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If circumstances change, as they do over a large number of years, the parties can reconsider the minute of agreement. They can do so through the courts or, if trust has built up over the years, they can adjust it themselves with appropriate legal advice. The provisions should be enforceable in the court. As I said at the beginning, a minute of agreement, if registered in the books of council and session, can have the same impact as a court decree.

I do not argue that such agreements will be for everyone. Nor do I believe that they are likely to be the norm. They will be for a minority, but it could be a significant minority. They offer a realistic and effective way of dealing with child maintenance without involving the agency. They would take people out of the system and allow them, between themselves, to come to a reasonable agreement. That is behind the idea of allowing minutes of agreement in the first instance rather than involving the agency and all the bureaucracy and problems that there have been. That is why I drafted the amendment to lay down strict conditions that deal with the problems foreseen by the Minister. I hope that he will think again. We should be prepared to allow parents who can do so to enter into such agreements and not insist on the state dictating terms because of the fear that some feckless fathers will use it to get round their responsibilities. Let us try to get that right now; otherwise the problem will continue under CMEC as it did under the CSA.

Mr. Speaker: I call the hon. Gentleman—Mr. Carswell, is it?

John Penrose: Mr. Penrose.

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Penrose. Forgive me.

John Penrose: It is all right, Mr. Speaker. I am prettier than my hon. Friend.

I rise to agree with all the points that have been made in opposition to the Minister’s points, particularly the points of principle, and to add two small points to those that have already been made by fellow Opposition Members.

First, I am concerned that the Minister tried to justify his position by saying that he believes that it is important to allow people recourse to CMEC if a minute of agreement or court order is no longer working—I paraphrase. As has been ably pointed out, there are plenty of recourses and remedies, if that situation should
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arise, that do not require people to go back to CMEC. There are plenty of courses that people can use via the courts to vary an agreement that do not require them to go back to CMEC. There does not have to be a mandatory solution for people to go off to CMEC just because court orders or minutes of agreement are likely to fall over and leave people with no maintenance—I think that that was the phrase that he used. That situation is not likely to arise, because the courts will ensure that it cannot. I am stuck when it comes to understanding what mischief the Minister is trying to avoid. I suspect—I fear—that he is trying to avoid allowing any sort of agreement that diverges from the Government’s preferred set of purely revenue-based solutions. Why is not he willing to trust the people who are best placed to work out what is right for them—the two separating parents, who have the blood connection with the child—on the assumption that they are being properly legally advised, through court proceedings, on both sides? It is not a big thing to ask. I believe hon. Members should trust the people who put us here, and trust that they are being carefully advised. I fear that the Under-Secretary is worrying about people disagreeing with the Government’s preferred Revenue-based solution rather than trying to provide them with a genuine choice.

Even if the Under-Secretary does not agree with that basic point of principle, may I at least ask him to tackle two technical points, which may be about to hit him on the back of the head if he does not accept some of the more broad-based points that the Opposition are making? If, as he has enunciated in the past, he genuinely wants to reduce the number of cases going to CMEC compared with the number that the CSA handled, does not it make sense to try to allow as many people as possible to choose the route of minutes of agreement or court orders rather than providing a method of undermining those and therefore driving people back to CMEC after a year and a day? Does not he accept that the number of cases coming to CMEC is likely to be higher in future than it would otherwise have been?

It would also be helpful if—either in the Bill or through regulations—the Under-Secretary tried to explain and define in a bit more detail what he means by a minute of agreement or a court order that is not working. Can he put boundaries around that? For example, the Government have already accepted that they do not wish people to be able to vary their maintenance agreements if their income has changed by less than 25 per cent. up or down. Yet, a year and a day after a court order or a minute of agreement was made, if the income of the parent who pays the maintenance had increased by, for example, 15 or 20 per cent., and would not, under the Government’s existing scheme, be eligible for a CMEC-based change to maintenance, the parent with care could request a new order under CMEC because they would get more money under the new regime through the increase in the income of the parent without care, which had nevertheless not increased by as much as the Government determined in the Bill was an appropriate amount to allow for a variation in the payments. Surely that would be a breach of the Government’s attempts to limit the number of changes of circumstances and times that people have to go back to CMEC.

