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House of Lords

Wednesday, 16th June 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

Child Maintenance: Parental Responsibility

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether a parent with parental responsibility for a child aged 16 or 17 who is no longer living at home is liable in law to provide for board and lodging for that child.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, as I have said before, the noble Lord is a champion of the family and in particular disadvantaged families and children. However, the short answer to his Question is "No". There is no specific statutory obligation on a parent to provide board and lodging for a child who has reached 16 or otherwise to provide for the child's maintenance.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that clear Answer. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that this is a most unsatisfactory position in so far as young people aged 16 and 17 may have no form of support although they have the possibility of access to training? Training courses often last only six months and the period from the 16th to the 18th birthday is 24 months.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that it is time for the Government to make it absolutely clear that parents are responsible for the support and maintenance of their 16 and 17 year-old children subject always to a safety net of government support if they are unable to do so?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, ministerial responsibility for the Children Act 1989 is divided between the Lord Chancellor in the private law sphere and the Secretary of State for Health in the public law sphere. The provisions on parental responsibility fall within my ministerial responsibility. But any amendment to the definition would also affect local authorities. They share responsibility with the parents of a child who is in public care. However, in the light of the points that the noble Lord makes, not merely as regards this Question but on previous occasions in your Lordships' House, I can say that for my own part I am minded to consider a review of the law on the specific and important point that he raises. However, I would first have to enter into discussions with my ministerial colleagues, and that I undertake to do.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, am I right in thinking that if we were talking about Scotland, the noble and learned

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Lord's answer would have been "Yes", rather than "No"? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that it would be better if English law were to follow Scottish law in this respect?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, under Scottish statute law a child has the right to aliment, which is Scots for maintenance, from both father and mother, and for the purposes of the relevant statutory provision in Scotland that includes a person under the age of 18. So the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, is: yes, under Scots law.

The grant of aliment is, however, discretionary and the court takes into account the needs of the child and the means of the parent. Too much must not be expected beneficially to result from a new statutory duty. However, in the light of today's discussion, I have indicated that I am minded to consider and recommend a review, and that one of the considerations in the review would be whether the Scots statutory obligation, or some variant of it, might be adopted in England.

Earl Russell: My Lords, if the parents are not responsible for the provision of aliment for 16 and 17 year-olds in England, who is?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, a local authority has a duty to provide accommodation for any child in need within its area who has reached the age of 16 and whose welfare the authority considers likely to be seriously prejudiced if it does not provide the child with accommodation. I could elaborate on the definition of need, but it is complex statutorily, and I shall write to the noble Lord.

The local authority also has a discretionary power, but not a duty, to assist a care leaver between the ages of 16 and 21. Those provisions, however, would also fall to be considered under any review.

Baroness Young: My Lords, I welcome what the noble and learned Lord said about looking again at the present provision. I think that he will agree that it is extremely unsatisfactory. A number of departments are involved and therefore it is a complicated administrative arrangement. Will the noble and learned Lord consider not only the important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, but also the difficulty that many students experience when their parents fail to contribute the part of the maintenance grant which they should, and those young people are unable to support themselves?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I have already indicated that I am minded to consider a review, which I should have to recommend to my Cabinet colleagues, of this area of the law. I refer to support for children between the ages of 16 and 17 living away from home, as focused on by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I have no doubt that the review would extend to the issue raised by the noble Baroness.

However, expectations in this area must be managed. We must not exaggerate the effects of a statutory duty. Some parents may not be in a position to maintain the child. Parents and children may have no contact with

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one another and they would be unaware of their whereabouts. A parent may be in prison or abroad. Other parents may be ill or unable to exercise their parental responsibility. Therefore, we must not look for too much from a statutory obligation on parents, but in my judgment it is well worthy of consideration.

The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, I am a little confused as regards the syntax of the Question. I do not know whether it is a confusion in the law. Is it right that a child cannot be 16 or 17, but he can be under 17?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I dare say that that is right, but I do not believe that anyone is confused by the terms of the noble Lord's Question.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, when at Monday's conference on youth homelessness, the Director of Shelter says that he is absolutely confident that the Minister for Housing is determined to address the problem, and when the leader of the national development unit of Centrepoint says that he has seen a sea change in the Home Office since the arrival of the new Minister, is the noble and learned Lord proud? Do his colleagues plan to take off their suits and put on their jeans, go out to meet the young people with mental health problems and problems with drug addiction and alcohol, and talk to them about their experience so that they will be fully informed about this parlous situation for many young people?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I believe that full information is already available within government about these tragic problems. We certainly intend to maintain and enhance our information on these subjects and address solutions. The Government's record thus far in relation to rough sleepers, for example, is very good. All these matters are under consideration.

Income Support and Rent

2.45 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they remain committed to the principle of the Social Security Act 1986 that income support is not meant to cover rent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, we are reviewing housing policy and housing support and aim to publish a housing Green Paper by the end of the year. We remain committed to the principle that the benefit system should help people on low incomes to afford decent housing at reasonable rents.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. She is probably familiar with the Centrepoint survey of the effect of the single room rent in Devon. Is she aware that the findings of that survey are those of a vast body of research that, where limits are placed on

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housing benefit, the landlord does not reduce the rent, but either stops letting to tenants, or goes out of the private rented market, or requires tenants to pay the rent out of income support? Do the Government learn anything about the nature of the market from that information?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I entirely accept the noble Earl's analysis. Like him, I was warning the then government of the implications of the deregulation of private rents that occurred in the late 1980s. No doubt, the then government had the wistful hope that landlords might invest in their properties. Instead, all they did was pocket the profits. The problem that we now face is that about two-thirds of all private tenants do not receive housing benefit that fully covers their rent. If it did, we would sustain landlords in being able to ask for any rent they chose, as they have been doing since the late 1980s.

The noble Earl's point about the single reference rent is right and we are examining that as part of the housing review.

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