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As for the details, subsection (1)(a) in the amendment prompted me to think that we will not be considering children’s parents but children’s natural parents—and both of them at that. I remember children I have met who automatically call their stepmother or stepfather “mum and dad”. So, again, we should be talking about natural parents.

Going on with my guiding philosophy of an amending Bill, I fail to see the need for subsection (1)(c) in the amendment, which is a repetition of Section 1(3) of the 1991 Act. I do not understand what the noble Lord is getting at with subsection (1)(d). Even after listening to him quite carefully, I still do not understand. For example, what position would he like to see in regard to adopted children or children in care? It seems that neither group is to be covered by CMEC, although the Minister will correct me if I am wrong.

On subsection (2) in the amendment, I accept that paragraphs (b) and (c) are what Schedule 4 is all about, but I find it difficult to accept paragraph (a). The obligations to birth children may not be extinguished but, under Schedule 4, they can be reduced quite substantially, as we will be discussing later. Paragraph (d) fails to take into account divorce proceedings. I do not know what proportion of children qualify as a result of divorce because, as I understand it, the CSA does not collect such figures—again, if I am wrong, I am sure the Minister will correct me—but it must be a fair number. In any event, the Bill currently anticipates that child maintenance as a result of a divorce settlement will be binding for at least one year. As later amendments

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will show, I hope to persuade the Minister that this is far too short a period. I could go on but I feel that I would be doing the Grand Committee no favours by taking the Minister any further than the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, has already done.

With this amendment is grouped Amendment No. 3, which, as the noble Lord said, is an attempt at a sunset clause. It is not yet right but he assures us that, come the next stage of the Bill, he will put it right and be very firm on the subject. Sunset clauses are all very well if used judiciously. If, however, one is setting up a new organisation, as we are here, I do not believe that giving it only four or five years of life is the least bit sensible. Even with the transfer of staff, which we shall discuss in a moment, it will take a couple of years to bed down. That is inevitable with a new organisation, but it will give very little time before new legislation is required under this amendment.

I am sure that with all his parliamentary experience the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, must know that legislative opportunities do not grow on trees. A slot in the programme has to be fought for against competition from all other departments of state, and there is no guarantee of getting one in any particular year. What, then, is the noble Lord’s solution to continuing child maintenance after 2015 if the Government of the day cannot find time for replacement legislation? I do not want to be unduly alarmist but all sorts of things might need to be enacted in 2014. Then, come the following 1 January, there will be no modern system of child maintenance by absent parents and, presumably, as the CSA is killed off by this Bill, we will not even be able to go back to the old system under the CSA.

To sum up, I do not believe that this group of amendments adds anything to what we already have in the one and a third Acts plus this Bill.

Lord Northbourne: I like objective clauses. We have normally failed to get them into a Bill but, where they have been put in, such as in the Education Act, they are enormously useful. I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, has this one entirely right, and I do not suggest that it is, but he asked why the previous two Child Support Acts have failed and why this one is going to fail, as I suspect it will. Perhaps we are not looking in the right place. The commission or its predecessors are effectively debt collectors. We all hate debts but we hate them much more if we think that they are unjust—that is, if we do not believe that they are based on a reasonable obligation. I suggest that the Government have to go right back to the beginning and make up their mind about what they, and the nation, believe to be the duties of parenthood and then start to educate people so that they understand that, if they have a child, whether carelessly or otherwise, they have certain relatively clearly defined responsibilities.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: I support the intention of the noble Lords, Lord Kirkwood and Lord Addington, to explore the purposes of the Bill with their proposed new clause, which puts the child right at the centre.



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Noble Lords will be aware that the church has always believed that the best environment for children is one where the parents love each other and support each other in the parenting. Of course, it taxes many of us in society and the church in particular—the clergy and the lay leaders—when we see couples’ marriages break down. However, with an increasing number of parents separating, it is essential that we get right the support and encouragement that we give parents in finding a workable solution in the best interests of the child.