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If the Government are willing to accept the principle of variation of income for CMEC cases, should not they also be willing to define the circumstances in which a court order or a letter of agreement can be varied before people can return to CMEC? Will not the Government at least put some boundaries around that, so that it is not simply a question of the parent with care being able to go back to CMEC under any circumstances? Surely the Government should be willing to place limits on that, even if they are not willing to accept the broader principles that the Opposition have expressed.

Mr. Plaskitt: We have largely rehearsed a debate that we held in Committee. Indeed, we are almost a reunion of Committee members at the moment. As some hon. Members have said, I indeed listened carefully to their points about the 12 months and I undertook to think about them again. I did so and I have to tell them that none of the arguments that they presented in Committee or this afternoon has convinced us to change our position. Listening again to the arguments, I think that the Opposition misunderstand the Government’s view of court-based settlements. It was implied that we do not like parents to go down that route and that we do not want them to take that option. My views are confirmed by hon. Members nodding their heads. They believe that we are trying to impose a 12-month arbitrary rule, saying, “You can have it for 12 months; then you must come to us”, as if we are seeking to beckon people into CMEC. I am encouraged by the nodding heads because it confirms my view of Opposition Members’ approach.

However, those views are not correct. The Government have no problem with people going to the courts for an agreement or a minute of agreement in Scotland, if that is the route that they choose, nor are we saying that such agreements should expire after 12 months and then come to CMEC. As hon. Members have said, it may be perfectly possible within the terms of some court-based agreements or minutes of agreement to return to the court to deal with any problem that has arisen, to get variation in them or to have them considered again. That is of course still an option. Where the parents want to do that and where it is appropriate, that is what they will do.

The point about the 12-month rule is to cover the eventuality where there is a breakdown—I shall come to the point that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) raised about what a breakdown constitutes—and where going back to the court is not an option because it will take far too long or be too expensive for the parents involved, for instance. Where there is a breakdown and no option of returning to the court, there must be provision to secure some kind of settlement, in the interests of ensuring a flow of maintenance to the children. I repeat: that does not mean that we are against court-based agreements or minutes of agreement, nor does it mean that some of them cannot have the flexibility to be adapted as they go along. Some may last for a long time and be perfectly successful. However, where there is a breakdown and recourse to the courts is not going to work, provision must be made to get maintenance flowing to the children. In those circumstances, one of the parties to a previous agreement now has the option to come to CMEC after 12 months, if that is the only way to get the flow of maintenance for the children.

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Paul Rowen: I am puzzled by the Minister’s comment about it not being possible to go back to the court. Amendment No. 1 sets out a clear framework within which either party can go back to court if circumstances change. I just do not see what his objection to that is.

Mr. Plaskitt: I think that either the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood or I did not express myself clearly enough. In many circumstances it will indeed be possible to go back to court. It is implicit in a court-based agreement or minute of agreement that either party can go back to the court if they wish. I am saying that where there is a complete breakdown and one party decides not to go back to the court, there must be a mechanism to ensure a flow of maintenance for the children. In those circumstances it may in future be more appropriate to come to the commission.

Mr. Weir rose—

Mr. Plaskitt: I promised that I would deal with the point that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare raised about what constitutes an arrangement not working. It is not for me to define that, nor is it for the agency now or the commission in the future. Parents will know if the arrangement is not working. The hon. Gentleman says that we should trust the people who are most closely involved. It may well be that circumstances will change for one or both of the parties after an initial agreement has been struck, but that there is no longer provision within the court-based agreement or minute of agreement to deal with those changed circumstances. The parties will know that, because they will no longer be able to support the children, for example. Those are the circumstances in which they will want to take another route to secure a flow of maintenance. It will be their judgment and understanding that an agreement has broken down, not ours.

