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Street Works Bill [H.L.]

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make provision for charges for the occupation of a maintainable highway by undertakers executing street works. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(Lord Peyton of Yeovil.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill

3.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 19 [Reduced benefit decisions]:

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 94:

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 94 I shall speak also to the amendments grouped with it standing in my name and that of the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

Amendment No. 94 is concerned with "reduced benefit decisions" in relation to the payment of child support. Effectively, we on this side of the House are strongly in favour of more effective measures to ensure that those responsible for having children seek to meet the payments to finance them. Generally speaking, there are a whole series of penalties, but this particular penalty is unusual in stating that should a mother decline to provide information to the Child Support Agency on the grounds that if she were to do so she would be in danger of violence from the absent parent arrangements will be made to impose a penalty upon her. We are concerned whether that is appropriate.

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The jargon used is whether she has good cause for not seeking child support--which would result in the cost of the children falling on the Exchequer or the National Insurance Fund--and, effectively, it suggests that she should not do that. As a result, the department or the Child Support Agency will seek to establish whether or not there is good cause in a particular case.

We propose the amendments because of representations we have received, for example, from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which has many people dealing with these kinds of cases. It suggests that decisions to reduce the benefit of the parent with care because she has not co-operated with the department and has instead made excuses--for instance, that she would suffer violence--are not infrequently incorrect, unreasonable and inappropriate.

Coming from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, this is strong language. The association therefore goes along with the recommendations made by the Social Security Select Committee in another place that the application of the reduced benefit penalty should be suspended over a phasing-in period and that the operation of the present scheme should be reviewed. Perhaps the second recommendation is fairly formidable; I understand that some 28,000 decisions have been made in regard to reduced benefit.

The other matter which gives cause for concern is the way in which the severity of this particular penalty has escalated over time. If we go back to 1993, the penalty was open to revision in the light of changed circumstances and the number of cases was at a comparatively low level. Since 1996, the severity of the penalty has increased considerably and there seems to be some argument for reviewing the arrangement. That is the essence of the case. We look forward to hearing the Minister's response. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him which government were responsible for the changes in 1996.

Lord Higgins: Certainly the previous government were responsible. That is why we can reasonably argue that, given the space of time since then, one should take into account the overall situation; the representations one has received; and, in particular, one's experience of the way in which the system is working. The more recent evidence seems to indicate that it is not working as satisfactorily as one would wish. These are essentially probing amendments. We wish to get the Government's reaction to the considerable number of recent cases put forward by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): As Amendments Nos. 96 to 98, 101 and 102 are also being spoken to, I must point out to the Committee that if Amendment No. 96 is agreed to,

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I cannot call Amendments Nos. 97 and 98; and if Amendment No. 101 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 102.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: Amendments to or the removal of Clause 19 would be a retrograde step. A reduction or time-limiting delay of the benefit penalty would be counter-productive.

The whole emphasis of the Bill--this was stressed during last week's proceedings and has been supported by a number of agencies which seek to help children--is to tackle child poverty. What is good for the child is of prime importance.

Clause 19 concerns benefit penalties for parents with care who are on income support or on income-based jobseeker's allowance and who, without good cause, ask the Secretary of State not to act to recover child support; or fail to provide relevant information; or refuse to take a scientific test.

Child support cannot be a voluntary option of whether or not to involve the CSA or whether to rely on benefit provided by taxpayers, many of whom are themselves parents supporting children. Many thousands of children would not receive the maintenance due to them. The only parents affected by sanctions are either those who face no risk and prefer to rely on benefits, or those who refuse to tell the DSS why they are opting out.

The penalty provision needs to be retained. It would not be fair on children if parents were allowed to prevent the recovery of child support; it would not be fair on the parents who do support their children; and it would not be fair on the taxpayer.

Of course, sanctions should be avoided wherever possible. Parents with care must be clearly told about their rights; they must not receive a benefits sanction by accident. However, low sanctions for a short time, such as those suggested, may not be enough to encourage parents with care to co-operate with the CSA. Delaying the introduction of penalties would mean that many parents with care would not seek child maintenance. Clause 19 as it stands seems to offer protection to parents and children. It should not be tampered with.

3.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, is on her first child support Bill. Welcome to the club. I am now on my third. In 1991, I succeeded in deleting the whole provision of the benefit penalty. The "good cause" provision was the sop put in by another place to keep me quiet. It may have reduced the volume of my voice somewhat; it has not kept me quiet.

I cannot help thinking, on the record of the CSA since 1991, that Clause 19 and the measures preceding it have done a great deal more to increase child poverty than to diminish it. So I ask the Minister: in the light of the Government's pledge to abolish child poverty within 20 years, how will they abolish child poverty

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while depriving the mother of 40 per cent of her income? There seems to me a certain Gilbertian element of paradox about that suggestion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, said that all that is needed is for the mothers to comply. That reminds me a little of the argument of the ill-fated General Stockwell, who commanded the British intervention in Port Said during the Suez campaign. When challenged on the level of casualties in Port Said, General Stockwell said it was all the fault of the Egyptians who would insist on defending themselves.

