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The Minister might be tempted to point me to Clause 15 to show that my amendment is not necessary because Sections 46 and 6 are to be repealed by the Bill. But this is not going to happen straight away. In fact, as I understand the position, it may not happen for some considerable time. The Minister may be able to expand on the timescale if he has any more detail. It certainly will not happen on Royal Assent, but there will be an interim in which the situation prescribed in Clause 12 stands on the statute book. I beg to move.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for giving me the opportunity to explain why Clause 12 is drafted as it is. The amendment would alter the transfer of functions under Clause 12, so that the commission becomes responsible for Section 46 of the Child Support Act 1991, and that functions under Section 6 would remain with the Secretary of State. I shall seek to explain how this is the wrong way round.

Section 46 of the 1991 Act provides that, if a parent with care in receipt of a prescribed benefit chooses to opt out of the statutory scheme without good cause, the Secretary of State may apply a reduced benefit decision, reducing the amount of benefit that the parent with care receives. Given that this relates entirely to decisions on the amount of benefit a person is to receive, and not to child support, it is right that the function should remain solely with the Secretary of State.

Section 6, however, does relate to child support. It provides that a parent with care receiving prescribed benefits is automatically treated as having made an application for a maintenance calculation. As it falls to the Child Support Agency to handle such an application, this is a function which should be transferred to the commission. The transfer is achieved through Clause 12(1), and Schedule 3 makes the relevant modifications to the wording of the 1991 Act.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, identified why functions under Sections 6 and 46 need be considered at all, when they are to be repealed under Clause 15. In fact, the repeal of Sections 6 and 46 may not be effected until shortly after the launch of the commission and there would be a short intervening period during which it is important that responsibility for these functions falls to the appropriate body. As it stands, therefore, Clause 12 simply ensures that responsibility

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for carrying out functions under Sections 6 and 46 falls to the appropriate authority before these sections are repealed.

On our estimate on timing, assuming Royal Assent is as we would all want, it is currently anticipated that we are looking at July for dealing with the Section 6 compulsion for the flow on to the case load, but October for the start. The earlier date would be for the on-flow, as there is no point in insisting that people come in if within a few weeks they have the choice to stay out of the system. I hope that that has dealt clearly with the noble Lord’s inquiry and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

4 pm

Lord Skelmersdale: I shall certainly withdraw the amendment, but I found the answer, rather like the question, extremely complicated. I shall have to read it with some care because whatever the Minister says, there is a clear interaction between Section 46 and Section 6. The Minister suggested that Section 46 ought to go to the Secretary of State and that Section 6 ought to go the commission. I shall have to think about that. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 agreed to.

Schedules 2 and 3 agreed to.

Clause 13 [Transfer of employees]:

[Amendment No. 70 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 13 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: In the earlier debate, I made clear my intention to oppose the Question that Clause 13 shall stand part of the Bill. This clause provides for TUPE transfer of CSA employees to the new commission. We have said all along that the people employed in the CSA are its biggest asset and would be critical in developing the modern service that needs to be put in place. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that those people are moved across to provide the commission with a strong base on which it can build and to guarantee that there will be enough people to do the job from day one. However, as we discussed, following the amendment to give the commission Crown status, there is no longer a need for a TUPE transfer. Accordingly, I oppose the Question that Clause 13 shall stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13 negatived.

Clause 14 [Transfer of property, rights and liabilities]:

Lord McKenzie of Luton moved Amendments Nos. 71 and 72:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 14, as amended, agreed to.



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Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope moved Amendment No. 76:

(a) the amount of the weekly liability, and accumulated liability over the three month period;(b) the amount paid by the non-resident parent over the three month period and dates when the payments were made;(c) the amount of any arrears which has accumulated over the three month period;(d) the total amount of any arrears owed to the parent with care.”

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 76 takes us on to another important aspect of the work of the commission. It relates to the information requirements; that is to say, the obligations to be imposed on the commission and on parents to supply information. My noble friend Lord Addington and I have tabled five of the amendments in this group and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has tabled two important amendments on the same kind of territory.

I shall start by making the case and asking a few probing questions about the quarterly financial statements that the amendment suggests be provided to parents. All of us who have experience of case work relating to the Child Support Agency understand perfectly well that one of the biggest bugbears and causes of contention between two parents is often an irreconcilable dispute about the figures on what has been paid in, what has been paid out and what is owing. It drives a wedge between parents; it is the biggest cause of aggravation, and leads to bad temper, anger, confusion and a great deal of very bad faith on both sides. At a stroke, if it could be magicked—although I am not suggesting for a moment that it is as easy as that—if there was some definitive accepted statement of the real situation, on an accurate, real-time ongoing basis, that would deal with a lot of the confusion and anger that arises in these circumstances and avoid a lot of disputes. The quintessentially simple idea is that once a quarter, both parents would get a statement through the letterbox, as I do from the Bank of Scotland, saying how much I owe. Then they would be capable of accepting the information in front of them and make their dispositions accordingly. If we could get into that situation, the resolution of these disputes would be easier.

