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I have strong misgivings too about naming and shaminga sort of parental ASBO. I am sure that love rats, as the tabloids call them, would suffer opprobrium for only a very short while and then the whole thing would be forgotten by their friends and workmates. I also worry that it will not do their employment prospects much good and so will be counterproductive. I suspect too that it will harm the very people we are trying to protectnamely the childrenbecause it could lead to bullying in school.
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The success of this new commission will rely heavily on the competence and hence training of its staff. I agree that it is no use having a named case officer if that officer is not available whenever the commission is open for business. However, the use of teams to answer a clients questions depends on everyone in the team knowing about that clients affairs. That can be done only by the use of computers, and the CSA currently has a disastrous record on computerisation, wasting millions of pounds, as we know. What confidence can we have that this time it will be any better?
This Government pride themselves on joined-up government. What we have here is a concerted effort to put pressure on absentee parents to contribute financially to their childrens care. At the same time, we hear that in vitro fertilisation clinics will no longer need to consider a childs need for a father. That is not what I call joined-up government. One or the other must be wrong, and I plump for child maintenance being correct. That is what this Statement and White Paper are all about. Barring a very few concerns, I agree with it, not least because a successful commission will go some way to reducing child povertythe aim of all of us in this Parliament. However, the bottom line is that unless we can have complete confidence in the original maintenance assessment, nothing that C-MEC can do will solve the problem.
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving us an advance copy of the Statement and in briefing me on its contents this morning. Anything I am about to say is not a criticism of him personally, as I believe that he has done his best in a very difficult situation in recent months.
I do, however, disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and indeed I disagree with my honourable friend David Laws in another place. I think that naming and shaming does have a role to play in these matters. I would encourage people to look at the following website: http://pubs1. tso.parliament.uk. Those of you who are more computer literate than I am will recognise that as the Houses of Parliament website. I want to name six guilty men and one guilty woman on that website: Peter Lilley, 1993 to 1997; Harriet Harman, 1997 to 1998; Alistair Darling, 1998 to 2002; Andrew Smith, 2002 to 2004; Alan Johnson, 2004 to 2005one notices that it speeds up towards the end; David Blunkett, 2005 only; and John Hutton, 2005 to date. Those are the Secretaries of State who have presided over one of the most serious failures by any British Government to face up to a problem. Over 14 long years they have failed millions of single mothers and their children, many of them the most vulnerable in our society. There is no excuse. They have put it off and not faced up to the problem year after year after year. On this issue above all others, Ministers must carry the can.
New Labour loves talking about failing schools, failing hospitals and other failing organisations. Well, if the CSAChaotic Shameful Appallingis not a
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If, at last, there is a move towards closer co-operation with the Inland Revenue, why on earth do the Government not go the whole hog and accept that to do the job properly they should move the whole operation within HMRC? That organisation knows better than anyone else what people earn and is better able to collect the money. I do not see the point of talking about fixed-term awards based on the latest tax year information, which is often subject to frequent revision. If HMRC has the best information, put it within that structure.
We do not disagree with the whole Statement. We agree with individual points, particularly the one about not writing off debt in generalmaking specific provision, if I can put it in those terms. But I am bound to say that this has been an appalling story of mismanagement, and this is not the answer.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is all too easy to say that it is a failure of management and administration and it is all too easy to criticise those who have done their best to improve the situation. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Hollis, who has had to leave. She had responsibility for the CSA for some years. She is one of a number of Ministers who have done their very best to improve the condition of the CSA.
The Governments conclusion, which I am absolutely convinced is right, is that essentially the CSA was almost designed to fail in the first place. A couple of hours ago, I was interested to hear Mr Alistair Burt speak in the Commons. He was Minister for the CSA in 1993. He gave two reasons. The first was retrospectionthe fact that the CSA did not start with new clients on day one, but was meant to capture all those on benefits who were due maintenance. Secondly, the system was simply too sensitive; it was a charter for delay. I believe that he is right. In essence, a system was created in which too many people were forced to use the system against their will. If one were on benefits, most, if not all, the money paid over in maintenance was clawed back by the state, so there was no incentive on either side to make the system work.
The fundamental change, and the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, on why C-MEC will work, is that we are altering the dynamics so that there are incentives to support parents who wish to do the right thing. We know that it is much better that private arrangements are reached between two former partners. If that is done, it is much more likely that resources will flow from the non-resident parent to the parent with care. At the heart of the matter, the only outcome that really counts is how to increase the amount of money that flows to the children.
On HMRC, I believe that the approach that we are taking gives us the best of both worlds. We have access to HMRC information, which means that there will be far less delay and less dispute about the financial assessment of the non-resident parent. The fact that there is a new organisation devoted to dealing with those cases where private agreement has not been reached means that there is a much better chance of ensuring that money flows.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, supported the thrust of encouraging private agreements, but he rightly asked about the operational improvement plan, which is now in process. It is very important that we continue to encourage the CSA to improve its performance as a foundation for the new arrangements.
