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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The noble Earl has been helpful. I find it extraordinary that the CSA did not accept an injunction as good cause. In all my experience of the CSA I have not come across a single case of a woman being exposed to violence as a result of unauthorised disclosure of information by the CSA. The noble Earl may, however, know of other circumstances and other situations.
If the person the noble Earl has mentioned has not been protected by being granted anonymity, I should very much like to see the case records to discover what is going on, as such a situation does not fit with my experience of the CSA. An injunction would be prima facie evidence of good cause, of all evidence of good cause. I do not know what information was conveyed in this case. As I say, I should like to see the case records. Even if the person concerned did not claim good cause, the CSA would not have revealed her address. The maintenance inquiry forms do not carry the address of the parent with care. The only thing I can think of is that the man knew her address independently. I am happy to explore the matter further as, like the noble Earl, I do not wish such a situation to occur. If the CSA has any responsibility for that situation arising, I should want to explore it.
Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the Minister. We are all to an extent in the dark here. However, there is another possibility which I have known in a good many other cases; namely, that the violent ex-partner may well have had a personal friend or acquaintance who happened to work in the CSA. That turned out to be the background in the police case that I mentioned just now. As it happened a long time ago we are not concerned with chasing an individual. I do not want to say which police station was involved. The CAB is the source of a great many of the cases that I have relied on. The CAB has experience of a good many cases where the parent with care has experienced violence as a result of the intervention of the CSA. It is possible that when this happens the CSA is not always the first body to know. However, if the Minister will consult the CAB on this matter we may get a little further forward.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I consult the CAB, NACAB and other organisations on a regular basis. NACAB--to an even greater extent than the CAB--is not slow to bring cases forward. I believe that, given the information we have, we have probably explored this point as far as we can. If the noble Earl has further information, I should be happy to follow it up. However, as I say, the circumstances that he mentioned do not fit my experience of the agency. I believe that some other factor is in play here. It may be the one that the noble Earl suggested; namely, that there was some improper relationship between the violent father and a CSA staff member. That is, of course, to be deplored.
Amendments Nos. 42 and 100 seek to create a legal obligation for the CSA to protect the confidentiality of information provided by parents with care on benefit who apply for a child support calculation. We take that obligation extremely seriously. Anyone working for the CSA is guilty of a criminal offence if, without lawful authority, he or she discloses information acquired in the course of that employment which relates to a particular person. Such an offence can, on conviction, result in a prison sentence of up to two years. Since 1995 there have been at least three dismissals of staff for unlawful disclosure of information even though that did not lead to violence, as far as I am aware. The unlawful disclosure may have occurred as a result of friendship networks, as the noble Earl mentioned.
Clearly information has to be disclosed to the other parent to allow him or her to understand how maintenance liability has been assessed. At the moment it includes, for example, details of a non-resident parent's net income and the relevant qualifying children. Legislation permits and specifies disclosure of this kind. However, the CSA must never disclose a parent's address or any other information which may lead to that person being located.
Parents also have a right to refuse to allow a tribunal or court to reveal such details. This is an important safeguard. It protects the whereabouts of parents, in particular of women who may be at risk of abuse from their ex-partners if their address becomes known. Certainly my understanding following all such cases brought to me by MPs and others very close to the subject--obviously there are hundreds of letters a year on CSA issues--is that the CSA, in this area at least, has an excellent record. The CSA also rightly reassures parents with care, when they are applying for child support, that their whereabouts will remain confidential.
I am, of course, aware of tragic cases in which parents have suffered violence as a result of being traced by ex-partners through official records--that happens--and we are trying to do what we can to avoid any repetition. But I am not aware of any case, in all the seven years of the CSA's existence, in which a parent with care has been harmed after being located through CSA records. School records and so on are matters over which we perhaps do not, unfortunately, have the same degree of control.
This guaranteed confidentiality carries with it the ability of the CSA to sort out maintenance without any need for contact between the parents. In addition, our reforms will ensure that maintenance liability is based on simple rules, which are easy to understand and hard to avoid. So that even where there is hostility between the parents, the reforms we are proposing will reduce that risk rather than increase it, simply because so little information is required from the non-resident parent. In other words, she should face a reduced risk compared to the current situation. Therefore Amendments Nos. 42 and 100 are both unnecessary. We already provide adequate and robust protection of personal information provided by clients to the CSA.
I could go on to talk about Section 50 of the 1991 Act, which makes it unlawful to disclose and so on. However, the amendment seeks to provide protection which is already provided under Section 50 of the 1991 Act, which prevents unauthorised disclosure of information for all CSA clients. As I said, if the noble Earl wishes to come back to me with any particular case, I shall be very happy to look at it, but, with that assurance, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
That is the paragraph from which I have been quoting. I was not intending to make any specific criticism of the CSA. I said that I was dealing with a general problem about unawareness in our culture. In another of the cases in the letter to which I referred--not the same case--the CSA inadvertently disclosed without realising what it was detonating. The man rang up to say that he was going round to attack the woman, and the CSA immediately rang her up to warn her that he was coming. So, realising what it had done, in that case the CSA did its level best to make amends. I allege no ill will; I allege simply a lack of awareness.
I am faced here with two totally convincing stories, told by two totally impeccable sources, which are in fundamental conflict. When I am faced with that as an academic problem, I tend to assume that the sources of information available to the two parties are different, and that each of them is telling the whole truth as it is known to them.
The point that I made just now, that the people to whom this happens do not take the CSA as their first port of call to say what is happening to them, is perhaps the most important one. I am certain that these problems do not reach the Minister's desk; I am certain that usually they do not reach Faith Boardman's desk. But they go on happening.
I wish I believed that this amendment was unnecessary. If the Minister can persuade me between now and Report stage that there is another way of tackling the problem, I will be very willing to consider that. What I cannot be persuaded of is that the present situation is satisfactory, however great the good faith of those in charge. But, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Earl said: Amendment No. 43 is a probing amendment. It deals with the provision to make default and interim maintenance decisions. This is another Cambyses clause which says that the Secretary of State can do whatever he likes. I ask: what does he like? And what else could he do if he did like? I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Amendment No. 43 seeks to remove the regulation-making power from Clause 4 which permits the Secretary of State to set procedures in respect of default and interim maintenance decisions. Does the noble Earl wish me to explain fully what the clause does? I am happy to do so but I realise the time of night. Does the noble Earl wish me to outline the purpose of the clause?
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