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Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 61:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Information: late arrival of assessed maintenance

. In section 14 of the 1991 Act, after subsection (4) there shall be inserted—
"(5) If any maintenance assessed under this Act fails to reach the parent with care within one week of the time when it is due, the Child Support Agency shall so inform the Benefits Agency within 48 hours of being notified of the non-arrival of such maintenance." ").

The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 61, I am afraid, is moved. I have not become totally immobile. The amendment deals with the distressingly frequent situation where maintenance has been assessed and does not reach the parent with care. Her benefit has been reduced in regard of the maintenance so she is left with the reduced benefit and without the maintenance—and sometimes is in very considerable hardship. I asked the Minister

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yesterday whether Clause 25 of the Bill might make amendment in this area unnecessary. The point arose on Amendment No. 2. The Minister was not briefed on that point yesterday. I hope that he may be briefed on it now, because, if so, I shall be able to withdraw this amendment quickly. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This new clause in Amendment No. 61 adds to Section 14 of the 1991 Act, which deals with gathering and disclosing information. It proposes that where child support maintenance is normally paid direct to the parent with care and a payment is at least a week late the Child Support Agency will report the delay to the Benefits Agency within 48 hours of being notified of non-receipt. In practice, a parent with care on benefit is more likely to approach the Benefits Agency first when her maintenance does not arrive rather than the Child Support Agency. Even so, this is a good example of why it is necessary for the Child Support Agency to have powers to disclose information to the Benefits Agency, and vice versa.

Although there are already adequate powers in Section 14 of the 1991 Act to allow for this sort of exchange of information, I have some sympathy with the sentiment behind the amendment. However, this is purely an operational issue between the Benefits Agency and the Child Support Agency; it is not appropriate for primary legislation. Both agencies have operational constraints. It would be wrong to require a particular action to be taken which might mean that other action that rightly should have a higher priority has to be put to one side.

In its November 1994 report on child support, the Social Security Select Committee recommended that procedures be introduced between the two agencies so that full benefit was restored as quickly as possible whenever maintenance was not paid properly. As a result, a working party was set up which is currently examining ways to improve the procedures. Some changes have already been made to forms, and general liaison arrangements have been improved.

If a parent with care opts for income support gross, which is the subject of Clause 25—I believe I am right in saying that at least two-thirds do so opt—the maintenance and income support are therefore paid together. She will have no problem. When maintenance decreases, she is already receiving the full amount. Therefore she ought to have no problem along the lines the noble Earl mentioned.

I return to the noble Earl's point about a parent with care who receives a payment directly from the absent parent. I have indicated what the two agencies are doing. I am happy to pass on the point made by this amendment to the working party that I mentioned which is considering procedural changes between the two agencies. While, of course, it is vital that information is transmitted quickly, I do not believe that we ought to require them to adopt a mandatory timescale as set out in the amendment.

Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply. I am grateful for his sympathy and for the practical expression of it. I am pleased to hear about the working party and happy to accept the reference to it. I understand, having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the point that he makes about this provision not being suitable for primary legislation. I believe that it is a rule of

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construction of statutes that when a point like this gets into primary legislation, you know that it has been going wrong in the past. Since the Minister also knows that, and is concerned about it, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale moved Amendment No. 62:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Repeal of s. 14 of 1991 Act

. Section 14 of the 1991 Act shall be omitted.").

The noble and learned Lord said: In moving this amendment perhaps I may speak also to Amendment No. 64, although it is not grouped with it, and deal separately with Amendment No. 63, although that is grouped with Amendment No. 62. I think that that is the more convenient grouping. I apologise that I did not have an opportunity of mentioning that approach to the noble Earl and to the Minister. I hope that it does not inconvenience them.

Amendment No. 62 proposes to omit Section 14 of the 1991 Act whose rubric is:

    "Information required by Secretary of State".

There are no prizes for guessing how that section opens. The words are:

    "The Secretary of State may make regulations".

Those regulations require people to give information that is not of the kind normal creditors are entitled to demand. It is exceptional information that is vouchsafed to officials because they are officials.

