Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I ought to make clear one point which the noble Earl mentioned in his speech and again in his response. I would not like it to get out that Merchant Navy men, for example, when away from home, are immediately treated as absent parents. Perhaps the noble Earl will not mind if I say a word or two about that. Men, like those who work in the Merchant Navy and work away from home, usually support their families while away. If they do not do so and if the mother claims benefit, then she will be required to co-operate in seeking maintenance unless there is risk of harm through undue distress, and so on. If the mother does not receive financial support while the father is working away, and does not claim benefit, she will be able to make a voluntary application for child support provided she does not have a court order or a written maintenance agreement predating April 1993. That deals with the minority of cases, but in the great majority where people work away from home—my noble friend Lord Lucas has pointed out that we are doing a fair amount of that—as long as they are maintaining their families then the fact that they are working away from home is neither here nor there.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister. In conceding that a person who is not physically present does not automatically become an absent parent, he may have opened a wider door than he realises. I hope that the Minister will look to see what goes through that door, but that is not to be pursued now. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

19 Jun 1995 : Column 131

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 46 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 47:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Authorisation to recover maintenance,

.—(1) Section 6 of the 1991 Act shall be amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1) for "shall" substitute "may" ").

The noble Earl said: With the leave of the Committee, I should like to take Amendment No. 47 in a group with Amendments Nos. 48, 49 and 50. I beg the pardon of the Committee for not having formally grouped them, but it seems to me that they can be dealt with together, and at this time of night one might as well save time if one can.

The effect of Amendment No. 47 is to put the l991 Act on a permissive basis. That is something that I proposed in l991. I shall not soon forget the expression of horror that that provoked in a quarter to which I am not at present allowed to refer. It would have saved a great deal of trouble had it been done. The point I am making, that people are usually the best judges of their own interest, is one which has a good deal of force.

Amendment No. 48, which comes with Amendment No. 47, would remove the power that the Secretary of State can override a harm and undue distress provision on the request of the parent with care. If the Minister reads any of the literature that comes out of women's refuges, he will appreciate the incredible generosity and sometimes optimism which affects many women who have been the object of violence. There are a good many who might well request the Secretary of State to override the harm and undue distress provision, because they were, as so many women in refuges have been, prepared yet again to exercise trust. A great deal of that trust will be misplaced, and if that happens, a vast cost will be created to public funds. I believe that that provision of the 1991 Act was mistaken.

Amendment No. 49 deals with the maintenance application form. We have been over that in this Chamber a good many times. The maintenance application form has not always made clear, and people dealing with it have not always made clear, that parents have the right to refuse to give the name of the father because it might cause harm and undue distress. I have written to the Minister's honourable friend, Mr. Burt, about such cases a great many times. I have never had one word of complaint about Mr. Burt's replies.

The problem here lies not in government. The problem lies altogether at a lower level. The problem is with Jacks-in-office, using their little brief authority to inflict harm, to inflict pain on people subject to them. It is not necessarily particularly common, but such people occur in all walks of life.

We have had a great many ministerial assurances on this point. Those assurances were given in complete good faith and with complete good will. I am telling the Government that those assurances have not proved sufficient to bring such a practice to a stop. Because they have not proved sufficient, and because I am certain of ministerial good will on this, I ask the Government whether they will think of something rather more

19 Jun 1995 : Column 132

stringent to make absolutely certain that every woman who has a maintenance application form knows about the harm and undue distress provision.

The proposal in the amendment for typing the provision of harm and undue distress on the form in bold type seems to me as effective as anything I can think of. If the Minister thinks, for any technical reason, that that will not work, I shall listen to him. But I very much hope that he will think of something equally clear and equally unambiguous, because what has been done on this so far, well-intentioned though it was, is not enough.

I think that I had better not speak to Amendment No. 50 for a moment because I do not have my hands on my Keeling schedule. I beg to move.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It may be for everyone's convenience if I deal with each amendment in turn, as did the noble Earl.

