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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, can the Minister turn those percentages into figures? What numbers of appeals does he expect?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am afraid that while on my feet I cannot turn the percentages into figures. I shall have to examine the calculations first and return to that in Committee.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, brought to the Jobseekers Bill his anxieties in relation to the fear of violence felt by, largely, women. He mentioned it again today on the question of absent parents. The policy in relation to potential violence from a former partner appears to be working well in our current system. Between the agency's

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launch and 27th April this year, good cause not to name the father had been accepted in over 73,000 cases from over 156,000 which are being or have been investigated. In only 18,000 cases so far has it been necessary to impose a reduced benefit direction.

The noble Earl asked also about the formula. The formula provides for basic living costs. It also provides for protected income ensuring that an absent parent and any new family remain well above income support levels after paying maintenance. It is true that it does not provide for debts, for example. We believe that it would be wrong to allow any commitment automatically to come ahead of one's children. In individual cases the new departure system will be able to take account of specific expenses not included in the formula.

I listened with some interest to one of the noble Earl's many examples—he always brings a fair number to the Chamber—where, if I can paraphrase it, a man started with £900 and got down to paying out more for his daughter than he had, and therefore he had nothing left to live on. The noble Earl puzzled me because he started working from gross income. The formula works on net income. It allows for living expenses and housing costs. It is only after those deductions that we take 50p. in the pound until the maintenance requirement is met. I find it hard to follow the arithmetic of his case, though it is always easier to do so the following day when one reads Hansard. I shall look at it again tomorrow.

Earl Russell: My Lords, if I might assist the Minister, does he agree that the formula does not allow for council tax or 50 per cent. of superannuation payment?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thought it did allow for 50 per cent. of superannuation payment. I am not sure about council tax; but if the noble Earl says that it does not allow for it, I shall accept that. Indeed, in a way people have to be left to pay their own bills, just as the rest of us have to pay our bills and things like council tax. Many people would be happy to be relieved of council tax commitments, but there you are.

The other question relating to property was the property settlement example where the parent with care's new partner—obviously not very well chosen for financial management attributes—had squandered all the resources. The new provisions will allow for that type of case to be dealt with. The absent parent will receive his allowance for the settlement irrespective of the fact that the money has now been spent. That should help in that circumstance.

Still on property, I was asked by the noble Baroness what will be done to help parents with care on income support when help with mortgage interest payments for the first nine months is withdrawn. We are considering the report by the Social Security Advisory Committee on the new arrangements for income support mortgage interest. I have to say that the noble Baroness will not tempt me into forecasting our conclusions, but they should be along shortly.

The noble Earl asked me about the father of step-children who is dead and therefore can no longer maintain them. In such cases a departure can be asked for.

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The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, asked me about the expression,

    "assets which do not produce income are capable of producing income".

While that might be a rather legalistic phrasing in the Bill, it should not prevent us from recognising the intention behind it, which is that in this case we intend to allow a parent with care to ask for a departure on the ground that the absent parent is diverting what should properly be income into some form of asset so that his child or children support liability would be lower than it ought to be. That is why that rather legalistic phrase is in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Sowerby—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am sorry about that, but who am I to complain about our titles when I have one which I constantly have to pronounce and spell. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked me about the agency's performance, a matter raised by the ombudsman and by others. As I admitted at the beginning of my contribution, the agency had a difficult start. But in the past year it has undertaken a full review of its business and it has taken measures to improve both its productivity and the quality of its service. That includes methods for improving accuracy, additional check-ups to prevent errors, enhanced training for staff, better targeted quality checks and new working arrangements. As a result, we believe that the improvements already apparent during the second year will be built on during this year.

The Bill sets out that around 750 staff will be required to administer the scheme, split between the agency and the independent tribunal service. As old cases—pre-departure scheme ones—are dealt with, the number of staff will be reduced. The news of the agency's performance is that by the end of March 1995 it had completed more than 450,000 maintenance assessments, issued more than 1 million application forms to parents with care and secured more than £890 million in benefits savings. Full details of the agency's activities are placed in the Library of the House each month.

