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Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 73:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Applications by those receiving benefit: failure to comply

. Section 46 of the 1991 Act shall be omitted.").

The noble Earl said: The amendment concerns the 20 per cent. penalty on the parent with care if she refuses to name the father of the child. This House defeated the Government on that issue in 1991. However, as that occurred on Budget day, no one outside these walls noticed.

It is an issue of considerable importance. A great many women for a great many reasons—some good, some bad and some indifferent—are extremely reluctant to name the fathers of their children. It may be that they are protecting someone's reputation. It may be that they are afraid of violence. Although we are grateful for the provisions relating to harm and undue distress, there are still problems regarding their operation.

For many centuries sporadic attempts have been made to force women to name fathers. Those attempts have always failed. The sense that it is a sheer impertinent intrusion into privacy has a great deal more power than this Government have ever understood. That is one argument.

The second is the level of the benefit penalty, which is 20 per cent. of the absent parent's income support, followed by a further period of 10 per cent. I have already argued against the 5 per cent. deduction from the absent parent, so a fortiori I must argue much more strongly, as I have done before and will do again, against a much larger deduction from the parent with care. This is yet another case in which the welfare of the child principle in Section 2 of the Act does not bite on the Bill as it should.

I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who argued with great confidence that the deduction of 20 per cent. from the mother's benefit had no harmful effect on the child. That is not credible. The removal of 20 per cent. from the household budget cannot be without effect on the child. One does not have separate small portions of butter, one marked "hers" and the other marked "theirs". If there is a total reduction in household income, the whole household must suffer. This is a draconian penalty which shows that the Bill is not being brought in in the interests of the parent with care—much though they have been invoked—nor in the interests of the children, but in what was mistakenly believed to be the interests of the Treasury.

We have heard of about 18,000 cases where the benefit penalty has been imposed. I have given the Minister notice that I wish to ask what has happened

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to those cases. How many of them have, under duress, subsequently named the father of the child? How many have refused to do so and remained on reduced benefit through to the end of the period? When they have, has the reduced benefit penalty been imposed on them a second time for refusing to do it? How many of them have succeeded in coming off benefit in lawful ways? How many have been arrested? How many have simply disappeared from the records? A government who claim, as this Government persistently do in social security matters, to monitor the effects of their legislation cannot refuse to monitor the effect of the benefit penalties which they impose. If the Minister has no answer to the questions, it is an alarming piece of ignorance.

Many women have come off benefit altogether rather than submit to the intrusive personal inquiries. The last figure I saw for them was, as I recollect, 50,000. However, that was some time ago and it may well be out of date so I am willing to be corrected. The Secretary of State suggested that that was a measure of fraud. I asked at Second Reading—so the Minister has had notice of my question and he has also had notice privately—whether there was any evidence for that suggestion of fraud. If so, in what proportion of the large number of cases? We need to know why those people have gone off benefit and what has happened; what visible means of support they have, what hardships they have endured and what ways they have found of scraping a living. It may be miserable or degrading. If we do not have that information, we cannot monitor the effect of the policy. Here we have a continuing injustice—of which this House disapproved once and I hope that it still does. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Section 46 of the 1991 Act provides for a child support officer to impose a reduced benefit direction in respect of a parent with care who has refused to co-operate in the pursuit of maintenance without good cause. The purpose of the benefit reduction is to make a parent with care think carefully about her decision not to co-operate. Just as we expect absent parents to meet their responsibilities and pay maintenance where they can afford to do so, so it is right that parents with care should co-operate in the pursuit of that maintenance unless they have good reason not to do so. It is not right that the burden should fall to taxpayers, many of whom have children of their own.

No parent with care has her benefit reduced without very careful consideration and, even after the benefit reduction has taken effect, she is able to come forward with fresh representations at any time. I probably misheard the noble Earl, but I should make clear that the reduction is 20 per cent. in the initial stages and then 10 per cent. of the adult income support allowance for people aged over 25. It is not 20 per cent. and 10 per cent. of the parent with care benefit. It is the adult component.

Before I turn to the noble Earl's major point, he mentioned the parent with care protecting someone's reputation. The agency will do everything possible to preserve confidentiality. For example, it will correspond

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with the absent parent at an address other than his home. It will not say that it is the Child Support Agency if it has to telephone the absent parent's workplace in order to contact him. The agency will take steps to try to ensure that confidentiality is observed. However, I do not believe that it should become such a great concern that it overrules the facts. I frankly suspect that in the circumstances being considered the person may be well able to look after the child and pay maintenance.

The noble Earl asked a more general question about what happened to women who go off benefit, which he has asked on a number of previous occasions. The department does not keep details of people who cease to be benefit claimants. There is clearly much coming and going with benefits and it would be a huge task to keep details of everyone who left benefit and what happened to them. Would it be for a week, a month or a year? I can imagine a Bill being brought forward to give some agency the power to follow someone in their career and what they do in order to ensure that it can collect the information required to obtain a picture of what that person does after she comes off benefit. I can imagine a Minister presenting such a Bill and the kind of reaction that he might deservedly receive.

As to the specific point of reduced benefit directions, I have already mentioned that 18,000 parents with care have had a reduced benefit direction. It is worth emphasising again—and I do so from memory so someone will correct me if I am wrong—that about 73,000 parents with care have had their reasons accepted for not saying who the father was. Returning to the figure of 18,000 parents, we do not have specific information about the outcome of reduced benefit directions and what happened with them. If it is some consolation to the noble Earl, the department is currently conducting a wide-ranging review of the operation of the good cause provisions on the instigation of the Social Security Select Committee of another place. The review has already invited comments from groups advising parents with care, including the Child Poverty Action Group and Women's Aid group, seeking to gather evidence of the impact of the policy from a wide range of sources. The report will be presented to the Select Committee in this financial year.

I hope that that shows that we may be in a position to give the noble Earl some indication on one of the questions which he asked. I also hope that he will agree that the power to impose the 20 per cent. reduction is regrettably needed; otherwise parents with care would simply decide that they did not wish to have any more to do with the absent parent or would rather carry on with income support and not draw the absent parent into the agency's ambit. That would be wrong because the person who picks up the tab for that decision is the taxpayer.

Earl Russell: Before the Minister sits down, can he answer my questions about the women who have gone off benefit altogether rather than face the provisions of this Act?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thought that I had answered that question when I said that we do not keep track of people who go off benefit, either in general or

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specific terms. I am afraid that we do not have any particular evidence that we can give about what happens to women who leave benefit in those circumstances.

Earl Russell: If the Government have no evidence, why did the Secretary of State say that these cases were evidence of fraud? Had the Secretary of State any basis for making that charge?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am interested that the noble Earl has raised the question of fraud. At least some of those cases will represent collusive desertion; collusive desertion does exist. In other cases, we accept that the partner with care has perhaps had second thoughts and the partners have returned to living together. That may well be one of the outcomes. The parent with care may have taken up work, or may be living with a new partner. It is certainly difficult to believe that parents with care leave income support and then proceed to live on nothing. After all, they would be better off refusing to co-operate and accepting a reduced benefit direction. So they are not just saying, "I am not going to say who the father is. I can't really give you any good reason, but I am prepared to accept the reduction". They are in fact saying, "I don't want any income support". There are probably a considerable number of reasons why they leave income support. But it seems hard to believe that they choose to live on nothing when they could have stayed on income support, even at the reduced levels.

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