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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am now slightly baffled, and perhaps I may check this point with the noble Baroness. As I understand it, she did not move Amendment No. 4 and she is now moving Amendment No. 26. Is she speaking also to Amendments Nos. 27, 30 and 31?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I shall not spend a great deal of time on this matter. What the amendment would do is require all applications to be made in writing rather than allowing straightforward applications to be taken over the telephone. Additionally, applicants would not have to specify the ground on which they are applying.
Two recurring complaints made about the existing scheme surround its complexity and the fact that it takes the agency so long to notify non-resident parents of their liability. A recent survey undertaken by the CSA indicated that use of the telephone is considerably faster: 79 per cent of the CSA's clients positively preferred it; and approximately only 2 per cent of them were hostile to it, and that may have been because we telephoned them at work, or for a similar reason. They liked the use of the telephone because it allows discussion and a better understanding of what is going on. Certainly, when I listened in on client helplines, I realised that both parents with care and non-resident parents found the personal contact over the telephone to be valuable. By virtue of use of the telephone, maintenance becomes more reliable.
Under the current departure scheme that we are proposing, it is clear that most of the applications can be dealt with satisfactorily over the telephone because the information is simple and straightforward. We do
However, an exception would be made--I believe that this point is important and may reassure the noble Baroness--where, for example, the application raised particularly difficult or complex issues. Such applications would not be dealt with by staff on a straightforward administrative basis. However, when a simple piece of information is placed on the record--for example, where the flow of earnings is different just before Christmas--the form can be adjusted and that is that.
However, a typically difficult application would be one where the parent with care alleges that the income that he has declared is inaccurate because he is living a different lifestyle and there is a considerable variance. Where there is such a dispute, if I may express it that way, the case is likely to go to a tribunal. In difficult and complex situations, we would require all applications to be made in writing in order to furnish the basis of an appeal to go to the tribunal. In such a case, we would also require the applicants to specify the grounds upon which they were applying. The system would not be effective if we ended up with a mountain of correspondence saying, "I want a variation because my liability is too high"--or too low.
In complex situations, our view is that it is only sensible to require applicants to state the grounds upon which they are applying for a variation. That will allow the CSA to distinguish applications which have been made on recognised grounds from those which, for example, are spurious in the sense that they cannot be met within the formula. That would avoid delays.
I hope that I have assured noble Lords that most cases can be dealt with by telephone but that in exceptional cases involving dispute, which are likely to go forward to a tribunal, we would want to ensure that there was a paper base. I hope that with that assurance the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, before the Minister sits down perhaps she can reassure me as to where that is stated. I do not believe it is stated on the face of the Bill that more complex cases will be written down.
Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response, which gives me some reassurance. In a way, I regret that it is not stated on the face of the Bill. I am concerned about the more complex cases which involve dispute, such as the example that she has given. I believe that it is crucially important that in those cases the written word is there for everyone to see.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 28, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 29, which concerns the departure from usual rules for calculating maintenance. In our view, these amendments are straightforward. If an application for variation were made and, after preliminary assessment, the Secretary of State concluded that there was some merit in the application, the non-resident parent would still have to pay either the full or a lower rate at the discretion of the Secretary of State. Given that the new variation scheme is being introduced because the existing formula may not be fair, we believe that it is right that that parent should have to pay only the default rate until the appeal is determined. I beg to move.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, as we have heard, both the amendments relate to the intention to allow the Secretary of State in appropriate circumstances to require the non-resident parent who has applied for a variation to make regular payments of child support at a pre-agreed level as a condition of having his application considered.
In the reformed scheme, applicants will be able to apply for a variation before, as well as after, a final maintenance calculation has been made. Where a variation application is made before a decision has been reached on the original maintenance application, the Secretary of State may make either a final maintenance calculation which takes account of the outcome of the variation application or an interim maintenance decision under Section 12(2) where he is unable to deal with the variation application straight away.
The amount of child support fixed by an interim maintenance decision will be calculated in exactly the same way as a final maintenance decision, had no application for a variation been made. The interim decision will, in effect, amount to an unvaried maintenance calculation. Where an interim decision is made, new Section 28C provides that, where the applicant for the variation is the non-resident parent, the Secretary of State may require him or her to make regular payments of maintenance while the application is being considered.
Similar provisions will apply where the non-resident parent makes a variation application at any time after a maintenance calculation has been made. In either circumstance, the intention is that, where the reasonable expectation is that the application will fail, the non-resident parent will be required to continue to pay the amount previously calculated--that is, the interim amount or the final amount, as appropriate.
If, on the other hand, it appears likely that the variation application will succeed--for example, where there is agreement on both sides as to who has incurred contact costs in terms of travelling--the effect on the interim maintenance decision or the final maintenance calculation, as applicable, will be anticipated and the non-resident parent will be asked to pay the appropriate reduced amount.
Your Lordships will appreciate that on this basis no non-resident parent will ever be asked to pay more under the regular payments condition than he would otherwise be paying under the normal rules, or the amount which the Secretary of State anticipates would be payable were he to agree to the variation.
However, the amendments before us seek to ensure that the non-resident parent would be obliged to make regular payments at one of three fixed rates. We acknowledge that the proposal has merits of transparency and simplicity. However, the problem is that the fixed sum in any particular case is likely to bear little or no relationship either to the maintenance calculation which has already been made, based on the information which the non-resident parent has already provided, or to the amount which he might be expected to pay if the variation were to be agreed.
The intention of the regular payments condition is to ensure that child support continues to flow while a variation application is being examined. However, it is only right that the amount payable should be set in a way that reflects the non-resident parent's circumstances. In our view, the inflexibility of the amendments--there may be a wide gap between what the amendments lay down and what we expect a non-resident parent eventually to pay--could produce an outcome which is unfair.
It would mean that non-resident parents with existing liabilities for amounts which were lower than the suggested set amounts would be penalised unreasonably. The Secretary of State would be requiring them to pay more maintenance at a time when they were asking him to agree that in their particular circumstances they should be paying less. Perversely, it could encourage non-resident parents with higher liabilities to apply for a variation on spurious grounds simply as a means of securing a temporary reduction in the amount that they have to pay.
The whole purpose of the provision in question is to ensure that unnecessary debts are not built up during the variation process. We want children to receive their maintenance reliably. We do not want non-resident parents to use variations as a reason to delay the payment of the ultimate maintenance. However, we are concerned to ensure that the amount payable
We believe that the approach that we are taking delivers an outcome which is fair and reasonable. I hope that, on reflection, the noble Baroness will not press her amendments.
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