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Earl Russell: When we discussed this matter last week I had seen many such examples. I have not succeeded in tracking them down and therefore must fail to rise to the Minister's challenge for the time being. It is one-nil to the Minister on that as it stands at present. I congratulate her on her determination in following up the points I raised last week. Some of that has come to my attention--not through her. I congratulate her very warmly on it and thank her for it. However, the noble Baroness will not challenge my contention that in this case, if the facts are as alleged, the penalty was wrongly imposed. That does happen. It is a distressingly frequent situation.
That case was decided, having been studied in a seminar as a model case, not to be an example of good cause. I believe that that was mistaken on the law as it stands at present. She may not have offered clear evidence of harm. She had certainly offered clear evidence of undue distress and she had convinced me at least that, whether or not she was found to have good cause, she was not going to co-operate. The penalty would fall wide of its mark.
The Secretary of State here is judge and party in his own cause. That is a big weakness in the legislation. I do not think it is any good setting out to starve mothers into submission as if they were besieged towns. The Minister says that the legislation will never work on a voluntary basis. I say, what I said first on "Bill do now pass" in 1991. Nothing has yet convinced me that I am wrong. The legislation will not work unless it is on a voluntary basis. You can coerce all the people some of the time or you can coerce some of the people all the time; but you cannot coerce all the people all the time.
If this legislation is to work, someone has to be in favour of it. So if it cannot be made to work by applying it only to those mothers who see an advantage to themselves in it, the Government are simply attempting a job of coercion which is beyond their reach. Their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. They will not be the first government to make that mistake and I fear they will not be the last.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: When my noble friend moved the first amendment in this group the noble Baroness seemed to think that he could not do such a thing because the previous government introduced the concept of benefit reduction. I think that, all these years later, my noble friend has every right to read what the citizens advice bureaux are telling us and what the Select Committee has told us and to respond. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has been completely consistent. He argued against this concept last time round when we legislated for this matter. He has reminded us of that. My noble friend has been extremely sensible and is doing something with which, I am sorry to say, the noble Baroness does not feel she can go along.
It surely is absolutely reasonable to pause for a moment to study the effect of the implementation of maintenance disregard before taking this draconian action which may make it impossible for a person to feed her family. A drop of income of 40 per cent, as was pointed out when the matter was discussed last week, can have a very serious effect on the nutrition of a family. We need not go into that again.
During the remaining proceedings on the Bill I hope that the Minister will not go on accusing my noble friend of criticising something which began during the time of the Conservative government. The circumstances have now been changed by the present Government. It may be a good idea just to pause, as has been asked of us by the Select Committee in another place and by the CABs, to see what the effects will be before the draconian measures are implemented.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I should like to open my response to this group of amendments by responding to the direct challenge raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, as to how I think the proposals in any sense honour the commitment made by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to reduce and then abolish child poverty. Very straightforwardly, the children in this country who are poor are disproportionately the children of lone parents and particularly the children of lone parents where, first, the mother does not go out to work and where, secondly, the father of that child does not pay maintenance. If it is asked what the Government are therefore doing about it, they are seeking to help the mother back into work through the New Deal, the working families' tax credit and the minimum wage. If she feels that it is not right for her to go back to work at this point, she will effectively have had, between April 1997 and October this year, nearly a 100 per cent increase in the income support rates for children under 11, which is a huge increase--from just over £16.80 to around £31 during the course of the first three years of this Government.
We are seeking, first, to encourage her back into work when she feels ready; secondly, to make her benefit levels more generous for children while she is out of the labour market; and, thirdly, to get the maintenance flowing. Together, those are the ways we will springboard those children out of poverty and honour the Prime Minister's commitment. I do not know whether the noble Earl wishes to intervene. No, he accepts what our policy seeks to do. In that sense, what we are seeking to do in terms of getting maintenance flowing is an integral part--not an accidental bolt-on--of seeking to redress the problem of child poverty.
As my noble friend Lady Massey said, Clause 19 is about the benefit penalty for parents with care on income support or income-based JSA who, without good cause, ask the Secretary of State not to act to recover child support or who fail to provide relevant information or refuse to take a scientific test such as DNA. The amendments seek both to reduce and time
As my noble friend said, the impact of removing Clause 19--Section 46 of the 1991 Act--would go much further than just removing the penalty. Effectively--the noble Earl, Lord Russell, acknowledged this point--it would make child support a voluntary option by giving the lone parent the choice of whether or not to involve the Child Support Agency or whether simply to rely on benefits provided by the taxpayers many of whom are themselves parents supporting children. I do not believe that low-earning, tax-paying fathers should be required to support the children of other fathers who can, but prefer not to, support their own children. I give way to the noble Earl.
Earl Russell: The logic of that argument would be complete if the Minister could tell us what taxpayers are spending in supporting harm caused by the hardship inflicted on lone parents who suffer the benefit penalty. When the Minister's department monitors that, she can complete the calculation. At present, she does not possess the information, and has admitted as much.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I think that I can help the noble Earl a little. At present, 85 per cent of lone parents are co-operating with the agency in naming the father. When I took over some responsibility for this portfolio, the figure was only about 30 per cent. The difference between that 30 per cent and 85 per cent, given the premium that is being introduced, is that that number of families and their children are denied the possibility of a £10 maintenance premium. Perhaps the noble Earl will accept and respect the fact that, under the new scheme, by placing the emphasis on getting the woman to name the father and therefore comply with the procedures of the CSA, children will be the direct beneficiaries. The figure has risen from 30 per cent to 85 per cent; I hope that it will be even higher in future.
Earl Russell: I accept the information and I thank the Minister. Before I accept the claim that they are the direct beneficiaries, will the Minister think again about the Gary Craig study of 53 families, which indicated the very high levels of stress caused to families by the operations of the CSA. How does the Minister weigh that against any increase in money? She has given no answer at all to my major question: what is the effect on mothers who suffer the benefit penalty? What hardship do they suffer, and what does that cost the taxpayer? The noble Baroness cannot complete the equation until she can answer that.
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