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Is there any reason why the Government should not come back at Third Reading with an amendment to subsection (2)(b) which reads,

so that there is no tilt either way, in one direction or the other?

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I understand the point the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, makes about a tilt in one direction or another, but I want to start my few words on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, by saying that it is not my practice to come into your Lordships’ House as the announcement of a Bill is made from the Woolsack. I had anticipated—indeed, I was not told any different, although I asked—that an hour for dinner-hour business would be the norm and therefore we would follow that procedure today. Clearly we have not; I was here just in time to hear the noble Lord’s opening remarks, and I am glad of that.



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I rather expected that the noble Lord would table Amendment No. 1 so that we could have a fairly extensive debate on the objectives of the commission. He rambled rather wider than that, I have to tell him, but I excuse him for that and I hope the Minister will too. I am not sure that it was entirely necessary, but the noble Lord himself has deemed it so. We are therefore retreading an extensive debate that we had at the opening of Committee.

Given that the noble Lord has allowed these two amendments to be grouped, we ought to take them together. He is proposing to leave Clause 2(1) alone as it stands but to remove the whole of Clause 2(2) and replace it with the words, “to encourage, in particular” and so on, as on the Marshalled List. That would mean that the other two objectives would disappear. The Minister cannot want that.

Regarding Amendment No. 2, we all agree that the child support system is still in a mess, even though I accept, like the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that the operational improvement plan has made it less so in the past few months. None the less, it is your Lordships’ duty to see that the Bill sorts out the problem. I question whether the amendment offers anything better than what is already proposed. I did not read out the whole of the amendment, nor will I do so now, but irrespective of what we mean by “maintenance”, which is the subject of the next group of amendments, surely the noble Lord’s proposal does very little that is new. Both amendments seek to ensure that more children will benefit from child maintenance payments. We all support that; it is the whole objective, first, of the CSA and, secondly, of the Bill and CMEC’s activities. Why it needs to be said twice is, I am afraid, beyond me. Perhaps the noble Lord could explain.

It is the details that I object to. By seeking to turn the clock back to the making of applications for child support maintenance under the Child Support Act 1991, the amendment would hinder the new CMEC from emerging successfully from the mess I have described. The old CSA did not work because it forced the PWC to use the statutory maintenance system. The new CMEC is a response to that, in which the voluntary system is a viable alternative. I am sure that the noble Baroness the Minister—the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, rather; I am sorry, I am slightly out of date sometimes—is right in saying that the voluntary system could be significantly improved, but it is a major feature of the Bill. I agree with her that the Bill should therefore show no particular prejudice to either system, which the amendment does—there is no shadow of doubt about that.

The statutory system is always open to parents regardless of whether they are in receipt of the jobseeker’s allowance. I am sure the Minister will agree that Amendment No. 2 is potentially harmful to the worthy objectives of the Bill.

9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, I agree with noble Lords that our deliberations start in a good place by focusing on how this legislation can be relevant to the most vulnerable.

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As to the lateness of the hour at which we are considering our business, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, will be aware that I have no influence over the powers that be, but I agree with him that it is right that we should take the time that we need on Report. We had a good Committee stage and should not skimp on time if that is what noble Lords think is necessary.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for our rather hurried start. I, too, had anticipated that we would have the full hour of the dinner break before the business was called. I should perhaps have intervened at that stage. I apologise to the noble Lord and was pleased to see him in his place to be able fully to participate.

Before I discuss the detail of the amendments, perhaps I may respond to one or two of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, raised. Substantial progress has been made on the OIP. We could go through the detail of the statistics, but he will be as aware of them as I am. I highlight that, in the period to March 2008, in excess of £1 billion was collected. That is a significant sum and in excess of the target of £970 million. I agree that there is a way to go in terms of maintenance outcomes, but the outcome of 67 per cent was again in excess of the target for that period. Progress is being made.