The purpose of Section 6 of the Child Support Act is that parents with care in receipt of relevant benefits should be required to co-operate with the agency in pursuing maintenance from the absent parent unless there is a good reason for her not to do so. Just as it is right as a matter of principle that an absent parent should pay child maintenance if he can afford to do so, so it is right that a parent with care should not refuse to co-operate in the pursuit of maintenance without good cause.

The wording of Section 6(1) adequately reflects its intention. The noble Earl's clause would amend Section 6 to provide that parents with care could decide for themselves whether or not to give their authority, even though there might be no good reason why they should not give it. That is not reasonable. If a parent with care has a genuine reason why she should not give her authority, she is given ample opportunity to make representations and these are carefully considered. In any case, the amendment would not prevent the imposition of a reduced benefit direction where a parent with care had unreasonably withheld her authority and so it would make no material difference to the outcome. There is no need for any change to the wording of Section 6.

I turn to Amendment No. 48, which would remove subsection (3) so that parents with care could no longer ask the Secretary of State to pursue maintenance in these circumstances. There may well be instances where a parent with care wishes maintenance to be sought from the absent parent, even though the Secretary of State considers that harm or undue distress might result. She may well feel strongly that the absent parent should not be freed of his responsibility to support his children. It would be wrong to remove the means by which she would seek to obtain maintenance. The present provision is entirely voluntary and it is right that where the mother wishes it, in the full awareness that she does so of her own volition, maintenance should be pursued. If she later changes her mind, she can ask the Secretary of State to withdraw the requirement. He will comply with that request where he considers that harm or undue distress might result.

Amendment No. 49 would amend Section 6 so that all maintenance application forms would be required to carry the full wording of the key harm and undue distress

19 Jun 1995 : Column 133

provisions. These provisions are already carefully explained to the parent with care before she is sent an application form and asked to give her authority. All those parents with care who are likely to be required to give their authority are sent a letter which fully explains in day-to-day language the requirement to authorise the Secretary of State and the harm and undue distress provisions. The letter includes a declaration which the parent may return to say whether or not she wishes to make representations about harm or undue distress. If the parent makes representations they are investigated. If the Secretary of State agrees that there would be a risk of harm or undue distress were she to give her authority, that requirement would be waived and the matter goes no further—-

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has described accurately what should happen. I am telling him, as I have told him a great many times before, that in a great many cases it does not happen. That is the problem that I am bringing to his attention.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I have tried to explain that all the parents with care who are likely to be required to give their authority are sent the letter. If the noble Earl tells me that that is not the case, I shall certainly pursue that matter during the next day or two. I shall not promise to pursue it tomorrow because we have business in the Chamber. I shall certainly check that matter.

The maintenance application form pack includes a general explanatory leaflet and a set of helpful notes, which also again explain the harm and undue distress provision in straightforward terms. I believe that the present arrangements to advise parents with care of their legal rights are fully adequate and that there is no need to reproduce the wording of the harm and undue distress provisions on maintenance application forms. Parents with care are given information about the provisions both before they receive the application form and later with the notes accompanying it. However, I will look into the matter raised by the noble Earl. To include on the application form an extract from the Act is entirely unnecessary and, I suggest, the legalistic wording may be intimidating for some parents with care.

No parent with care is required to give her authorisation without the agency first giving careful consideration to whether giving that authorisation would cause her or any child living with her harm or undue distress. Even after she has given her authorisation, if she considers that she or any child living with her will be caused harm or undue distress, if it remains in force, she can ask the Secretary of State to consider the position. If he accepts that there is a risk of harm or undue distress, he will lift the requirement.

I gave some figures earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about this matter. I believe that something like 73,000 such applications were accepted by the Secretary of State and 18,000 were not. I am sure that we all agree that it is important that parents with care are able to exercise that opt-out, so to speak, in those cases where they are fearful for themselves or for their children. The agency must look sympathetically at that matter and the figures that I have mentioned indicate that the agency takes on board very seriously that particular aspect of the problem of maintenance.

19 Jun 1995 : Column 134

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page