So far about £320,000 has been raised as a result of the use of private debt collectors. That started only a couple of months ago, so it is too early to give a definitive view. Around 10,000 cases have been transferred over. It is also interesting that £400,000 has been raised through sending clients a letter that essentially says that, unless they pay up within seven days, their case will be referred to the private debt collector. This is the start of a better and more systematic approach to dealing with debt.
The noble Lord asked about the caseload. My understanding is that roughly half the caseload on the books of the CSA relates to parents with care on benefits and half relates to private cases. I am happy to send him further details. He is clearly right: extending the disregard to parents with care on benefits under the old scheme will be a huge boost to about 40,000 parents and 50,000 children. Our aim is that, when new clients are accepted by the commission around 2010, a significantly higher disregard will be brought in at the same time, which will apply to all customers, whether they are new customers or existing customers who are carrying on with the state system.
We have a figure of 7 per cent of birth registrations where the father is not named. In Australia, where naming is compulsory, the figure is 3.5 per cent. We can learn from that. We will explore the issue of vulnerable parents or parents with care who do not want the father named for one reason or another. We will have to be careful to ensure that their position is safeguarded, but the Australian position is clear and provides a good model.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that naming and shaming is not to be considered in isolation. One of the big problems of the CSA over the years has been a culture of non-compliance. We have to turn that round and make it clear that the system is about rewarding, encouraging and incentivising parents who, when they separate, do the right thing as far as their children are concerned. Where they do not, or where the non-resident parent is not prepared to pay, there has to be tough enforcement, of which naming and shaming is but one aspect. It is essential that we change the culture, and naming and shaming is an important element in doing that.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked about taking revenue directly from bank accounts. We will explore the scope of that with financial institutions. We have opened up constructive discussions. As for placing deduction from earnings orders far more quickly than is done at present, we want to pilot that to see how it works. We will discuss that with business interests as well. That is all part of a much more streamlined approach to assessment of the financial contribution, followed by much quicker enforcement if the non-resident parent is not paying.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, could not resist asking me about the IT system. He will know that it has had a troubled history, but a few months ago the contract was reassigned with a £65 million saving to the Department for Work and Pensions. There is a programme of fixes going on. I would not stand here and pretend that the system is performing as it was hoped it would when it was brought in, but it is gradually improving. That is important, because I want to end by paying tribute to the staff of the CSA. It is not their fault that the system has proved to be so difficult. They have done a good job in difficult circumstances, including the IT system. I pay tribute to them for their efforts.
Lord Soley: My Lords, I welcome the greater emphasis on the voluntary arrangement, which is always better than the state trying to come to a conclusion with parents. Will my noble friend look at the small number of cases where a voluntary agreement cannot be made and the court makes an agreement, but where oneusually the absentparent will not pay anything because they believe, rightly or wrongly, or with good or bad reason, that the money will not be used for the children? I have argued for some time that, in that small number of cases, there is a case for putting some of the money into child trust funds or baby bonds. It is then much more difficult for the absent parent to claim that the money is not for the benefit of the children. I am not talking about a large number of people, but these are often some of the most difficult cases. That would give the flexibility which we are looking for and which reflects, I think, the general approach on what was previously an inflexible and undesirable system.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend makes an interesting suggestion. He certainly identifies some of the ever-present tensions between the parent with care and the non-resident parent. However, the kind of area that he mentions is probably more relevant to a voluntary agreement. The advice and guidance that must be developed to encourage parents down the private agreement route need to be taken into account. Once it is clear that an agreement has not been reached and the parent with care approaches C-MEC, it will have to apply the formula as set out in legislation. The incentives to encourage private agreements, however, may allow for some recognition of the factors that he has raised.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I welcome the Statement. Any assessment of it must begin from a real recognition that intervention by the state in situations of personal tragedy is always a no-win situation. Whatever the faults of the system may have been, and however remediable they turn out to be, we must recognise that and speak accordingly.
My question is in that vein. It is clear from the Statement that a much more supportive approach will be taken in what the Minister correctly describes as a culture shift. I imagine that nearly everybody here will have had dealings with somebody who has been involved with the CSA. I am concerned about the level of trust on the part of people who have had that experience. Difficult as it is to see an alternative, I am worried that if we have three to four more years of the present arrangementsunder which most people think that the CSA is a kind of branch of the state police designed to raise money for the state, whether that is intended or notit will not be easy to enable people to believe that the new system is different. What efforts will be put into that? Granted, there is the essential back-up of sanctions, but the primary aim is the well-being of children, particularly those who have suffered threats to their well-being. Does the Minister want to say anything about the efforts that will be made not just to change the culture, but to enable those affected to believe that the culture has been changed?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important consideration. I will make two points. Although the new commission will not be able to accept new clients under the new assessment until the financial year 2010-11, we expect the commissioner to be established in shadow formsubject to legislative progressin 2007 and the commission to be formally constituted and up and running in 2008. Again, subject to legislative progress, compulsion will be removed towards the end of 2008, and the £10 disregard will be applied to all parents with care on benefits under the old system. So although new clients will be accepted by the new commission in 2010, parents with care and non-resident parents will see progress at a fairly early stage.
