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Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 67:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Enforcement of assessments

.—(1) Sections 31 to 40 of the 1991 Act are hereby repealed.
(2) An assessment of child support maintenance shall be enforceable in accordance with this section, and not otherwise.
(3) Subject to the provisions of this section, an assessment of child support maintenance shall be enforceable in the same manner as an order made by a magistrates' court (or in Scotland, a sheriff court) for the making of periodical payments for the maintenance of a spouse.
(4) An assessment of child support maintenance shall not be enforceable unless and until there has been obtained from the magistrates' court (or in Scotland, the sheriff court) within whose district the person liable under the assessment resides ("the relevant court") an order authorising its enforcement.
(5) An application for an order authorising enforcement of an assessment may be made to the relevant court by the Secretary of State, or by the person entitled to receive payments under the

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assessment; and the Secretary of State, the person entitled to receive payments under the assessment, and the person liable under the assessment, shall be made parties to the application.
(6) Before determining such an application, the court shall ensure that all the parties to the application have been given an adequate opportunity to be heard; and any such party may be represented before the court by any person authorised by him, whether or not the representative would otherwise have a right of audience before the court.
(7) The court shall not make an order for the enforcement of an assessment unless it is satisfied that each of the following conditions is fulfilled—
(a) that the time-limit within which an application for a review or appeal in respect of the assessment under sections 17, 18 or 20 of the 1991 Act may be requested or lodged has expired, and that any such review or appeal which has been requested or lodged has been carried out or disposed of; and
(b) that the making of the order for enforcement will not create or contribute to the creation of a serious risk of causing substantial harm to the welfare of any child who is likely to be affected; and
(c) that the making of the order for enforcement will not cause serious hardship or injustice to any person.
(8) The relevant court shall have the following powers—
(a) to make an order for the enforcement of part (instead of the whole) of the periodical amount currently payable under the assessment; and
(b) to remit arrears which have arisen under the assessment.
(9) Any order for the enforcement of an assessment shall specify—
(a) the periodical amount currently payable under the assessment, and the periodical amount (being the whole of part of the amount currently payable) for which enforcement is authorised by the court; and
(b) the amount of arrears existing at the date of the order (ascertained in the light of any evidence of payments made which has been received by the court), and the amount of arrears remaining after any remission ordered by the court.").

The noble Earl said: This amendment deals with the procedure for enforcement. The Act contains numerous special provisions on enforcement; for example, a deduction of earnings order. It is purely an administrative act. It is without any judicial intervention or any consideration of surrounding circumstances. The principle of this amendment is that enforcement would be carried out as with an order of a magistrates' court for spousal maintenance. So an attachment of earnings order by a magistrates' court would remain possible after a proper judicial hearing in which all the circumstances would be considered. It is this consideration of all the circumstances which is vital to us.

If he wanted an order, the Secretary of State would have to apply to a magistrates' court for it. That would have to be done before any enforcement measures. The court would have the right either to grant the order or to refuse it if a review or an appeal were pending if it was not satisfied that the child's welfare was sufficiently safeguarded or that hardship or injustice would be avoided. The court would also be empowered to authorise only partial enforcement and to remit arrears. That is a problem to which we must return.

I understand that this Act was brought in to deal with a real problem. The problem of securing maintenance for the parent with care was urgent and to which attention was overdue. But it is a rule that pendulums always swing too

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far and that rule has not been broken in this case. The parent with care has rights; but as I listened to the Minister replying to the previous amendment, he seemed to believe that those rights existed with such paramount importance that they blotted out everything else. That is not correcting injustice, but standing injustice on its head. It is a sadly common performance, but it is one which I do not believe has ever done very much to improve the world. I beg to move, and to get back to the rule of law where we belong.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Both amendments seek to introduce substantial and wide ranging changes to the methods of collecting and enforcing child support maintenance. Like so many of the amendments tabled by the noble Earl, they give undue priority to the absent parent at the expense of the parent with care; the children for whom she is responsible, and at the expense of the taxpayer.

