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Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 30:

Before Clause 18, insert the following new clause:

("Reduced benefit directions: amendment of section 46 of 1991 Act

. In section 46 of the 1991 Act (failure to comply with obligations imposed by section 6), after subsection (5) insert— "(5A) The prescribed amount of the reduction under a reduced benefit direction shall be no more than five per centum of the personal allowance payable in respect of the parent with care." ").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 31, with which it is grouped. The amendments concern the benefit penalty—the penalty which is imposed on the parent with care if she refuses to co-operate with the agency, to name the father and authorise the agency to take action. At present the penalty stands at 20 per cent. for one year and 10 per cent. for a further six months. It has been my contention right from the beginning that that penalty is too draconian, that it too much threatens both the mother's and the children's ability to maintain an adequate standard of living sufficient for health. In fact, the amendment is very much like one I moved on Commons Reasons in 1991.

We have now a very considerable body of evidence—I mention in passing the National Consumer Council and the National Children's Home, and the Minister knows the references—which indicates that on income support it is difficult to maintain an adequate standard of living. With reduced benefit direction it becomes, on occasion, very difficult indeed. When the benefit is subject, as is too often the case now, to a whole series of other deductions, then it can become very hard indeed. Those may include social fund loans, gas, water, electricity, community charge arrears still being pursued—and it is really about time that that stopped—occasionally court fines, arrears of rent and utility charges of all sorts. They are a much bigger part of the expenditure of people on benefit than they were five years ago.

There is a normal rule in the department that deductions from income support should not exceed 15 per cent. of benefit. Even that is arguably too much. But that rule, where it applies, is better than nothing. However, there is no such rule covering deductions under the benefit penalty. The Minister could perfectly easily bring that benefit penalty under the operation of the 50 per cent. rule. But leaving the deduction, if it remains at all, at 20 per cent., amounts to cruelty and, what is more, cruelty not only to the mother but also to the children. I cannot see how one can have a 20 per cent. reduction in the mother's income without it affecting the children also: it must. If the total household income is reduced that much, there is not the money to go round.

The Minister believes that deductions of this sort are not sufficient to act as an incentive to co-operate. But I do not believe that he has understood the psychology of those involved. There are some women who simply will not have anything whatsoever to do with the man with whom they have been previously involved. For them 20 per cent. is not enough and the statistics show that there is quite a number of them. I believe that there is no

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penalty known to the law which could be sufficient. In fact, I have known cases where even the penalty of death would not have been sufficient to induce co-operation. Some of those women I have known quite well and I know of what I speak.

There are others who are capable of being led by economic incentives, as the Bill proposes. For them a very small incentive is sufficient. So if they are capable of responding to an economic incentive at all, then I believe they are capable of responding to an economic incentive of 5 per cent. So I do not believe that the Minister will find a very great increase in the number of parents refusing to co-operate if this reduction were to be introduced. But even if that is not the case, it is my opinion that a reduction in the level of 20 per cent. is simply not tolerable: it is an injustice.

Amendment No. 31 deals with a point with which the Minister, after the Jobseekers Act, will be familiar. That is the right to enjoy benefit pending an appeal. If an appeal is to mean anything one must not be deprived of benefit until the appeal has been heard. If the Minister argues otherwise, I hope that he will watch the danger of once again falling into the trap of saying, "We cannot have more appeals for fear that everyone might want them". If people are aggrieved they have the right to appeal. I do not believe it right that they should be penalised for doing so. The Minister knows the arguments about this matter and I hope that he has thought about them a little more since the jobseekers' legislation. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as I said in Committee, 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. It is right that parents with care should co-operate in the pursuit of maintenance unless they have good reason not to do so. It is not right that the burden of maintenance should fall to taxpayers, many of whom have children of their own.

Amendment No. 30 seeks to reduce the amount of the reduced benefit direction to 5 per cent. of the income support personal allowance. A parent with care who receives, or whose current partner receives, a relevant benefit must give her authority for maintenance to be pursued from the absent parent unless she has good cause not to do so. If she does not give her authority without good cause, her benefit may be reduced by 20 per cent. of the income support adult allowance for six months, followed by a reduction of 10 per cent. for the next 12 months.

A reduction to 5 per cent. of the personal allowance would not be effective. It is right that parents with care should co-operate with the agency unless they have good cause not to do so. Taxpayers should not have to shoulder the burden of supporting other people's children unless that is unavoidable. I must stress again, as I did in Committee, that parents with care have their

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benefit reduced only after very careful consideration. Even after a benefit reduction has been imposed, the parent with care may give her co-operation at any time and the benefit reduction will be lifted. Alternatively, she may come forward with fresh representations about why she should not be expected to co-operate and these will be considered.

Amendment No. 31 would prevent a reduced benefit direction from coming into force until any appeal against it had been dismissed by a child support appeal tribunal. Parents with care are given every opportunity to make representations and to consider their position before a reduced benefit direction is imposed, and no benefit for a parent with care is reduced without very careful consideration having been given to her case and that of her children.

I could outline again the procedures leading to a benefit reduction, but I did that in Committee and, as your Lordships know, arguments that have been fully deployed in a Committee of the Whole House should not be repeated at length on Report. Therefore, I do not intend to repeat the considerable arguments that I put forward about how the procedure works and the checks and balances which it contains.

However, Amendment No. 31 would mean that, where there is an appeal against the reduced benefit direction, it would in effect be suspended, or would not take effect, until after the tribunal had rejected the appeal. That would encourage parents with care to appeal against the direction simply to delay its coming into force. That is not a proper use of the tribunal service or of Child Support Agency resources.

As I said at greater length in Committee when I explained the safeguards, we believe that the safeguards which are in place protect the parent with care before a reduced benefit direction is imposed. We believe that they are fully adequate. Therefore, with that somewhat briefer explanation than I gave the noble Earl in Committee, I hope that he will see fit to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I do not find the Minister's answer at all persuasive. He says that his department never disentitles anyone without very careful consideration. That is the voice of the Executive believing that once it has thought, it must necessarily be right. That is not always so.

The Minister invokes the interests of the taxpayer—and we are going to hear a bit more about the interests of the taxpayer when we reach the next amendment. I do not think that it is necessary to serve the interests of the taxpayer by reducing people to a standard of living where they are in danger of malnutrition. Indeed, I do not believe that it is in the interests of the taxpayer to do so. It may be expensive.

I do not think that the Minister has considered the alternative means of occupation which women might find if they are driven below what is about the lowest reasonable level of subsistence. As a taxpayer, I am ashamed to use such methods—and I am ashamed that my own standard of living should depend on that. I believe that that view will be widely shared around the country. The Minister shakes his head, but we shall have

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the opportunity to ask the country soon enough. The Minister might listen to the country when he will not listen to me. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 31 and 32 not moved.]

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