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Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure and Maintenance Arrangements and Jurisdiction) (Amendment) Regulations 2000

Child Support (Collection and Enforcement and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2000

Child Support (Maintenance Calculation Procedure) Regulations 2000

Child Support (Maintenance Calculations and Special Cases) Regulations 2000

Child Support (Variations) Regulations 2000

6.34 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 6th December be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, for the purposes of this debate, I shall refer to the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure and Maintenance Arrangements and Jurisdiction) (Amendment) Regulations 2000 using the number three, because they are the third main item on the Order Paper. I shall refer to the Child Support (Collection and Enforcement and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2000 using the number four, to the Child Support (Maintenance Calculation Procedure) Regulations 2000 using the number five, to the Child Support (Maintenance Calculations and Special Cases) Regulations 2000 using the number six and to the Child Support (Variations) Regulations 2000 using the number seven. I hope that the regulations, which were laid before Parliament on 6th December 2000, will be approved.

All children are entitled to the financial and emotional support of their parents. All parents are responsible for supporting their children, whether they live together or apart.

The current child support scheme was established, with the agreement of all parties in this House and in another place, to ensure that children benefited from the financial support of both parents and to make it easier for non-resident parents to provide that support.

We know that the current system has failed and is in need of radical reform. Our proposals for a new and simpler system, which is focused on the need to ensure that maintenance due becomes maintenance paid, have won widespread support. The Act that forms the foundation for the reform received Royal Assent last July.

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If your Lordships wish, I am willing to explain why we needed to reform the legislation, but I suspect that it is not necessary to repeat the Second Reading debate of a Bill that we have already discussed at great length. However, I am happy to revisit those arguments if that is what noble Lords wish.

The Act sets out the general principles on which the new child support scheme will be based, but, inevitably, much of the detail was left to secondary legislation. The regulations before the House, and several negative measures, which were made in December, provide that detail.

Before I explain the effect of each regulation package, I shall briefly discuss the way in which we shall bring the reforms and, consequently, the regulations, into effect. We believe that the new child support scheme will be better for children and their parents and we want to bring it into effect as soon as possible. However, there is a great deal of work to do to prepare the agency for the new scheme, including the development of completely new computer systems. We cannot rush that work, so we have set out to ensure that the new scheme will be introduced for new cases by April 2002, with existing cases transferring over from a later date, once we are sure that the systems are working well.

That phased introduction means that the regulations must also be introduced in a phased way. This is why the regulations in the packages before the House are, on the whole, designed to come into force when relevant sections of the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 are commenced in respect of specific cases. However, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said, there are some provisions in the new legislation which will improve the effectiveness of the current scheme, paving the way for reform.

It is for that reason that we are bringing the following provisions in the 2000 Act into effect on 31st January 2001: Section 13, which makes provision for two new criminal offences of failing to provide information to the agency when required to do so, or for providing false information; Section 14, which streamlines the appointment of child support inspectors to gather the information required for assessing and collecting child support; Section 15, which will help the agency to collect maintenance in cases of disputed paternity; and Section 22, which will allow the Child Support Agency to collect maintenance from certain non-resident parents working abroad for employers based in the UK.

Those provisions will help to address two key weaknesses in the current system, the first of which is the lack of information. The new criminal penalties will provide all who have contact with the agency with a clear incentive for frank and open disclosure. On conviction, those who continue to provide false information, or who refuse to provide the information required, will face a fine of up to 1,000. That penalty is intended as a deterrent but, wherever possible, the agency will attempt to avoid bringing prosecutions by

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encouraging clients to provide the correct information. However, we do not want clients to think that they can string the agency along.

Those incentives will be supported by the new streamlined appointment of child support inspectors. Currently, inspectors can be appointed, absurdly, only on a case-by-case basis, which prevents the establishment of the necessary core of expertise. The new provision will allow the agency to appoint teams of inspectors to deal with complex cases, such as establishing the income of self-employed parents, and thus to build up appropriate expertise.

The second weakness involves disputed paternity. Too often, non-resident parents are able to delay the process of collecting maintenance for their children by denying paternity even when they have no reason to doubt it. About 200,000 cases a year involve the denial of paternity, but only 20,000 are subsequently tested and in only 2,000 cases is the claim upheld. The new provision will extend the circumstances in which the agency can presume paternity where an alleged parent is likely to be the child's parent. The agency will also be able to assume that an alleged parent who refuses to take or accept the result of a DNA test is, in fact, the parent of the child.

In addition, from April this year we are commencing Section 16 of the 2000 Act, which provides for magistrates, exercising their civil powers, to make orders for the disqualification of non-resident parents who have persistently failed to meet their child support responsibilities from holding a driving licence. That provision, which offers an alternative to committal to prison for the most unco-operative non-resident parents, was debated at length during the passage of the Bill. Section 17 of the 2000 Act applies to Scotland.

The first two packages of regulations before the House today, therefore, will, in part, support those early changes.

The Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure and Maintenance Arrangements and Jurisdiction) Regulations amend existing provisions governing the collection and disclosure of information for child support purposes. Amendments made by Regulations 5(2)(b), (d) and (e) provide access to records held by the DVLA, the Prison Service and accountants. Regulation 6(3) amends existing legislation to ensure that people providing information to the agency are aware of the new criminal offences. Those provisions will be brought into effect on 31st January.

