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Earl Russell: Before the noble Baroness replies, I should like to take up the Minister's description of those who do not pay maintenance as failing to face up to their responsibilities. It sounds awfully like the sort of language that was used about those who did not pay the poll tax. When the Minister talks about using all the

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resources of the agency to ensure collection, his language sounds remarkably like that used by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in 1991 to justify continuing to chase poll tax defaulters. Will the Minister take warning from that example?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: There is a world of difference between how one levies taxation for local government—we could go over all that argument again—and the responsibilities that parents have to their children. That may mark me out as being rather old-fashioned, but I believe that parents have that responsibility and that they should address it when they are separated so far as their means allow.

Earl Russell: In using the words "so far as their means allow" the Minister makes a rather crucial concession. Will he think through the implications of that concession? Will he think it possible that their means may not always allow them to do what is assessed in the formula?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My words should not come as a revelation. I have used words such as "ability to pay" at times today. It depends, I am afraid, on the definition of "means allow". The definitions are in the formula, and within the departure system it would appear that a minority of absent parents, reports about whom I have read over time, think that they should decide how much they pay. I do not believe that they should be given the opportunity to define the expression "means allow".

Earl Russell: What if their bank managers try to define what their means allow?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall not go any further. I do not see what the bank manager has to do with it, unless he is an absent parent.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Am I to take it from the Minister's reply that the only broadly conceivable circumstance in which the parent with care would not get the back-to-work bonus is if the absent parent refused to pay? In other words, if there were errors, mistakes, delays or ineptitude on the part of the agency in enforcing and collecting—and I have to say that we do not have a lot of confidence so far in the agency's performance in some of those roles—the parent with care would not find herself losing her bonus because of faults that could be largely attributed to the agency. Is it correct that only in circumstances where the absent father was solely to blame would she lose the bonus but where the agency was in any sense a contributory factor, the Government (the taxpayer) would shoulder that responsibility and make up the bonus? Can we at least get that point established?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: We are beginning to go down quite difficult roads. I made clear the general principle that the absent parent must pay for the bonus to roll up. I hear the point made by the noble Baroness; namely, that if it is the agency's fault that the absent parent has not paid, where does that leave the parent with care? I wonder whether she would mind if I consider that question and reflect on it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am delighted for the Minister to do so. In that case, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clauses 11 to 17 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 42 to 44 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 45:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Absent parents: non-residence with child

.—(1) Section 3 of the 1991 Act shall be amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2) (a) after "child" there shall be inserted "or expected to reside with the parent with care as soon as he can reasonably be expected to do so".").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 46 and 71. These amendments, or the major part of them, like so much else in my amendments result from a case which was in my postbag last week. Last Tuesday I wrote to the Minister, with a copy to Mr Alistair Burt, about that case. If the Minister's desk is anything like mine, my letter will not have worked to the top of the pile just yet. I do not blame the Minister for that. I apologise for not having written to him sooner, but I could not write until I got the case.

The case concerns a pair of teenage lovers who became parents and were left responsible for an infant, for which both of them wished to assume responsibility. In effect, they had practically no income to do so. The two sets of parents were both supportive. The couple continued the relationship while living with their parents, in the hope of finding a place where they could live together as soon as their means allowed them to do so. Meanwhile, for reasons which I am still seeking—I have only just received this case, so I do not yet have them—an assessment was placed on the young man on the ground that he was an absent parent, even though there was a continuing relationship and continuing responsibility.

The couple now have a housing association tenancy together. They have the kind of wages that teenagers can expect and they are saddled with arrears of £2,600. The absent parent's mother wrote to me and pointed out that, at the current rate of repayment, that is likely to take the young man more than the whole of his natural life.

It seems to me that mistakes have been made in that case. There are more mistakes, which are the subject of later amendments. It seems to me that calling a person an absent parent because he is not physically residing in the same building may be an unduly simplistic way of deciding who will be an absent parent. That is the point of Amendment No. 45, which provides that a parent who is expected to reside with the parent with care as soon as he (or she) can reasonably be expected to do so should not be construed to be an absent parent.

In this case it should be the responsibility of the parent with care who, after all, knows a good deal more about the matter, to decide what the allegedly absent parent can afford to pay. There would have been no difficulty in interpreting the provisions of the amendment. The couple were looking for a joint tenancy, which they have now found. The intention to live together was manifest and both their sets of parents would have vouched for it.

