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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Is the noble Earl inviting us to a Dutch auction?

Earl Russell: My Lords, no, I do not conduct my auctions on Dutch principles. I think that the House takes my point. When a woman says that she is going to wash this man right out of her hair, that is a force which the state cannot change.

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I remember saying in 1995--the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, opened his eyes wide with astonishment--that in some of these cases even the death penalty would not be a sufficient inducement to make the woman go back into a relationship with her former partner and co-operate. Those were considered words. I know actual examples. I shall not go any further. In those cases I believe that there is no penalty which is sufficient to make the woman co-operate.

Again it is vital that though violence is regarded as sufficient cause, fear of violence is not. The case of Miss Rogers in the CSA's model cases is a classic case in point. She said, "I fear he will hurt me one day. So I want to go where I will never see him again". When a woman decides that, it is hard to make her change her mind, but she can find it difficult to offer proof. Let us take this:

    "It was the way he looked at me. It was very difficult to put into words. He had a strange and odd effect on me".
That is actual evidence. It is the evidence of the WPC who had to go to see Thomas Hamilton of Dunblane about his gun licence. She was right. That instinct is part of a woman's survival kit in the world. Anyone who tries to make her abandon it will fail. So the Minister is barking up the wrong tree. However fierce his penalty, he will never get to the top of it. He can go on and on producing fiercer penalties.

Among all those possible causes for not co-operating, the only one that the DSS can see is fraud. I wish the DSS were as worried by its own errors as it is by those of claimants. The research offers a weak foundation indeed for that belief in fraud. It admits itself that it is not a statistically significant sample. It quotes the belief of staff that there is a great deal of fraud. But I did discover one interesting thing from the large mass of material that I was sent. It is the comment in paragraph 3.75 that that belief of the staff in a large level of fraud was perception rather than fact. That I believe to be correct.

The sample was untypical in that only one member of it had appealed against a reduced benefit direction. It was unscholarly in that it lumped together confirmed fraud and suspected fraud. I have had no additional evidence about cases of suspected fraud. Taking those two as one and the same thing is legally totally unsound. Of the 38, 26 are alleged to have told the research that a 40 per cent. benefit penalty had no impact. That is literally totally unbelievable. I have asked to see the words of the question to which that was a reply. I have not seen them. I can only translate that comment, saving your Lordships' presence, as, ".... off". I think that that is all it means.

I do not believe the Minister realises quite how tight life is on ordinary levels of benefit: not being able to buy a wreath for a father's funeral. In Elaine Kempson's words:

    "Insufficient income to cover even their basic needs".
She stresses that the hardship of being on benefit grows, often in geometrical proportion, as you are on it longer. So if you are on a 40 per cent. reduction for the whole of your children's youth, that will grow very heavy indeed.

It must affect the children also. We were told in 1991 that it affected only the mother and not the children, but you do not divide the pat of butter into one half which is for the mother, which shrinks, and another half which

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is for the children. I know that mothers try to do that to the point of malnutrition, but even beyond the point of malnutrition, if you switch off the heating, you switch it off for everyone. The children must suffer too. And the problem goes on to the next generation.

They tell me that a 40 per cent. benefit penalty or a 20 per cent. benefit penalty have no impact. I find that an insult to my intelligence. In saying that, the Minister is flinging a pot of ink in the face of the public. If he wants a farthing, I am willing to repeat it outside the Chamber.

Moved to resolve, That this House invites Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the Draft Child Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1996 and to lay amended regulations making the power to increase the benefit penalty discretionary and therefore to be exercised with regard to the welfare of any child likely to be affected by the decision, as required by Section 2 of the Child Support Act 1991.--(Earl Russell.)

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for allowing us this debate in this form tonight. The regulations reduce benefit for the parent with care who fails to co-operate with the CSA without good cause by some 40 per cent. for a three-year term, which is renewable. I take it, but it would worth the Minister confirming it, that at any point that the parent with care co-operates with the agency the full benefit is promptly reinstated. The regulations are to take effect from October.

Perhaps I may start with the point that the noble Earl made last. We are talking about a significant sum: a loss to a family of nearly £20 a week, leaving her--I may not be a WPC, but I shall use the word "her" in this case--if she has one child with just £60 a week to live on if she is over 25 and £50 for a mother and child to live on if the mother is, say, 24. That is based on a review of just 72 cases out of the 27,000 cases in which there were benefit deductions.

The sampling evidence upon which this new practice has been constructed seems to me to be exceedingly unreliable, particularly when it is done by an agency which is notorious for its inaccuracy and error. Even after improvements during the past year, over one assessment in five is inaccurate. Improvements have been made, and we welcome them, but I should be somewhat more comfortable with all of this if I felt that the agency's procedures and processes were to be relied on rather more faithfully than we have so far been led to believe.

We do not doubt that there is a problem of collusion. While in 1974 there was a deduction of about 4 per cent. in benefit, it was double that last year. We know that the very act of triggering child support assessments has encouraged some parents with care to stop claiming income support, suggesting that their claim for income support may not have been legitimate; for instance, they may have been in work, living with a partner or claiming as a single parent. It is also sometimes the case that when child support assessments are made, allegations are made by one parent that the other is fraudulently claiming benefit.

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There is also some evidence, which we must accept, that some parents collude in order to avoid payment. Obviously, it is in everyone's interest, except that of taxpayers, that the parent with care should refuse to name the absent father and that in return for his avoiding formal maintenance he will pay informal maintenance of a lower figure which goes entirely to her and the children and none to the Treasury. That too is fraud.

