Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Higgins: I have two preliminary remarks. First, we are now embarking on that section of the Bill concerned with the Child Support Agency and later we shall turn to the section on pensions and other items. Once again, I want to put on record that packaging matters that are totally disparate and have no connection whatever into one Bill is a matter of concern. Perhaps the House can attend to that point in debates that are scheduled for later this week.

Secondly, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, who, before the Bill reached this stage, helpfully held discussions and provided additional information. Also the Explanatory Notes on the Bill are available. I know that to a large extent she has been concerned in such matters. On this side of the Chamber, we intend to seek to improve the Bill in any constructive way in that we can.

The points raised by the noble Earl are important. I am inclined to agree with him that it is difficult nowadays for anyone to complete a university education without a considerable degree of parental support. I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say on that subject.

Lord Renton: My noble friend has referred to completing a university education, but generally a university education does not start until people have reached the age of 18, whereas this amendment deals with those who are 17 years old.

Lord Higgins: My noble friend is absolutely right in that respect. Perhaps a commentary on present day life is that on the one hand we have an amendment--

Earl Russell: Perhaps I may assist the noble Lord, Lord Renton. The amendment contains two separate clauses: paragraph (a) concerns people up to the age of 17 and paragraph (b) covers,

Those are two separate propositions.

Lord Higgins: I imagine that my noble friend had taken that point. I understand that there are two separate issues, but my noble friend suggests that we are extending the definition of what is meant by "child" to cover someone who by any normal set of definitions, would not be regarded as a child. I leave the Minister to comment on whether that falls outside the Long Title of the Bill.

Perhaps it is also a sign of the times that we are considering what arrangements should be made for parents to support their children who undertake education and in later amendments we shall consider whether those in full-time education should support their children. Both sides of that issue arise and no doubt we shall come to the second matter later in the

8 May 2000 : Column 1206

proceedings. None the less, I believe that the noble Earl has raised an important point. We look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the subject.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Does the noble Earl, Lord Russell, realise that as a result of his party's activities in Scotland, Scottish university students do not pay the sum required for their fees until they have finished their university courses and are earning, I believe, over £10,000? If this amendment is accepted, does he anticipate that the maintenance for young Scottish students who are at university will be at a different rate and that an allowance will be made? As he will appreciate, this Bill applies to Scotland, and I believe that in sorting out one anomaly he will create another. Perhaps he can tell the Committee how he will make sure that that arrangement is fair.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: New Clause 2 seeks to extend the definition of a child, for child support purposes, by raising the upper age limit for child support liability to the date on which full-time education up to degree level ends. Under the proposed new clause children who leave school before that stage would receive child support until their 17th birthday or until they complete full-time education including a first degree course. Currently they remain a child for child support purposes until they are 16 or under 19 and in full-time non-advanced education.

The existing definition of a child for child support purposes reflects the rules of eligibility for child benefit. That is the point at which children are normally regarded as no longer dependent on their parents for benefit purposes. Much of the benefit system uses entitlement to child benefit as the simplest measure of establishing when a child or a young person is treated as a dependent. For example, young people are no longer treated as dependent for the purpose of assessing the amount of their parents' entitlement to income-based JSA and IS when child benefit ceases. In other words, the child may or may not be entitled in its own right.

This rule is relatively transparent and easy for parents to understand. The point at which child benefit ceases is a sensible and straightforward point at which to end child support liability. We must maintain simplicity in the reformed scheme because we all know where complexity can take us.

Not only would moving away from the existing definition of a child complicate a reformed system; it would also not be clear to whom the maintenance would be payable. Should it be paid to the parent with care, the student, or even to the college? Indeed, in many--if not most--cases both parents would be treated as non-resident parents, thus further complicating the child support rules.

