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Lord Higgins: I wonder whether the noble Baroness will allow me to ask whether she believes that any of the items specified would have some justification for variation?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I wonder what the noble Lord has in mind. Can he indicate to what he believes we should give particular attention?

Lord Higgins: I am looking at the question the other way round. We have provided a long list, and the noble Baroness proposes to reject all of them. I am asking whether she believes that any of them might reasonably provide the basis for a variation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am looking at the particular words. Amendment No. 56 concerns exceptionally high housing costs, travel-to-work costs, illness or disability costs. That includes all the items that are currently in the existing formula. Therefore, we are back to where we were. We then add to that payments made by the parent with care or non-resident parent to support an elderly or invalid relative. Yes, those would be new and would add to the complexity of the system, as would costs in respect of a handicapped child, joint debts incurred, and so on. Significant costs of childcare are also mentioned.

That shopping list not only takes the complexity of the existing formula and places it in the appeal process, but adds for good measure a few hundred other avenues to pursue. The amendments extend a whole range of additional items above and beyond those currently in the complexity of the assessment. They suggest that we take the assessment, go to appeal and add some new appeal grounds as well. Is that really what the noble Lord wants?

Lord Higgins: No, but that was not the question that I posed to the Minister. I understand that she has problems with items which duplicate existing provisions or introduce new ones. However, given the long list, I am asking whether she believes that any provide the basis for variation. Perhaps I may also quote an example. Does she believe, for example, that there is a case for variation with regard to costs in respect of a handicapped child?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: No, and I hope that noble Lords opposite may share this philosophy. Basically, we are reducing the amount of average assessment that the non-resident parent will pay. On average, that sum will come down from approximately £38 or £39 to approximately £30 or £31 per week. We are making that sum less. We are leaving more in the pocket with which to meet those additional costs. We are not saying that they are not perfectly proper items of expenditure. But we are saying that they should not be put ahead of the primary responsibility of maintaining the child of the first family.

The only two grounds for variation are where the non-caring parent is incurring costs which are associated with the support of the children of the first family, which it is proper should recognised; or,

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alternatively, where the basis of income on which the assessment has been made is not regarded as the proper basis of income by the parent with care and she seeks a variation on that ground.

Perhaps we may stay with the first of those. I have given the example of exceptional costs of contact--overnight stays. Another example may be where the non-resident parent--the father, in this case--is a sergeant in the army and the child has been at boarding school. The father does not wish to disturb the child's arrangements. Therefore the child stays on at boarding school. The father is paying for the boarding school maintenance costs--not the fees for the education--so that it would be unreasonable for him to be paying the parent with care for all the care and provision which she would normally provide. That is being provided by the boarding school and, in that case, the father would be asked to pay twice over. We take that into account.

Another example would be where the father, the non-resident parent, has taken over meeting the housing costs of the child--that is, the mortgage--but has retained no equity stake in the property. That would properly be regarded as a contribution to the child's maintenance.

But our touchstone is not what expenses he has to meet in his life after he has left the first family. The touchstone is whether he is supporting legitimately the child of the first family and whether there are expenses associated with that which we should take into account. That is our touchstone, apart from the second ground of variation which is the manipulation or misrepresentation of income.

The noble Baroness is welcome to press me further in relation to any of those grounds because it is an important issue. But that is our philosophy. We are saying that these are all perfectly proper expenditure items but the non-caring parent makes a decision on what he spends in relation to housing, travel to work, his car or support for other members of the family after he has discharged his primary obligation--the support of the children of the first family.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for that very full and clear explanation. I shall consider carefully, when I am a little more lively, what she has said in Hansard. I may wish to return to this matter on Report.

[Amendment No. 52 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 53 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Substituted Schedules 4A and 4B to the 1991 Act]:

[Amendments Nos. 54 to 69 not moved.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Variations: revision and supersession]:

[Amendment No. 70 not moved.]

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clauses 8 and 9 agreed to.

8 May 2000 : Column 1337

Clause 10 [Appeals to appeal tribunals]:

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 71:

    Page 10, line 4, leave out ("an appeal tribunal") and insert ("a county court").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 72 to 75 and 199. In tabling these amendments, we are highlighting our concern that the levels of maintenance are vitally important to all the parties and to the children and there needs to be a system of appeal where appropriate cases can be reviewed.

We believe that that appeal should be to the district judges at the county court who are already experienced in dealing with maintenance and have an existing and well-used procedure. District judges are not only well experienced in that sort of work but are given a wide discretion to take into account all the circumstances including, for example, the earning capacity of an absent parent to ensure that justice can be done. It would be quite possible for the regulations to make it clear that the formula would normally apply and exceptional circumstances would be needed before a court would adjust the formula.

