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Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Christopher Chope, † David Taylor
Alexander, Danny (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Clapham, Mr. Michael (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
McGuire, Mrs. Anne (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Weir, Mr. Mike (Angus) (SNP)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 11 October 2007


[David Taylor in the Chair]

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Clause 22

Lump sum deduction orders
1.30 pm
Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 79, in clause 22, page 16, line 39, at end insert—
‘32I Freezing Orders
In circumstances considered appropriate by the Commission, the Commission shall have the power to make an application for a freezing order in accordance with Civil Procedure Rules, part 25, and the Secretary of State may make provision—
(a) about the cases and circumstances in which the power under subsection (1) is exercisable, including provision restricting the exercise of that power by virtue of a change of circumstance;
(b) about the procedure in relation to the exercise of such power under subsection (1); and
(c) for any person affected to have a right of appeal to the High Court within seven days of the making of the order.’.
I hope that the Minister will have some sympathy with the spirit with which the amendment is moved, because clearly one of the major elements of the Bill and the Committee’s deliberations is enforcement—the need, recognised by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, to strengthen the Child Support Agency’s ability to enforce its decisions. That ability relates to the CSA’s powers, how it uses those administratively and the amount of resources, effort and energy that goes into enforcement. The powers under clause 22 on lump sum deduction orders are one such method by which enforcement could be enhanced. The amendment simply suggests an additional tool that would strengthen yet further the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission’s ability to take lump sums when a case history proves that that is necessary.
The powers to make freezing orders apply under part 25 of the civil procedure rules, which the amendment would put on the face of the Bill. It would apply in a particular set of cases where, by enhancing the Bill’s provisions, CMEC would be given the power to freeze assets in limited circumstances if there is good reason to believe that a non-resident parent is attempting or intending to remove assets from the jurisdiction of the CSA.
Admittedly, the number of cases where one would know for certain that a non-resident parent intended to leave the country as a way of getting out of their obligations and a freezing order could be used, once all other processes had been followed, may be a small. However, using a freezing order in those cases would prevent any assets from being removed until such time as the process of making a lump sum deduction order has gone through, ensuring that maintenance was paid before any remaining assets were taken out of the country. I hope that all members of the Committee think that that would be an appropriate thing to try to do. Freezing orders provide a way of doing that, and I hope that the amendment will be supported.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I shall speak briefly and in the spirit with which the amendment was moved. I think that it would present a useful addition to the armoury of tools that CMEC would have at its disposal. It may, in those circumstances, be covered by other powers. I will welcome the Minister’s comments and am certainly supportive of the general thrust of the comments from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I thank the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey for raising the issue addressed by the amendment because it gives us an opportunity, albeit briefly, to consider what additional powers will lead to a faster and stronger enforcement process. As he clearly identified, the freezing order granted by the court could be used to stop someone removing or dealing with assets that they own, including bank accounts. I suspect that many colleagues in the Committee will, at least at one point in their career, have come across someone who attempted to move the proceeds of a house sale out of the country before the Child Support Agency, as currently configured, could get its hands on the money to deal with maintenance arrears. As he said, where there is sufficient evidence that the non-resident parent intends to dispose of assets in order to avoid paying child maintenance, it may be useful to obtain a freezing order to stop them doing so.
However, we have to recognise that applying for a freezing order is a serious step and might sometimes be referred to as the nuclear option. It is complicated and expensive, and the decision is not to be taken lightly. The application would obviously have to be supported by sufficient evidence to convince a court that the order should be granted. For that reason, as the hon. Gentleman also said, it can and should only be used in very specific circumstances where there is factual evidence that the non-resident parent intends to dissipate assets. We probably all have experience of cases where that has happened.
Initial discussions with the Ministry of Justice have been very positive. However, we need to explore the amendment’s implications. We are willing to consider the proposal and we undertake to consult colleagues from the Ministry of Justice and others on whether the freezing orders could and should be a viable option for the commission. In that spirit, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, which we may return to at a later stage.
Danny Alexander: I am very grateful to the Minister for her answer. I would not say she was being soft; the purpose of these Committees is to share ideas. She rightly pointed out, as I should have done, that there is an issue relating to Scotland, and I look forward to further deliberations on the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 23

Administrative liability orders
Danny Alexander: I beg to move amendment No. 123A, in clause 23, page 17, line 5, at end insert—
‘The Commission shall give 14 days notice of an intention to make an administrative liability order and shall provide to the person who has failed to pay an amount of child support maintenance an account breakdown showing how the amount claimed has alleged to have become due and thereafter.’.
