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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

Tuesday 16 October 2007


[David Taylor in the Chair]

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

Further written evidence to be reported to the House

CM 6 Memorandum submitted by Dr. P. A. Howarth
10.30 am
The Chairman: Good morning. Welcome to the penultimate sitting of the Committee.
Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 31

Power to write off arrears
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I beg to move amendment No. 93, in clause 31, page 33, line 10, at end insert—
‘(1A) In making a decision to extinguish liability for arrears of child support maintenance under subsection (1) the Commission shall have regard to the welfare of the child or children in respect of whom the arrears are due.’.
This is a probing amendment to explore the scope of the commission’s power to write off arrears and to seek confirmation that the wealth of the child or children will be taken into consideration in respect of any regulations that are made to do so. To be fair, we had a good debate on this subject in the last amendment. The Minister gave us an assurance that the welfare of the child would be paramount in this Bill and when the commission wrote off debt. We also had a fairly good debate on the circumstances in which debt may be written off and the involvement of the parent with care. On that basis, I do not intend to push the amendment, if the Minister is prepared to reiterate that that will be taken into account in any write-off. I would be satisfied by such an assurance and would withdraw the amendment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, I am pleased to reaffirm what I said in the earlier debate. Where we extinguish arrears of maintenance, the existing child support legislation, which already safeguards the interests of the child, will obviously be part of that decision. What underpins this Bill is the welfare of the children. I thank the hon. Gentleman for agreeing in advance of that reaffirmation to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Weir: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 32 to 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36

Pilot schemes
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 50, in clause 36, page 35, line 21, at end insert—
‘(3A) The results and finding of all pilot schemes must be published in separate reports—
(a) every six months while the pilot scheme is in operation, and
(b) at the conclusion of every pilot scheme.’.
Like the previous amendment, this is a probing amendment. I seek a little more information from the Minister about the operation of pilot schemes and, in particular, how the results and findings of such schemes will be processed and published. If a pilot scheme is operated, the results should be made available. The amendment seeks to ensure that the results and findings are published every six months when a pilot scheme is in operation and at the conclusion of every pilot scheme. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us how the Government intend to operate any pilot scheme.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochdale for moving his probing amendment. Before looking at the effect of his amendment, let me deal with his other point and outline the purpose of piloting. Piloting allows policies and programmes to be tested, adjusted and evaluated before decisions are made as to whether they are applied in general. The clause enables the commission to pilot in circumstances that will benefit from that approach.
I shall give an example. We will be using the piloting powers to prove the effectiveness of using deductions from earnings orders as the primary method of collecting child maintenance from non-resident parents in employment, and they will allow us to test that method for up to two years. Pilots will be able to operate in specific areas and in relation to specified types of people, or to people selected through either specified criteria or on a sampling basis.
The amendment would compel the commission to produce six-monthly and final reports on any pilot. Although I do not disagree with the main thrust of the proposal, which is to publish the results of pilots, the hon. Gentleman’s wish that it should be done on a six-monthly basis would not achieve what he wants, and I shall explain why. Pilots can be conceived and designed for a wide range of reasons, such as considering the implementation of new services or the impact of a measure. The wide nature and possible scope of pilots would make it difficult to ensure that they were all able to meet the six-monthly reporting regime. Furthermore, six-monthly reports would be of little value, because the analysis of the findings would need to be carried out from such an early stage in the pilot that it would be unlikely to produce results of significant or sufficient quality. The most effective analysis can be gained only from cases that have had a sufficient journey through the system, allowing us to assess the full impact of changes in circumstances—for example, the impact of job change in the case of the direct earnings order pilot, which I mentioned earlier.
The commission, in consultation with the Department, will determine how best to report on research. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bill already requires the commission to report on all activities in each and every financial year. I emphasise that we share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the value of publishing the results of pilots, but they are more effective if they are allowed to run their natural course in an appropriate length of time. The hon. Gentleman’s wish to have a fixed, regular reporting period would not produce reports of much light; they would probably impede the process. We want pilots to be of value and to give us real results, which they will. They will be published at the appropriate time, when the pilot has naturally expired.
For those reasons, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Paul Rowen: In view of the Minister’s statement, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37

Meaning of “child”
Mr. Weir: I beg to move amendment No. 94, in clause 37, page 35, line 32, leave out ‘20’ and insert ‘25’.
The purpose of the amendment is to point out the slight contradiction between the Bill and the laws of Scotland. Members will note that clause 37 defines a child as
“a person who has not attained the age of 16, or has not attained the age of 20 and satisfies such conditions as may be prescribed.”
The amendment would increase the age from 20 to 25, because the definition of a child under Scots law, which can be found in the Family Law (Scotland) Act 1985, defines a child as
“a person—
(a) under the age of 18 years; or
(b) over that age and under the age of 25 years who is reasonably and appropriately undergoing instruction at an educational establishment, or training for employment or for a trade, profession or vocation”.
Under that Act, both parents are under an obligation to aliment the child while they are undergoing such training or instruction. Under the law of Scotland, both parents can be responsible for children until the age of 25 in those specific circumstances. I appreciate that the cases in which that will become a problem are few and far between, but they do exist. If the Bill is not amended, after the age of 20 anyone in Scotland who is relying on this definition of “aliment” may not be able to approach CMEC, because its responsibility would end when they reached 20. If someone’s aliment had been dealt with through CMEC, perhaps for a large number of years, it is conceivable that it would stop when they were 20, even if there were still an obligation for aliment to continue after that, the result being that the person would be required thereafter to raise an action of their own in the courts to seek aliment from one or both parents and to start all over again, with all the difficulties that could ensue.
Although I appreciate that the cases in which such a circumstance might arise are few and far between, there is a contradiction in this provision. Will the Minister consider the definition of “child” and, perhaps, include in regulations some reference to the fact that in Scotland things are different and allow the definition under the 1985 Act to be carried into the Bill in respect of the Scottish situation?
Mr. Plaskitt: I appreciate the hon. Member for Angus raising that point. I recognise that in Scotland children have different rights. However, our agreeing to his amendment would have at least one perverse outcome under the law that we are seeking to pass here and, for that reason, as well as others, I hope that he will reconsider. Let me expand on that.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, under Scots law courts can make orders for aliment to be paid in respect of a person until they are 25, where they are in education or training for employment or for a trade, profession or vocation. That measure is based on the age by which a person would normally be expected to have completed their education, including any trade apprenticeships, and no longer need parental support.
Under the Children Act 1989, the courts in England and Wales have the power to make orders for maintenance on an application by a person over 18 whose parents are separated and who is receiving instruction at an educational establishment or undergoing training for a trade, profession or vocation. Thus orders for maintenance can be sought in England and Wales for a similar period that aliment might be sought in Scotland.
We would not want to widen the definition of “child” in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has suggested for child maintenance purposes to define young adults substantially older than the age of 20 as “children”. Doing so would extend maintenance dramatically for some young people. Furthermore, when a non-resident parent themselves falls within the meaning of “child” under the Act, they are exempt from paying maintenance. If the amendment were agreed to, legislation would have to be amended so that children born to parents up to age 24 would not have to wait until their non-resident parent reached 25 to get maintenance from them. Amending legislation in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has suggested would cause more complication to the system than we have now, and we want to avoid that. I hope the hon. Gentleman understands that and will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Weir: I hear what the Minister has said, and I understand the difficulties. It looks like over-20s in Scotland will still have to go to the courts in the few cases where the provision applies. However, I accept the Minister’s reasoning. The amendment would have a slightly perverse application in respect of allowing parents under 25 to escape, and I would not wish to impose that upon the nation.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 17 October 2007