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Lord Higgins: It seemed to me that evidence was unlikely to be readily available--certainly, to me. Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness a rather simple question in the light of what she has just said. Is it not the case that, if someone misses the one-month deadline, what then ensues before the matter is resolved will take longer than if a slightly longer deadline was in place when the individual could simply go through the initial procedure rather than through the second round?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I believe that that might be true under the existing system. I hope that it will not be true under the future system. Given the simplicity of our arrangements under the future system, even if an application were brand new as opposed to a continuation of one where we had to obtain new information about the ex-partner's circumstances, we would expect to have that information within days and the assessment to be running within four to six weeks. Where one deals with, broadly speaking, continuous information--the same number of children and so on--I would hope to see the new or revisited application triggered even more quickly. Therefore, again, I do not see that it should be the problem that the noble Lord fears.

Lord Higgins: In the light of that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 7:

("( ) The Secretary of State shall report annually to Parliament on the change to the number and qualification of maintenance variations that have been made in the preceding year.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 8. The amendments concern two matters. First, Amendment No. 7 proposes that the Secretary of State should report annually to Parliament on the change to the number and qualification of maintenance variations that have been made in the preceding year. Secondly, Amendment No. 8 proposes that any change in the nature and qualification of maintenance variations shall be agreed and ratified by Parliament before a change can be implemented.

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I believe that we are all agreed that the simplified formula is likely to be an improvement--at any rate in terms of timing--on the existing formula under the previous legislation. I believe also that it is generally agreed that there are likely to be real problems in operating the old and new formulas side by side in the transitional period. Clearly, those who under the old formula believe that they are being treated more harshly than they would be under the new formula will feel that they have cause for complaint. Be that as it may, there was a general consensus, certainly in the Select Committee in another place, that the move towards the simplified formula is a good thing.

On the other hand, it is extremely important indeed that there should be adequate variations to deal with particular difficult situations. I believe that in the jargon a variation is described in another form. No doubt the noble Baroness will assist me.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is "departures".

Lord Higgins: I am not entirely sure why we are talking about both "variations" and "departures".

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: "Departures" belong to the existing scheme, "variations" to the new one.

Lord Higgins: I imagine that the reason for the change in terminology remains shrouded in mystery. We seek to argue, as the Family Law Bar Association has argued very strongly, that if the simplified terms are to be used then there is a need for more grounds of departure. They should not be reduced, as has been suggested. They should cover such matters as higher housing costs, travel-to-work costs, disability costs and so on.

In view of that, there would seem to be a case for the House continuing to be aware of any changes which have been made in the preceding year. As I have suggested, Amendment No. 7 deals with that particular problem.

Secondly, if such departures or whatever are to be decided upon, those matters should be discussed and agreed in Parliament before they go ahead.

Overall, our concern is that despite the simplified formula, the system should be sufficiently flexible to deal reasonably with individual circumstances. Therefore, we hope that the Government will be prepared to accept our proposal. I beg to move.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Earlier in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to the actual effect on children brought about by this Bill. It is extremely important that Parliament should know how it is working out for children. Therefore, the idea of an annual report seems to be excellent.

It is all very well to have a system which is justified as likely to be fair and to talk about the matter generally, but it will be important to know the real implications for the children concerned. This is a way

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for Parliament to discover and discuss that. I suggest that the Government should give some serious thought to this proposal.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Both these amendments relate to parliamentary scrutiny of variations. Amendment No. 8 will require the Secretary of State to seek the approval of both Houses of Parliament for any changes he wishes to make to the nature and qualifying criteria of the grounds on which he will consider a variation from the normal child support maintenance calculations.

I recognise the noble Lord's concerns to ensure that new variations are not introduced through the back door with the result that the variations scheme simply reintroduces the complexity of the current scheme by another route. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, agrees with the comment made by his honourable friend Edward Leigh in another place when he said that,

    "if they load a new set of variations on to the simplified formula, the system will quickly revert to something approximating the present highly complex system".

Members of the Committee will no doubt be aware that we have thought very carefully about which expenses will merit a variation of liability. We may wish to come to that in due course. To put it very simply, the two grounds of variation that we are proposing are, first, where the costs of supporting the child of the first family, including contact, need to be taken into account in order to ensure that the payment of maintenance does not subvert the father's capacity to make contact with the child. Legitimate expenses will be taken into account.

The second is where mistaken or fraudulent information has been given and we want variations on those grounds to ensure that, for example, the father is not living a life style inconsistent with the income declared. Those are the two basic grounds for variations. We are determined to keep it tight. We believe parents should put children, not other expenses, first. All the rules of the new scheme are intended to ensure this.

I am pleased to be able to provide reassurance that Section 52 of the Child Support Act, as amended by Clause 24, already provides that no regulations made under Schedule 4B can be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before Parliament and approved by both Houses. The new Schedule 4B--as substituted by Clause 6--details the cases and circumstances where a variation may be allowed. It also provides for regulation-making powers relating to the manner in which, and the extent to which, the normal calculation rules may be varied. That includes regulations relating to grounds which are not specified on the face of the Bill itself. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, that that affords ample opportunity for debate of any proposed changes, and should provide all the safeguards as regards accountability which are being sought.

Amendment No. 7 appears to require the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the number of variations, although it may be the nature of

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them, which he has made in the preceding year. I do not believe that it is necessary that the Secretary of State should do so because the Child Support Agency, through its chief executive, will, as now, compile the relevant information as a matter of routine and publish it in an annual business report. I shall take up the point regarding information about variations and shall try to ensure that that is embedded in any future reports. That will give your Lordships and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, the information which is sought on the basis of which, should he ever wish to, he could raise a Question or introduce a short debate. Therefore, an appropriate vehicle is already in place--namely, the annual report of the Child Support Agency--and it seems unwise to ask the Secretary of State essentially to duplicate that work. With those reassurances, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Higgins: With regard to the confusion between the number or nature of the variations, that can be covered by asking for both the number and nature of the variations.

What the noble Baroness said about the annual report of the Child Support Agency largely covers the point which I was seeking to make about that and the question of agreeing variations by statutory instrument.

I agree with the noble Baroness that we do not want to have so many variations that we go back to the former complexities. Anyone, like myself, who has suffered from arguing those complexities in the past on behalf of constituents--or sometimes against them--will realise that that is not a route which we want to follow. Indeed, it is not. Nevertheless, we believe that there needs to be a degree of flexibility. As the noble Baroness pointed out, some of those issues arise later in the Bill in specific terms. No doubt we can pursue them at that time. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

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