In practice, prior to an application being made for a liability order, the non-resident parent is usually informed that a level of arrears exists. However, when that information is provided, the non-resident parent is often not provided with a breakdown detailing how the alleged arrears have arisen. In that regard, the National Audit Office report of 2006 confirms that in 65 per cent. of cases where liability order applications were issued the calculations made were defective to some degree.
Liability orders are dealt with by the magistrates court in England and must be made if they are
“satisfied that the payments in question have become payable by the liable person and have not been paid”.
To ensure that payments are actually made, an account breakdown is often requested by the magistrates. If it is not available at the time of the court hearing, it is adjourned until that information has been provided.
I see no reason why the commission should not be placed under the same burden of proof to provide evidence of the alleged debt, especially when it is proposed that independent judicial scrutiny is to be removed and liability orders will be made by an individual within the commission. The amendment would ensure that as well as providing the person involved with a total sum there will be a breakdown of how the sum has been calculated.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I have been listening carefully. There seems to be a slight difficulty. Will not the commission be providing the information to itself and then making the decision? The difference in the current system is that there is independent advice on the breakdown by the magistrates or sheriff court, but under this system it would appear that the commission is judge, jury and executioner all at the same time.
Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The amendment seeks to ensure that the person from whom the arrears are being sought is party to the breakdown. There is a wider point which may well come up in further amendments or under clause stand part. The point I am trying to make with this amendment is a narrower one: a breakdown should be provided and should be available to the parties to the case so that they can at least scrutinise and respond to it. That is both for fairness and because sometimes the absence of a breakdown is a cause in itself of further delay.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that mere publication, or at least making available to an individual a document explaining the breakdown, would provide some basis of audit trail? If the document was on the record, there could be no suggestion that the commission had made it all up itself and had then buried the records after a period of years.
Danny Alexander: I entirely agree. Given the sensitivity in these cases and the fact that we are talking about potentially significant sums and a range of other personal issues, having a degree of transparency within the system is important for claimants. Having the ability to seek independent appeals, the point made by the hon. Member for Angus, is also important. It is not covered by this amendment, but I hope that the issue will be addressed as our debate on the clause proceeds. That is pretty critical to ensuring that in these cases justice is done.
Mr. Harper: One of the general points that we are very supportive of is whether the appeals mechanism can question the calculation. We decided not to table amendments on that; our amendments come in a later group. The hon. Gentleman made a sensible point. If the information is not available, non-resident parents could be in a Kafkaesque situation. They could be told that an amount of maintenance was liable, and the commission would be able to make the decisions about liability and enforcement of the order, but they might not be able to know how the calculation had been made, what they are being asked to pay and for what reason. The extra transparency would be valuable. It may be that the intention always was that it should be part of the process, but nothing is lost in having it spelled out. We are generally very supportive of the amendment.
1.45 pm
We do not envisage that the commission would issue a liability order without first seeking an explanation from the non-resident parent of their failure to pay and to make arrangements for clearing any arrears. It is certainly our intention that a liability order should be accompanied by an explanation of how the amount on the order has been calculated. We think that it should be for the commission to decide how that explanation is presented.
The point of moving to an administrative liability order is to streamline and speed up the enforcement process. Without going over old ground, that is our ultimate intention in the legislation, albeit that we recognise that it must be fair and transparent. We have already had that discussion. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, if we had to accept the amendment, we would be building in an additional 14-day delay, which would allow the non-resident parent more time to dispose of any assets if he had a mind to do so. Those are some of the issues that we discussed briefly in our debate on the previous clause.
When the liability order is made, the non-resident parent will have a period of time in which to pay or to lodge an appeal before it fully comes into force. The time limit will be set out in regulations, but is likely to be about one month. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues accept that by the point that the non-resident parent has a liability order enforced on him—it is mainly a “him”— he will have had ample opportunity to go through the calculations and see that they are fair. We think that it is reasonable that the appeal should be about the sanction and not about the calculation.
Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for her response and for recognising that it is important that the commission should ensure, throughout the process leading up to using the powers in the clause, that the non-resident parent should have had the opportunity to become fully aware of the breakdown of the calculations and the way in which they have been made. I am sure that the commission will take note of our remarks when seeking to work out its own practices, and we may well have the opportunity to debate that, perhaps in the form of regulations.
