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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I start by dealing with Amendment No. 19. The effect of this amendment, proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, would be to prevent any additions to the general principles set out in the new Section 28E of the 1991 Act, inserted by Clause 5, when determining an application for a departure direction. As the Bill states, these are that,

    (b) where a parent has more than one child, his obligation to maintain any of them should be no less of an obligation than his obligation to maintain any other of them".

Those general principles have been laid down to ensure that the system of departures does not undermine the basic intentions of the child support system. It is proposed to use the delegated power included in new Section 28E(1) only if it becomes necessary to set out further specified considerations to ensure that discretion is exercised consistently and fairly.

The noble Earl has proposed in Amendment No. 20 various additional principles to be included in the new section. He dealt with them in turn and I shall do likewise.

I turn first to the proposal that step-children, foster children and adoptive children whose natural parents are dead or otherwise unable to maintain them should be treated in the same manner as a parent's own children. I should begin by clarifying that adoptive children are already treated, for the purposes of assessing child maintenance, as if they are the parent's natural children. By adopting a child, a parent assumes full legal and financial responsibility for that child—a responsibility, I should emphasise, that continues even if, as a result of a relationship breakdown, the adoptive parent no longer lives with that child. I therefore agree that adopted children should be treated in the same manner as natural children, and that is what happens.

However, the matter is not so clear cut when considering step-children. Normally, the primary responsibility for maintaining step-children should rest with their own natural parent, and not with their

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step-father. We recognise that there are cases where it is not possible for their own parent to maintain them, the obvious example being where that parent has died. That is why the costs of step-children are among the special expenses listed in Schedule 2 to the Bill. We believe that specifying such circumstances as a ground for departure is the best way of dealing with this issue rather than making it a general principle to be considered in every departure application when it may well have no bearing at all on a particular application.

Foster children are treated as being in the care of the local authority and are not subject to child maintenance assessments. In addition, foster parents receive an appropriate allowance from the local authority. It would be wrong to, in effect, boost that allowance through the child maintenance system at the expense of a parent's own natural children.

The second part of the amendment proposes that no departure direction should have such an effect on an assessment that a parent is left unable to meet legal obligations from which it would be impossible or unreasonable to expect him to withdraw. The effect would be to require any and all legally enforceable commitments to have priority over child maintenance, including those which Members of the Committee may consider it most undesirable to support such as debts from gambling or from the purchase of luxury items such as an expensive motor car or even an expensive holiday. That would enable absent parents who have an existing liability to reduce that liability by deliberately taking on additional commitments.

Earl Russell: What makes the Minister think that he has authority to take and enforce that sort of moral judgment on all the rest of us?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not know where the moral judgment comes in, but it is a judgment that the absent parent has a responsibility to maintain the children of his former marriage if he has the cash to do so. I believe that that is an absolutely sensible principle and the great majority of the people of this country agree with that. The noble Earl has already told me very pointedly that he also agrees with it, but there is a difference. I wish to will the means to get to that end and the means is that of the Child Support Agency. It is all very well saying that one agrees with the general principle, but one has to make sure that it can be carried out. That is why we believe that we have the right to have a say in these matters. We have no right, of course, if the people involved are not looking to the public purse and the taxpayer for any help, but we have the right when they are so looking.

We have recognised that in exceptional cases parents may have legal commitments which should be taken into account when assessing child maintenance, and that is why we are proposing that such debts can be grounds for a departure application. Introducing a specific ground for a departure application is the best way of dealing with such commitments, rather than introducing a general principle which would mean that virtually all debts would need to be taken into account no matter how unworthy they may be.

It might be appropriate now to say that when listening to the noble Earl I wondered about the case of parents who continue to live together.

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Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. He is always very courteous in giving way. He seems to be equating "taken into account" with "give priority to". The noble Lord did so a moment ago. The words are "taken into account". It is not stated that they rank in priority to the obligation as regards the relevant children.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I do not want to start splitting hairs with the noble and learned Lord, but if one lists a series of sub-paragraphs, if one may call them that, which is what the noble Earl is inviting us to do, one makes them all equal. Therefore, we get to the stage where, if we force people to take total account of them, we are not making any judgment as to which one should have priority.

I was just about to advance my argument on the question of priority. Let us consider parents who continue to live together, do not get divorced, are happily married, busy looking after their children with one or other of them out working, who have to deal with all their legal obligations and look after their children. To be honest, I do not believe that we are asking the absent parent to do anything different from the man next door who has happily continued in his marriage and his responsibilities in looking after his children day by day. We have to be very careful that we are not making people who become absent parents somehow totally different and that we must not expect them to have the same obligations as the man next door who carries these obligations day by day to his wife and children.

The third and fifth parts of the noble Earl's amendment seek to ensure that absent parents retain an incentive to work and are not worse off than they would be on benefit. I can assure him that the Government are equally keen to maintain work incentives and have already introduced two specific measures to help ensure that. First, we made significant increases in the protected income margins as part of the February 1994 changes. As a result an absent parent will always retain at least £30 more income than he would if he were unemployed and receiving income support. Secondly, we introduced in April this year a broad-brush formula allowance towards travel-to-work costs for parents who have to travel long distances. We shall be coming to them later when we deal with departures.

I reiterate that we believe that the proper way to address issues such as travel-to-work costs is by specifying specific grounds and not by making it a general principle to be considered in all departure cases.

The noble Earl's amendment also seeks to introduce a similar guarantee for parents with care; that they will not be worse off as a result of a departure direction than they would be on benefit. I assume he is referring to the loss of automatic entitlement to passported benefits when a person's income extinguishes entitlement to income support.

The Government have made their position clear on many occasions. One of the basic principles of the Act is that the burden on the taxpayer should be reduced where parents can afford to support their own children. It has always been the case that some parents with care will be floated off income support as a result of increased

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maintenance payments. Parents with care were floated off income support in the past by maintenance arranged under the old court system or by the DSS liable relative sections, which some Members of the Committee will look back on with nostalgia, or indeed by other forms of income they acquired.

Such parents will no longer automatically qualify for the additional benefits, but they will still be eligible to apply for a range of income-related benefits such as housing benefit, council tax benefit and family credit, as well as help with NHS charges on income grounds. In this respect, the receipt of maintenance is treated no differently than the receipt of another income from any source, which can extinguish entitlement to income support.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: This is one element of the amendment where we are at one with the noble Earl, Lord Russell. It is deeply unreasonable that a parent with care should be left the poorer as a result of receiving maintenance pound for pound in lieu of benefit and thus losing the passported benefits that go with income support. It is in that context, as the noble Earl rightly said, that we may be discussing this later in terms of maintenance disregard.

Does the Minister agree when he makes the analogy with other circumstances, and that a parent with care might have other income, that that other income would normally be income taken from work? In that situation the parent with care would have disregard or, alternatively, would have the choice of not being in work but preferring to remain on benefit if that meant that the child that she was caring for was financially better off.

The problem here is that the parent with care has no opportunity to make that choice as to which circumstances best suit the conditions that she and her children are in. It is a compulsory substitution of maintenance for benefit and therefore a compulsory projection of that parent with care into poverty greater than she would otherwise experience. In all fairness, that is a distinction of which the Minister should remind the Committee.

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