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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Courts Act 2003 (Consequential Amendment) Order 2006

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Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. David Wilshire

†Bone, Mr. Peter (Wellingborough) (Con)
†Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff, West) (Lab)
†Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
†Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Dobson, Frank (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)
†Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
†Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
†Gwynne, Andrew (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
†Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
†Kaufman, Sir Gerald (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
†Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
†Prosser, Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)
†Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
†Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
†Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Mark Egan, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Tuesday 7 March 2006

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Courts Act 2003 (Consequential Amendment) Order 2006

10.30 am

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I point out that we are discussing a very narrow matter. If colleagues’ work load is like mine, they will have lots of casework to do with the Child Support Agency, and it will be very tempting to discuss it. There are plenty of places to discuss it, but this Committee Room this morning will not be one of them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Courts Act 2003 (Consequential Amendment) Order 2006.

Thank you, Mr. Wilshire. I am sure that the Committee is very grateful for your opening remarks; this is indeed a very narrow order. It is required to amend section 33(5) of the Child Support Act 1991 to substitute the reference to the register of judgments held in accordance with section 73 of the County Courts Act 1984 with a reference to the register held in accordance with section 98 of the Courts Act 2003.

Much of the recent debate about the future of the Child Support Agency has focused on ensuring that it has adequate powers of enforcement. This order is simply a tidying-up exercise; it allows one of the CSA’s current powers to continue. The amendment is consequential on the commencement of section 98(1)(c) of the Courts Act 2003, which comes into force on 6 April this year. Under the provisions of section 109(3) and schedule 10 of that Act, section 73 of the County Courts Act is repealed. On 6 April, the register of county court judgments will be replaced by the register of judgments, orders and fines. The purpose of section 33(5) of the Child Support Act 1991 is to allow the CSA to register any liability orders made for the recovery of arrears of maintenance payments on the register of county court judgments as if they were county court judgments registered under section 73 of the County Courts Act.

The register of county court judgments is a public register open to inspection by anyone, and the presence of an unpaid liability in the register may affect the registered debtor’s ability to obtain employment, credit or other services. The effect of this order is that the CSA will continue to register its liability orders as it currently does, but they will form part of the register created under section 98 of the Courts Act—the register of judgments, orders and fines.

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10.33 am

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire, and I am grateful for this rare opportunity to serve under your chairmanship. I should also formally declare an interest: I am a non-practising solicitor, although my previous practice did not cover this area in the slightest.

As the Minister said, this draft order is a tidying-up exercise to give effect to the launch of the new register of judgments, orders and fines, which will take place on 6 April. It will result in liability orders under section 33 of the Child Support Act 1991 being recorded in this new register, rather than being shown on the current register of judgments of the county court.

The new register was first set out in the Courts Act 2003, and was formalised by the Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines Regulations 2005. The new register will for the first time provide a central register of judgments in the High Court and the county court, including liability orders under the Child Support Act, which are treated as county court judgments for this purpose, administration orders and ancillary relief under the County Courts Act, and certain sums adjudged to be paid by conviction or order of a magistrates court.

The regulations specify that the entry of a liability order under the Child Support Act will specify the full name and address of the person subject to the order, the individual’s date of birth, the amount of debt and the date of judgment. Those details are open to public inspection and are often used by credit reference agencies or credit checking agencies. The regulations also specify that unless a payment is discharged in full within one month of the date of judgment, the entry will remain on the register for six years. However, if the sum is discharged within that time, the appropriate officer under the regulations—and, in the case of liability orders under the Child Support Act, the Lord Chancellor—shall apply to the registrar to endorse the register to show that the liability order has been satisfied. The person subject to the liability order can also apply for a certificate of satisfaction on the completion of the order.

That is the detail of the order before us. On the face of it, it does not make much change to the existing arrangements. That is certainly reflected in what the Minister said and in the explanatory memorandum, which makes it clear that under the order, although the CSA will continue to register its liability orders as it currently does, they will form part of the register of judgments, orders and fines. That is true, but that does not make it clear that the new register will be maintained by a company, Registry Trust Ltd. The arrangement is regulated by an agreement between Registry Trust Ltd and the Lord Chancellor. A number of points, on which I would appreciate clarification, arise from that.