Mrs. McGuire: An additional piece of information for the hon. Gentleman is that we are seeking to introduce new procedures to beef up the robustness of the process. Trained officials will check thoroughly the case history and the amount of outstanding debt and concentrate on the accuracy of any figures that are presented to the non-resident parent. Their orders will then be signed off by a more senior official within the commission. With that slightly more detailed explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue on his way to withdraw the amendment.
Danny Alexander: I am grateful for that additional assurance. I express the hope that the process will take a good deal less than 14 days, otherwise the Minister’s objection to the amendment with regard to time would be redundant. Given the assurance that she has offered, I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mrs. McGuire: I beg to move amendment No. 127, in clause 23, page 17, line 16, leave out ‘32K’ and insert ‘20’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 128, 129, 134 and 130 to 133.
Mrs. McGuire: The amendments are tidy enough and make no substantial changes to their clauses. They remove the inconsistencies in the way various appeal rights and regulation-making powers for appeals against administrative liability orders are expressed in the Bill. Without the amendments there may be some confusion about those powers and, in particular, the division of responsibility between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Since the drafting of the original child support legislation and the 2000 amendments, colleagues will know that responsibility for the Tribunals Service and the legislation relating to tribunals that hear child support appeals has passed to the Ministry of Justice. The route of appeal for administrative liability orders will be to appeal tribunals within the Tribunals Service. On reflection, it was considered that the appeal provisions would be best placed under the existing provisions in section 20 of the Child Support Act 1991 rather than within clause 23. Section 20 is concerned with appeals to appeal tribunals and is thus the logical place to put the provisions.
The amendments also make the consequential amendments necessary to clause 54. Those are necessary to ensure that the Bill and the 1991 Act are entirely consistent.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 128, in clause 23, page 17, line 17, leave out ‘32K’ and insert ‘20’.
No. 129, in clause 23, page 17, leave out from beginning of line 37 to end of line 8 on page 18.—[Mrs. McGuire.]
Mr. Harper: I beg to move amendment No. 106, in clause 23, page 18, line 1, leave out subsection (3).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 107, in clause 23, page 18, line 4, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.
No. 111, in clause 25, page 21, line 1, leave out paragraph (c).
No. 112, in clause 26, page 23, line 47, leave out subsection (4).
No. 113, in clause 27, page 29, line 39, leave out subsection 2D.
No. 114, in clause 28, page 31, line 39, leave out subsection A5.
Mr. Harper: Amendments Nos. 106 and 107 are unnecessary, in the light of the Government amendments that we have just accepted.
Amendment No. 111 comes back to one of the points that the Minister raised in our discussions about the appeals process challenging the sanction and not the calculation. We felt that that was reasonable on administrative liability orders, but we wanted to test it on some of the more severe sanctions, such as those addressed by amendment No. 111. However, we felt that the sanctions on travel, which amendment No. 111 is about, and the sanctions of curfew and prison were sufficiently serious that allowing the commission to apply for those penalties without the court being allowed to look at how the calculation was reached would not be reasonable. On amendment No. 113, we felt that allowing a court to imprison someone while not allowing it to examine how the position had been reached is not sensible, given the seriousness of imprisonment.
We understand the Government’s concern that those in the “won’t pay” category will use the appeals process as a mechanism to string out the process. We tabled the probing amendments to see whether the Government have given any thought to situations in which somebody gets enmeshed in a process where the calculation had not been well done. I listened to the Minister’s earlier point about the robustness of the new processes, but we have not reached this situation without any history, and I am nervous about allowing somebody to be imprisoned and not allowing the court to have the option of looking at how that position was arrived at. That was the point of tabling a number of the amendments.
Turning to the other purpose behind the amendments, the proposal about prisons is the most serious issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire said earlier, we want to challenge the Government on whether they can make the calculation improvement process happen earlier than the sanctions. We have discussed whether it is appropriate to allow the much tougher sanctions, which we support in principle, to make sure that those who have responsibilities to their children fulfil them, or whether it is appropriate to introduce enforcement powers now, given that the new calculation processes that use the new data will not be available until later. We want to know whether the two processes can be introduced at the same time. We are probing the Government on whether the tougher sanctions should be available when the calculation processes are more robust and whether the courts should have the ability to examine the whole process and not just challenge the serious sanctions in respect of imprisonment.
