The Government want to introduce identity cards. That is a source of political dispute among various hon. Members on both sides of the House. Assuming that identity cards are introduced at some point in the futurenot a prospect that I personally welcomeI wonder whether the Minister will explain the position of someone whose identity card is removed. Will people perhaps be unable to gain access to benefits in any shape or form? Will they be unable to gain access to the health service in any shape or form if their identity cards are removed? If they are stopped by the police and the police have the right to inspect our identity cards, will they just get a white pass because their ID cards have been taken off them by CMEC? I
hope that there are some fairly clear answers to those questions. If not, there will be considerable problems.
I listened very happily to everything that the Minister said, until about the last three sentences of his remarks, when he rather alarmed me by saying that the Government reserve the right to return to the issue of removing passports by administrative order. That seems a bit strange.
We have before us a hard fought for, much argued over amendment that we finally got right in the House of Lords, which says that a court should be approached when someones passport is to be removed, but the Minister now says that that is all subject to review and that there may be a return to administrative orders at some unspecified point. That is a bit like the situation regarding the reviews that will be held on whether CMEC will continue to have Crown status. That worries me, because it seems a little different from the spirit of the agreement struck on the issue in another place by my noble Friend Lord Skelmersdale and Lord McKenzie of Luton. I seek reassurance from the Minister that the part of the Bill in question will not be changed by some regulation or other in future.
Paul Rowen: I, too, welcome this string of amendments. As the Minister knows, during proceedings on the Bill we raised a number of concerns about ensuring that collection and enforcement were as wide as possible. We gave examples of people who were transferring income and selling off assets without any collection taking place under the current CSA regime, so I welcome the fact that the amendments widen the scope of the bank deposits that can be dealt with. They will now include business deposits in cases where it is clear that money has been transferred from personal accounts into them to avoid paymentwe have heard examples of such casesand joint accounts, where there has been a hiding of income. The Bill will also allow lump sump payments and deduction orders to be paid. All that is to be welcomed.
I particularly welcome the Ministers commitment that the six-year rule will no longer apply. Throughout proceedings on the Bill, we expressed concerns on the issue. When we come to the next string of amendments, we will consider debts and arrangements for dealing with historical debts. It is important that we send a clear message to people, particularly parents without care who may seek to avoid paying their dues. I am sure that, like me, the Minister has many constituents who have suffered under the current arrangements with non-collection and non-payment. I am grateful for the fact that the stringent regulations will be subject to regulation by the court, so if the parent without care feels that CMEC is being unreasonable, they can go to court to seek redress; that is an important safeguard. Notwithstanding that, the measures send a clear message that we will make sure that dues are paid, and that all accounts and assets will be considered when an assessment is made.
With regard to travel arrangements, I welcome the fact that the Government accepted a point raised by my noble Friend Lord Oakeshott. It was wrong of the Government to think that they could put a travel restriction on someone by administrative order. The
fact that that was admitted is to be welcomed; travel restrictions have to be dealt with by the proper authorities, with reference to the courts.
In conclusion, I welcome the amendments. In due course, the orders that put the provisions into operation will be introduced. The Bill will be much better as a result of the amendments. What was in place before would have restricted CMECs ability to go about its duty.
Mr. Heald: I support the idea that a passport can be taken away from someone who wilfully does not pay. There may often be a poetic justice in that. A number of cases have been brought to my attention in which the complaint has been that the absent parent was away overseas on holiday. Often, they had taken the children on holiday, although they were not paying for the absolute basics of life for them. The parent with care may be grinding away, trying to survive, while the other party flaunts their money by going on holiday. Taking away a passport is a strong incentive to perform for the parent who is supposed to be paying.
I agree with the other sentiment that has been expressedthat that should not be done by administrative order, particularly in circumstances where the responsibilities can be outsourced to a company. It is a dangerous road to give a judicial function to a body that is nothing to do with the Government or the judicial system. I am glad that the Minister has thought again about that. He might want to reflect on other similar disposalsthe football hooligan who is told that as a consequence of offending, he may not go abroad to watch England play and that his passport will be confiscated for the period when the match takes place, or the driver who has too many points on his licence or commits a road traffic offence and has his licence taken away. That is always done by a court.
The Minister should give the House the assurance sought by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), that he will not review the provision and come back with the idea of an administrative order. The measure should stay in the judicial area and should be subject to the decision of a court.
Mr. Walker: I realise that I am probably the Ministers worst nightmaresome sort of idle Back Bencher pottering in from one of the Commons Corridors and taking part in a debate on a Bill although he did not serve on the Committeebut I am interested in the matter.
