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Lord Avebury: My Lords, can the Minister say anything about the joint UN/RUF mission which was supposed to locate and, if possible, rescue the UN hostages? The noble Baroness told the House that the British troops being sent to Freetown will not have responsibility for rescuing the UN troops who are being held hostage. If the mission is unsuccessful, what fall-back plans does the United Nations have--was this issue discussed yesterday at the Security Council?--for rescuing the 500 people now detained by the RUF?
What information do the Government have on the allegations of a coup, which was supposed to be launched today, and the arrest of senior RUF personnel, who were alleged to be responsible for it, by troops loyal to the AFRC in Freetown? Have charges been laid against Mr Mike Lamin or others alleged to have been involved in the coup? Do the Government consider that the remit of UNAMSIL was sufficiently clear in that, although SCR1289 required them to provide security, to enable people to move freely and to co-ordinate with the Sierra Leone authorities on the administration of law and order, there is no specific mention in the UN resolution of how they are supposed to respond if they come under fire? Is it the task of UNAMSIL to neutralise any group which fails to honour the peace agreement? If so, is it not essential that UNAMSIL detachments which find themselves under fire should be able to call for rapid reinforcements from the rest of UN forces in the territory and that they should have the logistics to enable them to do so?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's anxiety and his hunger for in-depth information. I hope that he will understand the limits currently placed on any disclosures I can make as regards precisely what is happening on the ground. We must do nothing to exacerbate or inflame the situation.
Our troops are on their way and we shall know more once we have people on the ground. Their main task is to bring out citizens safely. The situation is rapidly changing and I am sure that the noble Lord knows that UNAMSIL has a broad mandate. It certainly has a mandate to keep its own security as a priority, but this is a fluid and rapidly changing situation. It is perhaps best at this stage for us to respond moderately and to wait to see what we discover in detail on the ground.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, what consultations have the British Government had with our European partners? After all, one of the contexts of the European defence initiative has been that the operation one might envisage for the new battle
Furthermore, can the Minister confirm that British interests in Sierra Leone are not simply those of rescuing British nationals? As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a position which the Conservative Party among others is strongly committed to Britain retaining, we have a strong interest in maintaining the authority of the United Nations and, thus, in ensuring that the UN does not fail in its commitment to Sierra Leone.
Can the Minister also comment on the refugee issue? We in this country have learnt bitterly that when states collapse in Africa some of their desperate refugees turn up, legally or illegally, within the EU. We have a substantial Somali community in London and elsewhere in Britain which was not here 10 years ago. I am not sure how they got here, but somehow they did. That confirms that it is greatly in Britain's interest to ensure that Sierra Leone does not collapse as a state.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with the import of the anxieties expressed by the noble Lord. We are consulting our EU partners in relation to what is happening in Sierra Leone. It has been agreed that we should take the brunt of the rescue mission, which is why we and our forces are going in to rescue British, EU and Commonwealth nationals from the situation. We are going in not only to do that, but to try to maintain the authority of the UN. The noble Lord is right in pointing that out, but at this stage our primary focus must be to secure the situation and rescue the nationals for whom we have accepted responsibility.
We have a continuing commitment to Sierra Leone and we have tried to make that clear. Once the nationals have been removed, we shall participate and encourage a reconstruction in terms of how Sierra Leone works. The refugee situation will be another complex issue with which we shall have to deal and it is with great energy that we shall try to address our minds to any fall-out that may come from that. However, it is a rapidly developing situation and we are communicating with all our partners to try to get a focused and cohesive response to the difficulty.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, bearing in mind the complaints that radio equipment did not work for our troops in Kosovo and that the rifles with which our infantry were supplied needed to be modified, can the Minister assure the House that the troops whom we have sent to West Africa have a suitable supply of radio equipment that works and additional equipment which they can lend to UN troops already there so that they can communicate with them? Furthermore, will she assure the House that the troops who have already left have properly modified weapons?
The noble Lord said: Before we adjourned for the Statements, we were discussing matters of enormous and wide-ranging importance with regard to social security policy. Amendment No. 6 is at the other end of the spectrum, both politically and technically. It seeks merely to increase a time limit in the Bill from one to two months.
Under the Bill, the parent with care has one month in which to respond to a letter telling her that the Secretary of State intends to cease dealing with an application. If she does not want it to stop, she may be considered a voluntary client of the agency without further application. If the parent with care misses the one-month time limit, she can apply for maintenance later and the agency will pursue the non-resident parent from the current date.
With our passionate desire to improve the Bill, I believe that this amendment would be suitable because we know that, one way or another, communications may well be prolonged. Two things may happen if the individual concerned is not aware of the situation within a month: first, there will be further delay while the process that I have just described continues and eventually is concluded; and, secondly, if she goes through those lengthier proceedings, she may lose some degree of maintenance because it is calculated from the date when the new procedure is concluded rather than when she writes rapidly saying that she wants the Secretary of State to go ahead. I hope that the Minister will consider the proposal to be an improvement rather than otherwise. I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: As clearly explained by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, this amendment increases the time limit within which a parent with care must notify the CSA if she wants to continue as a voluntary client when she leaves benefit before a maintenance calculation is made.
Clause 1 provides the basis for maintenance calculations. It substitutes a new Section 11 dealing with the rules for maintenance calculations in the 1991 Act. New Section 11 (subsections (3) to (5)) requires the Secretary of State to stop acting on an application for child support treated as made under Section 6(3) if he becomes aware that the parent with care has left benefit before the maintenance calculation has been made.
The treating of an application for child support "as made" when a claim for benefit is made streamlines the way in which parents with care who claim or receive benefit apply for child support. It will ensure that parents with care who claim income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance receive a seamless maintenance service at the same time.
Under the current scheme, a parent with care who claims income support or income-based JSA can be required to authorise the Secretary of State to take action to recover child maintenance. She is not required to do so if there are reasonable grounds to believe that there would be a risk that she, or any child living with her, would suffer harm or undue distress. This is known as "good cause". However, child support arrangements can be made only after a formal application for maintenance has been made.
In the reformed child support scheme, only those parents who need to will take action to opt out of making a claim for child support. That will ensure easy access to the new system which will provide a regular and reliable flow of maintenance and a better service for parents.
However, if a parent with care, who has had an application for maintenance treated as made under Section 6(3), leaves benefit before the maintenance calculation is made, she can instead ask the agency to treat her application as voluntary under Section 4 of the 1991 Act. Action to pursue child maintenance would otherwise cease in those cases. If there is no court order or pre-1993 written maintenance agreement in place to prevent that, the Secretary of State can then continue the process of determining child support liability. That avoids a delay in liability coming into effect.
The parent with care has one month to respond to the letter telling her that the Secretary of State intends to stop acting. If she does not want action to stop, she may then be considered as a voluntary client by the agency without any further application. If the parent with care in this situation misses the one-month time limit, she can apply for maintenance later and the agency will instead pursue the non-resident parent from the current date.
The one-month period exists in the current scheme. It gives the parent with care a reasonable amount of time while not requiring the CSA to suspend action for too long. It is consistent with other time limits; for example, with regard to disputing and appealing decisions. Therefore, the one-month time limit goes across the board.
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