Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am happy to respond to the noble Lord now.

We are saying that from April 2002 new cases, as they come through the system week by week and month by month, will go on to the new formula. We will bring existing cases over on to the new formula when we are confident that the IT system is running smoothly. In other words, we are avoiding bringing existing cases over at the same time as the new cases and the "big bang" argument. Therefore, it is true that existing cases will be on the old formula for a period of time--I hope a fairly short period of time--as the new cases come on. However, as soon as we are confident that the system is robust--I have every faith that it will be--the existing cases will come on to the new formula. I hope that that assists the noble Lord.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am grateful for that clarification. I had misunderstood the situation. We shall obviously go through a transitional period on the basis described by the noble Baroness, but the sooner that happens the better. I presume that means that when some people who are on the old formula change to the new formula they will pay less than before.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I believe that we explored this issue in the course of debates, but that was some time ago. Yes, some NRPs will be better off and some parents with care will be worse off, and vice versa. The noble Lord will recall that that is why we are introducing phasing arrangements, so that nobody on a relatively similar income will find their situation sharply affected and therefore be unable to cope with properly entered into other responsibilities. First, we are bringing the existing caseload in after the new cases have settled in, so that people have plenty of advance notice as to when they will come in. Secondly, the noble Lord will recall that when they do come in, there will be a 5 per year change for those in receipt of under 200 and a 10 per year change for those in receipt of above 200 if they have a substantive fall or gain in their maintenance calculation because we are trying to protect their financial situation.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, once again, I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. That being so, and

16 Jan 2001 : Column 1098

because we have certainly debated the four issues I mentioned at considerable length, I shall not detain the House further. I am sorry about the driving licences, but I hope that the reforms which are now being introduced will result in a much better system in which the parents pay for their children in a sensible way. The noble Baroness should be congratulated on the way in which she has dealt with this matter. We hope that the system will work and that the transitional period will be short.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thoroughly share the Minister's sentiment about Second Reading debates. I do not want to engage in one and I hope that I do not. However, perhaps I may ask in return that the Minister will not say again that the measure, either now or in the past, was brought in with the assent of all parties. Mr Peter Lilley, who I believe knows something about this, said in the debate on the football Bill last year that most of the worst mistakes he knew of had been made by collusion between the Front Benches. Therefore, one should be a little careful about such a claim.

I shall pay attention to the detail of the regulations. I assure the Minister that I shall not mention them all or we would be here all night. My first point concerns the collection and enforcement regulations. I refer to the penalty payment for being in arrears. The Minister knows my sentiment on the "can't pay won't pay" point. I shall not repeat that. However, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness to consider the possibility that there might be one single case in future which is genuinely a case of "can't pay". Is there any discretion about requiring the payments for being in arrears? Would I be justified in inducing encouragement on that point from the use in the regulation of the words,

    "The Secretary of State may require"?

Does he have to impose the penalty or is there any discretion? If he does have to impose it, do the Act and the regulations exclude the prerogative of mercy? That is a real question to which I should rather like the answer.

I refer to the variations regulations. Regulation 10(1) lists allowable special expenses. I notice in Regulation 10(1)(c) that transport by taxi to visit one's child is to be allowed only in cases of disability or long-term illness.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving way. Perhaps he would be kind enough always to repeat his cross-references. By the time I have identified the correct set of regulations I have forgotten the particular line to which he refers.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I beg the Minister's pardon. I have probably not helped by taking these out of order because it was the order in which they came to me in my pile. From the collection and enforcement regulations I quoted Regulation 7A(3) which contains the words,

    "The Secretary of State may require"

and that gave rise to the question about the prerogative of mercy. In the variations regulations I referred to Regulation 10(1)(c). What of the case where the taxi is the only means of available transport? Sadly, there are

16 Jan 2001 : Column 1099

many more such cases, in rural areas in particular, than one would like to think. It is a weakness in the system that special expenses can be allowed only if they have been prescribed in the past. So, if they have not been foreseen they cannot be recognised.

I gave the Minister's office notice that I wanted to raise a point from one of the negative regulations on this subject. I refer to Regulation 3186. Regulation 7 states that the Secretary of State's use of information shall be intraversable. That caused me concern. I should be glad to know why it is there and what it means.

I refer to the maintenance calculation procedure regulations and wish to raise a point from Schedule 1, Regulation 3. This is another case of the interface between the education system and the social security system not really being carried out with proper understanding on both sides.

The problem the regulation addresses is that of deciding when people of 16 and 17 are still in full-time education. The attempt is made to define "full-time education" by the number of hours concerned minus meal breaks. I am sure that the Minister knows as well as I that that will not work where one is dealing with people who are doing an A-level course in humanities and who spend a great deal of time at home reading books. It simply cannot be done in that way; it will not work. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, remembers the exchanges we had about the students regulations and social security. There is a real problem here which needs to be addressed. Perhaps I may look back a moment because this also relates to the power in the Social Security Fraud Bill to require information from educational institutions. It would be helpful to such institutions if the questions could be designed in a format which is capable of an answer.

However, as I am sure the Minister anticipated, my main concern is over the reduced benefit directions in the maintenance calculation procedure regulations. I should like first to mention a small point on the time limit for supplying information on good cause for not supplying the father's name. There is a time limit of four weeks which, if I understand correctly, is not discretionary. However, I would be reassured if I were told that there could be discretion about that.

I think, for example, of cases of domestic violence where sometimes the trauma is such that for a long time the person cannot bring themselves to say in public what has happened; or the case, which is sadly common, of people suffering from depression. From my experience as a tutor I know to my cost that it can be dreadfully difficult to get people to take any kind of action. That is a symptom of the disease and as such must be treated with understanding, however much one may at times wish otherwise.

However, my main concern is Regulation 11(2) which raises the duration of the reduced benefit decision; that is the length of time during which the woman who will not supply the father's name to the CSA can be without benefit. That is now increased to 156 weeks, which is three years. It is beginning to sound like 18th century criminal legislation. In interpreting legislation, a good rule is that constantly increasing

16 Jan 2001 : Column 1100

penalties imposed for a particular offence suggests that something about the definition of the offence makes it difficult to enforce. In fact, the escalation of the penalties is a legislator's confession of failure. The situation needs reading in that light.

There is also a serious question about the consequence of any such reduction for this length of time. Perhaps I may again revert to an exchange we had during the previous business. The Minister, replying on the issue of war pensions, said that she did not believe that anyone would maintain that in the case of two such serious offences the person concerned might still receive benefit.

This is not only a moral issue; it is a practical issue, too. In any legislation, one must always ask whether the mischief created by the legislation is greater or lesser than the mischief it is designed to avoid. One cannot even so much as answer that question if one does not know the consequences of the measure one is introducing.

That is why monitoring what happens to people who are deprived of social security benefits is so vital to any serious argument about whether the sanction should be imposed. One cannot know whether a sanction is justified if one cannot know the consequences.

I have taken the Minister through the matter once today so she is familiar with my arguments. Until she can give coherent information on the consequences, she will continue to hear those arguments and, from time to time, find divisions, some possibly unexpected, on the benefit sanctions.

This is the third time I have raised the matter today. Occasionally, I can claim to be a bellman and I believe that this is such an occasion. I hope that one day I shall receive an answer.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page