I welcome what the Minister said about pursuing people who have cash assets that lie outside income. I would be interested to know what will happen in instances where someone takes a cash asset and transfers it into a fixed assetfor example, they have £10,000 in cash in an account and buy a new car for £10,000, or they have a larger sum, say £150,000, and buy a house to hide it from the clutches of the CSA or the courts.
Where such circumstances are identified, will there be powers to require such a person to borrow against that asset to pay the money that they owe, or to sell the
asset so that the cash can be liberated and paid back to their partner? Alternatively, a notional income can be attached to those assets. If a person buys a house for £200,000, owns £150,000 of that and has a £50,000 mortgage, the income that can be derived from the £150,000 can be part of the calculation. I should be interested to know what the position would be in all those circumstances.
On travel restrictions, I am always concerned when the state talks about taking away peoples passports. It sounds a little like Big Brother. Conversely, I am attracted to the idea of stopping parents pleading poverty, as both the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) rightly identified. Some parents plead poverty, yet travel on a two-week vacation to Disneyland Florida. As my hon. Friend pointed out, one parent may be living almost entirely on benefits and bringing up the children day to day, while the former husband or partner is travelling north America at great expense. That does not seem fair.
Finally, what are the logistics of the process? If the intention is to go after cash in bank accounts or cash in fixed assets, how will that be done smoothly, seamlessly and quickly, without loads of lawyers becoming involved and loads of appeals lodged? The process could take years. I have seen at my surgery peoples absolute reluctance to face up to their responsibilities. I shall be interested to know how we will ensure that the process is speedy. With those concluding remarks, I can reassure the Minister that that will be my last contribution to the debate, as I have some constituents coming in this evening, whom I will be looking after later.
Mr. Plaskitt: In that case, perhaps I had better begin by responding to the points raised by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) so that I can release him from these duties as quickly as possible. Let me begin by telling him that he is no nightmare; in fact, I would go so far as to say that those were dream questions, and I will give him the answers.
There is already in place a significant array of powers that the existing agency can use to deal with assets that can be seized in certain circumstances. Indeed, if the non-payment and non-co-operation have gone so far that the agency has set bailiffs on, the assets can be taken in that way. Far from that process taking years, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, it can sometimes move quite swiftly. For example, a charging order can be placed on a property. Obviously, it will not be realised until that property is disposed of at some point, and that will take time, but in the end the money is collected. As he and his colleagues have said, this is about getting a message out there. Non-resident parents need to understand that whatever wheeze they come up with, it will not work, and that the agencynow to be the commissionhas such an array of powers of seizure and sequestration that the assets cannot be hidden for ever. From now on, in addition to being able to go into bank accounts and take money out directly, make deductions from earnings and so on, we will have a suite of measures targeted at financial and physical assets, so that resources cannot be parked in those areas in order to escape the responsibility of paying child maintenance. The hon. Gentleman raised
the right pointsthat is why I called them dream questionsand I hope that the answers will not cause him any loss of sleep.
Let me turn to the points raised by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the withdrawal of passports. Everyone who has spoken in the debate has reiterated their support for this measure in principle. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) welcomed it for the reasons that he outlinedthat it is galling for the parent with care to see a non-resident parent who is pleading poverty taking sometimes quite exotic overseas holidays. That rubs what is happening in the face of the parent with care. It is therefore appropriate that there should be a power to remove passports to cut out that option. Often, it is not the act of removing the passport that is necessary to do the trick, but the threat that that can happen: the mere knowledge that that might well happen if things get to a certain state is enough to make the non-resident parents cough up at some point. The test is not how often passports are withdrawn but the effectiveness of having the sanction in place.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked how this might work in respect of identity cards, once they are in place. The way that it may work technically is that the identity card owned by the non-resident parent would have to be surrendered and replaced with an alternative card that did not have the travel authorisation element to it, but all the other functions for which it is necessary to have an ID card could continue to be carried out.
Let me say to those who have raised concerns about this that many preliminary steps have to be gone through before it gets to the point where the travel documentation is removed. It will not be removed in some arbitrary way, as was implied in some of the comments that have been madeit is very much a final step after many preliminary actions have taken place. Those safeguards are already in place. The only reason we are saying that this might still be subject to reviewthe hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked about this because he was concerned about the last few sentences of my speechis that it is important to see whether continuing to go through the court-based route, as we have now accepted we will, imposes unacceptable delays in the administration of this sanction that might have the effect of devaluing it in some way. It is proper for us to be up-front and to say that if that happensit has been suggested to us that it might be an issuewe would want to have the right to come back to this sanction, because it has to bite and be understood to have teeth. If the court proceedings route proves to get in the way of its effectiveness, it will be right to come back and reconsider the administrative route. Further primary legislation would be required, so there will be any amount of opportunity to revisit it. We have taken fully on board the points made by the Constitution Committee, but I am not going to say that it cannot be reconsidered at some point in the future.