The amendment would also have the effect of defining as children young adults at college or university who are substantially older than 19. If I refer back a few years, I recall that a significant number of the students I taught did not complete their degrees until they were 23 or 24. This would cut across the general responsibility for student maintenance which

8 May 2000 : Column 1207

is based not on support from parents but rather on loans repayable by the young person over time as future income from employment rises.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I do of course favour parental support for students who are, by my definition, adults. However, on the assumption that the noble Earl's amendment were to be accepted, I should not wish to see students at university being treated by their institutions as in loco parentis. That would turn adults into dependent children. I am not sure that the noble Lord would wish to see that either. I am loath to turn adults back into children for the purposes of maintenance.

Furthermore, in extreme cases under existing legislation--Schedule 1 to the Children Act 1989--provision is in place for a student aged 18 or over to apply to a court for an order requiring his separated parents to pay maintenance while he attends college. I hope that, with this explanation, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Renton: I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in his desire to see that the parents of young people--I use that expression intentionally--of 17 years of age who stay on at school to carry on their studies continue to receive support. Furthermore, I agree with what was said by my noble friend on the Front Bench. However, I believe that we must avoid a legislative muddle.

As the noble Baroness pointed out, various different provisions relate to the age of young people. That should make us extremely careful in our use of the word "child". A relevant factor which I do not believe was mentioned by the noble Baroness is that when a young person reaches the age of 17, he or she is a free person. If a young person decides to give up his education, under statute, that person is entitled to do so.

Although I have sympathy in substance with the motive of the noble Earl, especially as regards the first part of his new clause, I think that we would be rash to deal with the matter in the way that he has suggested. However, it is an important issue and perhaps on Report, with further thought about the drafting, we can perhaps get it right.

Earl Russell: Perhaps I may respond, first, to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. I am of course aware of the force of the point that she made. The main thrust of my argument related to the level of maintenance available to the student, not to the tuition fees. However, the matter of tuition fees clearly establishes a difference and that difference should be taken into account.

However, when we discuss primary legislation, I cannot help but think--and here I invoke the words of the noble Lord, Lord Renton--that this is the kind of point that may be a little too detailed to be dealt with

8 May 2000 : Column 1208

in primary legislation. Perhaps I should have provided for a regulation-making power in the amendment. I admit that that cannot be ruled out altogether.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: That is all fine, but I must say to the noble Earl that his party has helped to make the university funding system disparate across the United Kingdom. Parents of students attending Scottish universities will not have to pay the £1,000 a year that those at universities south of the Border will have to pay. I do not think that it behoves his party to recommend to the House that students should be treated in the same way at different universities. The Liberal Democrats cannot have their cake and eat it. I believe that the noble Earl must make some allowance for that in his amendment.

Earl Russell: I thought that that was precisely the point that I had just conceded. If that was not clear, then I state again that I do concede the point. My query was only whether primary legislation would provide the correct way to respond to it and that is a point on which I shall be perfectly happy to take advice.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, regarding the definition of a child. It is clear that what has been happening over the past 40 years is that social maturity has been getting earlier while financial maturity has been getting later. If the Minister looks at the record of national insurance contributions towards the state pension, I believe that she will probably confirm that a difficulty we are running into is that the proportion of people who have full and adequate contribution records before the age of 25 is going down. It may be that what we need to move away from is the single, isolated definition of a "child". The situation exists and we have to live in the real world. For that reason, we have to cope with it. I am perfectly prepared to entertain the possibility that the amendment I have tabled is not perhaps the best solution. However, before I can be convinced of that, I should be extremely grateful if a better way could in turn be suggested. If this is not the best way, then it follows that there must be a better approach.

I appreciate the Minister's desire for simplicity because it would be awfully nice. However, her pursuit of simplicity resembles a little my childhood game of chess. My game would have been absolutely brilliant if the other player had not moved in the meantime. The world is an extremely complicated place. These problems exist and one way or another we must tackle then.

I do not believe that it is the Government's intention to exclude children benefiting from the CSA regime from the benefits of higher education. However, if it is not their intention, then I believe that they must seek a way to ensure that that intention is not realised by inadvertence.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page