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Government amendments Nos. 2, 4 and 11 refer to regulation-making powers concerning appeals. The Government want to ensure consistency across child support legislation where there is a right of appeal to a tribunal. When we considered the appeal provisions in the Bill, it became clear that there were inconsistencies in how various regulation-making powers were expressed. That could have led to confusion about the division of responsibility between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice. The logical way to
clarify matters was to place any new provisions on appeals to appeal tribunals under those already in place in section 20 of the Child Support Act 1991. Amendment No. 2 does that. It is similar to a technical amendment to clause 23 that was agreed by the Committee on 11 October. Amendment No. 2 leads to two consequential amendments.
Government amendment No. 4 makes it clear that regulations providing for the charging of fees by the commission should be subject to the affirmative procedure, but not those concerning only the procedure and powers of an appeal tribunal considering an appeal. Government amendment No. 11 amends the Social Security Act 1998 to clarify the fact that the reference to fees in clause 6 refers specifically to the regulation-making powers in clause 6(5).
Government amendment No. 3 is the result of an amendment tabled in Committee before the summer recess by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), who I am sorry to see is not present. Under that amendment, a copy of any directions or guidance that the Secretary of State issued to the commission would have had to be laid before Parliament. In Committee, I asked the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment so that we could give full consideration to how powers of direction are used across Government, and to the appropriateness of laying the directions in question before Parliament.
In the case that we are considering, the Secretary of States power of direction would be used only in the most exceptional and time-critical circumstances. The power has been provided because although the commission will be a non-departmental public body, ultimate accountability for its performance will remain with the Secretary of State. We had the chance to reflect on the extent of the power over the summer, and we concluded that when the Secretary of State gives a direction, it will be a rare but important step that warrants the direct attention of Parliament, which will provide the necessary and proper parliamentary scrutiny of the relationship between the Secretary of State and the commission.
Amendment No. 3 therefore requires the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament a copy of any directions given to the commission. The requirement is subject to two important exemptions: the first is for information that is commercially confidential, and the second is for information that may relate to specific individuals. The amendment highlights the importance that we attach to parliamentary scrutiny of the Secretary of States relationship with the commission. It also shows that we welcome the contribution that the Committee made to the Bill, and that we are willing to act on appropriate suggestions.
On Government amendments Nos. 6 and 7, if the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission is to realise its objectives, it is imperative that it operates within robust and effective governance arrangements, following best practice wherever possible. In the two amendments, it is proposed that the Secretary of State, not the Comptroller and Auditor General, lays the commissions accounts before Parliament. That minor change to the Bills accounts and audits provisions is in line with recent changes to Government policy, and is supported by the National Audit Office. I reassure hon. Members that altering the responsibility for who lays the accounts before Parliament does not change the
Comptroller and Auditor Generals authority to audit the commissions accounts, so the change does not weaken parliamentary accountability in any way. The same accounts are being laid before Parliament; it is just a different person who lays them.
Government amendment No. 8 enables aliment orders in Scotland to be recognised, alongside other private maintenance arrangements. Paragraph 5 of schedule 4 proposes an adjustment to basic and reduced rate liabilities where a non-resident parent has an existing maintenance obligation for a child, but where that obligation is not part of the statutory scheme. The commission can recognise the maintenance arrangement as though it were part of the statutory scheme, with the result that all the children supported by the non-resident parent are treated equally. In such cases, the existing qualifying maintenance arrangement will be either a maintenance order or another form of agreement that confirms the non-resident parents responsibility for a child.
The amendment seeks to put beyond doubt the fact that maintenance orders made in Scotlandthe term aliment is used under Scottish laware to be treated as qualifying maintenance arrangements. That will remove the risk of people misinterpreting and thinking that non-resident parents who support children under aliment might not benefit from those children being recognised under the statutory maintenance system.
Government amendment No. 9 ensures that the test for the granting of a warrant for commitment to prison in Scotland under section 40A of the Child Support Act 1991 is the same as that for granting a warrant for commitment to prison in England and Wales, and the same as that for making an order to disqualify the non-resident parent from driving under section 40B of the 1991 Act. We recognise the differences between the Scottish legal system and the system in England and Wales, but child maintenance cases should of course be dealt with in a consistent manner across Great Britain. The amendment will help to ensure that the different court jurisdictions reach decisions in the same way.
Government amendment No. 10 amends schedule 7 and provides a power, under the affirmative procedure, to change the £800 threshold for the second set of basic rate calculation percentages introduced in schedule 4. That schedule introduces changes to the basic maintenance calculation rate for the future scheme. It amends the existing set of percentages that apply to weekly income of between £200 and £800, and introduces a new set of percentages that apply to any weekly income in excess of £800, subject to a cap of £3,000. The rates were chosen to create approximate parity between liabilities under net and gross income, and the £800 threshold broadly corresponds to the amount of weekly income at which the 40 per cent. marginal income rate tax starts to apply.
We have said that we will review the rates of calculation during each Parliament, and we have retained the power to change them where necessary through regulations under the affirmative procedure. Amendment No. 10 would allow that same power to apply to the £800 threshold amount, thus ensuring consistency in the way in which maintenance calculation rates may be amended.
The Opposition amendments to clause 21 relate to current account deduction orders. I thank hon. Members for tabling the amendments, as it gives me the chance to update the House on the progress that we are making.
The amendments would expand the breadth of deduction orders and allow for periodic deductions from deposits, as well as current accounts. Since we discussed the matter in Committee on 11 October, we have been considering just how far we should take both the periodic and the lump sum deduction orders. We have had further discussion inside and outside Government, particularly with financial institutions. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the representatives of the banks and building societies, who have been extremely constructive in all our discussions. It remains our intention to come back with proposals ensuring that deduction orders have sufficient scope to ensure that non-resident parents cannot easily avoid them. I trust that hon. Members will be content with my response at this stage, and I ask them not to press their amendments.
Andrew Selous: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the Government amendments, all of which seem entirely sensible, and which tidy up various aspects of the Bill. He spoke about the need for consistency in appeals, and about copies of directions being laid before Parliament. We are particularly keen to maximise parliamentary scrutiny in the Bill. I have no objection to accounts being laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State rather than the Comptroller and Auditor General; I am more concerned about receiving the accounts on time than about who puts them before the House.
The points about aliment in Scotland are entirely sensible, as is the test of consistency for a warrant of arrest to commit someone to prison in Scotland, so that it is the same for someone in England. We agree, too, with the change in percentages in Government amendment No. 10.
I am grateful for the Ministers assurance that he will return to the issue that the Opposition raised in Committee and today in amendments Nos. 23 to 25, which would ensure that deduction of earnings orders are imposed on deposit as well as current accounts. That is important, because the distinction between deposit and current accounts has become blurred, and in recent years, more accounts paying a competitive rate of interest allow a higher rate of transactional activity, so it would be possible for non-resident parents to try to avoid a deduction of earnings order by using only deposit accounts. Given his reassurance that he will look at the matter again, perhaps in another place, I am happy not to press any of our amendments to a vote.
Paul Rowen: May I thank the Minister for Government amendment No. 3, which deals with parliamentary scrutinyone of our main concerns in Committee? The laying of directions in Parliament gives hon. Members an opportunity to raise their concerns. The other Government amendments are sensible, and we are happy to support them.
Mr. Clapham: My hon. Friend the Minister will know that under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers Compensation) Act 1979, there are two lists of payments. One refers to live claimants and the other to dependants. It is worth looking at the reasons that have been given historically for the considerable difference in payments to live claimants and to dependants.
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