind. However, many laws come before Parliament, and no one would suggest that we all need to be solicitors or barristers to understand them. These are not only legal matters; they have much to do with social policy.

The hon. Gentleman talked about when the Child Support Agency could assume parentage. Although we must be sensitive in that respect, we must also be astute and realise that some parents without care or absent fathers will do everything possible to avoid their obligation to pay maintenance. The purpose of the CSA—this has much party support—is, par excellence, to protect the child, although it must be mindful of the rights of the adults involved. We all have little time for those fathers who wish to spin things out, perhaps indefinitely, to avoid their parental responsibility. There are circumstances in which the CSA can assume parentage, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, and most of us would accept that as reasonable.

It is also reasonable that, at appropriate times, the absent parent—the father—can dispute the parentage. The case can go to court and there can be DNA tests and the rest, but most of us feel that that is appropriate. I have already dealt in part with the question about the cost of DNA tests, which vary. When the CSA arranges a test, the cost is £225. A non-resident parent may pay for the test in advance. If the CSA pays for the test and the result is positive, the non-resident parent is required to pay the cost to the CSA, which is £272. Those charges are not inexpensive, but they compare favourably with the figure of £450 to arrange a test privately.

Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister please clarify the situation for the parent with care? Are there any circumstances in which that parent, who may not have requested the test in the first instance, may be charged for it? Or could such people be required to advance moneys against taking the test to prove their innocence, and would they then be reimbursed?

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Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman asks about a situation in which the parentage of a parent with care has been called into question. I am conscious of the time, so I shall clarify this in writing if I mislead him, but my understanding is that, if there is a doubt about the parentage of the parent with care—the mother typically, but not always—the cost regime would apply to that parent.

Mr. Boswell: I do not want to labour the point, and I may have slightly mis-stated my intention. I described a particular scenario, which has been described to me by a constituent who was concerned about having to pay for the non-resident parent to take the test because the couple did not have documentary evidence to show that they were married. I will not ask the Minister to reply now, but will he examine that situation and respond later?

Malcolm Wicks: I think that the answer is no, but if we correspond with more details and in confidence about the constituent, I will be able to give a definite answer.

Again in response to the hon. Member for Daventry, I should say that the CSA-arranged DNA test takes about six weeks. The mother, child and alleged non-resident parent must provide samples, so it is difficult to produce results more quickly.

Mr. Boswell: I simply want to ask the Minister to clarify, perhaps in his letter to the Committee, whether the CSA can require those persons to take tests if they are unwilling to give consent.

Malcolm Wicks: I imagine that in such situations the family court would be a vehicle for determining the solution, but I want to be entirely accurate, so I make no apology for saying that I shall write to Committee members on such points. We must get them absolutely right.

The 2002 order applies only to new scheme cases. When the child support reforms are implemented, which we might debate later, the existing 1993 order will continue to apply to current cases until they are all converted to the new scheme. However, I recognise that throughout the debate, particularly in one contribution, there seemed to be confusion about our exact plans. The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked about this. A previous court declaration that a man is a child's father will not be reopened on a child support appeal. If maintenance has been paid and a court then declares that the person is not a parent, the maintenance calculation will be revised and any maintenance repaid.

If an individual disputes parentage, the CSA will aim to ensure that the courts resolve the dispute before an appeal on maintenance is due before an appeal tribunal. With the logic of the CSA, most matters are now dealt with by the CSA and the tribunal system, but the question of parentage goes before the courts. On the question of which courts and the issue of privacy, applications will begin in magistrates courts, but if the court considers it appropriate, it can then transfer the case to a county court, which in turn can transfer the case to a High Court. Lord Chancellor's

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Department rules cover that and privacy in proceedings, which courts will apply as appropriate. That is a matter for the courts.

Legal aid will apply for court costs subject to the usual qualifying conditions, including a financial assessment and a judgment about the case's merits. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked about costs, and because the new scheme replicates what we have already—as I emphasised, the change is not as radical as some hon. Members implied—it is no more costly. Therefore, we do not need to make a comparison between the relative costs of courts and tribunals. When I talked about costs, I was referring to costs to the taxpayer.

I have avoided the temptation to examine the order in a broader context.

Mr. Wilshire: I deliberately did not interrupt the Minister a moment ago, as I did not want to eat into the time that he had left. If he is about to conclude, may I take him back to a reply that he gave me. If I heard him correctly, he said that a parentage case will not be reopened ''where a court has ruled on it''. Will he go further and say what that phrase means in these circumstances? A divorce will be settled on the basis of assumed, not actual, parentage. There is no question of a test.

If someone has accepted responsibility for a long period, the question whether someone is or is not the natural father will not be entertained as an argument in the divorce court. Does the Minister mean that the assumption that someone was the father for the purposes of the law will not be re-examined, or does he mean something else? If the assumption is the one that I am describing, I am even more worried than at the start of the debate.

Malcolm Wicks: The relationship between child maintenance issues and divorce is complex. I am advised that in divorce law the concept of a child of the family—that is, a child for whom someone has taken responsibility—is not a question of legal or genetic parentage. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, if that will help him.

Mr. Boswell: My point is made in the same spirit as the one made my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. I asked the Minister if he could indicate the number of cases involved. He said that all this was precedented in the 1993 Act, which has operated for almost 10 years. How many people go to court every year with such a case?

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