The noble Lord referred to the build-up of debt. The latest internal CSA figures show that arrears grew by around £10 million per month during 2007-08, which is down from £16 million a month in the previous year and £23 million a month in the year before that. That is another indication of real progress.

The noble Lord quite rightly referred to IT upgrades, as he did in Committee. Another readiness assessment will take place shortly, but the agency is determined to learn from the mistakes of the past and is making sure that it undertakes the additional round of testing necessary to ensure that PR1 is fully effective when it is implemented. Changes proposed in the Bill will not be impacted by any delay to PR1.

The noble Lord referred to the costs of the Ventura contract. The figure of £23 million is indicative and does not represent the final value of the contract. That will be known when the contract is signed. In the mean time, we are working with the supplier to prototype and build the service.

The noble Lord referred also to clerical cases. The increase in the clerical case load is not evidence of any new failure in the IT system but a consequence of the agency’s success in reducing uncleared cases, which masks the number of cases needing clerical process. It is worth noting that 37,000 cases is less than 3 per cent of the total.

Amendment No. 1 would remove the commission’s two subsidiary objectives, leaving it with the single objective of maximising the number of effective maintenance arrangements in place for children who live apart from one or both parents. Amendment No. 2 would add a third subsidiary objective to Clause 2, which would require the commission to encourage parents with care in receipt of income support or jobseeker’s allowance to apply to the statutory maintenance service. The underlining rationale of both

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amendments is the same and I know is favoured by One Parent Families/Gingerbread, which has discussed it with the DWP.

Both amendments address the concern that, in meeting its duty to “encourage and support” appropriate voluntary arrangements, the commission will fail to support such parents for whom a voluntary arrangement may not be appropriate and thus risk their entirely dropping out of the child maintenance system. It is argued that such a bias would disadvantage those parents with care who are not well equipped with information and knowledge to secure a fair voluntary arrangement for their children or who are at risk of intimidation. To address this concern, Amendment No. 1 would place voluntary and statutory arrangements on an equal footing in statute. This is to ensure, for example, that future boards that have not been involved in drawing up the legislation are none the less clear about their obligations with respect to both types of arrangements, rather than systemically favouring voluntary over statutory arrangements.

Amendment No. 2 would address this concern by adding a third subsidiary objective, which would specifically require the commission to encourage parents with care in receipt of income support or jobseeker’s allowance to apply to the statutory maintenance service. Both amendments are eminently well intentioned, but I hope that I can persuade noble Lords—I can see that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is persuaded already—that neither is necessary.

It is true that the Government favour voluntary arrangements when these are appropriate, in both level and type of maintenance. Research shows that such arrangements are the most durable and are associated with higher compliance rates, which is also because they can be tailored to the individual circumstances of both the parents in question. The first subsidiary objective, therefore, requires the commission to encourage and support both parents to make an arrangement that they, not the commission, judge is in the best interests of their child and that is most appropriate to both parents in respect of the level and terms of the arrangement. An appropriate voluntary arrangement must therefore be suitable to the needs of both parents and would, of course, be negotiated in the shadow of the statutory service, the services of which should be widely known and highly functioning to both parents.

There no question of the commission pressuring parents, either explicitly or implicitly, to trial or to attempt a voluntary arrangement before an application is made to the statutory service. The information and support services provided by the commission will support parents to make an effective arrangement. This means that the commission will explain and support the statutory service to parents as part of an overall discussion of their options. Furthermore, placing a requirement on the commission to encourage appropriate voluntary arrangements does not in any way diminish the commission’s duty to support applications to the statutory service.