It is a shame that the Bill is not more comprehensive in that it does not make a clear statement about the focus of these reforms—that is, to improve outcomes and the well-being of children. In focusing only on the mechanisms of child maintenance, surely it deals with only one part of the package which is needed to help parents to work together to help children to flourish. I would support a move to put the needs of the child right at the start of the Bill to remind parents and agencies what this is trying to achieve. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said about shopping lists but I still support the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for tabling the amendment, because it was a good place to start our deliberations on the Bill, although we had more of a Second Reading speech than a Committee speech. I am grateful for the forensic analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, much of which I agreed with.

Let me try to deal with why we have structured the Bill as we have. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, will be aware, the amendments are unlikely to have a significant practical effect. The operation of the commission and the statutory maintenance system would continue to be governed by the objectives set out in Clause 2, together with the functions and rules laid out in the rest of the Bill.

I believe that the noble Lord’s intention is, as he said, to propose a different starting place for our Bill—an entirely new piece of legislation centred around the legal right of children to maintenance and an obligation on parents to pay. Although I understand the argument behind that proposal, we should be clear that our objectives in this reform programme are more pragmatic. We do not apologise for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked: is this about children? Of course it is about children; it is all about children; it is all about making sure that we have more effective maintenance arrangements in place so that more money can be garnered for more children. That is exactly what the Bill is about. That is very clear from the objectives of the commission set down in Clause 2(1):

That is exactly what it is about.

Several noble Lords were saying that this should be a wider Bill about the welfare of children and parental responsibilities. Of course those are

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important issues. In a sense, the Bill is only one part of the package, but we will debate later how those wider issues are being picked up and addressed.

Our primary focus, building on experience from the past under different Administrations, has been to find practical solutions to getting maintenance flowing. Whatever the Bill’s philosophical wraparound, if it does not work in practice, it will not deliver for children. That is what we are about. We are, for example, establishing a new body to administer the child maintenance system and building a new information and support service. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that the fact that it will be a Crown NDPB does not fundamentally change the distance of the arm’s-length arrangement with government, but I know that we will debate that under later amendments. We are about delivering a simplified assessment process and strengthening our enforcement powers.

That approach is in line with the comprehensive review of the child maintenance system by Sir David Henshaw. He did not consider the structure of the legislation a problem and made no recommendations about the rights of children. The two key policy issues that he identified were the difficulties created by compulsion—that is, the link with benefit to which the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred—and the lack of an incentive to comply. We are dealing directly with both of those by removing the compulsory link with the benefits system and dramatically increasing the level of the maintenance disregard.

However, I can assure the noble Lord that we are working with colleagues across government on joining up both policy and delivery. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, was interested in that point and I will say a little more about it later. One option that we can consider is the consolidation of child maintenance legislation, and with that a fresh look at the interventions with other provisions, such as the Children’s Act. Of course we will need to be an integrated part of the crucial work of the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Let me deal specifically with the challenge that we were wrong to start by amending the 1991 Act. Again, that was a practical decision. Two schemes are embodied in that Act, the current scheme and the old scheme. Most of the new measures in the Bill will apply to both schemes and will come into force in stages, so they will continue to run for a period. This makes it technically very difficult to introduce a new Act. Indeed, we have learnt the lessons of the past about big bang reform. However, we are planning to consolidate legislation for transparency once a single scheme is in force, and I believe that that is the right approach.

4.15 pm

Returning to the Bill, I hope that the noble Lord recognises that now is not the right time to attempt a more radical redrafting of the legislation. His Amendment No. 3 proposes terminating the existing arrangements, specifically the existence of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, in 2015. The noble

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Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, spoke to this amendment. This would leave the child maintenance system with no delivery organisation. Given that we have yet to see the reforms outlined in this Bill implemented and that the Government have no proposals for a successor body, I do not believe it would be right to include such a provision in primary legislation.