Mrs. McGuire: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is saying that amendments Nos. 106 and 107 are no longer appropriate as a result of the previous Government amendments.
I turn to the other amendments that were marshalled initially in the group. Amendment No. 111 would give the court the power to question the maintenance calculation when considering an appeal by the non-resident parent against an order disqualifying him from holding or obtaining a travel authorisation. As I explained earlier, the non-resident parent has the right to appeal separately and earlier in the process against the level of the maintenance calculation that they must pay.
I wish to deal specifically with the comment about those who cannot pay, which would be part of the earlier process. Given our experience, I fully recognise that there might be a lack of confidence in some of the ways in which calculations were made in the past, but I have highlighted the fact that we accept that it is vitally important to have in place a robust process for the calculation of maintenance. When the new administrative liability order is imposed, the non-resident parent will have time to appeal to the court before it is implemented.
We do not believe that it is right to allow the non-resident parent to attempt to undermine the travel authorisation provisions by seeking to reopen issues. The difficulty with the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is that it concerns a process—the calculation—that has been dealt with through its own route of operation that allows non-resident parents to have discussions with the commission. Having reached the point at which the calculation is considered to be accurate, we would then be allowing the whole issue to be opened up at a latter time in the process, such as when the travel authorisation provisions are being dealt with.
Mr. Harper: I wish to clarify one point. In the process described by the Under-Secretary, all the previous discussions and appeals would have been with the commission. I referred earlier to some sanctions treating cases differently. Someone could be in prison when no independent person, other than within the commission, has been able to examine the process. I am nervous about that.
2 pm
Mrs. McGuire: There are two options when dealing with the commission’s decisions, one of which is the independent case examiner route, while the other is judicial review. Although most of the processes can be dealt with from within the commission, the hon. Gentleman was fair to highlight the fact that there may be exceptional circumstances when someone is still not happy with the calculation. An alternative route exists to assess objectively whether or not the commission has made the right decision on the calculation. However, that is entirely different from allowing someone to seek to reopen the whole issue when the travel authorisation provisions are dealt with.
We also have to recognise our experience on such issues. There are those who, for whatever reason, would want to ensure that they delay and delay and delay as much as possible the imposition of a maintenance levy. We have sought to balance the fairness and transparency that we all want in the system to ensure that the non-resident parent is treated with justice and that children and parents with care get support.
May I pick up on a couple of points that the hon. Gentleman made on the new sanctions regulations? We anticipate introducing the regulations as soon as they are approved, assuming that the IT support is there and that staff training has been completed. Given the history, we want to ensure that we have introduced the proper systems and staff training. We anticipate that that is likely to be in about 2009.
May I also clarify that the maintenance calculation will be subject to a tribunal, as will the liability order before that later stage? As I mentioned earlier, we must separate the calculation and sanction issues.
Amendments Nos. 112, 113 and 114 would enable the court, when hearing an application from the commission seeking a curfew, committal or disqualification from driving order to question the liability order and underlying maintenance calculation. Our view on that is the same as our view on the other amendments in the group. Suitable appeal mechanisms exist elsewhere in relation to the liability order and the maintenance calculation. Curfew, committal and disqualification from driving are intended to be measures of last resort, and we will not move to such sanctions from a standing start. A whole process will be in place to ensure that non-resident parents have ample opportunity to accept their responsibilities. Therefore, these are the measures of last resort. They should be imposed when a non-resident has wilfully refused or culpably neglected to pay their child maintenance. The hearing should be about establishing whether or not that is the case, and it should not be undermined by focusing on other issues.
I fear that the amendments have the potential to aid the non-resident parent who uses every opportunity to delay or avoid meeting their responsibilities to their children. I fully accept that that is not the hon. Gentleman’s intention, but I fear that that would be the outcome if we were to accept them. In that spirit, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for the detail that she has provided about the process. I am pleased about the reassurance that there is no intention to use these rightly much tougher sanctions until the systems are in place to give people confidence that the calculations and the data are accurate. One of our earlier concerns was that we would be using more robust sanctions methods with ropey data, which would have been detrimental to the commission’s reputation. I am happy to accept the Under-Secretary’s assurances about the calculation process and therefore the travel and curfew sanctions. However, I still have the reservation that, if the commission applies to the court to have someone committed to prison, that could still be one of the defences that the person may have. I accept that some of the “won’t pay” non-resident parents who are trying to avoid their responsibilities will try to take such action. I have no sympathy with them, and that is certainly not the intention of the amendment. I am conscious of the assurances that have been given about the calculation process. However, if the reason for non-compliance with the order is that someone has a fundamental issue with the basis of calculation—
Mrs. McGuire: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there are processes early in the procedure through which such misgivings can be voiced and dealt with? I fear that the amendment would muddy the water in appeals on sanctions. The calculation will have been dealt with earlier, and there will have been ample opportunity to test whether it was accurate. The appeal should concentrate on the appropriateness of the sanction to the principle of whether someone should pay maintenance to their child.