At Second Reading I cited a passage from the famous book, The Law of The Constitution. One of the tests of the rule of law—but only one of the three—is that officials are subject to the normal law of the land. They are amenable to the same law as that to which citizens are subject. The Bill gives them quite exceptional power. Let us see what they can do with it.

Paragraph 3(2) of Schedule 3 to the Bill, under the strange heading, "Minor and Consequential Amendments", states as an amendment to the Child Support Act 1991 in Section 14, the one to which I just referred, that the Secretary of State may hand on the information that is required under that section. He may,

    "make use of that information for purposes of any of the benefit Acts or of the Jobseekers Act 1995,"

or equivalent Northern Ireland Acts. In other words, not only is the Secretary of State given exceptional power to interrogate individuals and get information, but he can hand that information on to other social services organisations.

I said that I intended to take this amendment with a subsequent amendment which deals with powers of entry. Section 15 of the 1991 Act reads:

    "(4) An inspector"—

that is an officer of the Child Support Agency—

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    "shall have power—

    (a) to enter at all reasonable times ... any specified premises ... and ... any premises which are not specified but which are used by any specified person for the purpose of carrying on any trade, profession, vocation or business; and

    (b) to make such examination and inquiry there as he considers appropriate.

    (5) An inspector exercising his powers may question any person aged 18 or over whom he finds on the premises.

    (6) If required to do so by an inspector exercising his powers, any person who is or has been"—

there follow four different categories—

    "shall furnish to the inspector all such information and documents as the inspector may reasonably require".

There is a little left to read but it is not much. Subsection (9) reads:

    "If any person ... without reasonable excuse, refuses or neglects to answer any question ... he shall be guilty of an offence".

Remembering the definition of the rule of law, the Committee will ask where we are going now. The inspector may enter the premises on pain of a penalty. He may put questions to an employer or fellow employees which they must answer on pain of a penalty.

Everybody ought to observe his engagements. Anybody who owes a debt ought to pay it. But let us take the case of a wife under a separation agreement. She has no power to detail a private detective—even if she is owed money under that agreement—to enter premises on pain of a penalty, interrogate her husband, his fellow employees or his employer in order to secure her redress. That is the private individual. The case of any other creditor is similar. Why in this case should exceptional powers be given to the officials of the Child Support Agency? I might further ask whether it has shown since 1991 that it is worthy of such powers. I beg to move.

Earl Russell: The noble and learned Lord, as usual, is quite right. These are the powers to which he alluded in his speech on Second Reading—powers which threaten the rule of law. One of the points about the rule of law is that it should produce a slightly less unequal relationship than would otherwise exist between government and governed. It should impose an orderly relationship between them. The activities of big brother should be controlled by the activities of the rather bigger parent. That is what the rule of law is all about.

The first amendment that we are discussing deals with demands for information. It has already been used for demands for the most indelicate information from women about the details of their private life. I shall not repeat to the Minister the example that I gave him at Second Reading. I am sure that he remembers it.

The second amendment deals with the confidentiality of Inland Revenue information. It has been hard enough, since taxes began—which is as far back as we have had the state—to get people to give accurate information to the Inland Revenue so that their taxes can be assessed. We can only ask them to do so if they can have reasonable confidence that that information will not be used against them for other purposes. I have known people who would not even go to a tax accountant in their home town for fear that their financial details would become known

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elsewhere. I thought that this Government were aware of the dislike of paying taxes. But it seems that in this Bill they have forgotten even that.

The third amendment deals with the powers of inspectors who are given rights of entry and questioning in practically any circumstances. In fact, it is the power of snooping. I notice that they have the right to enter:

    "any specified premises, other than premises used solely as a dwelling house".

In other words, they may enter the corner shop which is also used as a dwelling house.

If inspectors, without warning and before they have identified themselves, start to enter people's houses in the middle of the night, they may risk a response which might tend to breach the peace. The Government are bringing their own servants into danger. I do not think that that is fair on them.

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