Perhaps I may turn to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who has an amendment down on the Order Paper, and take up one or two of the points that he made. He suggested that it was contrary to the rule of law for the Child Support Agency to use distress for enforcement. As he will know, the use of distress to enforce a civil debt is normal. The agency does not and cannot employ distress without a liability order issued by the courts.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, what is objected to is that the child support officer could enter private premises and interrogate employers and fellow employees who would be bound to answer as otherwise they would incur a penalty. It was that that was said to be contrary to the rule of law, because officials enjoy that and ordinary citizens, rightly, do not.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I was going to come on to that point but I shall do so now rather than later. I refer to the question of Inland Revenue confidentiality, which was raised not only by the noble

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and learned Lord but also by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. The CSA does not approach the Inland Revenue for information on income. There are no powers for the Revenue's records to be used except to determine the current address of an absent parent or the current employer of an absent parent. The CSA has no power to ask the Revenue for any information except in those two areas. It has power to send in inspectors to obtain information from unco-operative employers but it has done so in only a handful of cases so far. It may approach employers for information as a matter of routine. The fact that inspectors who are appointed to acquire information under the Child Support Act have that power is not unlike other inspectors in similar areas where they are appointed for the purposes of gathering information. For example, National Insurance inspectors enter premises to examine wages and other records. As I said, in the case of Child Support Agency inspectors approaching the Inland Revenue, it is to check on addresses and not on income. So I do not believe the inspectors have been given sweeping powers that are not given anywhere else.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and my noble friend Lady Faithfull rather took us back to the court system and looked back as if, before the Child Support Agency, all was well. The system before 1993 was fragmented. Assessments were being done in a range of courts as well as in DSS local offices. They were inconsistent and maintenance was often not paid. Fewer than 50 per cent. of lone parents received maintenance. It is easy to think that the past was ideal, especially when we remember some aspects of the agency's earlier performance. But the agency is improving all the time.

Earl Russell: My Lords, has not the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, given us the explanation of why the amount of maintenance paid was so little?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I heard that and I explained that I think we look back perhaps through more rose-tinted spectacles than the situation of those years merits. In the year prior to the introduction of the scheme only around 20 per cent. of parents with care on income support had maintenance arranged. In that year £330 million in benefits savings were secured. The position in 1994-95 had changed so that 96 per cent. of the agency's work involved parents on benefit, of whom an estimated 77 per cent. had not previously received maintenance. That secured £479 million of benefits savings.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said that the 1991 Act had caused great public expense. In 1994-95 the agency achieved benefits savings of £479 million, at an administrative cost of £184 million. It is expected to achieve savings of £540 million next year, with an administrative cost of £183 million.

The noble and learned Lord said that maintenance for ex-partners and for children were intimately inter-related and that we should abandon an agency and formula-related system and revert to a court-related system. We have encouraged adults who separate to reach a clean-break agreement so that each can then rebuild his or her life. But there can be no clean break between parent and child. There is no full and final settlement. Indeed, the

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noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, put that point in her usual very strong manner. It is right that the courts should determine the disposition of assets between the adults, but we believe that the best way of ensuring proper maintenance for children is through a fair and consistent formula system with departures, where appropriate, in a minority of cases.

We believe that the Bill will make the child support system a fairer system. Any absent parent who has special expenses and genuine difficulties in meeting his commitments will now have the opportunity for his case to be looked at again. Absent parents will not be able to say that their assessment is unfair. I trust that the noble Baroness will not be able to accuse me of bending to the campaigns of organisations like, I suppose, Network against the Child Support Act, where it would appear she was suggesting that former partners were being rewarded for their law breaking. That is certainly not our intention. We believe that former partners will not be able reasonably to refuse to pay. Anyone simply intent on avoiding his responsibilities to his children will find the agency better equipped to secure his compliance. The whole purpose of the child support scheme continues to be to secure more maintenance more regularly for more children. I believe that these changes will help to achieve that aim.

I do not know what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, intends to do, but if he were to respond to the request of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and my noble friend Lady Faithfull and put his amendment to the test, I trust that the rest of my noble friends will support me in the Lobby. I trust that your Lordships—-

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