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I repeat: if we were to follow the noble Earl's proposal and a lone parent decided not to co-operate with the agency, that would mean that many thousands of children would not receive the maintenance due to them which could make a real difference to their lives. Equally importantly, it is more likely rather than less that they will continue to have contact with their natural fathers, which we know is in the best interest of those children.
Children are entitled to the financial as well as the emotional support of both parents. The CSA exists to ensure that non-resident parents meet their responsibility to their children. We believe that children have a right to support and that parents have a duty to provide it. That means, therefore, that child support is not an optional extra. It is right that the benefits system should step in, but only where parents are unable to support their children rather than merely prefer not to do so.
In the new scheme, where child support or income-based JSA pays for children, child support action will follow unless the parent with care refuses to allow that to happen. Those who refuse without good cause face a benefit penalty equivalent to 40 per cent, not of their income support--I should like this point to be corrected--but of the adult amount that is applicable, which is a reduction of about £21 a week; it is not a sanction on the children's element within income support.
The underlying purpose of a reduced benefit direction is to encourage parents with care to apply for child support unless they have good reason not to do so. We believe that a benefit penalty of 40 per cent of the adult applicable amount in income support is probably set at about the right level.
We are conscious of the need to protect vulnerable parents and children. If there are reasonable grounds for believing that the parent with care or any child living with her would suffer harm, no penalty would result. The noble Earl asked why we are not taking feelings into account. We are taking them into account. If we believe that there is undue distress as a result of pursuing child support, no penalty will be imposed. "Distress" does not mean violence, but feelings. Only those parents who choose not to pursue child maintenance and do not have a good reason, or do not tell the DSS why, will have their benefit reduced. But those who will be put at risk or who will suffer undue distress as a result of child support action have nothing to worry about.
I repeat: the only parents who will face a sanction will be those who either face no risk and simply prefer to rely on benefit from other fathers--I have never understood the morality of not receiving support from the particular father but being perfectly happy to have support from other fathers; that point seems morally "iffy"--or those who refuse to tell the DSS why they are opting out.
Lord Higgins: Perhaps the Minister will give way. I am seeking to follow her argument carefully. The position is, indeed, as she has stated it. As I understand it, the dispute is not over the basic argument but over decisions as to whether the adverse circumstances which would result in the benefit reduction exist. The point is whether the decisions are being correctly made, which is why they are described by the CAB as incorrect, unreasonable and inappropriate in a number of cases.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That is a wider issue. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, would like to see the reduced benefit direction removed altogether. I am seeking to reply to the entire group of amendments. It seemed to me sensible, therefore, to address the bigger issue before coming to some of the more specific points raised. The bigger issue is: what is the justification for having a reduced benefit direction at all?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That is a second order statement. The noble Earl's basic statement is that whether or not the father is named should be optional. He will say that if we compel the mother to do so and she refuses, there will always be a percentage of error. I pressed him to give an instance where pressure by the CSA to require the woman to name the father, when she was reluctant to do so because of fear of violence, had actually resulted in violence. The noble Earl was candid enough to say that he had no such evidence.
I should not wish to say that the CSA gets it right all the time. There may be occasions on which it has applied a reduced benefit direction about which the noble Earl would have some concerns--although, of course, there is an appeals system. Where the alternative is the case--where a parent has been required to name the father even though reluctant to do so because she alleged a fear of violence which the DSS did not accept--I could be wrong, but I have not been made aware of any case, nor I believe has the noble Earl, where as a result the lone parent was subject to the violence that she predicted. That is crucial to the effectiveness of the CSA. There may be cases where the woman has refused to name the father and there may have been a benefit penalty which she or the CAB regards as inappropriately applied, but I do not know of a case where violence has resulted, and that is the test.
As a result, 85 per cent of parents with care and claiming income support now choose to seek maintenance for their children. However, the fact remains that a number of parents with care refuse to co-operate with the CSA without good reason. As I said, they may prefer the taxpayer rather than their former partner to support their children. But I do not believe--here I disagree profoundly with the noble Earl, Lord Russell--that it is a choice that they are
Equally, there may be other reasons. The woman may have a new partner and fear that if the CSA is involved that may come to light and affect their benefit entitlement; or perhaps in the past she may have done an informal deal with her ex-partner; he may have arranged with the woman that if she refuses to name him and therefore he does not have to pay any maintenance, he, in turn, will recycle back to her some of the maintenance that he has saved. We believe that we need the benefit of penalty provision. It is not fair on children or on taxpayers if we allow parents to prevent the recovery of child support on their behalf. We want to ensure their co-operation, above all for the sake of the children.
The noble Earl was gracious enough to admit that we are trying to strengthen the grounds for reasons for compliance. Under the new scheme, the man's average maintenance payment falls. It is likely to be reduced from about £38 on average to about £31 on average. Therefore, under the new scheme, if the woman failed to name him, she would not only suffer a reduced benefit direction of £21 but would also lose her £10 premium--a loss in total of £31. That means that if it were worth her while doing an informal deal with him, he would have to pay her at least £31 so that she was no worse off, or, in other words, the level of maintenance that he would probably have to pay anyway.
With the best will in the world, we hope that we have constructed a system where financially it is not worth the while of either party to manipulate the system and women will find it attractive to co-operate with the CSA in the best interests of the child. Where we can we wish to avoid imposing a benefit penalty. The number of RBDs in place has fallen, and we hope that that decline will continue. In 1996 the figure was 17,500. The latest figure as of November 1999 was 13,700. That is a significant reduction, and represents only 1.5 per cent of the total number of parents with care on income support.
The noble Lord pressed me to say whether we knew what happened to women who accepted reduced benefit directions. I asked for research to be done not only for my information but because I suspected, quite rightly, that the noble Lord would want to know. The department's research suggests that 70 per cent of those with reduced benefit directions come off the benefits sanction within a month or so. Of those, one-third go into work and are no longer dependent on benefit and therefore it is not a matter for the CSA. One-third re-partner--which many of them may already be doing--and, as a result, decide to take themselves off the books rather than have the matter explored further and possibly lay themselves open to further action. One-third decide to co-operate. Of the remaining 30 per cent, almost all come off sanction within the year.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that the Government were not a competent judge as to whether or not a woman wanted to name the man. I do not see it as a battle between the lone parent and the CSA. Sometimes the lone parent makes the judgment, in my view inadvisedly, not to co-operate and that is not in the best interests of the child. Somebody must decide the matter when there are conflicting interests.