Amendment No. 46 deals with a similar matter. It provides that people should not be held to be absent parents and brought within the system of the Act under

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the age of 18. Most of them simply cannot cope with the liability at that age. That would be without prejudice to any continuing liability after they reach the age of 18.

I decided to insert in the same amendment, because the principle is the same, an exception for full-time students. In 1991, until we dealt with the regulations, I did not realise that full-time students were expected to come within the scope of the Act. By that time it was too late to table an amendment to take it out because of course regulations by their nature cannot readily by amended. If it had been in primary legislation, it would have been a matter of a major debate in this Chamber, and probably a vote. The Government may even have thought twice about it.

The Minister knows how hard up most students now are. I can tell him. If one has to advise a student, one advises him or her in their own interest. Were any pupil of mine to become the subject of the Child Support Act, I would instantly advise them to withdraw from university, which would not be in the long-term interests of the parent with care. The long-term amount of maintenance that the young man might be able to pay would undoubtedly drop. In their present financial state, the application of the Bill to students is unjustifiably harsh and I hope that the Minister will think again about that.

Amendment No. 71 provides that when the absent parent and the parent with care shall resume or take up residence together, there shall be a discretion to pardon any outstanding arrears. In that situation, the parent with care who knows the circumstances, who knows what she can and cannot press the man to do, is a much better judge of how much of these arrears it is reasonable to try to get out of him than the Secretary of State can ever be. That provision would save a considerable number of marriages. This is a package of amendments which deserve serious consideration.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Let me say, first, to the noble Earl that I have indeed received his letter and my honourable friend Mr. Alistair Burt replied to it this morning. I fully appreciate that, given the pressure of work we are under today, the noble Earl has not had a chance to see the letter, if it has actually caught up with him.

I shall not deal with that question because, as the noble Earl knows, I am bound by the rules of confidentiality in replying to him about an actual case, as is my honourable friend. And it was not either of the parties to the case who wrote the letter to the noble Earl. However, I hope I can help him or at least explain some of the aspects of principle as I respond to the amendments before us.

These amendments seek to remove the liability of absent parents to pay maintenance in a number of circumstances. Amendment No. 45 is intended to remove liability for child maintenance from an absent parent who, although not living as part of the family of the child to be maintained, is likely to do so in the near future. I understand the intention of this amendment and at first glance it might seem reasonable to suppose that where the absent parent is clearly going to rejoin the family in the near future, he should not be pursued by the Child Support Agency. However, such an approach would undermine

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the first basic principle of the 1991 Act; that is, that each parent is responsible for maintaining their children. It would be wrong to create a situation whereby a parent could remove his responsibility to maintain his child merely by making a commitment to rejoin the family at some stage in the future.

Where the parent with care is receiving income support, the cost of maintaining the child would fall wholly on the taxpayer. The logical corollary of treating a parent as "not being absent" for child support purposes, would be to do the same for benefit purposes. That is, an absent parent who benefited from this provision ought to have his resources aggregated with those of the parent with care when assessing any claim to benefit that the parent with care may make. I doubt if that is what the noble Earl would wish.

In addition, this amendment would create an incentive for contrived separations, which would be very difficult to detect. Parents with care would be able to claim benefit for as long as both parents could convince the CSA that they intended to reconcile in the near future. We believe that the introduction of the agency has had a marked effect in reducing the number of benefit claims arising from such fictitious desertions. The amendment would introduce a loophole for such claims to proliferate again.

The effect of Amendment No. 46 would be to remove from the ambit of the child support legislation absent parents who are not yet over 18 or who are students. For the children of such parents, there would be no recourse through the Child Support Agency, and those caring for them would be forced to seek maintenance through the courts.

The provisions of the child support legislation are intended to give a fair and reasonable assessment of maintenance in a wide range of circumstances. There is no reason why such assessments should not apply to young people and students, some of whom are financially perfectly well able to support their children. There can be no justification for removing the duty to provide for one's own child simply because a parent is young or a student. If such an absent parent has a low income, his child support maintenance will also be low, or even nil. Students are assessed on the same basis as anyone else, but if grant is their only form of income, the assessment will be nil.