Mr. Weir: I understand what the Minister is saying, but if the parties enter into a minute of agreement that deals with capital, houses or whatever, as well as with maintenance, and one of the parties decides that it has broken down, whether the other party agrees or not, and goes to CMEC, what will CMEC look at? All CMEC will look at is the percentages of income that need to be paid for a child. There is no way, under its own rules, that CMEC can look at a minute of agreement on anything other than a straightforward division of maintenance, so nobody in their right mind will enter into an agreement that covers anything other than that if the rule stays in place.

Mr. Plaskitt: CMEC is not a separation agency. It is there to ensure maintenance for children. That is the whole point. Again—I am struggling to see what problem the hon. Gentleman has with the provisions—we are saying that where an agreement breaks down and there is no provision for a regular flow of maintenance to a child or children, there must be a way of securing it. It is right to give the parent or parents the choice of accessing the commission in those circumstances.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Plaskitt: I shall take a few more interventions on this, but we need to make some progress at some point.
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Andrew Selous: I agree that we need to make progress shortly, but let me have one more try with the Minister. Does he not accept that in some circumstances, this could seriously be the only means whereby the mother is able to afford a fairly decent roof over her head? The 12-month rule and the current rules on capital transfer mean that there will be fewer non-resident parents willing to make the offer, which could be the one thing, above all else, that the mother wants.

4.30 pm

Mr. Plaskitt: It would be a powerful point if there were any evidence of that effect— [Interruption.] Well, the 12-month rule has been in force since 2003 and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is absolutely no evidence to date that this is operating on property settlements in the way that he suggests. I do not think that it is correct to make that argument.

John Penrose: Let me return to the Minister’s point about parents defining when something has broken down. The burden of his response seemed to be that he is reluctant for the Government to set a definition, so may I encourage him to be a bit braver? I say that because the Government have already set some boundaries around what they regard as an acceptable degree of change in income for any arrangements made directly through CMEC in the first place. The Government said that income has to vary by 25 per cent. or more before parents can go back to CMEC for a change in maintenance arrangements. If the Government are willing to set that 25 per cent. boundary as a minimum level of change before people can go back, why are they not willing to apply the same principle to people wanting to start a new claim through CMEC because they want to vary something decided on by the courts? Surely the same principle should apply.

Mr. Plaskitt: I think that the two are entirely different. The point about the 25 per cent. boundary is that we are trying to move away from the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman knows were experienced by agencies in having to deal with an infinite number of reported changes of circumstances and changes of income levels, which made administering the system virtually impossible—or at least difficult to do smoothly and quickly. That is why we opted for the model of annual settlements and the 25 per cent. variation to regulate the extent to which we are doing recalculations and to give the commission a firm administrative basis to work from. That is not the same as trying to second-guess or anticipate the causes of a breakdown in a hitherto established agreement, which is not a parallel situation. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman’s argument runs from the 25 per cent. arrangement over to this arrangement.

I am, of course, disappointed in not having been able to dissuade Opposition Members from persisting with their amendments. I reiterate that, despite what they have said—sometimes explicitly, but certainly implicitly—the Government are not opposed to court-based agreements. We entirely accept that some may well last for the duration, which is fine. We are aware of no evidence that the 12-month rule is undermining court settlements or discouraging people from going for them; neither is it having the effect on property that has been suggested. I reiterate that there must be a mechanism for dealing
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with instances of these court-based agreements breaking down in the interests of ensuring a flow of maintenance to children. If Opposition Members press their amendments to the vote, I will ask my hon. Friends to oppose them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 1

Offence of failing to notify change of address

‘(1) In section 14A of the Child Support Act 1991 (Information — offences), after subsection (3) insert—

“(3A) In the case of regulations under section 14 which require a person liable to make payments of child support maintenance to notify a change of address, a person who fails to comply with the requirement is guilty of an offence.”