If either amendment were accepted, all cases where the absent parent did not voluntarily make arrangements for paying maintenance and any arrears, the Child Support Agency would have to apply to the magistrates' court for an enforcement order. That would cause delays in obtaining payment of maintenance for the parent with care; increase significantly the costs of enforcement, by more than £20 million a year; and result in big increases in the amount of work for the magistrates' courts.

Those courts would also have wide powers to refuse to grant an enforcement order if they considered the order would create or contribute to the risk of serious risk or harm to the welfare of any child likely to be affected, or the order would cause serious hardship or injustice to any person. They would also have the power to write off arrears. But most significantly, Amendment No. 67 gives the power to the magistrates' court to make an enforcement order for less than the full amount of the formula assessment.

The noble Earl has frequently made clear his opposition to this Act and this amendment would totally undermine its principles. The formula assessment was introduced precisely because the previous court system failed parents with care, the children and the taxpayer. Maintenance awards varied considerably and were generally of a low amount, with payment of maintenance often being given a low priority in the absent parent's obligations and expenditure. The formula system which we have devised gets away from these problems and gives an opportunity to the parent with care to look to the absent parent for fair maintenance to be paid on time and as agreed by the agency. The formula already contains a number of safeguards to ensure that the absent parent is asked to pay only an amount reasonable in his circumstances.

The main provision in this Bill is for a departure scheme. We have already discussed these provisions in some detail. The scheme will enable the maintenance assessed under the formula to be reduced in those cases where exceptional circumstances mean that the payment of the assessed amount would cause hardship. No absent parent will be asked to pay an unreasonable amount of maintenance. This not only means that it

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would be wrong for the magistrates' court to have the power, in effect, to reduce the assessment, but that there is no justification for arrears to be written off.

The amendment contains a number of other provisions that would further undermine the ability of the agency to obtain payment of maintenance in those cases where the absent parent deliberately seeks to avoid his responsibility to his children. It removes the ability of the agency to impose deduction from earnings orders without reference to the magistrates' courts. At present deduction from earnings orders can be issued without the need for this, providing a quick and effective means of getting maintenance into payment when absent parents do not co-operate. It is important for parents with care that maintenance is put into payment as soon as possible and, where absent parents refuse to pay, the deduction from earnings orders procedures help to ensure this. It takes about 25 days to issue a deduction from earnings order via the agency, but would take about eight to 10 weeks to obtain a liability order. Of course, if absent parents comply with their obligations to pay maintenance, the need for a deduction from earnings order does not arise.

In addition, applications to magistrates' courts could be made only when all reviews and appeals had been cleared. But that would create an incentive to absent parents who wanted to avoid paying maintenance to make vexatious applications for reviews of the assessment, or change of circumstances reviews, and to lodge spurious appeals to delay the point at which payment of maintenance could be enforced.

If any Member of the Committee believes that I am imagining those suggestions they should read some of the publications of one of the more vociferous organisations representing absent parents. Sadly, it is true that a minority of absent parents are committed to avoiding their responsibilities. It takes a minimum of several months to go through the process of completing a review and a child support appeal tribunal hearing and then only if all the relevant information is to hand and there are no delays of any kind. If one added to that the later intervention of the courts it is clear that unscrupulous absent parents could see delay being added to delay. The parent with care would be left wondering whether the absent parent was ever going to be called to account to pay maintenance.

We believe that the provisions in the Bill strike a balance between the needs of the absent parent, the parent with care, the children and the taxpayers. The effect of either of the new clauses would be totally to undermine the Child Support Agency's ability to collect and enforce maintenance effectively. There has been some criticism that the Bill does not give sufficient help to the parents with care. These amendments would be of considerable disadvantage to the parents with care because they would have to wait very much longer for maintenance to be paid, even assuming that the magistrates' court granted the liability order.

I believe that there is no justification for the amendments now before the Committee and I hope that the noble Earl will withdraw them. However, I can

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understand where he is coming from in respect of this matter and that he may feel strongly about it. He may well wish to test the opinion of the Committee and, if so, I hope that other Members will see the force of my argument and will support me in the Lobbies.

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