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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and my noble friend Lord Alli rightly anticipated the Government's response, I am afraid, due not so much to the instability of the situation that arose this morning but to the instability of the situation in the United States. These arguments were addressed much more fully by my noble friend Lady Scotland in Committee, and I do not need to rehearse them. Both my noble friend Lord Alli and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will understand where the Government are coming from on this issue.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am very grateful to everyone who has taken part in this debate. I thought it was sensible to move the amendment because, although it has become a nonsense in that it makes no sense to have a schedule of this kind which deals only with same-sex relationships, if one is concerned about recognising carers across the world in the way that one is recognising homosexuals throughout the world one would need to amend the schedule radically to include wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and others all over the world who would have to be given recognition if they came to live in this country. That is why I began by saying it is a Gilbert and Sullivan situation. My amendment has in any event been wrecked by what the Official Opposition have done.
The only argument that has been put forward is that the situation in Massachusetts is unstable. I must be the most optimistic Member of this House in saying this, but I very much hope that even at this stage officials will look more carefully at exactly what the situation in Massachusetts is, and we can help them to do so. The position is not unstable. The present position is that the marriage code in Massachusetts has been applied verbatim to gay and lesbian couples. I quite understand the right reverend Prelate's objection to the absolutism of the view taken by the Supreme Court in Massachusetts, which said that civil partnership is not enoughit must be marriage because there must be total equality under the state
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constitution. I personally understand why many people believe that to be a step too far. I do not agree with them, but I understand.
However, those in the Massachusetts legislature who object to that measure are in favour of civil partnerships. They say that marriage goes too far and civil partnerships are fine and dandy. They are seeking in a referendum in two years' timewhich would come into effect in four years' timeto amend the state constitution dealing with marriage to make it clear that marriage, unlike civil partnership, must apply only to men and women and not to same-sex couples. They intend to do that in order to leave in place exactly the same substantial rights for same-sex couples, although it will be civil union or civil partnership instead.
That is why the situation is wholly stable. If I thought that there were a risk of a challenge in an appealfor example, to the Supreme Court in the United States or some other jurisdictionor if I thought that what was being threatened was likely to happen before this Bill became law or there was a change to the legislation, that would be a different matter. Having said all of that, I will not press the amendment further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: We now come to Amendment No. 103 with which we may debate Amendment No. 105. If I do not move subsequent amendments, that means I am carefully considering to what extent we should return to them at Third Reading in the light of the unforthcoming response of the Government on various other amendments.
As far as I can see, this amendment is not affected in any way by the amendments that we carried earlier. Consequently, I hope that we shall get a response from
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the Minister in reply. Amendment No. 103 is to page 318, line 18 and would leave out paragraphs 1 to 5. More clearly in terms of intention, Amendment No. 105 would insert into the end of line 28 on page 318:
The Minister and I have debated the Child Support Agency for a long timeat least it seems like a very long time. I have always accepted that the introduction of that Act by the previous government was difficult to implement. When the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000 was debated in this House, the Minister and I both agreed that the change from the rather complicated scheme that we had before to a simpler flat-rate scheme should be welcomed. We co-operated in getting those matters through the House.
However, since we did that in 2000, the situation has been one of almost unmitigated disaster. The new formula was due to be introduced for all new cases from April 2002. However, in March 2002, Alistair Darling, then the Secretary of State, announced in a Statement that the changes were to be delayed. He pointed to problems of the development of the required computer system. On 27 January 2003, Mr Andrew Smith finally announced that a new system was coming into effect, in March 2003. That system finally went live for all new casesI stress, for all new cases onlyin April 2003. The situation has continued until the present time. From a statement made by Mr Doug Smith in July 2003, it seemed clear that it was not likely to come into effect until the spring of next year.
The system is still working very badly. The problem is not with the computer system alone but with staff relationships and the ability of the staff to operate the system. As of September 2003the last date for which I have managed to find figuresthere were some 30,000 cases operating on the new formula and 882,000nearly 883,000operating on the original formula.
I know only too well from my constituents' experience in another place how concerned and emotional those who have to deal with the Child Support Agency become. It is quite extraordinary that we should have seen delays of the kind with which we are faced at present, with regard to the ability of both the computer and the staff to cope.
I am not suggesting that the inclusion in this arrangement of same-sex couples is going to result in an enormous number of cases. None the less, the situation has not only been bad in the respects that I have mentioned but a huge amount of compensationsomething like £12 millionhas been paid out as a result of fraud. The whole system, in terms of computers and staff, is obviously under enormous strain. A huge number of those affected by the Child Support Agency have been waiting for a very long time for the matter to be sorted out.
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I am not suggesting that an enormous number of people will be involved as a result of this Bill or that the Bill will greatly affect the problemexcept that the staff will have to deal with a quite different set of problems. The problems likely to be involved with child support cases with same-sex couples looking after the child are likely to be ones with which the staff, as of now, are totally unfamiliar. More particularly, those who have been waiting so long for the system to be sorted out, in many cases in very emotional circumstances, will not be at all happyI was going to say "amused", but that is an understatementat the fact that, instead of giving priority to sorting out the problems from which we have suffered for so long and to which the Government have clearly not managed to find a solution, the Government are putting more load on the system in terms of the type of case and numbers. Those people will not be at all pleased.
The priority should be to sort out the system first and then, when we have done that, to turn our attention to cases that may be affected. After all, this Bill will not be enacted or implemented for a considerable time, so that matter should be sorted out before we extend the provisions of the Child Support Act 1991 to those who will be affected by this Bill.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, only those who were originally intended to be affected by the Bill are involved in this matter. The amendments that we carried earlier will not affect the situation that I have described. Therefore I hope that the Minister, if she replies, can accept Amendment No. 105, which seeks to ensure that these matters are introduced on a sensible basis, when the Government have sorted out the horrendous problems with the Child Support Agency. I beg to move.
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