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Lord Houghton of Sowerby: We should be grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale for keeping an eye on the defects of legislation passed under the influence of prejudice. The year 1991 saw a flowering of the new despotism under the present Government. There had been the Environmental Protection Bill of 1990; and then in 1991 came the Dangerous Dogs Bill and the Child Support Bill. They all encroached on the rights of the citizen, without redress, because the Government felt that the prejudice of the public against the subjects of the legislation would allow them to transgress the normal considerations of individual liberty. The 1991 Child Support Act did that in some important respects. This provision is one of them. Another is the right given to the child support officer, with the sanction of the Inland Revenue, to inspect the pay records in the hands of the inspector of taxes.
I have already said many times that that Act conceded to child support officers what is denied to the police except in the case of murder. That shows the lengths to which the Government will go when they are in search of culprits. The Act was directed against culprits, defaulters, undesirable peoplemen who had deserted their children and wives. Nothing bad enough can be said against such people. One need stop at nothing when dealing with these people. I shall return to the Dangerous Dogs Act on subsequent occasions. But to deprive the magistracy of its historic right of discretion in sentencing people convicted under matters within their jurisdiction is nothing short of a crime. Yet it was done. The Government persist in insisting that it continues to be done lest the people's terrier might bite somebody.
I believe that that situation is disgraceful. This provision is disgraceful. The incursion into the confidentiality of Inland Revenue records is disgraceful. Why are there such facilities to pursue the objects of this Act?
We must bear in mind that we are handling legislation which is directed against certain persons in the community in the interests of other persons in the community. It is a Bill which rearranges the relationships between people and the community and people and people. It is a delicate operation. There is no question of keeping the balance here; the balance is against the
Under this Bill we are part of the prosecuting authority. Parliament has put an instrument into the hands of the administration which goes beyond the normal role of the magistracy or the police. This Committee should be inquiring more closely into who is doing this; into whose thousands of hands the implementation of the Bill is being placed? What qualifications do they have? Where do they come from? What is the standard of remuneration? What is the standard of recruitment? They all speak in the name of the Secretary of State. That is why I described the original Bill, when it came before Parliament in 1991, as the grubbiest piece of legislation that I have struck in 42 years in Parliament.
The Earl of Onslow: I do not believe that I have ever heard a more moving speech than that made by my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I had not intended to talk in this debate but I am minded to because I saw the wise grey head of my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone. I seem to remember when the Labour Party was in power that Mr. Healey, now the noble Lord, Lord Healey, introduced very wide powers of search and entry for the Inland Revenue. We on this side of the House railed against the rights of entry and the abuse of the state power over private individuals.
What my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale described reminds me of those wartime escape films and of somebody in a long grey overcoat saying, "Ihre Papieren, bitte". This is the instrument of dictatorship. There is already too much of it in existing legislation. Too much power is given to people to enter and search. It should be stopped and reversed for the sake of privacy and the freedom of the individual. We must take notice of what my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale said.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps I can be clear about what we are doing. I was under the impression that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, was moving Amendment No. 62 and speaking to Amendment No. 64.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: That is so. But the noble Earl, Lord Russell, joined in the Motion and also spoke to the second amendment. I entirely adopt what he said; indeed, that was the main theme of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. It is best if all three amendments are taken together because the power of entry, the power of questioning and the power of the infringement of the Inland Revenue confidentiality all go together.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I was going to mention that the noble Earl appeared to speak to the other amendment and I was seeking to be sure that I could reply to all three and perhaps save the Committee a few minutes.
These amendments would result in the removal of the Child Support Agency's powers either to gather or disclose information, which is essential to enable maintenance assessments to be made. It perhaps sits a
If the amendments were agreed, it would mean that different parts of the Department of Social Security would not be able to exchange information. It would make it very difficult for the agency to trace absent parents with the degree of success they currently achieve. It would mean that the agency would be unable to give details of an application, or a maintenance assessment, to a child support tribunal. Finally, where the agency needs to use a court for enforcement or to establish paternity the CSA would be severely limited as to the information it could give to the court.
Schedule 2 to the 1991 Act allows the Child Support Agency to obtain from the Inland Revenue the current address or the current employer of an absent parent. It also allows the agency to obtain from local authorities details of housing benefit or council tax benefit which are needed in the assessment formula. These amendments would prevent all of those arrangements. I do not believe that it is a great challenge to civil liberties; in fact quite the contrary. It would be ridiculous to forbid the agency from seeking information along the lines I have just mentioned.
We recognise that the gathering and disclosure of information is a sensitive subject. Equally, I hope the Committee recognises that parents with care will not always know the absent parent's whereabouts, nor will parents always be able to give the other details needed by the agency. There was some discussion during the Second Reading of the Bill about the information which the Child Support Agency could obtain from the Inland Revenue. I would like to reiterate that the only information that is given to the agency by the Inland Revenue is the current address of the absent parent or the current employer of the absent parent. I must stress that the agency does not have access to anyone's tax returns. However, although the amount of information available to the agency is not extensive, it is vital in the agency's attempts to trace absent parents either directly or through their employers. I am sure that those of us who want the agency to work, who want the parent with care to receive the maintenance due, will find these powers well within what we consider to be reasonable.
In the past year the agency successfully traced over 49,500 absent parents whose whereabouts were unknown to the parent with care. In the past there has been talk of the agency failing to target the so-called "feckless fathers". The agency can be proud of its success in tracking down fathers, or indeed mothers, who disappear without facing up to their responsibilities to their children. The ability to obtain information from the Benefits Agency, the Contributions Agency, the Inland Revenue or employers is essential in this process. Without the help of the information provided, the number of successful traces would reduce to a trickle.
An important element of the calculation of a maintenance assessment is the housing costs which are net of housing benefit. Details of council tax are needed for assessing protected income which ensures the absent parent and his new family remain significantly above the level of income support. Failure to obtain this information could reduce the speed and accuracy of some assessments.
On the question of the powers of entry, the effect of Amendment No. 64 would be that inspectors appointed under the Child Support Act would no longer have the right to enter premises and request information. The amendment would render Section 15, which provides for the power of inspection, effectively redundant since an inspector would have no greater powers to seek information than a child support officer already has without the benefit of Section 15.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, outlined in the debate at Second Reading and again today his objection to the power of inspection. He argued that these powers were contrary to the rule of law, or at least exceptional powers because they were not rights enjoyed by ordinary citizens. Furthermore, he implied that these powers were in some way unique and specific to the activities of the agency, a point, I suspect, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I said in that earlier debate
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