I want to say a few words about the rights of children. Making legislation which is expressed in terms of children having a right to maintenance would not make the law clearer or more effective. Certainty, I suggest, comes from the law creating a statutory scheme that sets out how the duty of ensuring that non-resident parents pay maintenance is calculated and enforced, and from the creation of a new body with clear objectives and duties. Since 2002, the Government have put in place a substantial body of legislation that serves to promote the well-being of children. This reflects the principles of the UNCRC and creates an effective national framework to support positive outcomes, the Children Act 2004 being the most important of these. Further, the Children’s Plan, published in December last year, builds on those reforms and sets out the Government’s ambition for improving the lives of children and young people over the next decade. But this Bill is about effective maintenance arrangements, making sure that the cash flows to children.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, ranged over a number of issues around arrears, residuary bodies and so forth. We shall pick each of those up in the course of our deliberations so I will not deal with them more specifically now. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked why the previous schemes have failed and was a little pessimistic about the prospects for this one. I disagree with him on the latter point. There are a number of reasons which we could debate at length, such as the complexity of the IT systems, which were not up to scratch, and the effectiveness or otherwise of the enforcement powers, but in essence the agency was originally set up to draw back benefits for the Government. The lack of justice in that was perceived and people did not want to comply. This is different because it focuses on getting more children out of poverty, which I think will make a real difference.

I have spoken for long enough on this amendment, and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw it.

Lord Skelmersdale: The noble Lord has just said that the original intention of the 1991 Act was—again I am paraphrasing—to claw back benefits, and to a great extent he is probably correct. But as I said earlier, we are where we are. The noble Lord gave that as the reason why absent parents in particular have taken against the CSA and the formulas it operates. But he has also said that this scheme is new and different. How is he going to persuade those recalcitrant absent parents that that is indeed the case?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: That is a rather big question which I think we will pick up as we go through our deliberations, but I made the point for a number of reasons. We are increasing the benefit disregard from nil in respect of old scheme cases to £20, from £10 to £20 for current scheme cases, with a

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further increase in the disregard of up to £40 in 2010. That will be a significant incentive for parents to comply and engage with the process. However, there are other reasons as well. There is an obligation in the Bill for the commission actively to promote the taking up of financial responsibilities to children. That is part of the process, as is making sure that people who are still not prepared to comply pay—there are assessment issues about getting data directly from HMRC rather than having to rely on the non-resident parent, which has in the past made it very difficult for the system to work. At the end of the day, we must make it very clear that if people will not comply there will be robust enforcement powers. Effective systems in place will make the situation better and we will be more able to ensure that the enforcement powers are used to the full. That was a collection of reasons, many of which we will deliberate on further.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I do not know the intricacies of this system. It is not something that I have specialised in; but it is very distressing to have a situation where there is a declaration at the beginning of the existing legislation, as the noble Lord confirmed. My noble friend said what the purpose of the existing legislation is, yet some 881,300 absent parents are in default. As we all know this is a scandal—an absolute disgrace and a complete failure of all of us.

Are the Government and my noble friend right—after all he was in government and sees the problems as the Minister sees them—to turn down the idea of a more detailed declaratory clause at the beginning of the Bill? It would make the point that the Bill is about children and their welfare, not just about money getting to children, and the fact that they must share in the standard of living of both parents, whether they are present or not. Is that not a good idea? We should not close our minds to that. I have always had a great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood—he was an MP in the Borders of Scotland. He knows a lot about this subject in detail. A bit of imagination in the Bill would remind us that it is about children as a whole, not just about money flowing to them. This business should not be just about cash. It has got to be about what absent parents do for their children.

