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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It was not quite that point, although I am glad to have the Minister's statement on the record that he does not contemplate privatising the Child Support Agency, for which much thanks, I suppose. I was asking really whether he contemplates the Child Support Agency using other than its own officers to collect information; in other words, whether he expects possibly to use other means, mechanisms, bodies or people as information collectors who might then seek to collect that information by inappropriate means. I was asking whether all such tasks will only and entirely be performed by accredited civil servants.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I would have to be careful about answering that question because I would need to know exactly all the ins and outs of the agency at the moment and whether it uses some outside resources from time to time of different kinds from the ones the noble Baroness specifically asked me about. For example, going back to an earlier question, if it had to use bailiffs, it is doubtful whether they would be

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bailiffs employed by the agency. They would be outside bailiffs. They might be sheriff's officers or other bailiffs. But, so far as concerns the central core of her question, my answer stands. The people involved in this kind of work would be civil servants.

The noble Baroness asked about guidance. I think I have answered this point on a number of occasions but I shall have to check whether this kind of guidance is in the form of guidance notes or a guidance booklet. As I think I indicated yesterday, such guidance is available to the public on request.

Earl Russell: I am most grateful in different ways to the noble Baroness, the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord the Minister. I am grateful to the Minister for the trouble he has taken. The noble Baroness has got us assurances which I am glad to hear and which I am afraid I shall look in the mouth because that is, after all, the duty of Opposition Benches. The noble and learned Lord is of course right that obtaining money by threats or false information is an offence. A disciplinary proceeding is not always an adequate response to an offence. But I will say to the Minister that I did not intend this as an attack on the agency as a whole, on Ministers as a whole or on anything but the fact that there are a certain number of jacks in office who, given power, do abuse it. I am well aware that the agency makes mistakes. I have read the press reports of the evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee yesterday in which Sir Michael Partridge called the target of one in four assessments—no more—being wrong by 1996 an ambitious one. As I have said many times, I do not blame the agency for that. I blame the body of work that it has been asked to undertake.

What I really did not hear from the Minister was any mention of the word "redress". I heard what he said about disciplinary proceedings. That is not as good as what the noble and learned Lord and I wanted but it does at least show what I am certain is a genuine concern. But a wrong has been done to an individual here. In this case the woman has been forced to inflict an immense burden on the father of her child, the man whom she loves and the man with whom she is now living. That is a burden of arrears which he is unlikely to pay off over the rest of his life. That will have been an injury to her. To force her to do that by means of false information is something for which reparation is owed to her.

I understand why the Minister said that depriving the agency of jurisdiction was an extreme power. But there is such a thing as the law of agency. The agency does have a responsibility for the doings of its employees. If our employees do wrong to someone, we may, if they are about our official business, be answerable. It is under those circumstances that I recommended the remedy of loss of jurisdiction. I am not wedded to the remedy specifically but I think there is a certain equity in it. What I am really concerned about is that right should be done to a person who has been wronged. In this case wrong has been done both to the absent parent and to the parent with care. I have taken up both cases, I hope with equal vigour. That, I am certain, is typical of the agency. I should like to think it is typical of me also. But I suspect that on the individual case, as regards

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which I agree with everything that the Minister said about confidentiality, we shall do better talking about it privately.

The noble and learned Lord has tempted me, just as the Minister previously tempted me. I am afraid that once again I must resist temptation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 78:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Disclosure of absent parent's address or telephone number,

.—(1) Section 50 of the 1991 Act shall be amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (1) there shall be inserted—
"(1B) Where an absent parent instructs the Child Support Agency not to reveal his address or telephone number to the parent with care, any employee of the Child Support Agency who reveals them shall be guilty of an offence, the Child Support Agency shall be liable in damages to the party affected, and it shall have no further jurisdiction in the case." ").

The noble Earl said: This is another amendment dealing with matters of confidentiality and again arises from my postbag. That postbag is becoming enormous and I am not sure that I would not support repeal of the Act just to get rid of the postbag. That is not the most serious of reflections and I hope it is taken in the spirit in which it is meant.

