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Earl Russell: I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, and to the Committee for having so seriously misunderstood her. I was trying to listen to her argument and to find the passage to which she referred in the Explanatory Notes at the same time. I did not succeed in letting my left ear know what my right hand was doing, and I am sorry.

I found the Minister's explanation entirely persuasive and reasonable. I should like to ask her just one more question. In this category, is she proposing to prescribe asylum seekers?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I confess that I have not addressed my mind to that situation. If we think about it, asylum seekers are either families or single people. I can conceive where an asylum-seeking family splits up. But if the asylum seeker has nil income--I can hardly expect him to send over, say, 10 per cent of his vouchers--what will happen is that the one family will be treated, for asylum seeking purposes and vouchers, as a single person and a family. As we know, if their case is not expedited within six months, they fall back onto the benefit system.

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In all seriousness--I should not tease the noble Earl about this--I find it hard to envisage that circumstance arising. But I shall reflect on it and if I can add anything further to that answer, I shall write to the noble Earl.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, raised the subject of students in Scotland not having to pay tuition fees. In view of the fact that students in Scotland will be paying tuition fees on a deferred basis--that is, when they start earning more than £10,000 a year--will those payments be taken into account when child support payments are being calculated?

9 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: This may be my folly, but we are talking here not about liability for tuition fees but for loans for maintenance. I am not making a distinction for these purposes between Scottish and English students.

Earl of Mar and Kellie: Perhaps I can rephrase the question. When a Scottish student subsequently pays tuition fees on the deferred scheme, which we have now enacted, will those deferred payments be taken into account when the CSA payments are considered?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: There is no intention to backdate, any more than somebody taking up work would be backdated for payments they had not made, if they are on benefit. The payment will begin at the point that liability commences, when there is an income.

I have received some very helpful information in response to the question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell about asylum seekers. As they are not habitually resident, they do not therefore have any subsequent liability.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for her explanation. I am very grateful for her reference to the variation orders. I do feel, however, that there is an inconsistency with the previous amendment. The Minister said that it was important to get people into the habit of paying maintenance. It is difficult to equate the two statements. There will be situations where students and those in prison, for example, can negate their responsibility, and they will not get into the habit of paying maintenance due to their circumstances. They have no income, but they have a responsibility, the most important responsibility on this earth, in my view, and that is for children.

I accept the apology made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I apologise for not clarifying that I was drawing the information from the Explanatory Notes.

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment Nos.22 and 23 not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No.24

    Page 90, line 20, leave out paragraph 7.

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The noble Baroness said: I should like to move Amendment No.24 and also speak to Amendment No.25.

Amendment No.24 simply deals with an inconsistency, that paragraph 7 in Schedule 1 only applies to certain circumstances with regard to shared parenting. We believe that it should apply whatever the circumstances.

The wording in Amendment No.25 speaks for itself. We feel that amendments to the level of maintenance payable should, in all fairness, be backdated to the date of cessation of care and not, as currently stated in the Bill, when the Child Support Agency reaches its decision. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I have some difficulty because I had understood the import of the amendments rather differently. I had understood that Amendments Nos.24 and 25 were probing amendments about the Government's philosophy on shared care, probing the circumstances in which there would be an abatement of maintenance. Amendment No.24 seeks to remove the possibility of any reduction of maintenance liability for those parents liable to pay basic or reduced rates to share the care of a child.

I am perfectly willing to return to these amendments and pursue the matter in correspondence. My briefing is very much at odds with the noble Baroness' introduction, which, if I may say so, was extremely brief, which also did not help me.

Baroness Buscombe: I apologise to the Minister. Amendment No.24 is confined to a very narrow point. There is an inconsistency as to who comes under the heading of those with shared care, in that paragraph 7 only applies to certain circumstances with regard to shared parenting. We believe it should apply in all circumstances.

Baroness Heigham: As this point is quite technical, can the noble Baroness write to me? If I am not able to meet her points, we could re-address the issue at Report or Third Reading.

Baroness Buscombe: I accept the suggestion. Can the Minister also come back on Amendment No.25?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My understanding of Amendment No.25 is that it relates to cases where the non-resident parent has a nil rate of liability because he is receiving social security benefit and shares the care of the child. Is that the noble Baroness' understanding of the amendment? If not, it would be sensible to follow the same procedure of an exchange of letters. We could put copies in the Library.

Baroness Buscombe: I share the Minister's stance. Perhaps we should revert to correspondence on the matter, in which case I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8 May 2000 : Column 1299

[Amendment Nos. 25 and 26 not moved.]

Earl Russell moved Amendment No.27.

    Page 91, leave out lines 33 to 45.

The noble Earl said: Amendment No.27 deals with a matter of drafting. It has picked up what became known in our debates on the jobseeker's Bill as a Humpty-Dumpty clause. It is Section 10A of Schedule 1, page 91, line 33 onwards.

    "The Secretary of State may by regulations provide that--

    (a) paragraph 2 is to have effect as if different percentages were substituted for those set out there;

    (b) paragraph 3(1) or (3), 4(1), 5 or 7(7) is to have effect as if different amounts were substituted for those set out there."

It really is a case of words meaning what I say they mean.

I have two questions to ask about this matter. First, what does the Minister intend it to mean? Second, what guarantees can she offer us against the reading of perverse meanings into this undue licence in the drafting by her successors? No government are in power for ever and governments do not know who will succeed them. Is it really wise to give such an extreme latitude of drafting to we know not who? It is on that second point that I shall listen to the Minister's reply with the greatest care. I do not think that this is a good way to draft legislation. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I shall give the noble Earl a fairly brief answer and then see if he is satisfied. If he is not, perhaps he can then encourage me to expand on my response. Amendment No. 27 seeks to remove the regulation making powers that allow the Secretary of State to adapt the percentages and amounts used to set the maintenance rates and to revise the number of nights and fractions used in determining the reduction in the amount of maintenance to be paid where care of a child is shared.

We obviously believe that we have got it right. I could explain why and tell the noble Earl what the evidence is from overseas, but I should like to get to his basic point. We are concerned that the rates and amounts that form the core of the new scheme should not be subjected to unnecessary modification. The intention to provide regulation-making powers is simply intended as a safeguard to ensure that the Secretary of State can respond quickly should the rates and amounts provided in the Bill prove not to be appropriate in reflecting changes in the lives of children and parents.

This is the usual situation where one tries to avoid putting precise numbers on the face of a Bill because one may, in the light of experience, need to change them. It is more straightforward to do this by regulations than by any other method. If it would help the noble Earl, I should be very happy to try to give assurances about how those regulation-making powers might operate so that they are properly accountable to Parliament. However, when talking about benefits, it is fairly conventional to allow fractions and percentages to be determined by regulations to allow them to be adapted if needs be.

8 May 2000 : Column 1300

I do not particularly envisage such a situation, although I could conceive of one happening if, in the light of experience, it was found necessary to change the amounts. I do not know whether that has helped the noble Earl, but it is a fairly conventional way in social security legislation of allowing us to change percentages with proper parliamentary scrutiny--that is, by way of regulation--without the need to go for primary legislation. I am not sure whether the noble Earl requires a larger response, but that is why we are doing it in this way.

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