It is also the case that some parents with care fail to co-operate with the CSA because they are genuinely bewildered. The noble Earl's description of them being in a fog in terms of the wondrous workings of the agency was most apt. They are bewildered and baffled by the whole process. Many find the forms very difficult to understand. Their English may be poor. Many parents with care may have minor learning difficulties. At present, the CSA makes no personal contact, such as a visit, and therefore it is difficult to know the extent of the problem.

Other parents may refuse to co-operate, not because they are confused but because they are all too clear that they do not want the absent parent back in their lives. They believe that if the absent father pays maintenance he will want access. For whatever reason, good or bad, they prefer to accept a benefit penalty rather than to allow that. The Minister, the noble Earl and I know that paying maintenance and rights to access are not the same, but that is not what is believed outside this House in many broken families.

Other parents with care may have a friendly relationship with the absent father. Their children may often stay with him in his new family and get on with the new half-brothers and half-sisters. They may not wish to threaten that relationship by appearing to hound him for maintenance. It is decent that they prize the good relations between their children and their father and have no wish to appear to jeopardise them at the cost to the children.

Finally, some parents with care are genuinely fearful of violence from an abusing partner. There is no doubt that for very good reasons many women do not co-operate with the agency. The test of the agency is whether it is sufficiently skilled and sensitive to recognise when such a real fear exists.

What is our position? We are emphatic that we do not tolerate fraud, nor do we accept collusion. I accept that there may be a case for some benefit reduction having a role to play in stopping fraud in particular. However, I believe that much of the blame for the present situation lies fairly and squarely with the practices and procedures of the CSA. Parents with care find themselves dealing with an anonymous, bureaucratic, error-ridden and deeply flawed organisation. It is wrong that the parent with care can suffer benefit reductions without having the opportunity to meet and discuss the case with the CSA official. We believe that home visits are essential if one is to determine the true situation and to assure a woman who is threatened with violence that she should be protected and to encourage the woman who may have learning difficulties and who is baffled and frightened by the whole system that she need have no fear in co-operating with the agency. We shall reinstate home

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visits. We believe also that there may be other and safer methods of tracing the absent father without jeopardising the well-being of the mother. Whatever our concern to eradicate fraud, there is no way in which we shall be party to putting women at risk.

Therefore the Government and the agency must be able to distinguish between a mother who is being deliberately fraudulent--possibly because she is working, which, clearly, must be stopped and a benefit penalty or the loss of benefit if her work takes her above that level should be considered--and the mother who is colluding with the absent father and enters into an informal arrangement with him. That, too, should be stopped. I hope that in the case of the first situation, if there is any question of misunderstanding and the woman should be on family credit, the agency will accept the fact that not everyone has such a clear distinction between income support and family credit and the 16-hours rule as do your Lordships.

The Government have only themselves to blame for the mother who colludes with the absent father. While not tolerating collusion, we know why it happens. It happens because the Government do not permit the parent with care to retain a single pound or a single penny of the maintenance paid in the form of disregard if he or she is on income support. We hope and expect to introduce such a disregard, thus making it more financially attractive for women with children to co-operate.

We must also distinguish between the woman who is confused and fails to co-operate with the agency, to which we believe the right response is home visits, and the mother who refuses to co-operate with the agency as a result of genuine fear. We all accept that the CSA staff have a difficult job. All of us would wish to pay tribute to the fact that, so far, in no case in which it has been reported that the CSA has refused to accept a fear of violence as good cause has there subsequently been violent assault or abuse. The staff are to be commended for that.

We shall restore home visits and we shall have a greater confidence in the system of penalties. Until they and a disregard are in place, and until alternative and safer means of tracing the father are in place, we oppose the Government's policy of increasing benefit deduction. It is wrong. It may, though I doubt it, succeed in getting more women to co-operate with the agency. However, it will plunge more children of lone parents into deeper poverty. Their health, education and well-being will suffer. Perhaps your Lordships will try to imagine a mother and a five year-old child living on £50 a week. Your Lordships might spend in one night that on a dinner for two. The health of those children and their education and well-being will suffer. Truly, the Government are insisting that we visit the sins of the father all too literally on the father's child.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, this Motion is unnecessary for two reasons. First, although the Government are satisfied that child support provisions are entirely consistent with the welfare of children, child support legislation, in fact, imposes no requirement on the Secretary of State to consider these

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issues when bringing forward regulations. I recall, as I am sure does the noble Earl, that this matter was debated extensively during the passage of the 1995 Child Support Bill.

Parliament has decided that child maintenance should be set within the clearly defined framework of a formula which takes into account the needs of all parties involved: the children, their parents and the taxpayers. The foundations of the scheme are rooted in the belief, endorsed by Parliament, that the welfare of the child is best served through the support of his own parents based on their ability to pay.

It is also the case that there are already established and well-used safeguards to ensure the proper use of regulation-making powers, such as those relating to the vires of the powers or the unusual or unexpected use of powers. There can be little doubt that it was the will of Parliament in passing what is now Section 46 of the 1991 Act that parents with care should face a benefit reduction if they failed without good cause to co-operate with child support provisions. These regulations simply seek to make that penalty more effective.

Secondly, in accordance with Section 2 of the Child Support Act 1991, the welfare of the child must be considered in connection with all good cause decisions. Both the requirement to co-operate and reduced benefit direction decisions are discretionary decisions and will continue to be, as they have been so far, subject to welfare of the child considerations.

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