Amendment No. 71 provides that in cases where the absent parent and the parent with care are reconciled and living together, arrears of maintenance may be waived. Clearly, the continuing collection of arrears would, in cases where they are not in receipt of benefit, merely result in a transfer of money within the household with no overall benefit to either party.

The position is a little more difficult if the arrears are not due to be paid to the parent with care because she was receiving income support at the time they should have been paid. It is not right that the absent parent should evade his liability, and the taxpayer foot the bill for the unpaid maintenance, just because the absent parent and the parent with care are now living together.

However, the existing legislation already gives the flexibility sought by this amendment as the agency always has discretion as to whether to continue collecting maintenance and arrears. In cases where there is no benefit interest and the parent with care states she does not

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wish collection of the arrears to be pursued, action will be suspended, rather than the arrears being waived. Should the parents subsequently separate again and the parent with care ask for it, action to collect the arrears can recommence, subject to the six-year limitation period.

In cases where the arrears are due to the Secretary of State rather than the parent with care, careful consideration will be given to the question of continuing to pursue arrears if the parents are now living together. Because decisions relating to collection are discretionary, regard will always be had to the welfare of the child and there may be some cases where it would not be appropriate to proceed for that reason; but equally there will be cases where the absent parent can afford to pay the arrears with no implications for the welfare of the child. In such cases the agency will always seek to reach an agreement with him about repayment. It would not be right in such cases for him to expect the taxpayer to meet his liability.

I hope that I have gone some way to answering some of the noble Earl's concerns. If I heard him aright, perhaps the advice that he should give to that fictitious student (if he is on a grant) should be reviewed in the light of what I have said. With those explanations, I hope that the noble Earl will withdraw his amendment.

11.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: I am, as always, very grateful to the Minister for the trouble that he has taken, and in this case grateful also to his honourable friend Mr. Alistair Burt. That letter had not arrived at one o'clock, but if it was written this morning, that is hardly surprising. It may now have arrived but, as the Minister said, we have been otherwise occupied since then.

I understand what the Minister says about confidentiality, and I agree with it. However, I think that the Minister misdescribed the purpose of my amendment. He said that Amendment No. 45 was designed to remove the liability of the absent parent. It was not. It was designed to redefine the "absent parent" so the parent should not be construed to be absent because I thought in this case that the application of the term "absent parent" was misleading, inaccurate and inappropriate. If that was my intention, I was not trying to subvert any principle of the 1991 Act. I should like to, but I was not trying to do it here. It is only if one begs the question and assumes that the parent was absent that one subverts any principle of the Act at all.

The Minister should look again and consider some criteria, other than physical absence, before deciding whether a parent is absent, otherwise he will be having all the members of the Merchant Navy construed as absent parents, and that is not what he intended.

Abrogation depends on the case. It would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis. As regards contrived separations, I know that we keep hearing about collusion, but I have yet to see a single authenticated case. If the Minister has an example perhaps he will send it to me and I shall be glad to look at it. But even if there were collusion, I believe that people are often better judges of their own best interests than any Secretary of State or agency. If people are forced to act against their own

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interests to the point where they are unable to remain together or in employment, that is not in the interests of the taxpayer either.

The Minister took me back to 1991 in considering students. I understand the principles that they are not subject to the provisions as regards their grants, but they are for any additional earnings. But since no student now can live at university without income beyond grant flow—about £1,000 above the two together—if they do not have additional earnings they cannot remain in the department. That is the kind of case which lands on my desk over and over again, practically every week of every term. So if they then have to pay maintenance on their additional earnings, they will be set on something like the curve of the pursuit of Calculus, running towards an object which is going in a different direction so they are perpetually chasing after a point they cannot reach.

No, I shall not withdraw the advice I give to any student in that position. The Minister is entirely without information on quite how hard up students are. I can give him plenty if he wants it. However, what he said about discretion and arrears I found rather encouraging. Suspending arrears for people who like to live in a law-abiding manner is not the same as wiping them out. It has a Damoclesian effect. Although the discretion is welcome I wonder whether the Minister understands quite how big a burden is placed on the agency. I do not know whether he understands how difficult it is for the agency to keep up with the weight of cases, the bulk of paper, the number of phone calls and the number of different types of decision which have to be made. So although the agency has a discretion, I wonder whether it has the time to exercise it. But that is not a question to be pursued on this amendment. I give way to the Minister.

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