Those regulations also cover the jurisdiction of the CSA to calculate and collect maintenance. Amendments made by Regulation 8(3) support the extension of agency jurisdiction to certain non-resident parents working abroad for employers based in the UK by virtue of Section 22 of the 2000 Act. That provision will also come into effect on 31st January.

The Child Support (Collection and Enforcement and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations also amend existing regulations. Provisions include those relating to withdrawal by the courts of driving licences as an alternative to an order for committal to prison.

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Amendments made by Regulation 2(6) and the schedule to those regulations provide for a disqualification from driving order and for the way in which such an order may be executed. Those provisions will come into effect on 2nd April. These regulations also make detailed provision for the imposition of financial penalties for late payment of maintenance.

The Child Support (Maintenance Calculation Procedures) Regulations will govern the processes in relation to applications for maintenance and cases where a parent with care claiming IS or JSA(IB) opts out of child support. In particular, these regulations provide for the date on which an application for child support will be treated as made (Regulation 3); determining, in cases where there is more than one application in relation to the same parents and child, which application will be proceeded with (Regulation 4 and Schedule 2); giving notice of an application for child support to the non-resident parent (Regulation 5); the rate of maintenance liability to be set by a default maintenance decision (Regulation 7); the procedure for making a reduced benefit decision when a parent with care on IS or ISA(IB) opts out of child support without good cause and the penalty which will apply (Regulations 8 to 20); and, finally, the date from which maintenance calculations take effect (Regulations 25 to 29).

I am happy to enlarge on any aspect of the provisions, but noble Lords may wish me to move on to the next package of regulations. However, I am happy to respond, if I can, to any questions as they arise.

The Child Support (Maintenance Calculations and Special Cases) Regulations provide in detail for the calculation of child support liability and for determining which parent is to be treated as a non-resident parent in certain special cases. Noble Lords will recall that the Act provides for liability to be determined using one of four rates: the basic rate where the non-resident parent's net weekly income is 200 or more; the modified rate where net weekly income is less than 200 but more than 100; the flat rate where net weekly income is 100 or less or the non-resident parent or his partner is receiving a prescribed benefit; or the nil rate, which will apply to prescribed groups including prisoners and students. Regulations 2 to 5 provide the basic rules for working out child support liability. They specify the information on which the calculation is to be based and provide rounding rules and the like.

Regulations 6 and 14 provide for working out the apportionment of liability between a number of parents with care. Regulations 7, 9 and 11 provide detailed rules for working out reductions in liability to reflect shared care arrangements, care of the child by a local authority and the non-resident parent's responsibility to maintain other children under a court order.

The more generous shared-care arrangements under the new scheme will ensure that the child support scheme gives proper recognition to those who take on the important job of providing day-to-day care for their children. The remainder of the regulations deal with special cases, such as where a child is in hospital, and the schedule provides for the calculation of net weekly income.

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I turn finally to the Child Support (Variations) Regulations. These regulations make detailed provision for the variation of the maintenance calculation to reflect exceptional circumstances, including child-related special expenses and income not taken into account in making the maintenance calculation.

Part II of this set provides the detailed rules relating to an application for a variation, including, in Regulation 4, how to apply and, in Regulation 9, the process for determining an application which has not been rejected on a preliminary sift.

Parts III, IV, V and VII of the regulations set out in detail the cases in which a variation can be allowed and provide for the resulting maintenance calculation. We have not provided for any cases additional to those listed in Schedule 4B to the 1991 Act as amended by the 2000 Act. As I explained in earlier debates, we are determined to keep the variations scheme tightly focused. While I understand the arguments for recognising other expenses, we concluded that for most parents the child support rates provide a fair liability. All parents have special expenses. The rates are intended to allow non-resident parents to retain sufficient income to meet most of them. We do not seek to re-introduce the complexity of the current scheme which will move them from the assessment back into the variation system.

In conclusion, taxpayers, parents and, most importantly, children deserve better than the current confusing, slow and above all ineffective child support arrangements, which mean that 1 million children go without the money to which they are entitled. Our reforms will ensure that parents meet their responsibilities; that maintenance can be sorted out quickly; and that many children will for the first time see the benefit of maintenance payments. These regulations are an important part of the reform. I commend them to the House.

Moved, that the draft regulations laid before the House on 6th December be approved [1st Report from the Joint Committee].--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

6.45 p.m.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, in listening to the noble Baroness on this subject, I am not sure whether I was overcome with a sense of deja vu or nostalgia. Almost all those present in the Chamber recall the long series of elaborate debates on this matter--one which in a real sense the Minister has made her own. She has been very much involved in trying to reform the system of which, when introduced, everyone was in favour but which subsequently turned out to raise extremely large difficulties. Hopefully it is now settling down.

When we discussed this matter previously, we were concerned about various aspects; for example, the upper limits on maintenance payments, which I understand appears in the orders and that we welcome; the sole emphasis on the income of a non-resident parent; and the provision for the CSA to intervene in private agreements, which was the other aspect of what was in effect a deal which the noble Baroness did. We

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were also concerned about the disqualification from driving as an alternative penalty. That was debated at great length. Alas, it still comes within the regulations. We still regard it as being--I was going to say "stupid"--not a sensible provision.

What is frightening is the sheer volume of detail in the regulations. The part of the Bill concerned with child support appears to be roughly the same size as the main legislation.

I was slightly puzzled by the debate in another place on 18th December, which concerned the shift from one system to another and the way in which the existing and new cases were to be dealt with. My understanding was that existing cases would be dealt with on the old formula and the new cases under the new formula. That seems likely to produce considerable problems.

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