The Minister was trying to help us last week by explaining that the new computer release, PR1, will sort some of the glitches in the current system and give enhanced facility and specification. One thing that I would like to know is whether PR1, if or when it is introduced in the course of the financial year, will provide that functionality and, if it can, how quickly it would be possible—if the Government decided to move in that direction—to produce that level of service. In particular, when the new statutory scheme starts in 2010, I would be very disappointed if we could not get, if not this precise proposal, something

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like it that serves the same purpose. If there were to be a regular flow of statements setting out the current position for both sets of parents, it would be strongly my advice that the user groups dealing with these groups of parents should be embraced in setting up the information and setting it out in a user-friendly way so that the best value could be obtained from any such initiative. So it is an important suggestion. It would help if it could be done; if it cannot be done, I should like to know why. If a technicality is getting in the way, I should like to know whether there are other ways around it.

Amendment No. 81 and Amendments Nos. 83 and 201 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, move into the territory of information being made available to the parent with care. Again, some of the same preliminary arguments obtain. Resentment and bitterness results when uncertainty about financial circumstances is evident. It can also prevent unnecessary appeals. From my experience of dealing with casework, the odds are stacked against the parent with care in trying to work out whether she has a case for variation or appeal. It is a high test to get a variation and an even higher one to get an appeal, but only then does she get access as of right to the level and quality of financial information that would enable her—and it is invariably a her—to decide whether she has a case or not. It is very cumbersome, stressful and expensive set of circumstances to contemplate.

At the moment, to put it crudely, the system seems simply to accept what the non-resident parent says. It is almost taken at face value. Experience since 1993 is that that is not a safe position to be in. Perhaps the casework that reaches those who are trying to help people consists of the aberrant cases, which involve the small percentage of people who are trying to swing the lead. But it seems wrong that the dice are loaded so self-evidently against the parent with care. That is the experience that has built up since the old and new schemes of the CSA were put into place. This legislation gives us a chance to try to redress that balance—and if we do not take it, that would be a great shame. The amendments deal with some of those important issues.

Amendment No. 77 specifically asks for a duty to be put on the commission to ask for that information. At the moment, the requirements are so soft that unless the NRP—usually the absent father—refuses, delays or deliberately and fraudulently makes a statement, nothing much more is done about it. The request to furnish information is made so that the Secretary of State can make his assessment of potential liability. It certainly is true that the NRP commits an offence if he makes a false declaration or fails to provide it; but he has got to be asked. In Amendment No. 77, I am saying that we should always ask all of them, ab initio, right at the start, so that if the answer comes back wrong, deliberately or otherwise, the situation can be dealt with at that time. We should be asking some very basic details about all his income sources, and it is key that he must be asked basic questions detailing all his sources of income. I agree with HMRC that that is going to be an easier

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place to start the income trail, but it is not by any means the end of the story on the totality of income or assets available. If we are interested in trying to generate the best outcomes for children, simply adding another step that asks every NRP to supply basic details of all his income sources gives you a very much stronger position to start from.

Looking at the figures for the year to March 2007, I notice 481 prosecutions for failing or misrepresenting circumstances. That is a tiny proportion of people who are doing this. Okay, prosecutions are hard to get, and the agency has been in a bunker trying to get through the legacy issues, but that is not adequate. The Bill gives us a chance to address it, and I will be very disappointed if we cannot get some improvement on the current situation.

Two amendments that are slightly off beam of the others are Amendments Nos. 202 and 206. Amendment No. 202 looks at risk assessment being required by the Office of Government Commerce or whoever—I am indifferent as to who does it, but the OGC is probably best qualified to do it—to make sure that there is rigorous, adequate protection and thought given to data sharing. We have noticed laptops going astray and CDs being committed to the post and lost. We need to lock this down in policy at a very early stage. I do not even know how long records are kept for or what the policy is for access to records, but in terms of loss of data, error, system failure and transmission of case data around the system, we need to have rigorous protection in hand. If I can get an assurance about that I will be happier. Amendment No. 206 is an invitation to make clear the fact that the courts with jurisdiction and hearing cases in these matters are not going to be stymied by people saying that they cannot have data either from HMRC or elsewhere. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: For the avoidance of doubt, I advise the Committee that Amendments Nos. 73, 74 and 75 were not moved.

Lord Skelmersdale: As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, this group of amendments considers the use and publication—to whom and where—of information. On Amendment No. 76, we on this side feel that furnishing all parties in these matters with the most accurate information concerning the payments would be beneficial. However, placing a duty on the commission to produce detailed quarterly statements seems to be overkill and is potentially too much of a burden.

The commission’s primary concerns of supporting maintenance arrangements and ensuring that parents comply with their obligations should be its priority. We had long discussions on Clauses 1 and 2 on Tuesday last week. We do not want to risk overburdening the commission with too many obligations that might distract from those priorities, laudable—I say that with due deference to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood—as these obligations might be. Of course, dissemination of this sort of information might prove useful at some stage. I wonder whether the Minister feels that one of the causes of the

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breakdown in payments of child maintenance is indeed a lack of information. If he feels that, it seems to me perfectly obvious that we need to do something or we need to amend the Bill in some way to try to solve that problem.