Mr. Harper: I thank the Under-Secretary for that intervention. Will she run through the evidence that the commission will have to furnish to the court to demonstrate how the calculation was made and what processes have happened? That might help to reassure me to the extent that I would not press amendment No. 113 and the others in the group. The court will have to satisfy itself that the right processes have been undertaken, and there will need to be an opportunity to challenge the assessment. Non-resident parents who are still challenging the payment will need assurance about those processes, and confidence that the figures are right. If the court can assure itself in that regard, it will be able to agree to the order for committal to prison with the confidence that there will not be an injustice.
The Chairman: Order. The Under-Secretary may wish to respond. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a further speech I shall call him again.
Mrs. McGuire: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I should have appreciated that because we are in Committee I can respond in far more detail. Obviously, if the commission took a non-compliance case to court, it would be incumbent on it to garner all material about the way in which the relevant person had been dealt with. That way, the court could be satisfied that every opportunity was given to the non-resident parent to accept his responsibility to his child—or, in a minority of cases, her responsibility to her child.
We do not anticipate court action on a whim. We will ensure that all the processes that we have mentioned are undertaken in the interests of fairness and transparency. Under the current system, the court does not reopen the maintenance calculation, and in many respects the procedure is not new. Nevertheless, I should be delighted to give the hon. Gentleman more detail on the approach that the commission will take in going to court and to write to hon. Members with that information, which obviously I do not have to hand at this juncture.
We should recognise that we are talking about compliance with the order to pay maintenance to the child and not the calculation. We are in danger of getting bogged down in the arithmetic, rather than addressing whether a non-resident parent is trying to avoid their responsibility to maintain their child. I appreciate that it is not the hon. Gentleman’s intention to do that. However, were the amendment to be accepted, it would make life far more difficult for children and for the parent with care than he appreciated earlier.
Mr. Harper: I am pleased with those assurances. There is perhaps a reason for pressing the issue. Under the current system one cannot rely on the front-end processes, due to their not being robust in terms of the calculation and the processes, as a result of which the existing sanctions that are available have not been used to the extent that they should have been.
Mrs. McGuire: I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that I have commented on that matter on a couple of occasions. I understand that people want to feel confident that the new process is robust in terms of the calculation as well as the rest of the procedure. I understand where he is coming from, but I am not sure whether, if he presses the amendment, he will get the outcome that he really wants.
Mr. Harper: I thank the Under-Secretary for her intervention, although she may have intervened a little too soon, because I am getting to the point where I will agree with her.
I am concerned about ensuring that the court feels able to use and agree to that sanction, if it is appropriate. Given the Under-Secretary’s assurances about writing to Committee members to set out the robust process that will have to be undertaken, the ways in which the court will be able to know that the calculations have been properly undertaken and how the non-resident parent will be able to follow through a number of appeal processes, which means that the court will be able to reach a position from which it is comfortable that the correct outcome has been reached, I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Power of parental enforcement
‘If the Commission fails to enforce a maintenance assessment in a reasonable period, the parent with care can request that a liability order be issued which can be enforced independently through the county court.’.
Mr. Harper: I will be relatively brief. We probably covered most of the issues that I wanted to raise in the earlier part of this debate. I thank the Under-Secretary for her care in undertaking that discussion and for her generosity this morning.
The clause and the amendments are important, because they go to the heart of how we will enforce the provision. I want to tease out the detail, because we want to ensure that, given the more robust nature of the commission and the processes that it will undertake, we get to a situation where people who do not pay the maintenance that they are meant to pay are pursued by the commission and that all the sanctions available are used to ensure that the children involved are properly supported.
