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Earl Russell: I am afraid that it does not. Together with my Amendment No. 96, the Minister has answered Amendment No. 97. I hope that it may be convenient to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the Minister to deal with those amendments grouped together.
On Amendment No. 97 I intended to refer to what the Government told the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee; namely, that there is no commitment to compensate for all changes which could reduce maintenance payments. The Minister has confirmed that but I do not understand why not. We are dealing with subsistence. There is no reason why some changes should result in a guarantee to maintain the subsistence and some should not.
The Minister said that he would offer compensation for any specific change in policy. He then said that he would not offer compensation for the effects of a departure. He seems to have contradicted himself because on 23rd January he told the House that the introduction of departures was a significant and specific change of policy for which the Government deserved very great credit.
The Minister really cannot have it both ways. Is the introduction of departures a change of policy? If it is not, why did he and his honourable friend Mr. Burt spend so long telling both Houses that a departure was something which could never ever, under any circumstances, be allowed? It really illustrates the principle that "never" is a short time in politics.
It seems to me rather more important, as the Minister has admitted that compensation will not be given in all circumstances, to ask what other circumstances apart from departures will not be covered. It is a yawning pit. As an Englishman, I cannot help wondering whether the Minister is planning a new battle of Bannockburn. Although, as I said, I am an Englishman, I speak as a descendant of Robert Bruce.
It is most unfortunate. It is not at all clear what is being put before the Committee. If they can depart in one circumstance, they can do so in two; if they can do it in three, then they can do it in four. Indeed, they could even decide to do so in all cases individually. Is there any circumscribing principle covering the limits which the Government put on that doctrine? I should like to hear what that is before we leave the matter.
Lord Carter: Amendments Nos. 98 and 100 are tabled in my name. I should prefer to deal with those separately, because we are now dealing with Amendments Nos. 96 and 97. I believe that the noble Earl put his arguments extremely well. The noble Earl referred to a change of policy which is not a change of policy. I believe that something called the Scott Inquiry has been dealing with that.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am asked to respond to the points made by the noble Earl and also to bring in Amendment No. 97 in my response. The latter amendment simply removes the words "in prescribed circumstances and". I know that it may sound like splitting hairs, but the point about the changes that we have made to the departure orderwhich we believe are significantis that they may or may not necessarily lead to any changes in the reduction of maintenance. They are departures from the formula and, as I said, they allow important discretions to the Child Support Agency official. Of course, if the absent parent does not agree, then he can appeal. Indeed, both parents can appeal but, by and large, I suspect that it would be the absent parent who would wish to appeal to the tribunal in the case of departure orders. They are there in order to ensure that in very special circumstances there can be a deviation, an alteration, from the formula.
That is the point that I am trying to make about departure orders. They are akin to a change in circumstances in the absent parent's position and/or the position of the parent with care. There is no intention to compensate family credit claimants for the normal variations in maintenance. I can see the noble Earl's point if he is saying that that should apply in the first instance due to the change that we have made. But then, when the system is up and running, a departure may be made as the result of changes to the position of the absent parent or the parent with care who makes such a request. In those circumstances, we do not believe that it would be appropriate to make the changes that we propose ought in other circumstances to be made to family credit.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: No, it is not morals tested. However, as the noble Earl knows, the point isand we shall come to deal with this in more detail later when we come to the related, although not linked, amendmentsthat family credit is paid for six months. In fact, quite considerable changes can already take place during that period. No change is made either up or down to the level of family credit; for example, someone could find himself earning more money than he earned on the day of application for family credit but he would continue to receive the benefit at that level until the end of the period, when it would be recalculated. Of course, conversely, he could receive less money and the opposite situation would occur. The key to family creditit is an important keyis the six-month period over which it operates. We have to be careful about departing from that important principle in family credit.
That is the general position on family credit. It is there for six months. What we are proposing to do in the Bill is to make an exception to that position in the case of changes which come directly from our legislation and impinge directly on the parent with care. We believe that the departure system may or may not impinge on someoneit will, of course, always be therewhereas the changes that are made to the income of the parent with care will run on. A departure system will continue to be there and we do not propose that we
Earl Russell: The noble Lord has not answered what was perhaps my most important question. Is there any circumscribing principle at all limiting the Minister's right to decide circumstances in which compensation will not be paid, or is this right arbitrary and unlimited? I would like an answer to that question as it will be important to a great many people.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I sometimes have quite considerable difficulty in getting my mind round the questions that the noble Earl asks me because I live in a reasonably simple world and he seems to live in an extraordinarily complex world. The position is as I have outlined. We have taken this power. I wish I could find my copy of the Bill. However, everyone else has a copy and they can read the provision. I thank the Deputy Chairman for handing me the document. Unfortunately, it is not much of an advance.
As I said, we have taken this power in order to be reasonable and helpful in the changes we are making by legislation. We will prescribe the situations where we consider there ought to be changes made to family credit. I do not wish to try to see into the future and decide what other circumstances may or may not arise. That takes us over the issues which the noble Earl has gone over time and again. I and my honourable friends in the other place have made it clear what we intend to do with the power we are taking in this Bill at the present time. As I have said on a number of occasions, I do not have a crystal ball to see in what way it may or may not be used by Secretaries of State in the future.
Earl Russell: Is the Minister really telling me that Secretaries of State can use this to do absolutely anything they like; that they could withdraw the whole effect of the clause if they chose? If that is so, I find that a deeply improper method of legislation. If it really is the case that the Secretary of State can do whatever he likes, he is absolutely without control. Here we have the merging of a constitutional principle about the drafting of legislation with a practical principle of social security about the welfare of individuals who are short of food. This is an amendment about people who need to eat. They do not need to eat one bit the less because the Minister wants discretion. I ask the opinion of the Committee.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.