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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the Minister says that there will be five or possibly six communications in writing to the parent with care. Clearly, if she is competent, she will at least know what the situation is and take some responsibility for it. I apologise to the Minister if I am anticipating him, but will he comment or give guidance on the proposals about home visits?
A lot of this endless to-ing and fro-ing of paperwork is directed at women who may have fairly low literacy levels, who may not speak English as their first language or who feel themselves almost frozen into apathy after being bombarded by the system. Can the Minister comprehend that situation? As a councillor, I have known people in my ward in that situation who could not cope with the papers and letters coming through the door.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, obviously, given the number of problems that we have in this regard with parents not returning their forms even at the end of quite a long procedure, it would be quite expensive and difficult to say that we could have home visits in every single case. In any case, all of the parents we are talking about have actually filled in income support application forms and perhaps been to the Benefits Agency office. I find it hard to believe that somehow they are unable either to fill in the form or go to the agency office to seek help and advice.
While we are interested in increasing the number of home visits across the whole benefits area, I cannot promise that we will particularly concentrate on home visits in this area. Most of the people we are considering are people who have income support and, therefore, they have made applications and know how the system works. They know where they can go for help.
We are determined that parents with care will co-operate with the agency unless they have genuine reasons not to do so. We are matching the legislative changes proposed today with improved procedures to ensure that all parents with care understand what is required of them. They will be given every opportunity to state their case. Any parent with care who will genuinely be at risk from co-operating and explains this to the agency will continue to be exempted.
However, those parents with care who never contact the agency after being requested many times to do so, and those parents with care who have no reason--or a reason which does not involve harm or undue distress--for not co-operating should now do so. It is not right that taxpayers, many of whom have children of their own, should be expected to support children simply because they are not living with a parent who can support them. We believe that these changes will encourage parents to comply with the agency and, where they have genuine reasons not to comply, will encourage them to discuss these reasons with the Child Support Agency.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised the case about a parent with care who was not on income support but who had a violent partner. I am a bit puzzled about this. If the parent with care is not in receipt of any relevant benefit, such as income support, the agency will only become involved at the behest of the same parent with care. So the good cause process does not apply in those circumstances as the Child Support Agency is only brought into the picture on a voluntary basis by the parent with care.
Earl Russell: My Lords, the parent was in receipt of maintenance--or was supposed to be in receipt of maintenance--which was not coming. She had failed to explain to the agency that she had good cause--presumably because she did not trust the agency with her explanation. That was my point.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I misunderstood the point and I apologise to the noble Earl. But my point still stands for the circumstance that I thought was being referred to by the noble Earl.
I come back to it. There is no reason why a parent with care who is fearful about her ex-husband or her still-current husband should be frightened to tell the agency why she does not want the agency to approach this particular man. We look very sympathetically at those cases and we now have a lot of experience of judging them. But, as in all these cases, and in all instances of social security, one eventually has to make a judgment or no one would co-operate with us and everyone would say, "Yes, please, I will have the taxpayers' money".
The CSA does not force a woman to strike up relationships with ex-partners. The good cause process is not about forcing women to go back to their old relationships; it is about ensuring that the agency gets the information it requires to make sure that--as in most cases it is--the father of the child actually pays his whack
Turning to the easing of the confidentiality rules during the appeals process, the regulations before us today include provisions for changes to be made to the way the child support appeal papers are handled when appeals are made. The agency takes very seriously its responsibility to protect personal information given in the course of assessing child support maintenance. When an appeal is made by one of the parties to a child support appeal tribunal, it is in the interests of natural justice that all parties to the appeal are copied the relevant papers. This is the responsibility of the independent tribunal service. It is very important that the whereabouts of a party to the appeal are not revealed where there is a risk to that party, and this vetting action will continue.
At present it is assumed that all parties will want this information protected unless they say otherwise. This results in all the appeal papers being edited--often to the point where they are meaningless--despite the fact that most parents are well aware of each other's whereabouts and many spouses remain in the marital home.
It is right that documents should be edited only if that is requested. This regulation change means that the parties to an appeal will tell the independent tribunal service if they want their address and other location details kept secret. If so, the papers will be edited to protect this information.
I shall wind up by making one or two points in direct response to some of the questions I was asked. It was suggested by the noble Earl that I should apply a little carrot as well as a lot of stick. Proper arrangements for child maintenance are obviously in the interests of the overwhelming majority of parents and their children. That is the carrot. They provide a stable income on which a return to work can be contemplated by the parent with care. The child maintenance bonus will provide a clear financial gain to those who move off income support into work. We have had discussion before on maintenance disregard. We believe that it is likely to be a disincentive to return to work. The parent with care has to earn a great deal more to be better off. We believe it is better to focus our limited resources on helping the lone parent to return to work. For example, those in receipt of family credit already receive a £15 disregard.
I think we all appreciate the problems of a parent with care being exposed to a violent ex-husband after a marriage has broken up. We believe that if the parent with care tells the Child Support Agency she has a genuine fear of violence and states that that is why she does not wish the Child Support Agency to contact the father, that will be accepted as good cause. If, however, she does not have good cause and if she does not bother to reply--as I have said, a fair number do just that--I am afraid the penalty already in existence is clearly inadequate for a number of reasons, possibly (in some cases at least) because there is collusion between the parents.
This package of regulations contains important improvements to the scheme which will improve compliance, encourage clients to contact the agency and ease administration. They reflect our determination with respect to the basic principle of child support; namely, that all parents should support their children whenever they are able to do so. As always I am pleased to acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, and the main party opposite--although we do not agree on all the details of the Child Support Agency--agree with the fundamental principle that ex-husbands have a responsibility to their children, and that they should not become ex-fathers, as it were.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I must confess to being disappointed with that reply. It was a reply which took place entirely within the confines of the office. It was a series of rational, bureaucratic, systematic calculations of logical principles. At no point in the Minister's speech did he appear to realise that he was dealing with the raw stuff of human emotions. At no point did he appear to realise that he may--in what appears perfectly logical within the departmental computer--nevertheless be tearing apart human happiness. People do not always behave in precisely the manner that the Department of Social Security believes to be logical. When I referred to a relationship, I was not attempting to suggest he thought the couple should be put back together again. For many people who have come out of a relationship even having to enter into correspondence with the other person can become quite unbearable. The Minister will not change that.
The Minister said he is determined that these people will co-operate. That begins to sound a little hysterical. It is the voice of the defeated bureaucrat who knows that he cannot do what he wants. In order to hear a voice from outside politics altogether I have tried to discuss what the Government are doing with a number of people who have absolutely no connection with politics at all. What I have heard from them is the voice of absolute cold shock and horror at what the Government are doing. That was a great deal stronger, I may say, than anything the Minister has heard from me because I understand the bureaucratic side of the argument as well, and that is also real.
I do not think the Minister understands at all what a powerful weapon he is wielding. In my book a 40 per cent. reduction in benefit takes you to the point at which you cannot live legally. For myself I would regard imprisonment as a less severe penalty. So women who do not co-operate with the agency are, in my book, being treated more severely than convicted murderers. I cannot believe that that is right. I am a taxpayer. However, I do not want to increase my comfort in other people's blood, and I do not believe I am the only taxpayer who thinks that way. I have told the Government before that I do not think they can make this Act work without the co-operation of at least one sex. If they do not get the support of women for the Act, the Act fails. They are doing everything they can now to throw it away. I listened with great care to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. I agreed with a large part of what she said and enjoyed listening to it. I heard nothing about the attitude of the noble Baroness to my Motion. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.