Secondly, I agree with the right reverend Prelate about the level of trust. If this is going to work, we must ensure that the advice and information available to parents when they separate are well considered and enhance their trust. I refer the right reverend Prelate to paragraph 26 of Chapter 2 of the White Paper, about the need for us to ensure a co-ordinated approach with the DCA and DfES on post-separation counselling and advice. All the evidence is that, when parents separate, it has historically been very difficult for them to get proper, co-ordinated advice. Services provided need to be seen to be neutral and independent. We shall be piloting information and advice services and the third sector will have a major role to play. I pay tribute to organisations such as One Parent Families, SCOOP Aid in Sheffield, Parentline Plus, Relate and Parenting Across Scotland. I am sure that the more we can embrace
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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I welcome in particular the Governments emphasis on promoting joint parenting responsibility. Perhaps I may build a little on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soley. It is all very well to talk about joint responsibility, but if the absent parent is forced to pay over the money and has absolutely no control over the way in which the money is used, how can he exercise his responsibility?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is a difficult question. Some of the comments made to me over the past few months suggest that you should establish a direct relationship between the paying of maintenance and contact with children. Clearly, the issue is a source of great tension. The parent with care controls contact access; the non-resident parent controls the money. However, we have to be very wary of using the children as a kind of football in such a situation. It is the role of government to encourage contact wherever possible, except in a few cases where the child may be at risk. But you cannot have a direct relationship between contact and the paying of maintenance. There has to be a concerted approach. I say again that the voluntary approach must be the right one. If you can encourage parents to resolve the issues of maintenance, there is far more likely to be fertile ground for a reasonable discussion about contact.
On the point raised by the right reverend Prelate, it is difficult for the state to intervene in these issues. These matters are far better sorted out by adults with help, but with the backstop that, where things are not working, for the sake of the children there must then be efficient and tough intervention by the state on behalf of those children.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, as one who, together with the late Lord Russell and Lord Houghton of Sowerby, spent days and nights opposing the original scheme, I say with the utmost regret that those of us who are still here feel vindicated in our opposition to what we believed would be a bad system. I should have preferred it to have worked and for me to have been wrong. I hope that the proposed system will work; I think that perhaps it can. However, I believe that some of the measures are extreme.
I wish to ask two questions. The first relates to the compulsory access to bank accounts and the removal of driving licences and passports without reference to the courts. With regard to bypassing the courts, particularly in relation to driving licences and passports, which may be necessary to continue work to pay the maintenance, I believe that those measures should be undertaken only through the judicial system. I hope that the Government will rethink the issue.
The second question relates to paternity being placed on birth certificates. I find that issue most difficult. Some, perhaps many, women do not know
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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who resisted saying, I told you so, albeit in a very light way. He has raised some important questions. That is the purpose of the White Paper, and we will be interested in hearing views. At the moment, 7 per cent of birth certificates do not name the childs father, but research indicates that half those fathers have continuing contact with the mother at the time of the childs birth. Our view is that if those fathers are named on birth certificates, that is recognition of their responsibility, and if that responsibility is recognised, it is much more likely that the father will pay maintenance if he separates from the mother.
I understand the noble Lords concerns about women who may not know the name of the father or who for some good reason would not wish to name himfor example, in cases of rape. I recommend that the noble Lord looks at the Australian system, where naming is compulsory but where it is very straightforward for a woman to plead good cause. However, in Australia, the figure is only 3.5 per cent, and the Australians have probably the best system of child support in the world. We will look very carefully at the points that the noble Lord raised.
The noble Lord asked about the administrative process in relation to enforcement, including driving licences and other documents. If we are going to make private arrangements work by giving them every encouragement, including the incentive of a higher disregard so that more money goes to the children, the balance is that the new C-MEC has a tough process to make sure that money flows to the children. At the moment, we know that taking enforcement action can have a positive impact on making the non-resident parent pay. The sooner action can be takenassessments made and enforcement action taken when payments are not being madethe better the money will flow. That is the great advantage of an administrative process. I fully accept that there will have to be safeguards but, to make child maintenance flow, it is necessary to act quickly in assessment and enforcement.
Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I welcome the Statement. The Government have the general direction right. We want to see the encouragement of private initiatives and the higher disregard, which are good incentives. However, if we are talking about changing the culture, as the Minister said, surely that is about the balance of rights and responsibilities. There are parents who choose to evade their responsibilities; they disappear and resist attempts to contact them. We have to
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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right about enforcement. Unfortunately, a culture has grown up among a significant proportion of non-resident parents in which it is acceptable to evade responsibility for paying maintenance for their children. That is absolutely wrong and we cannot condone it, so enforcement has to be tough because we have to change that culture. Changing the culture will make it possible for private agreements to take place, which is then a much better foundation on which other issues linked to relationship breakdown can be dealt with, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, suggested.
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