Perhaps the Minister could think a little harder about this. The amendment may not be proposing the right declaratory clause—it has already been suggested that it probably is not—but it is not necessarily a thoroughly bad idea.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I agree with the noble Baroness that the framework she has just described is precisely what DCSF is engaged in. It is looking at supporting parents and promoting the welfare of children across a whole range of issues; but it is right, as part of that Government-wide approach, to be clear that we should have arrangements in place to encourage parents on a voluntary basis to enter into financial arrangements for the maintenance of their children and to put in place a statutory system for those who cannot reach agreement. If we move the

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focus too much away from what is, in a sense, a nuts-and-bolts Bill, for which we do not apologise, we run the risk of overloading the commission in what we are asking it to do and losing focus on that very key issue. At the end of the day, whatever other policies are wrapped around it—and I entirely agree that they are hugely important—if we cannot get the nuts and bolts of a maintenance system operating, we are going to deny prospects for thousands of children. That is what happened in the past and we need to improve on it. That is why we are right to focus the Bill as we have.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I am grateful for colleagues’ contributions. It has been an important debate. I am not confident that the flow and quality of the management information available to the commission will enable Parliament, looking just at quarterly statistics, to be sure that the consideration of children as a priority of the commission will be able to be monitored effectively or guaranteed. The amendment, inadequately drafted as it may be, seeks merely to give weight to the objectives and the importance attached to the people who run the commission, who will be under enormous operational pressure to reduce the case load at every conceivable turn, which is not the object of the exercise. The object is more broadly drawn.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I reject the assertion that there will be operational pressure on the commission to reduce the case load. There are two parts to the scheme, as I mentioned earlier. The first is to encourage voluntary arrangements, which is part—just part—of the agenda to encourage parental responsibility; the second is to make sure that an effective statutory system is in place. An information and support service, which does not exist at the moment, will be built. There will be a framework agreement which the DWP as the sponsoring department will impose on the commission. It will contain targets with which the commission will have to comply. It is not right to portray the commission as wanting simply to narrow down that in which it is engaged and get away with as little as it can. That will not be permitted under the scheme—we should be clear about that.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I do not know whether the management information that would enable us to judge that will be available. I am not seeking to impute bad faith to the professionals who operate the commission. If the CMEC scheme becomes understood, and is known to be efficient and to provide a good service to the public, it will increase the number of people who use it. If that happens, I do not see how the commission can conceivably deal with the legacy backlog. It cannot do both things at the same time. The policy is posited on losing 400,000 cases, because people will do their own thing. I do not know how robust that figure is, but I do not have anything better to offer. If the commission is not careful, it will end up trying to reduce case load so that it can live from day to day. At its core, the amendment, inadequately drafted as it may be, would

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achieve two things. We need to start asking children more—nobody in this process asks children. Let us bear in mind that children aged 12 in Scotland can make applications in their own right. Nobody goes anywhere near the children to ask whether they want the Child Support Agency’s support, and whether it helps their parents, their quality of life and their life chances. The amendment would shift the weight of that situation, so that more priority is given to consideration of children, as well as achieving the operational efficiency that we all want.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: We have many things to discuss and we should move on, but, before we do so, will the noble Lord explain how simply writing into legislation an affirmation of the obligation of parents to maintain their children would change anything that he has just described?

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: I think it changes the quality of decisions made. It will also affect some cases going through the courts. We have had Kehoe coming up to the House of Lords, which found on a split decision. I was just reading the very interesting obiter dicta in that case by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, where she was arguing the case for child entitlement to be a focus of the law, so that the law could be understood a bit better in discretionary situations where administrative decisions are being taken.

I am not saying that the commission would get up in the morning to do anything substantially different, but the atmosphere and culture in which the organisation worked would change positively. The absence of some priority given to children is part of the policy failure that we have seen in the past. I make no greater or lesser claim than that. I have wearied colleagues; I know that I would be chancing my arm if I pushed this any further. I am grateful for the response; I will look carefully at what the Minister has said and think more on it. We have had a good debate; I am grateful for colleagues’ contributions. I will go away to reflect on that and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.30 pm

Clause 1 [The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission]:

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope moved Amendment No. 2:


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