Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Russell: My Lords, the Minister will probably say that this is not the best way of doing this. I sometimes suspect that Ministers say that in their sleep. The trouble is that they are sometimes right. If the Minister says that this is not the best way of doing it, I shall listen carefully if the noble Baroness at the same time can show us a better way in which the objective of the amendment can be achieved.

In general, on the subject of domestic violence this Government have shown a heart in the right place, although they have not always remembered the reverse biblical maxim: where thy heart is, there should thy treasure be also.

The other trouble--it is a constant trouble in cases of domestic violence--is that even where among the authorities there is the best will in the world, the ordinary bureaucratic requirements of the state assume that people live in stable habitations in stable arrangements. They simply do not fit a situation in which the woman's safety is at considerable risk if she makes contact with the man with whom she has been living. That happens in many bureaucratic contexts and it happens in the requirement to produce documents before obtaining benefit. It happens in the requirement to produce a partner's national insurance number. If the Bill goes ahead in its present form, inevitably, it will happen in the requirement to obtain two signatures, one from each partner.

It is not a satisfactory situation if, when you leave home in a state of intense physical fear, you cannot get any money for yourself or your children except by

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1317

making a personal approach to the object of that physical fear. Even communication through an intermediary carries risks. Women's refuges tell stories of violent partners discovering their former partners' whereabouts through the most respectable means of communication. There were people who with the best will in the world simply did not realise how important it was to keep the victim partner's whereabouts secret. That is inevitable and one understands it. But it is the duty of people in responsible positions to try to guard against it. This amendment is an attempt to meet that danger. Whether it is the best attempt that can be made, I do not know and I do not presume to say. But if it is not, I hope that the Minister can show us a better one.

4 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I do not believe that the Government and, sadly, the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, the Minister for Women, have taken on board the problems that exist. Frankly, it is dodging the issue to say that the requirement should not be on the face of the Bill. Anyone who sits on, or has sat on, the Bench knows how often the situation arises that, for whatever reason, a man insists that he should receive the tax credit and then proceeds, perhaps, to spend the money on, say, drink. That is especially the case when the wife is too frightened to stand up for herself because of the frequent domestic violence that occurs.

I do not believe that noble Lords need to read all the briefing material they have received in order to know that the problem occurs often. They are probably familiar with it among acquaintances in the area in which they live. In fact, if the problem arises the Bill may fulfil part of its purpose; the tax credit may well induce the man to come off benefit and to take up work. However, the only benefactor will be, say, the drinks industry.

The enormous disadvantage to a family of gaining a tax credit and it being spent on, say, drink by the man--the wife being too frightened to do anything about it--would carry huge social costs as well as costs in misery to the family.

I believe that the provisions should be put on the face of the Bill. It is no good the Government saying that the Inland Revenue will pay attention to the danger and so forth. Citizens' advice bureaux and lawyers need to know that the provision is in the legislation. People need to know where they stand. I hope that the Government will accept the amendment because it is very important.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, because he should have received a reply to his question by now. On behalf of the Government, I express my regret, and I will follow the matter up. I understood that he was receiving a written reply about the Government's initiatives on domestic violence. His request slipped through the net and I apologise; it should not have happened.

I am rather moved and pleased that the House shares the concerns of the Government--or the Government share the concerns of the House--on the issue of

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1318

domestic violence. There is no dispute or difference between us on that. I sit on the inter-ministerial committee, chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay, as a representative of the Department of Social Security. I have also undertaken work for the Government on issues of domestic violence. Therefore, I, too, am committed to ensuring that we do our best to help couples to overcome the situations in which domestic violence occurs, unfortunately now drink and drugs-related. We are also committed to ensuring that where the problem is not able to be addressed through anger management courses or the like, the women partners and the children are protected in all such cases. Wearing another hat, in connection with changes to the child support system, the Government's views have shifted in response to representations that women who are at risk, or believe themselves to be at risk, are properly protected. I give assurances to that effect; there is no dispute between us about the need to protect women in that situation.