The case involved an absent parent whose ex-wife was addicted to the making of harassing telephone calls. Any of your Lordships who have been victims of harassing telephone calls may understand the kind of irritation that they cause and the sense of intrusion into the privacy of one's own home. That man was also facing an assessment which was cutting him absolutely to the bone. Looking at the figures, I did not see how he was managing to pay it. He not once but twice had his phone number disclosed to his former wife, who starting making harassing telephone calls at all hours of the day and night. He was forced, not once but twice, at considerable expense to himself which he could ill afford, to change his phone number.

Confidentiality applies to both parties. The argument of wrong to the individual for which redress is deserved applies to both parties and the arguments about the law of agency apply to both parties. I have raised one of these questions for a parent with care and one for an absent parent. They have much more in common in their common interest in opposing the Act than either has with the Government. I beg to move.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby: I respectfully suggest that we should take care not to do anything without justification which will be deeply resented by the staff of the Child Support Agency. There are staff instructions to cover this point. I doubt whether we are justified in making a rule in an Act of Parliament about it. I offer this only as a cautionary note about carrying something a little too far. I feel quite certain that the staff will have the strongest instructions as to how they are to behave. The main risk is not the disclosure of confidential information so much as applying undue pressure on an absent father to come to terms, and if he fails to do so then there is a penalty in the locker that can come out to persuade him.

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It is undue persuasion. I would not go so far as to say it is coercion but I do not think there is a need to safeguard anyone from menaces. However, we have just gone over that ground. I have something of a distant brief for my old colleagues in the Civil Service. I do not want to see them given the kind of treatment that the Act is giving to the absent father. We can take the civil servant as being a straightforward and honest person who complies with the general rules of behaviour in a very difficult occupation. I can think of no more difficult occupation than that of a child support officer.

A friend of mine was talking to me about being in the Customs and Excise enforcement division for small businesses. I asked him whether he was liking his work. He replied, "Well, there are too many tears in it". I believe that there are too many tears in this legislation. There should be some consideration in this regard.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for his remarks. It is pleasant to be roughly on the same side just occasionally. He makes a very valid point, which I have made on a number of occasions, about civil servants and the officials of the agency.

This amendment addresses the matter of where an employee of the agency gives the absent parent's address or telephone number to the parent with care after the absent parent has specifically said he does not want the information revealed or where a parent with care has made representations about good cause and then has her address revealed to the absent parent. The noble Earl's amendment would have that employee guilty of an offence. The Child Support Agency would be liable for damages and would lose jurisdiction.

It may be helpful if I explain that Section 6(2) of the 1991 Act applies where a parent with care is not required to authorise the Secretary of State to recover maintenance because if she did there would be a risk of her or any child living with her suffering harm or undue distress. Normally this decision will be made before the parent with care has given the agency any details of the absent parent. Where the parent with care has not authorised the Secretary of State to act, the Child Support Agency will not contact the absent parent if from other sources he knows who he is and where he lives.

I would like to draw attention to Section 50(1) which the noble Earl seeks to amend. It says:

    "Any person who is, or has been employed in employment to which this section applies is guilty of an offence if, without lawful authority, he discloses any information which (a) was acquired by him in the course of that employment and (b) relates to a particular person".

That means that, subject to the other provisions in Section 50, an employee of the agency who without permission reveals information, including the address of an absent parent or a parent with care, is guilty of an offence. That applies in all cases unless the parent has agreed to the information being disclosed. There are no provisions for the address of one parent to be given to the other.

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Regulation 8 of the Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedures) Regulations, Regulation 9A of the Child Support (Information Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations and Regulation 17 of the Child Support Appeal Tribunals (Procedure) Regulations expressly prohibit the disclosure of an address or other information which could lead to a person being located. I am satisfied that these existing provisions are entirely adequate.

Of course, agency staff are human and there is always the possibility that information may be given in error. There is always the possibility that someone may be able to read the forms upside down, for example. Where that happens the staff would certainly be subject to internal disciplinary action and the agency would consider whether compensation was justified in each case.

I hope that I have assured the noble Earl that there are defences in place to prevent the staff of the agency giving the name and address of one to the other. I hear what he said about the cases. I reiterate that there are two sides to every situation. When I was listening to the noble Earl, I thought that if I were one of the parents and wanted to find out where the other lived, on the assumption that I had any relationship with the children—and all of us who have children, even if they are now grown up, will know that they can easily be induced to part with knowledge—I would have a readily accessible source for that kind of information.

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