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Lord Higgins: This is a matter which I raised at Second Reading and one which we feel is important. When this proposal that people should lose their driving licence if they did not meet the requirements of the Child Support Agency was first introduced, it was not clear whether it was to be an additional penalty on top of other penalties, or a new penalty. Nonetheless, it was heralded as a breakthrough when the matter was raised. At Second Reading it was hammered pretty badly on several grounds, not least because there was no connection at all between the penalty on the one hand and the offence on the other. When the matter was discussed at Second Reading I formulated the arguments myself, because they seemed to be overwhelming. This is a strange way of proceeding.
The argument made out by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, was also somewhat strange. He said that this was somehow a blow at rural England. That seems to me to be overstating the situation since it is only a blow at those people in rural England who are not paying their maintenance. The argument put forward against the proposal could not possibly be as silly as that which the Government have in mind. It reduces the whole level of debate to come up with this kind of penalty for this kind of offence. I believe I will have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, in that view.
As I said at Second Reading, there is a huge range of arguments. I was not at that time aware that representations were also being made by the RAC Foundation. I must cover myself here because, although I was totally unaware of them, I should also stress that I did not write them. Noble Lords will know that when we are discussing pensions I normally declare an interest as chairman of a pensions fund. By one of the strangest coincidences, that pension fund may well take over responsibility for the RAC Pension Fund. I do not think it can conceivably be thought that I have an interest, but I mention it in case anyone thinks that that is so.
The arguments that they put forward are considerable and back up in some sense the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell; namely, that to take away a driving licence from someone who has not paid their maintenance agreement may well deprive them of the ability to pay the maintenance. That is a strange proposition coming from the Government.
The Government, having made such a hullabaloo about this matter in the first place, ought seriously to consider whether it is an appropriate penalty. There are a number of other penalties in the Bill. We support the view that it is right to put more emphasis on enforcement and less on an arithmetical calculation of the amount due. We heartily support the Government in that regard and believe that there are cases for tougher penalties on those who fail to take responsibility and pay for their children. However, the introduction of this totally irrelevant penalty will pose a considerable danger. I hope that on reflection, despite the initial spin-doctoring that went on, the Government will think it appropriate to get rid of this proposal and stick to the other more serious penalties that are clearly set out in the Bill.
Baroness Crawley: We should remember why this provision is in the Bill. It is there because only 66 per cent of maintenance due is actually paid at present. Therefore, we have to look at serious ways of ensuring that maintenance due is paid. Although the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, dismissed the American experience, the evidence shows that the very threat of withdrawal led to a vast increase in the amount of maintenance due being paid. In fact, the number of people who had their driving licences withdrawn was very small when compared with the amount of money that came to children as a result of that threat. We return again to the central argument that has featured throughout our discussions this evening; namely, that it is the children who matter. The resources should be going as quickly and speedily as possible to the children. In that case, the threat of withdrawal actually led to some action.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, also referred to other possible penalties instead of removing driving licences. I understand that he was thinking of tagging as a possibility. Surely that would criminalise the parent in front of the child. It is a sanction that is over the top as far as concerns damaging the relationship between the parent and the child. I believe that we have much to learn from the American experience. For example, if the noble Lord wants to hire a video next Saturday night, he may, if he is a new hirer in the video store, be asked to produce a driving licence as evidence of his identity.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The proposition that tagging should be considered for non-payment was put forward by Mr Eric Pickles in another place. That would criminalise the matter and make it a criminal offence instead of a civil one. It would mean having someone tagged in front of his children for failing to pay maintenance.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: As I said, we are going over the top. Indeed, it seems that everyone is going over the top, except me. I have to say that I am opposed to this provision on principle. It is completely unacceptable that we should be considering withdrawing driving licences for some of the reasons outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. I do not see how this will improve the system.
I simply cannot understand why a government who are supposedly wedded to fairness and individual freedom should introduce such a proposal and such a clause. It is not good enough to say that this works elsewhere. What they do in America is entirely up to them: what we do here must respect our own conditions and our history. Indeed, what might work in America will not necessarily work here.
In my view, the proposal is very unfair. It is also extreme and discriminatory in that it is designed to punish just one section of the population, albeit one that constitutes 50 per cent of the population; namely, men. As we heard this afternoon, the main "culprits", if we can call them that, are men. Therefore, it is discriminatory. I thought that my noble friend the Minister and the Government were against discrimination on sex and other grounds. Moreover, many of those who are reluctant to pay maintenance have, in their view--though not perhaps in ours--very good and valid reasons for withholding payment. Indeed, one of the most common is difficulty of access. Everyone here knows about difficulties of access. That causes acrimony of the worst kind. Parents now, apparently, are to be treated worse than criminals. They are to be treated worse than robbers, muggers, rapists, paedophiles, drug dealers and IRA terrorists--I do not think that there are any proposals to take away their driving licences.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I hope that I can help my noble friend. I wonder whether he is aware that in March 1997 the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, introduced a Bill on this matter. There are already pilot schemes in Norfolk and Greater Manchester which allow magistrates to withdraw driving licences for sentences other than those associated with driving.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I most certainly will not. Those are pilot schemes and therefore have not been introduced generally. We are including provisions in a Bill as regards people who do not pay maintenance in advance of introducing them for muggers and rapists and other criminals. I should have thought that my noble friend, who I think believes in individual freedom, would not pray in aid a proposal brought forward by the Conservatives in 1997. I was certainly opposed to that at the time. I remain opposed to it at the present time because the punishments are not relative.
Driving licences were introduced as documents to show that persons were fit to drive and could drive safely. They were not introduced as an internal passport, which they now threaten to become. This is the typical tool of control beloved of authoritarian states such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Those remarks may be over the top but that is precisely the kind of thing that happens in such countries. I am ashamed to say that it is now happening here.
My noble fried ought to explain how the clause will protect those whose livelihood is gained from driving. I know that provision is mentioned in the Bill, but is it intended that such people will be exempt from a ban when others are not? Usually there is no exemption from a ban. Will those people be in a different category? This provision introduces a new concept which does not apply to the general withdrawal of driving licences.
What about enforcement? How shall we enforce this measure? God above, the police have enough on their hands at the present time without chasing people who have not paid their maintenance to check whether they are driving without a driving licence! What about the police? Their resources are already stretched to the limit. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, the measure will result in an increase in the number of people driving while disqualified, putting the rest of us at risk, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, mentioned.
I find it amazing that the New Labour Party--perhaps we should take the "Labour" out of it--should come forward with a proposal of this kind. The withdrawal of driving licences is bound to be seen as the thin end of the wedge. My noble friend says that pilot schemes already exist. This will pave the way for driving licences to be withdrawn for all kinds of other reasons, not just for criminal offences but for all kinds of other misdemeanours. This could be the thin end of the wedge. People should be loath to introduce this kind of legislation.
The local elections showed a growing alienation from government on the part of many sections of the community. When men realise how they are being singled out for special punishments, there will be further alienation.
This is a nasty, discriminatory, extremist and authoritarian clause. There will be no vote on it tonight, but it will certainly be voted on at Report stage. Even if I am the only one to vote against it, I shall make sure there is a Division. I sincerely hope that at Report stage the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and others will ensure that there is a vote to get rid of this unnecessary, unwarranted and nasty piece of legislation.
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