The Government here are intruding into some of the most sensitive areas of private life and into some of the strongest personal emotions which become stirred in the whole complicated history of the relations of the sexes. It is an area in which the Government, by rule of thumb, assume they must be right and that everybody has to comply. If only the world were that simple. The Government here are out of their element--and, when I say the Government, I make no political point. We have here, even more than in most other areas of policy, a situation where the Court and Treasury Party is always in office, no matter which political colours it may wear and the Country Party is always in opposition, no matter which political colours it may wear. It is my contention that the Court and Treasury Party here has it fundamentally wrong. It has overrated the limits of its competence and is attempting to tackle matters which it really cannot handle.

We have here a large group of amendments. The first ones to which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has spoken put forward a proposal which emanates from the Social Security Select Committee in another place--a two year deferral of the operation of the benefit penalty in order to see whether, in the light of the Minister's achievement, on which I again warmly congratulate her in introducing the maintenance disregard, a carrot might prove rather more effective than a stick. I support that approach with the sole rider that, if we had a rather bigger carrot--and I have an amendment down to that purpose--it might work a little better. If the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, should choose to go beyond probing and press those amendments, we would support them.

With regard to the other group--the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, and we have down identical amendments. That is a waste of paper that I think we should not repeat. The amendments seek to go back to the level of deductions which were originally introduced in 1991 and to go back once more to the duration of deductions. The new one is for three years and may be renewed ad infinitum. In the briefings from the CAB, we have one which had been running since 1994--five years--before the parent with care discovered what it was all about. She supposed that it was for poll tax arrears. That is the danger of an indefinite provision.

Here, too, we are of one mind and, whichever of our amendments goes forward, we would support it. My ambitions go further. I want, as I have wanted since 1991, to abolish the benefit penalty altogether. I have

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three reasons for wishing to do that. First, it is draconian; secondly, it is outside the area of the Government's competence and, thirdly, it is ineffective or--and in my view this is equally bad--effective in the wrong cases.

Whenever one discusses any of these policies designed to deter people, like the use of prescription charges to deter people from claiming unnecessary prescriptions, it is always the wrong people who are deterred. The genuinely ill are deterred and the hypochondriacs are not deterred by anything. So, if the penalty is producing compliance--I hope the Minister may enlighten us a little more on the extent to which it is--then we have no reason to suppose that it is producing compliance in those cases where it ought to be producing compliance. We know it is producing compliance in a number of cases where, for the mother's own safety, there ought not to be compliance.

A 40 per cent reduction in income support is a fairly draconian penalty. I shall not take us again through all the argument about the Acheson report, the Medical Research Council and the rest. The Minister knows that I have considerable doubts about the claims of income support to be even so much as a subsistence benefit. If you have only 60 per cent of income support, that is a benefit on which I think legal subsistence is extremely difficult.

We have one case here which was referred to in an article in the Independent a few weeks ago where a mother was found to be stealing nappies from the supermarket because she could not afford to buy them. I do not see what that does to reduce child poverty. We have another case which comes from the CAB of a mother who was subjected to a reduced benefit directive and was unable to buy her youngest son's school uniform with the result that he was excluded from the school.

The Minister should not so blithely assume that her policy is for the benefit of children. I know it is so intended, but the Minister knows what paves the road to hell. I think her confidence in this is entirely misplaced. My greatest concern is that, in dealing with these raw emotions, the Government are in an area where they are not a competent judge and where material penalties are not necessarily a suitable deterrent.

The emotions raised by a relationship break-up can be extremely strong. All that the Government can put in the scale against it is material penalty. In some of the cases with which we are dealing, that is a very light feather to put in the scales against the intensity of emotion which is aroused. I have never thought of the Minister as a "Material Girl" but, in this context, I think that is all that she can claim to be. There is no room in the CSA's calculations for feelings. In fact, there is practically no right to have any feelings other than those prescribed by statute.

Of course, the feelings that result from relationship break-down are not always rational. I would not for a moment attempt to pretend that they were. First, the Government are not competent to judge which feelings are rational and which are not--they do not have the

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evidence--and, secondly, even supposing that the feelings are not rational, those are perhaps hardest of all to deter by a mere material penalty.

In 1996, during Mr Andrew Mitchell's tenure of office, the Government undertook a survey--not a particularly good piece of research--in which, out of a sample of 38, 26 people reported that the reduced benefit directive had no impact. Mr Andrew Mitchell chose to take that finding literally and therefore argued that the penalty was not sufficient to deter. I think Mr Mitchell had failed to read between the lines and had failed to recognise language which might have been more accurately transliterated--and I cannot repeat all the words in the Chamber--as ". . . off". People simply did not recognise the right of the state to use this penalty to make them resume a contact which they were absolutely determined to eschew. In fact, the penalty was wide of their area of concern.

Domestic violence is only the tip of that iceberg. I think all governments have been sincere in their attempts to follow the good cause provisions and I welcome that. Of course, the administration is quite another matter. I have already said in the course of this Bill that I think the culture of this country is very far from sufficiently aware of the dangers which domestic violence may pose under the need to preserve confidentiality.

We had one case which was reported recently by the CAB when a client had been threatened by the absent parent and the absent parent even threatened the CSA. Even after that, the CSA refused to recognise that she had good cause. So she suffered the benefit penalty. That is surely a wrong decision on the law as it presently stands. I am delighted to give way to the Minister.

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