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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am afraid that I cannot tell the noble Earl that now. I do not know quite what "now" means, but I shall be happy to write to him as soon as I can about where in the legislation, secondary legislation, or whatever it is, the £75 is lodged.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I too have a pile of paper and I understand his difficulties. However, if he were able to address the point in time for us to table an amendment on Third Reading, I would much appreciate it. This is not a satisfactory situation. I do not think that we can leave matters there. However, as we cannot pursue the issue any further tonight, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment Nos. 13 not moved.]

Clause 10 [The child maintenance bonus]:

[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]

7 p.m.

Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 15:

After Clause 17, insert the following new clause:

Child Support Advisory Committee

(".—(1) There shall be a body to be called the Child Support Advisory Committee, referred to in this section as "the Committee".
(2) The Committee shall consist of not less than eight and not more than fifteen members appointed by the Secretary of State.
(3) The Secretary of State shall appoint one member of the Committee to chair its proceedings.
(4) In appointing the members of the Committee, the Secretary of State shall have regard to the desirability of appointing persons with experience and knowledge of—
(a) family proceedings and the work of family courts;
(b) child support legislation; and
(c) the welfare of children.
(5) It shall be the duty of the Committee to advise the Secretary of State on the working of child support legislation, and to make recommendations, when it sees fit, for amending such legislation.
(6) It shall be the duty of the Committee to prepare an annual report and to submit it to the Secretary of State.
(7) The report prepared under subsection (6) above shall include—
(a) details of the number of child maintenance assessments made in the year, and an analysis of their effect on child welfare;
(b) details of the number of departure directions made in the year, and an analysis of their impact on the effectiveness of child maintenance;
(c) details of the number of reviews undertaken by child support officers in the year, and an analysis of the results of those reviews;
(d) details of the number of appeals made to child support appeal tribunals in the year, together with an analysis of the grounds of appeal and the findings of the tribunals, and the Committee's assessment of any implications of that analysis for the reform of child support legislation; and
(e) any other matters which the Committee considers appropriate.
(8) The Secretary of State shall lay copies of each report made to him under subsection (6) above before both Houses of Parliament.
(9) Any expenses incurred by the members of the Committee appointed under this section may be reimbursed by the Secretary of State out of moneys provided by Parliament.").

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, although this amendment is rather long, I shall be quite brief in my remarks. I should simply like to have the views of the Minister on record regarding the proposals that have been made, and of which I am sure he is aware, for the child support advisory committee. There was a debate on this amendment in the other place at Report stage. Although it was fairly long, it was quite hard to pick out of it much about the child support advisory committee. It seemed to cover a large number of other issues. I felt that it would be helpful if in this House we could hear the views of the Government.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that a consultative and evaluative committee is established, similar to the one that exists in Australia, continually to monitor and evaluate the operation of the child support scheme and to make recommendations for its improvement.

At present, the only ways in which child support legislation is examined are by the House of Commons Social Security Committee and by the Department of Social Security through its day-to-day monitoring of the scheme; through research studies; and by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (the Ombudsman). We know that the Social Security Committee's reports are extremely valuable. However, given the committee's workload, it is not able continually to monitor the child support legislation in detail. The research studies that the department organises will also no doubt be valuable, but they are designed to be of a long-term nature and, as they are not independent of government, may not cover all the aspects of the child support legislation and its effects which they should. The Ombudsman also performs an extremely useful role in examining individual cases where maladministration has occurred. However, he too is unable to provide truly comprehensive long-term reports into the operation of the scheme. We therefore believe it to be essential that an independent expert body is established continually to monitor child support legislation and standards of work in the Child Support Agency, and to make recommendations for improvements. I believe it is correct to argue that, had such an advisory committee been in existence when the 1991 Act came into operation, we might well have avoided a great many of the problems that led to this Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as the noble Lord explained, this clause provides for an advisory committee to advise the Secretary of State on the workings of the child support scheme. Let me say straight away that we value consultation. That is why there was a wide-ranging consultation exercise before regulations were made under the 1991 Act, and why we took careful note of the advice in the 5th Report of the Social Security Select Committee, and of the views of other interested parties, in developing the improvements to the child support scheme of which the provisions in this Bill form a key part. We also have a constructive dialogue with many representatives of absent parents, parents with care, and those with experience of family law issues.

6 Jul 1995 : Column 1302

In developing the changes that we announced in January, we consulted with eminent family lawyers and we corresponded frequently about the child support scheme with many organisations, including the National Council for One Parent Families, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Law Society. Whatever problems we have had with child support, I do not think that they have arisen for lack of consultation. Therefore I am not sure how this particular clause could assist.

In addition to the function of overseeing legislation analogous to that of the Social Security Advisory Committee, the proposed child support advisory committee would be required to monitor operational aspects of child support. It is in this area that the proposed annual reports of the committee would focus. In this respect, the committee would duplicate the role not only of the Social Security Select Committee of another place, but also of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the National Audit Office, and the Chief Child Support Officer.

Both the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and the National Audit Office reported on the operation of the child support scheme. They drew attention to problems with these operations and Ministers have indicated the steps that are being taken to address these problems—in particular by improved methods within the agency for measuring accuracy, additional checking and enhanced training for staff. Many of the changes announced in the White Paper, Improving Child Support, are also aimed at improving the operation of the scheme. I have no doubt that both the Parliamentary Commissioner and the National Audit Office will continue to provide valuable information on the areas where we can improve the scheme, and Ministers will continue to respond positively to this feedback.

Noble Lords will be aware that the post of Chief Child Support Officer was set up under the 1991 Act to advise child support officers on the performance of their duties. His functions, which he discharges independently of Ministers or the Department of Social Security, include monitoring child support adjudication and reporting annually on performance. His annual reports contain much that is of use in identifying areas where further work is needed, and I know that he and managers in the agency are committed to working together to improve performance.

As noble Lords will recognise, the department and the Child Support Agency itself are involved in an ongoing process of evaluating the effectiveness of the policy and of the operations. This goes beyond responding to external comment and advice. The agency is seeking the views of key stake-holders by means of regular meetings and has set a challenging charter standard which will be monitored carefully. Officials will continue to monitor the policy, and particularly the changes introduced in April and through this Bill. The departure system will be piloted before full introduction to identify and solve any unforeseen complications.

So there is clearly considerable overlap between the functions of those who already advise on child support and the tasks for the proposed child support advisory committee. In my view, this inevitable overlap would

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seriously hamper the effectiveness of an advisory committee in this field. I believe that there is quite simply no distinct role for such an advisory committee, either in advising on areas where legislation could be improved, or in monitoring the performance of the agency.

I have explained in some detail what happens at the moment and the kind of way in which the current system responds to the sort of things that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, would like to see his child support advisory committee do. In addition, I am perfectly happy to give a clear commitment to continue to respond positively to constructive suggestions for improvements in child support from wherever they come. I hope that, with that explanation of how we look for advice and who is there, set up statutorily, as some of the bodies in question are, to look at the Child Support Agency and advise us—sometimes in quite robust reports, it has to be said—the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment.

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