Perhaps some of the more difficult situations described by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, arise when the couple are not living together as a household but where the woman has already felt the need to leave the marital home in order to secure a place of safety. In that situation, she tends to be a lone parent family.

Earl Russell: My Lords, it was my understanding that the amendment was intended to bite in precisely the situation which arises during the few weeks after the woman leaves home.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, perhaps I may seek advice on that. Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 were grouped with this amendment. However, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, as was entirely his right, decided to separate them. They deal with the related issue of who should receive the working families' tax credit and how we should design a system to enable those who need the help that it offers to claim it.

The two amendments deal with a more particular issue of ensuring that people know about procedures which have already been described here and in another place. Amendment No. 9 seeks to require the Inland Revenue to take reasonable steps to ensure that potential claimants who fear domestic violence are aware that they can submit a claim without their partner's signature.

The Inland Revenue's dispute procedures, which have already been described to the House, will have a much wider scope. If I have any criticism of the amendment it is that it is too narrowly drawn. The experience of the Inland Revenue is somewhat limited because there is seldom a dispute over family credit. Domestic violence is not at the core of the issue because the argument tends to be about family management of resources and the like. In such a case, the money goes to the woman, which will be our procedure, too. Our disputes procedure is not just for those couples where there is fear of domestic violence, but for any couple who cannot agree which one of them should receive the money.

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1319

It is important to emphasise that we were never seeking to narrow the gateway only to domestic violence. We are going much wider than that. We are saying that, when both agree, the money will be paid to the partner in work. Where they disagree, inquiries will be followed up and the money will be paid to the carer of the children, normally the mother. If there is a dispute, the money will certainly be paid to her. Within that category of dispute are all such situations of domestic violence.

Therefore, we have made it clear that by default, or in dispute, the money goes to her. It goes to him, even though he is the main earner, where both are in agreement. We want it to go to him because we believe that the credit should be an incentive to work, even at modest wages, and to see a clear benefit from being in work. We have balanced that against the need in disputes or by default to protect the position of women whose children remain in their primary care. We believe that we have already done that.

The thrust of the amendment is to ensure that the Inland Revenue is open about the disputes procedure so that it is available to the women who most need to take advantage of it. I agree that the procedure is there to be used. It is there to address the problems and to ensure that, where disputes occur, the partner caring for the children receives the tax credit. We expect the need for that to be exceptional and we expect most women to agree with what we propose. However, we must capture the exceptions and, where appropriate, the disputes procedure can be used.

I was pressed on this subject at earlier stages, including by my noble friend Lady Turner. I was happy to give an assurance that the forms to be used after the interim period will be amended to cover the point raised by this amendment. However, in practice, there is more to this. The key is that any carer who is afraid, or simply does not agree that the other partner should receive WFTC, need not sign a form completed by the partner in work and they may submit their own, signed only by them. I believe that the point is fully met.

The second related issue is that people need to know that that is the case. I gave an assurance on the revised forms for next year, which will come into use from October 2000. The revised notes of guidance, which came about partly as a result of discussions and pressures within your Lordships' House, will give specific reference to the disputes procedure, making the position of women clear. We shall consider whether we need to specify domestic violence as such. At the moment, women suffering domestic violence constitute a smaller group within a wider disputes and default procedure, which goes much further than these amendments.

We shall revise the forms to make matters clear. The internal guidance will be open to the public; we shall give guidance to the CAB; we shall make specific reference to the disputes procedure in the regulations to alert such organisations; and, of course, we have the debates in the House. Given that the forms will be amended in response to discussions in your Lordships'

8 Jun 1999 : Column 1320

House, that staff will be ready to pick up potential cases and advise people on procedure, that changes will be made to the regulations, that there will be public access to internal guidance and to considering the profile that that procedure will undoubtedly achieve, I am pretty confident that people at the point of need will be aware of their rights.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page