Finally, I shall have a brief word about new clause 4. We discussed this matter at the beginning of the debate on the Bill, when we took evidence. New clause 4 would effectively give the parent with care the ability, where the commission has failed to enforce the maintenance assessment within a reasonable period, to have that liability order enforced independently through the court system. That would provide a little bit of competition for the commission to keep it on its toes, and it would also give the parent with care a little bit more clout in the system to ensure that they are not being deprived of the income that they are entitled to on behalf of the child by any failings in the commission.
The new clause is probably informed more by history than by the more hopeful future, but it is worthy of consideration, and I shall listen with interest to the Under-Secretary’s comments on it and on clause 23.
2.15 pm
Danny Alexander: I just want to say a brief word about new clause 4. I can see why CMEC would not regard the notion of competition that the hon. Gentleman has advanced as particularly congenial. Perhaps it is more a recognition of the frustration that a lot of parents with care feel about the way in which the current system operates: they can feel a sense of powerlessness when their case is stuck in the system for months or even years on end with no ability to take independent action to achieve enforcement.
I suspect that this is another opportunity for the Under-Secretary to mention her aspirations for the speed and efficiency with which CMEC should deal with cases in future. Returning to an earlier discussion, which I shall not repeat, I still have doubts whether CMEC will be able to act quickly and efficiently given staffing numbers and IT problems. However, if the system were to remain administratively as it is, I might be tempted to support the new clause. As the hon. Gentleman has said, one suspects that, in a spirit of hopefulness, it is not a matter on which to divide the Committee.
Mrs. McGuire: I shall not go over the ground that we have already covered. Suffice to say that the collection and enforcement powers in clauses 19 to 28 are being introduced to provide a faster and more streamlined enforcement process. Much of that will be achieved by giving the commission administrative powers—for example, the powers to deduct money from bank accounts and to remove passports.
Can I deal with the issue about “competition” between the parent with care and the commission? It is a slightly unfortunate use of the word “competition.” These issues are not straightforward and often more than one family is involved. I will highlight that point with an example: the non-resident parent has one child with parent with care A, another child with parent with care B and supports two children of his own with his present partner. To be honest with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, if, in such a situation, we were to allow a parent to pursue an independent action, that parenet would obviously see it as perfectly legitimate. However, if parent A were to say that three other children were involved in the family scenario, we would almost be in the position of having, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, competing ways in which the powers would be enacted. It would be unfortunate if, because one parent wanted to pursue the matter through the courts, the commission was not able to take into account the situation of the three other children in that family.
Mrs. McGuire: Let me put it another way. If the commission and a parent with care had concurrent or interchangeable abilities of enforcement, there would be a risk of overlap and duplication that would cause confusion and increase costs. Enabling parents with care to enforce the commissioner’s maintenance assessments might potentially provide the commission with a perverse incentive to divest itself of the most difficult cases, leaving parents with care to pursue a route through legal aid or to meet the costs of enforcement themselves.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Does the Minister agree that it is possible—indeed, it might be quite common—to envisage a scenario in which there is a series of private arrangements in relation to some children that operates concurrently with a CMEC arrangement in relation to other children, where there is a different non-resident parent? The question of overlapping jurisdiction cannot be eliminated by the concerns that she has expressed.
Mrs. McGuire: As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean has highlighted, the issue relates to the lack of confidence that has been built up over many years. We have all seen situations in which the parent with care, with eminent justification, has felt that reasonable and timely action has not been taken to get the maintenance orders. Given all the discussions that we have had, we are confident that the commission will take enforcement action within a reasonable time. That should make it unlikely that the parent with care will feel the need to take independent enforcement action through the county court. However, there is a problem of overlapping and duplication, and we must recognise that the frustrations that have built up in the current situation often relate to the fact that it seems to take for ever and a day to get a proper maintenance calculation. Obviously, with the voluntary agreements and the changes that we have made, we will be cutting through some of those difficulties, and I am not sure that the new clause would enhance the power of parents under the new commission. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press new clause 4 to a vote.
Mr. Harper: The Under-Secretary has conceded that the intention of the Government, and the commission when it is set up, will be to enforce maintenance assessments in a reasonable period. Assuming that the commission fulfils that desire, the new clause would have no effect, because the parent with care would be unable to exercise that power. The parent with care would only be able to exercise that power if the commission failed, so I cannot see that the new clause would do any harm. Perhaps competition is not the right word, but giving the commission an incentive to get its act together and allowing pressure to be applied from outside might be helpful, so allowing the Committee to decide on the new clause would not be a bad thing.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause s 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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