Even in criminal matters, citizens are entitled to appear before the court to ask that their individual circumstances be taken into account before a fine is imposed. Here we are talking about assessments that may involve a person paying up to a quarter of their income for 16 years. It must be right that they have an opportunity to be heard in appropriate cases. An application to court would also enable the applicant to apply for funding by the Legal Services Commission so that they could be assisted if that were appropriate or necessary.

Although it is suggested by the Government that that would result in a significant increase in the work of the county court, we believe that that is unlikely. Ten years ago, before the CSA began, all maintenance matters were dealt with, in any event, through the courts and the courts were quite capable of coping. Here we are talking about the courts looking only at a minority of matters where there are good grounds to appeal against an unfair assessment. The absence of such a right has led to much of the resentment that has undermined the current CSA and, unfortunately, the Bill does not address that point. I beg to move.

Earl Russell : I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, for introducing these amendments. I like the sound of them. To me they appear to meet a real need. In the course of discussing them I want to remind the Minister that on Clause 2 she said that the Government considered the possibility of allowing those cases to go to the courts using guidelines based on the CSA formula but with the licence to depart from them in exceptional circumstances. When we put the Minister's remarks together with the speech that

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the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has just made and with my concerns, we have a basis for reaching common ground, which would be rather nice.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Amendment No. 199 would remove from Schedule 9, which lists repeals and revocations in the 1991 Act, the provision to repeal Section 46B(3).

Earl Russell: Perhaps I can save the Minister some time. I shall not move Amendment No. 199, so there is no need to reply to it.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Amendments Nos. 71, 72, 73, 74 and 75 relate to Clause 10. To set this group of amendments in context I would like to outline, briefly, the purpose of this clause. Clause 10 sets out clearly the child support decisions which carry a right of appeal. It provides the framework for appeals and tribunal procedure which will be, as now, specified in detail in regulations.

In a reformed child support scheme, we want liability to be established quickly. That means that the agency should, wherever possible, settle disputes without the need for a formal appeal. Parents will have access to an efficient and effective disputes service. However, we recognise that the right of appeal represents an important guarantee of parents' rights. The tribunal system allows child support liability to be considered by an independent body with legal expertise where disputes cannot be settled in discussion with the agency.

As now, in the reformed scheme appeals may be made against decisions relating to child support liability. Where a benefit penalty is imposed, because a parent with care claiming income support opts out of child support without good cause, a right of appeal will still arise. There will also be rights of appeal against financial penalties for late payment of maintenance and, if and when those are introduced, any fees.

Our proposals build on changes to the appeals system for child support introduced from June 1999. These changes were part of the move to a simpler and more streamlined decision-making and appeals process across the Department of Social Security. Where a parent is unhappy with a decision and chooses to appeal, the appeal should be handled and resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Perhaps I may turn to Amendment No. 71 and the consequential amendments, Amendments Nos. 74 and 75. These amendments would give child support clients the right of appeal to a county court rather than an appeal system. I believe that this would be a deeply retrograde step. The court system, although independent, was widely seen as having failed to protect children's rights to proper maintenance. Parents with care often found difficulty in getting a maintenance order enforced. Too often non-resident parents were able to avoid ongoing responsibility for their children. This left children in poverty and the taxpayer to pick up the bill.

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Many parents find the prospect of going to court intimidating. They are more likely to feel at ease in an informal tribunal setting. Using the court system will result in further delays and may cause confusion because another jurisdiction will be involved. In addition, courts are adversarial in their approach, which would lead to greater confrontation in child support appeals. This conflicts with the need to set child support in the wider family setting and promote consensus between parents. Moreover, the tribunal system benefits from the presence of a presenting officer whose role is to explain the decision under appeal and assist in ensuring that all parties to an appeal get a fair hearing. The costs of involving the courts would also be substantially higher--around £20 million a year compared with £5.5 million for the appeals service.

Amendments Nos. 72 and 73 seek to place on the face of the Bill a right of appeal to a tribunal against the level of the maintenance assessed. Again, this is unnecessary. Parents already have a right of appeal against a decision about whether any child support maintenance is payable and, if so, how much.

I believe that to move out of the jurisdiction of the CSA to a court jurisdiction for appeals would effectively undermine much of what we are trying to do; namely, to keep this as a simple and straightforward administrative procedure. We wish to remain within the tribunal system rather than having the courts used for appeals which would start the process all over again in terms of what the CSA appeals system is seeking to do. I say again that I believe that would be a retrograde step. In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will not wish to press her amendments.

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