Apart from that, I have heard broad acceptance for and a welcoming of the amendments, which strengthen the Bill in a way that those who moved them intended. I am happy to take them into account, and I hope that they will be accepted by the House.
Mr. Plaskitt: This is a small group of amendments dealing with debt, which was debated in some detail in Committee in both Houses. We have again listened to those comments and concerns and therefore agreed to amend the Bill in two important areas. The first relates to the sale of debtthe factoring of debt to third parties to pursue it, as provided for in clause 34. We have amended the Bill to specify that regulations will include a requirement that the consent of the parent with care be sought before any such arrangement is entered into. Similarly, we have amended the provision in clause 32 for accepting part payment of arrears as full and final settlement to specify that regulations will again include a requirement that the consent of the parent with care be sought in advance, before that is done. The amendments clarify policy in terms of the Bill, and I commend them to the House.
Andrew Selous: Conservative Front Benchers support Lords amendments Nos. 86 to 89. I raised this issue in Committee on 11 October last year, when I moved amendment No. 21 to clause 29, which would have required the commission to obtain the permission of the parent with care in writing in order to reduce the liabilities owed to them. I am pleased that that is now in the Bill. It was a concern also widely shared by the Liberal Democrats and others.
We are aware of the global figures of £3.7 billion of debt, of which it is generally agreed that about £1.5 billion is collectable. However, this must be gone through on a case-by-case basis. I brought a constituent to see the Ministerhe kindly agreed to thatwho was owed nearly £40,000 by the father of her two boys. That money was genuinely owed, and based on legitimate income that her former husband had been receiving. She is absolutely determined to get the money back because it will restore the years that the locusts have eaten. This issue goes deep into the heart of non-resident parents who care about this. They think that their children have been deprived of certain things in their childhood and want to make that up to them in later life, perhaps with a deposit on a house because they could not give them treats when they were younger. That is an entirely reasonable expectation. It is up to the parent to whom the money is owed to give their say-so if there is to be any reduction in that money. It is not a question of just tidying up CMECs books to make it look it better so that it can give a better annual report to the Secretary of State, which then comes before Parliament, that says, Weve got the debt mountain down. We should not look at the matter from that point of view.
This was another occasion when the Government got their fingers rapped by a House of Lords Committeethe
Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. In paragraph 152 on page 29 of its third report of the 2007-08 Session, the Committee said that the
principles of the sale of child maintenance...should be fully debated in Parliament when regulations are first laid under these powers.
I am pleased to see that one of the Ministers colleagues in the other place referred to that report and agreed to amend the Bill accordingly. Again, that shows support for these important amendments. A vital principle is involved and we shall be pleased to see them included in the Bill.
Paul Rowen: We, too, welcome the amendments. The Minister will recall that in Committee a major concern of ours was that the creation of CMEC should not be used as an opportunity to forget about or write off large historic debts. I therefore welcome the effect of the amendments, which will give the parent with care the final say in whether the debt is written off, and ensure that they must agree to any selling on of that debt. However, I would like to question the Minister about how that will operate. He and I, having dealt with several constituency cases, can imagine circumstances in which there is a long-outstanding debt of a large sum of money, such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), the children involved have grown up, and a letter arrives from CMEC with an offer.
Will the Minister tell me what safeguards will be put in place to ensure that the parent with care can seek advice, if they are concerned about the proposal? Will the full details of any settlement be explained to them? If they are owed £40,000, an offer of £20,000 may be acceptable, but will CMEC offer a full assessment of why that amount should be accepted? I would not want a situation to arise in which a letter drops through the letterbox asking for written permission without the possibility of further discussion, face-to-face consultation or further advice before such an offer is made.
As we have said, we are talking about huge sums of moneymore than £1.5 billionand throughout their childhood an awful lot of children missed the opportunity to benefit from it. Will the Minister assure us that there will not be an automatic write-off or selling on of debt? There must be safeguards in place to ensure that the parent with care, and perhaps even the child, who may have reached adulthood, has a say and can have a proper discussion about what an agreement might mean to them. That is important if we are to take forward the provisions, which I welcome.
Mr. Plaskitt: I am grateful to the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) for their support for the amendments. From our constituency casework, we know the prevalence of debt and the strength of feeling that there is about it. We know that some of the amounts involved are very large indeed, as with the constituent I met accompanied by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire.