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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has proposed a new clause very similar to one he proposed at Report stage of this Bill, which would repeal Sections 22 to 25 of the 1991 Act and allow appeals to the High Court instead of, as now, to a Child Support Commissioner.
I do not intend to rehearse at length all the arguments I have previously advanced as to why I do not consider this amendment proposes a sensible way forward. But I should like to remind your Lordships of my principal objections. First, this amendment would undermine all first and second level decisions on the assessment, payment and collection of child support maintenance. In effect, it would return such questions to the courts. The noble Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, has made it clear on a number of occasions that that is his preferred solution to this problem of child maintenance.
Secondly, the lack of any requirement to obtain leave to appeal would result in a great deal of extra work for the High Court and the Court of Session and family law cases currently being dealt with by the High Court would be very seriously delayed. Thirdly, and last, the proposal that all costs would fall to the Secretary of State would be a most unwelcome burden on the taxpayer. And this burden could be quite considerable since hopeless, or even vexatious, cases could be pressed with no fear of incurring costs.
I fear that that is exactly what would happen. I have read a news-sheet by an organisation called NACSA, in which the noble Earl and his honourable friend, Ms. Liz Lynne, could be described as the hero and the heroine. In that news sheet, and rather in jest,
If anyone doubts my judgment that vexatious and hopeless cases would clutter up the whole High Court system, I hope that from what I have quoted from this news magazine about the people who have been involved in doing a great deal of damage to the CSA, it will be realised that such people will very rapidly get to work on this system in order to make sure that the CSA, even with the new system, does not work. I believe that there would be vexatious appeals. That is the way in which we believe that the situation would work out.
The noble Earl made it clear on an earlier occasion that, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, his real objection is to the current system, and that he believes that it does not allow anyone who is aggrieved by any decision under the Child Support Act or its regulations, a proper right of appeal. I cannot accept that. I am sure that your Lordships are well aware of the route a person will follow if he wishes to challenge a decision of a child support officer.
The first stage is an internal review of the decision by a second child support officer within the agency. As I have explained before, that willand does in factresolve some of the mistakes that are made, perhaps from both sides, because everyone involved with filling in forms knows that mistakes can be made. The person who completes the form can make mistakes in the same way as the person who reads it.
Thereafter the case may proceed to appeal before an independent appeal tribunal; the child support appeal tribunal. These tribunals are completely independent and will have a legally qualified chairman and, normally, two members who are appointed by the president of the child support appeal tribunals from a panel of people who, in his opinion, have knowledge of the area and are representative of people living or working in the area.
Any further challenge must be taken, with leave, to a child support commissioner. This will be on a point of law. A commissioner's legal standing is equivalent to that of a High Court judge and his decision on any case creates case law to be followed in later, similar cases. An appeal against a commissioner's decision may be made to the Court of Appeal or the Court of Session.
The current system allows for a higher adjudicating authority to decide whether or not a child support officer has reached his decision within the provisions of the Act and regulations. It also allows for the law to grow, in a way which the noble Earl should
Earl Russell: My Lords, I do not know whether the Minister watched the "Newsnight" debate on the Conservative leadership. He will have heard some quite strong opinions expressed. I would not dream of hurling those opinions against him across the Chamber. I would not hold him responsible for some of his, shall I say, rather more unusual followers. I ask the Minister to return the compliment.
I think that the Minister knows that we on these Benches are entirely committed to action in legal and political forms. I think that he also understands that it is our party's positionand has been so since my great-grandfather made it so in 1832that we can prevent illegal forms of protest only by creating the hope of legitimate political change and by creating a channel through which that can be pursued. That is what I am attempting to do here and I should be very disappointed if the Minister held it against me.
The Minister says that the amendment would undermine all the lower levels of the system. No, it would not. It would help to gain the system consent and, thank God, even in near-dictatorships it is often impossible to operate a detailed administrative procedure without some degree of consent. If that ever ceases to be so, I shall regret it. Of course, over time the courts would build up a series of principles, test cases and verdicts which were known which would narrow the area within which any appeal could take place.
The Minister invoked extra work, but there is no doubt that the CSA cannot do the work as it stands at the moment. If the Minister feels like introducing an estimate or getting his right honourable and honourable friends in another place to introduce an estimate to double, treble or quadruple the estimates of the CSA, perhaps he could then complain about extra work. Let him shoulder the work first before he complains about it being moved anywhere else.
The Minister complained that the lawsuits might be vexatious. He has such confidence in the rightness of his formula. I wonder whether he recognises that there could be any other. Here we come to the hub of the problem: all governments think they are right. All Administrations see it their own way. They are all aware of how utterly reasonable they are. They therefore become impatient and rather like the German diplomat in Ustinov's Diplomats who said, "Why is everyone so stubborn? Nein! nein! nein". That is a mood that every administrator understands. That is why there must be a review by an impartial authority, bound by the rule of law and with no interest in getting it right. I commend the amendment to the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.