4.15 pm

On my Amendment No. 83, I sought advice on the drafting from Resolution—the Solicitors Family Law Association. This amendment considers the issue of disclosure of information to the parent with care. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, under the current provisions and under the proposed system the parent with care is powerless to advise the committee whether she believes the maintenance calculation has been carried out correctly because she simply does not know. That is due to the fact that only very limited income detail is provided to the parent with care—the information used in the assessment process.

First, I would like to consider the issues that lie behind the need for this amendment. It goes almost without saying that child maintenance is paid to the parent with care to support the child. The detailed information used in the process, in particular the income of the non-resident parent, is not provided to the parent with care, so that person has to rely on the commission to obtain all necessary information from all relevant sources. When the calculation has been carried out, the parent with care is deprived of the opportunity to check that the information given is correct or complete and, therefore, cannot evaluate whether the commission has made an appropriate decision by reference to the information provided.

I anticipate the Minister telling me that the information of the parent with care on the financial circumstances of her former partner—or his former partner—is likely to be out of date after a period. Yes, I am sure it is, but none the less, here I am interested in the original calculation and the very recently separated parent with care will have a very good idea of the financial circumstances in the case of her former partner.

It is my opinion that the provision of information to the parent with care would assist in the purpose of bringing about effective maintenance arrangements for children. The current and proposed systems provide an opportunity for the non-resident parent to seek to misrepresent their circumstances to reduce maintenance liabilities. Obvious examples include where the non-resident parent has failed to disclose the true extent of income or of any second income that he may receive. Later we shall discuss what income means, but for the moment I shall leave it there. No safeguards are provided to the parent with care as that person is completely excluded from the information-gathering exercise. Detailed information is, however, provided to the parent with care if an appeal is lodged, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, says, which means that the parent with care has no alternative but to lodge such an application if the level of the maintenance calculation is in their mind in question. That unnecessarily increases the workload of the appeal tribunal. I would like the

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Minister to give me an explanation why such detail can be provided at the appeal stage, but not at the time of the initial calculation. It seems more than illogical to me.

As an analogy to the child support system, in the court process where financial matters fall to be considered, there has to be full and frank disclosure between the parties supported by documentary evidence. That continues to apply if, for example, the parties have to return to court years later for spousal maintenance to be reconsidered. The spouse seeking financial support from the ex-partner is entitled to be provided with full financial information about that person's income. Child maintenance is a similar form of financial support and I query why spousal maintenance should be treated any differently from child maintenance.

My Amendment No. 201 follows up the amendment that I have just discussed at, I am afraid, some length, in a bid to end any secrecy or misinformation surrounding child maintenance negotiations. Does the Minister not agree that it seems unjust that civil servants working within the commission are allowed access to information that a parent with care chasing maintenance for the benefit of their child or children is not?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am grateful for these amendments being tabled because they give us an opportunity to talk about information-sharing arrangements between the commission and its clients. This group variously makes provisions to require the commission to gather and share the financial details of parents prior to and after the determination of an application to the commission, to safeguard the information held by the commission, and for the commission to produce details of payments. I agree with noble Lords that ensuring that information held by the commission is secure must be important and should be a key feature of the future scheme, and that in all cases appropriate information should be made available to parents. I expect the commission to treat these issues as a serious priority.

Amendment No. 76 would compel the commission to provide parents with a statement of maintenance payments at three-monthly intervals following the determination of an application. That would include details of the maintenance liability, payments made and any arrears that had accrued during the period. The proposed new clause would require the commission to provide detailed information at prescribed intervals. That would place a burden on the new organisation before it had started, by effectively obliging the commission to set up a costly administrative process.

The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked whether the provision of routine statements would be provided for within the functionality of the current system. The functionality to produce quarterly statements is not included in PR1, although the agency is currently designing the requirement for enhanced client statements, which is planned to be included in a release later this year. We should also recognise that, for the longer term, the commission may want to explore other ways of providing parents with

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information about maintenance payments. One such option would be to provide parents with access to information via the internet, for example, just as you can sometimes get via your bank. I agree that that is too prescriptive for the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, but it is best practice to develop these arrangements so that information can be properly communicated to parents with care and non-resident parents.

Lord Skelmersdale: The Minister talks about parents. Does he mean both parents?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: If statements are being produced, I see no reason why they should not encompass the obligations of the non-resident parent as well as the parent with care. There is obviously a particular issue for the parent with care, because that parent is the one receiving the cash. It is very important that they can keep up-to-date with the sums due to them under the calculations and the extent to which those sums have been received. That is probably rightly the primary, but not the exclusive, focus.

Amendment No. 77 would appear to require the commission to gather the financial details of non-resident parents prior to the determination of an application for maintenance. Those who fail to provide such details would be subject to criminal sanctions. I remind the Committee—and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, acknowledged this—that it is already a criminal offence, punishable by a fine of up to £1,000, for a non-resident parent not to provide information required to make a maintenance assessment, and that will continue to be the case.


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