First, what safeguards does the agreement between Registry Trust Ltd and the Lord Chancellor provide, in terms of ensuring that the information relating to people subject to liability orders is not used for purposes other than in connection with the
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maintenance of the register? Secondly, what service levels are set out by Registry Trust Ltd to ensure that the information on the register is accurate and kept up to date? In particular, how will the company ensure that the removal and endorsement of entries, as contemplated under the regulations, is done quickly and efficiently, given that entries on the register will almost certainly be used by credit agencies and others to assess the creditworthiness or otherwise of individuals? Thirdly, will higher charges be levied for inspecting and obtaining entries from the new register? The Lord Chancellor has the power to cap charges under section 98(7) of the Courts Act 2003, but have those charges been set at a higher rate than those currently in force, and if so how much higher are they?

Fourthly, in respect of liability orders already registered under the County Courts Act, what arrangements will apply to ensure that endorsements are made as and when an order has been satisfied? In other words, after the implementation of the order, will there be just one regime, two regimes running in parallel, or some combination of the two? What arrangements will apply to ensure that both registers are maintained?

Fifthly, does the agreement with Registry Trust Ltd incorporate safeguards in the event of termination of the contract, as contemplated by section 98(8) of the Courts Act? That provision effectively ensures the transfer of information to a new contractor, and contains certain other measures, too. It is important that, under the transfer of the register contemplated in the order, access to inspection of the register is improved and that we ensure that all entries are correctly maintained and updated.

Answers to the points that I have highlighted would be helpful; so, too, would be confirmation from the Minister that the performance of the registrar and the operation of the new arrangements will be kept under close scrutiny to ensure that they deliver the access and service that is contemplated. However, as I said previously, the issue is relatively uncontroversial, so I shall certainly not press the Committee to a vote today.

10.39 am

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I have a couple of concerns, and I hope that the Minister can deal with them. The order says that it has to come into force on 6 April, which is less than a month away. What would be the effect if the order did not come into effect on that date, and why has our consideration of the matter been left so close to that date?

My other concern is about errors. I am sure that we all have people coming to our constituency surgeries and complaining about orders made against them. Given the Government’s current review of the CSA, and their indication that it will be scrapped and replaced by something else, do we need to introduce this measure now?

10.40 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I thank you for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Wilshire. I also thank the
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Minister and the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) for their detailed expositions of the content of the draft order. I was particularly impressed by the learned disquisition on some of the possible loopholes and weaknesses in it given by the hon. Gentleman. Their potential was not highlighted in the explanatory memorandum. As a non-lawyer, I confess that I did not spot them all, so I am in his debt. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurances on some of the safeguards that the hon. Gentleman sought.

I would not dream of testing the Chair’s patience by expanding on some of the litany of complaints about the CSA that I have heard in my constituency.

The Chairman: I am glad of that.

Martin Horwood: On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I must say that we are largely content for this draft order to proceed. As the Minister said, this is largely a tidying-up exercise. I just hope that it adds a small measure of effectiveness to some of the orders that the CSA obtains.

10.41 am

Bridget Prentice: May I first give a welcome to the hon. Members for Hornchurch and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) in their roles as Opposition spokespeople on this issue? I hope that we will see more of them in those roles.

I shall respond to some of the important questions. Although the draft order is a relatively narrow and, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch said, uncontroversial one, it can always be guaranteed that a lawyer will find a series of questions to ask. I will do my best to answer them.

On the continuity of the County Courts Act 1984 register, there are transitional provisions under the Courts Act 2003 to provide that the register held under the 1984 Act shall be treated as part of the register under section 98 of the 2003 Act. It will be a kind of combination until such time as it is totally incorporated.

Registry Trust Ltd has run the register since 1985; it started under a Conservative Government. It appeared to be running relatively well then and I can see no reason why it will not continue to do so under this magnificent Labour Government. It is a non-profit-making organisation, and it has also run the CSA’s register since 1991. The Department is fairly satisfied that it will continue to do that properly. We are redrafting our agreement with it to deal with the issue that the hon. Member for Hornchurch raised. I will ensure that that information is made available to the Committee when that is possible.

Reference was made to 6 April. I hope that this provision is the final part of the consequential amendments to the 2003 Act—it should be, and I am assured that it is. April 6 was set out as being the commencement date for this register, which is why we are debating this matter now. I suggest to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) that the reason we are discussing it within a month of that date is simply to do with the parliamentary time available.
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As this is a relatively straightforward matter, we could deal with it without worrying too much about getting down to the wire.

I hope that that has answered everyone’s questions. If I have missed any, I will happily write to the Committee.

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The Chairman: Thank you, Minister. I am sure that all our fortunate colleagues who have heard this debate will now sound like real experts at their advice surgeries this coming weekend.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Courts Act 2003 (Consequential Amendment) Order 2006.

Committee rose at sixteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.


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