Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not entirely sure that what the noble Baroness is suggesting is practical. I can see the point that, if the money was all wrapped up in the child and paid to the child, that might remove the aggravation that the absent parent feels that he is paying for this woman who may or may not have walked out on him—who knows?—while the second wife may have some feelings as regards paying for the first wife. But the trouble is that I do not think one can pay the money to the child because I do not think the child can go down to the post office and collect the money. There are some practicalities involved here which one cannot get round. The mother has to get the money because she is the person looking after the child and buying his or her clothes and so forth—

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Just like child benefit!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: But child benefit, as I recall, is paid to the mother.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is for the child!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I think we are splitting hairs. I see the attractions with the noble Baroness's suggestion. It would remove one of the sources of aggravation from the absent parent groups but I suspect they will just find another way to complain about the £60-odd a week. As regards the second wife paying for maintenance of the first wife, the liability is based on the absent parent's income only. The second wife's income is only relevant in protected income which can only serve to reduce liability not to increase it. So the earnings of the second wife cannot by any stretch of the imagination be taken to be moving through the absent parent to the first wife.

There is a problem here. One cannot will away history. The first wife and the child or children exist. They exist at the moment the absent parent decides to remarry—to repartner, as it is called in the modern jargon—and to have more children. He cannot simply draw a line under history and forget about those who have gone before. That may be a comfortable way for him to deal with the matter, but none of us would agree with it.

19 Jun 1995 : Column 138

Baroness Seear: It is very late and I do not want to indulge in further argument, but I should have thought that it was simple to say that the money is for the child. That does not mean that the toddler has to go and collect it. The money is meant for the child, and the mother goes and collects it. She collects child benefit. That makes the point.

I am sure that we all agree that the chap has to look after his children, if he does not look after his previous wife. That is all dealt with. If we say the money is for the child, that comforts the second wife, who wants to get her claws on it but cannot because it is going to the child. That is all to the good. I cannot see any difference here.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It is late. It is a nice imaginary position. The money has to be paid to an adult for the child. Who decides whether it is spent on the child? For example, what about heating and lighting costs that both will share? Although the noble Baronesses seem to think that they have an attractive argument, they are splitting hairs. For example, in the case of child benefit paid to the wife for the child, can anyone give me a cast-iron guarantee that the money collected at the post office is not promptly used for purposes other than for the child?

Baroness Seear: Of course not. We know perfectly well that that happens. We are talking about the psychological problem of the second wife who is fed up because money is going to the first wife. As my noble friend Lord Meston said, that is liable to drive him into the arms of a third wife. That would complicate matters even more.

One could deal with that psychological problem by making it quite clear that the money is for the child. What the mother does with it when she gets it is another matter. One can never know what happens to it. That does not matter. The father says to the second wife, "It's nothing to do with the first woman. This is for Billy, the little boy I left behind". I cannot see any difficulty about it.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I suspect that the argument would then shift to the money going to the first family rather than to the first wife.

The clearest indication is that it does not go to the wife, because when the child ceases to be a child and no longer comes within the ambit of the agency all the money ceases. That shows that it is not spousal maintenance in name, theory, psychology or anything else. It is connected totally with looking after the child. I have no psychological problem. I trust that the rest of the world does not have one either.

Earl Russell: I am most grateful to both noble Baronesses for a thoroughly constructive approach to the problem. The Minister's response illustrated that imagination is a plant which does not flourish in Whitehall. His toddler sounds remarkably like the famous James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, who said:

    "You must never go down to the end of the town, if you don't go down with me".

It is not quite as complicated as the Minister made out. However, since he introduced the term, the verb, "to repartner" as an intransitive verb—

19 Jun 1995 : Column 139

Baroness Seear: Please do not start on that!

Earl Russell: I was only going to ask the Minister to write to me. I have already drawn his attention to its use in the memorandum to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. If he can find any previous use of the word I should be very glad to know. I shall not ask for that now. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 53 to 55 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 56:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Exempt income of absent parent

. In Schedule 1 to the 1991 Act, after paragraph 5 there shall be inserted—
"5A.—(1) Regulations implementing paragraph 5 of this Schedule shall ensure that the exempt income of an absent parent or a parent with care includes—
(a) an allowance in respect of the full amount of any council tax or water charges in respect of the parent's home;
(b) an adequate allowance in respect of the liabilities referred to in sub-paragraph (2) below.
(2) The liabilities in question are any debts, obligations or other liabilities of the relevant parent which—
(a) are legally binding on him (whether under civil or criminal sanction); and
(b) arise from transactions effected, or events occurring, before the date specified in sub-paragraph (3) below.
(3) The date in question is—
(a) in the case of an absent parent, that on which he first received a maintenance enquiry form under this Act;
(b) in the case of a parent with care, the date on which she first submitted to the Secretary of State a completed maintenance application form under this Act.
(4) An allowance in respect of a liability referred to in sub-paragraph (1) (b) above shall not be regarded as adequate within the meaning of that provision, unless (on the basis of weekly equivalence) it is at least equal to—
(a) the amount payable periodically by the parent in question in respect of the liability in question under arrangements which were in existence at the date referred to in sub-paragraph (3), where such arrangements then existed; or
(b) in any other case, the minimum amount which would be necessary to enable the liability to be discharged by periodical payments within 12 months of the effective date of the maintenance assessment in question" ".).

The noble Earl said: I am sorry for this great flurry of papers. There does not seem to be any time between one amendment and the next to get one's papers in order.

Amendment No. 56 deals with the exempt income of the absent parent. It provides that an allowance should be made for council tax and water charges—for debts, obligations and other liabilities which are legally binding whether under civil or criminal sanction, and which arise from dates before the parent became subject to the Act.

The amendment deals with the general principle that I have already asserted: that people should not be forced to default on legal obligations. If the Minister denies that, he will risk being portrayed as undermining respect for law. He should be careful how he does that. For example, we are under legal obligation to pay council tax. I cannot say to my local council, "I cannot pay my council tax because I must put child maintenance first". If the Minister insists on the sort of priority he demands, he will have to provide

19 Jun 1995 : Column 140

for a power to default on other items. That will create very different priorities from those which exist in most households. People do not default on legal obligations—at least, we hope that that is the case. But because they do not default on legal obligations, what they pay to maintain their children, however much they regret it, because they respect their legal obligations, is diminished.

I do not believe that the Minister will find in any ordinary married household in the land that child maintenance has the priority that it is given under the Bill. I believe that the Bill is different in this respect from the rest of the world. These matters should be taken into account. If they are not, a court will force them to be taken into account.

If the Act does not take those factors into account, it has to allow people to default on them; and that would be a very poor way out of the situation. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page