(2) In that section, in subsection (4), after “subsection (3)” insert “or (3A)”.’.— [Mr. Plaskitt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Plaskitt: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6— Contact addresses—

‘Non-resident parents who are required to make maintenance payments under the Child Support Act 1991 or this Act must take reasonable steps to provide an address at which they can be contacted by the Commission.’.

Mr. Plaskitt: New clause 1 will make it a criminal offence for a non-resident parent not to report a change in his or her address to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission. We will amend secondary legislation to introduce the specific requirement to report such a change.

Although existing legislation requires both parents to report certain changes in some circumstances, that does not cover routine changes of address. The Child Support Agency must still ask the non-resident parent to supply details of his or her new address. Only if he or she refuses, or fails to comply with a specific request, can the agency take action. As a result of the new clause and consequential changes to secondary legislation, as long as the non-resident parent is made aware of the new requirement the commission will not need to make any specific request, and will be able to consider criminal prosecution when an unreported change occurs.

Maintaining up-to-date address details for non-resident parents will allow the commission to take swifter enforcement action, and will help to ensure that annual reviews are completed without delay. It will also help to prevent the non-resident parent from manipulating the system, for example by claiming that he or she did not receive a warning that a deduction from earnings order would be imposed. Introducing such a requirement, with an associated criminal penalty for failure to comply with it, is not unprecedented—for instance, it is an offence not to notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of a change of address—and I believe that this is a sensible and necessary requirement for the commission to adopt.

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New clause 6, tabled by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), would place non-resident parents under a legal obligation to supply the commission with addresses at which they could be contacted. While I agree with the sentiment behind the new clause, I hope the hon. Gentleman appreciates that new clause 1 would achieve much the same effect, and that the Government’s approach, unlike his, is backed by sanctions. On that basis, I hope he will agree not to press new clause 6 to a vote.

Andrew Selous: I expect there to be much more agreement on these new clauses than there was on the last group of new clauses and amendments. I can tell the Minister at the outset that I shall be happy not to press new clause 6, as new clause 1 is slightly better drafted and, unlike mine, contains an offence category. Nevertheless, I feel that I can claim a small amount of credit, because I told the Minister in Committee that I felt that this measure should be in the Bill. When I was a member of the Select Committee during the last Parliament, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) raised the matter with the then chief executive of the Child Support Agency.

It is a fact that many non-resident parents simply disappear from the radar screen and cannot be traced, and it should be a basic requirement for them to inform CMEC of their permanent addresses. However, I should like to know what information the Government intend to publish about prosecutions for this offence. It is one thing for the Bill to specify an offence, and another thing for action to be taken. In the past, CSA powers have not always been used so extensively.

I should also be interested to know whether the Government intend to contact the utility companies, and perhaps mobile phone companies, when trying to obtain addresses. Hon. Members have raised constituency cases in which mobile phone companies have clearly known the addresses of non-resident parents. Will mobile phone and utility companies be under any obligation to give the Government the information? Given the inclusion of new clause 1 in the Bill, it seems to me an odd state of affairs that companies might not pass on information that the Government require.

My ears did prick up somewhat when the Minister mentioned the DVLA requirement that all motorists must provide their address to it. Is he aware of the serious problem of drivers who provide what are effectively post office addresses, or addresses at which the police have absolutely no hope of making contact with them? I have called an Adjournment debate on that subject, as it happens to be a particular problem in my constituency for reasons I am happy to tell the Minister about afterwards. It is a widespread problem; it is a problem for at least 13 police forces across the country. The Minister might need to look into this matter more carefully, perhaps in another place, and he might also need to reword his new clause because I have worries that it might not be as well worded as it should be—although I accept that it is better worded than mine. I am happy to speak to him about the experiences I have had with the DVLA.

If we are to include such a provision in the Bill, we should ensure that it works. We had a history of the CSA not having the powers it needed, and it will be a travesty if we bring forward a measure that we think will work and then find that it is defective.

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