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New subsection (2A) proposed for Section 105 of the 1984 Act is consequential on the provisions on community care orders and makes it an offence for any individual to ill treat or wilfully neglect a patient in respect of whom a community care order is in force. The same offence of ill treating or wilfully neglecting already exists in relation to in-patients, out-patients and patients in guardianship or otherwise in custody or care. There is no scope for creating a different offence of "neglecting" rather than "wilfully neglecting" a patient in this existing section, and we do not think that we should do so.
The noble Earl pointed out that there would be quite a lot of consequential work to be done by draftsmen in the event of that being the case. However, I stress to him that whatever he feels about the word "wilfully", ill treatment still remains an offence. With those thoughts, I hope that the noble Earl is able to withdraw the amendment.
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in January the Government published the White Paper Improving Child Support, which set out our plans for reforming the arrangements for child support to ensure that the scheme delivers a fair, efficient and effective means of establishing maintenance for children whose parents live apart. The regulations will bring into effect those of the proposals which can be enacted through subordinate legislation.
The main principle of the schemethat parents are responsible for their children, even where they live apart still commands wide support. The Government recognised from the start that the Child Support Act 1991 constituted a major reform to social policy, and that it would take time for it to become widely accepted. As promised, we have kept the scheme under review and have concluded that changes to the scheme are
Turning to the detail, the regulations introduce a provision to ensure that no absent parent will normally be assessed to pay more than 30 per cent. of his net income. This will guarantee that maximum maintenance payments are brought into line with original expectations.
The regulations also introduce an allowance to reflect past transfers of property or capital, made before April 1993often referred to, incorrectly, as "clean break" settlements. The Government have always made it clear that there can never be a clean break from children. However, we accept that many parents would not have entered into the agreements had they been aware that the advent of the Child Support Act would substantially increase their maintenance liabilities. After careful consideration, we have concluded that some explicit recognition of these settlements is justified.
The Government intend that the proposed system for departures from the normal maintenance assessment will, in due course, deal with these cases. However, the passage of the necessary primary legislation and the setting up of the departure system will take time. We are therefore introducing a broad-brush allowance in the formula now, so that parents do not have to wait until 1996-97 for recognition of the settlements. There will be three rates of the allowance which will depend on the value of the property or capital transferred: £20 where the value of the transfer was between £5,000 and £10,000; £40 where the amount was between £10,000 and £25,000 and £60 where the transfer was £25,000 or more. No allowance will be payable if the transfer was less than £5,000.
The regulations also introduce an allowance towards travel to work costs, intended to provide some help where parents travel long distances. In the large majority of casesand even more so following the other changes we are making the formula leaves absent parents with sufficient income to meet other expenses such as travel to work costs. However, it is important that work incentives are maintained and this allowance will assist those parents who, because they have to travel long distances, tend to have particularly high costs.
Again, the allowance will be calculated on a broad-brush approach, which will enable a simple calculation to be made, avoiding the need for detailed inquiries to be carried out in each case. If either parent feels that the allowance is not representative they will, in due course, be able to apply for a departure, where there will be more scope to take account of the particular circumstances.
Many commentators have argued that greater priority should be given to step-families. We remain convinced that it would be wrong to let step-families take priority over first families in all cases; their needs should be met in the first instance by their natural parents. We do, however, agree with the recommendation of the Select Committee in another place that allowable housing costs should not be reduced where the absent parent has a new partner or step-children living with him, and the regulations remove that provision.
The regulations also contain a range of measures designed to help the operation of the scheme. The Government have already acknowledged that performance of the agency in the early days did not fully meet expectations, despite the efforts of the staff. However, the agency is now achieving significant improvements, and the measures contained in this package will help to ensure that that continues.
In particular, the regulations allow for periodic reviews to be conducted only every two years, rather than annually as at present, which will relieve the agency of the considerable burden of making a full reassessment of all cases every year. Of course, it is still open to either parent to ask for a re-assessment if there is a relevant change of circumstances.
The regulations also contain a number of measures which will simplify the current complex provisions for determining earnings and housing costs. These should reduce considerably the need for time-consuming follow-up investigations while ensuring that the figures used are representative and accurate.
Finally, we have made provision for the start date of liability to be deferred for eight weeks where the absent parent provides certain essential information within four weeks. That will act as an incentive for absent parents to co-operate quickly and help to ensure that maintenance feeds through to parents with care as soon as possible.
I believe that this package of modificationstogether with those measures that we hope to bring before the House shortly in the Billmeet the major concerns expressed and at the same time preserve the basic principles of the child support scheme. The regulations will also enable the Child Support Agency to deal with cases more effectively, and I commend them to the House.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, these Benches support the principle that absent parents should still be responsible for their children and should properly contribute to their maintenance. But we have long criticised the Child Support Agency generally for its administrative complexity. In particular, we criticised it because it was retrospective, thus throwing into chaos arrangements already made by families at the point of divorce; because it failed to take into account property and capital transfers at the point of divorce; because it failed to help those parents with care who merely replaced in benefit what was lost in maintenance and then only if
So we have not and will not oppose government efforts to reform the CSA along the lines of Opposition views. Indeed, if the Government had taken seriously and adopted Opposition amendments when the Bill went through both Houses, virtually all the problems that they are now having to address would not have arisen.
Let me say immediately that we welcome many of the amendments listed by the Minister: the abolition of interest rates on delayed payment; the suspension of fees; the proposed arrangements for arrears; the simplified verification of earnings; and, in Regulation 50, the simplification of housing costs, which will help second families. But we want to register our concern that virtually all the changes proposed by these regulations benefit the absent parent, usually the father. Very little in these changes will help the parent with care, who is usually the mother. He will have his maintenance contribution capped, which is of especial benefit to the better off; but she will still receive not a penny in disregard, even though, having lost income support, she loses the passported benefits that go with it.
However, that is an issue to which we shall return when the Bill is before us. Instead, let me ask the Minister to clarify seven points in these regulations. First, disclosure of information, Regulation 24: what assurance will the Minister give that issues of privacy and confidentiality will not be abused?
Secondly, property settlements, Regulation 44: we are glad to see that on a broad brush basis they are being taken into account, but why are only those property and capital settlements made before April 1993 brought into the calculation? Would it not be wise and proper to make all such settlements part of the maintenance agreement? If we do not, solicitors will understandably urge male clients not to accept the transfer to the spouse of the matrimonial home, and she may face eviction when her youngest child grows up.
The fourth point concerns the periodic review of maintenance assessment every two years under Regulation 34. We appreciate the need to catch up on the administrative backlog. But do the Government propose to return to annual reviews, which are more desirable, when they have caught up?
The Minister admitted that some 30,000 to 50,000 parents with care will be losers because they will lose more in maintenance than they will receive back in benefit. Is that fair? What arrangements for compensation is the Minister making? Given that so much of the hostility between second and first families occurs when the income of the second wife is taken into account in assessing the liability of the husband to his maintenance of the first wife, are the Government proposing to change that?
We welcome the abolition in Regulation 46 of the non-dependent adult deduction. Are the Government considering extending that to income support and housing benefit? Finally, will the Government tell the House what the total full-year cost of the regulation changes will be, how much of that will go to the absent parent, and how much to the parent with care?
While broadly welcoming these changes we regard them still as one-sided. We hope that when we receive the Child Support Bill we shall be able to deal more even-handedly with all the parties involved in child maintenance.
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