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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Yes, my Lords; of course I accept what the noble and learned Lord has to say on the matter. That is indeed the case. However, the suggestion being made relates to the Secretary of State. As we all know, the position of the Secretary of State is a little like that of man encompassing woman, in that he also encompasses the officials of the CSA. The accusation being made is that they are bound to act unreasonably, almost as if it is in the nature of the beast to do so. It is my contention that the people in the Child Support Agency are doing their job to the very best of their ability. Indeed, they often do it in the face of quite deplorable behaviour from some of the people who have organised themselves in the campaign on behalf of absent parents. It is quite deplorable behaviour.
It is one thingalthough, perhaps, it is not even one thingand bad enough when some of my honourable and right honourable friends find their houses surrounded by absent parents causing a great deal of mayhem; but it is quite another thing when officials of the CSA find themselves in exactly the same position. That is absolutely unfair. As I said, the CSA officials are doing their best to run the system in difficult circumstances and, in fact, they do put many maintenance payments through to the parent with care and the children of the first marriage. It is largely the
Although the noble Earl's amendment would make the Secretary of State liable for the actions of child support officers in that context, it would, nevertheless, create a quite intolerable situation for individual staff members, who would be fearful that their reasonably made decisions would be subject to court action simply because one or other of the parties objected to them. I do not suppose that the parents with care would object very often, but, having read the literature of the organisation called NACSA, I have little doubt that a whole army of people would be encouraged to do so. Indeed I suggest that this document in a kind of quizzical way by deploring what steps people may take lays out the steps it would like them to take to upset the workings of the agency. To give them any more routes to frustrate the work of the Child Support Agency would simply add to the difficulties the agency has in carrying out what the great majority in Parliament, with the exception of course of the Liberal Democrats, wants; namely, for the agency to collect money from the absent parent and pass it to the parent with care. I am sure that the population at large is equally determined to ensure that that will happen.
Of course the debate has centred on the difficult question of the welfare of the child. Every child has a right of care from his or her parents. Parents generally have a legal and a moral obligation to care for their children until they are old enough to look after themselves. Unfortunately, in today's world the parents of a child may separate and in some instances the parents may not have lived together as a family at all. Although events may change the relationship between parents, for example when they part or when they divorce, those events cannot in any way change their responsibility to the child or the children who are, so to speak, left behind by that relationship. The payment of child maintenance is one crucial way in which parents fulfil their responsibilities towards their children and towards the welfare of their children. That is why in the 1991 Act we proposed a new system which was part of a wide-ranging series of measures to tackle these difficult issues of the breakdown in relationships and what happens afterwards.
It is relatively simplehowever, I use the word "relatively" advisedlyto deal with the problem when there are no children. However, your Lordships will understand why I used the word "relatively" because there were difficulties when we discussed the Pensions Bill as regards the payment of pensions on divorce. However, when children are involved, this matter becomes doubly difficult. We wanted to make sure in the review in 1991Parliament agreed with the Governmentthat it was in the interests of the child to emphasise parental responsibility and the need for one parent to help with the maintenance and the finances of the parent with care.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, this is an extraordinarily difficult and important issue. Perhaps I may say that it is one I have had to live with for many years. I am far from convinced that any of the formulae that have been put forward meet the case. However, I think it may be possible to find one. Is the Minister prepared to go so far as to say that he will consider the matter with those who are interested in it between now and Third Reading?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for agreeing with me that this is an extremely complex matter. As I said and as will be obvious from previous amendments, we reflect on the issues that are raised in Committee before we reach the Report stage. We shall reflect on what has been said today in looking forward to the debate next week. However, I would be leading the noble and learned Lord up the proverbial garden path if I were to suggest to him that I had any reasonable hope of satisfying him or others on this issue by offering to discuss it with them. I must politely stand my ground and decline his suggestion.
Lord Carter: My Lords, the Minister has certainly given a full reply and I was moved by his eloquence, particularly when he appeared to find it inconvenient that children should be involved in the Child Support Bill. I found that argument a little hard to follow. On reflection it might have been better if we had, as it were, degrouped and taken the amendment that is in my name alone and then perhaps dealt with the noble Earl's amendments. They are in the same group and they deal with the same subject but the Minister made a fair point on that matter. My amendment is intended to deal only with departure directions whereas the noble Earl's amendments are much wider. I emphasise that it is only in the case of departure directions that the welfare of the children would have to be notified to the parties as regards how that had been taken into account.
I was disappointed that the noble Earl did not give the definition of extraordinary and amazing circumstances that I had asked for; perhaps we can try again at a later stage. I congratulate the Minister, or at least his officials, on their assiduity in looking up what I said on Third Reading of the 1991 Act. I should warn the
I also quoted, again at col. 87, the words of counsel in that case. It was an extract and so perhaps misleading; one would need to read the whole transcript. But he did not say that welfare in this particular case is not paramount or even of particular significance; he simply said it as an absolute:
It may be worthwhile the Minister reconsidering those words to see what counsel was driving at. I accept the point the Minister made. We certainly discussed the matter over a long period during the passage of the 1991 Act, and we discussed the legal effect of "paramount". I can see that in the Children Act, which is obviously all about children, one can make the welfare of the children paramount. However, in this case there are other people besides the children who have to be taken into account and therefore that welfare cannot be paramount.
I wish to make it entirely clear from these Benches that we agree that absent parents should face their responsibilities. NACSA, the organisation which the Minister mentioned, is perfectly entitled to protest legally and to express its views about the Child Support Agency. However, I agree with the Minister's strictures as regards the behaviour of some of the members of NACSA towards officials and others.
I did not think that we would convince the Minister but we have had a useful debate. We may want to return to the matter on Third Reading to see whether we can press the Minister further. However, the Minister has given a full reply which I shall wish to read. I believe that I can detect what the Government feel. However, we will need to be convinced that the officials have been given enough guidance in the form of the code of practice and other guidance. The Minister said that the Government are determined that the welfare of all children in these cases should be taken into account. We have to make sure that the officials know that and that the guidance and codes of practice are sufficiently strong to ensure that that happens.