The second subsidiary objective already requires the commission to support applications to the statutory service. This, incidentally, is one of the main reasons why we do not believe that a third subsidiary objective

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is necessary. I shall come back to the other reasons shortly. The statutory service is already to be the preferred route when there are imbalances of power between the parents in negotiation—for example, when the parent with care has no knowledge of the non-resident parent’s income, or when there is a history of intimidation in the relationship. However, the statutory service is important as an element in the mix for all separating parents, since, as I said, it provides them with the benchmark on which to base their decisions on child maintenance. As I made clear, support for applications to the statutory service is not to be the default position only when voluntary arrangements cannot be made to work. Rather, statutory arrangements will be the preferred route from the outset for many parents in many circumstances, including those that I have just set out.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, is the Minister saying that in practice there will be a level playing field because each lone parent, before they make the decision on which route to go—voluntary or statutory—will have not only initiated but received contact from the information and advice service, so that the choice of which route they go down will be an informed one, on the basis of the advice being given by the Government? If so, given that so much of this could be voluntary, how will the Government know how to get hold of these parents?

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the support and information service cannot guarantee to be in touch with every separating parent. As we discussed in Committee, there will be specific arrangements for parents with care on benefit who come into the system and stay in the system to be encouraged to use the information and support service. If they do not take up that opportunity, there will be a direct approach from the service to those individuals. Those opportunities will arise for those on jobseeker’s allowance, for example, because not only will an individual make an application but there is ongoing contact under the arrangements for the receipt of that benefit, driven through conditionality. Even in relation to people on income support, the claim is refreshed from time to time, generally no less than on an annual basis, so there will be opportunities for those individuals to be specifically targeted by the information and support service. Beyond that, the information and support service will be engaged in a wide range of activities in putting information on the website and in leaflets and in working with arrangements that DCSF is generating to support parents more generally. There will be a whole raft of opportunities.

It is absolutely right that parents with care and non-resident parents should be aware of what the statutory system provides. In due course, they need to be aware that it is effective in delivering as well. I do not diminish the challenges that the service faces, but I believe that there is a robust approach to making sure that the people about whom we are all concerned can genuinely be reached.

More detailed guidance for the commission on its operational parameters will come through non-statutory arrangements, such as the framework document, which

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is the foundation for relationships between NDPBs and their sponsoring departments, and the commission’s business plan, which the department must approve.

On a more technical drafting note, I can advise the noble Lord that the deletion of the second subsidiary objective would result in the removal of any reference to the requirement to pursue accrued debt in the objectives, a matter that has been of particular concern in your Lordships’ House, certainly in Committee. While removing this reference would not remove the commission’s statutory obligations to secure compliance under the Child Support Act 1991, it would reduce the visibility of this requirement in the primary legislation. To that extent, it would be unhelpful.

Amendment No. 2 would add a third subsidiary objective. As I have outlined, we do not believe that that is necessary, as there is already provision requiring the commission to support statutory applications in Clause 2(2)(b). Furthermore, we do not believe that reintroducing an automatic link between the statutory service and social security benefits should form part of the new child maintenance system’s objectives. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was also clear on that.

We recognise that the customers of HMRC and Jobcentre Plus will be an important client group of the statutory service. As I discussed in Grand Committee, the shadow body is working closely with Jobcentre Plus and HMRC to ensure that newly separated parents on both benefits and tax credits can be identified and referred across to the information and support service.

For the reasons that I have outlined, I say to my noble friend that her question has been dealt with. I reiterate that our preference is to have voluntary arrangements where appropriate because we believe that that will be the most effective way of sustaining maintenance arrangements. However, there will be a clear obligation to support applications to the statutory system where that is not the case. It would be difficult logically to have phraseology that encouraged two, in a sense, mutually exclusive circumstances. I believe that we have the right balance. This is about a level playing field; it is not about saying that, where it is not appropriate for people to have voluntary arrangements, they will not be supported into the statutory system.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am reassured to some extent by my noble friend’s helpful remarks. Would he be able to go further, perhaps at Third Reading, and insert in Clause 2(2) after the words,

such words as, “following information and advice to encourage and support”? That would lock in the information and advice service before a decision is made and would be, I think, consistent with his position.

9.15 pm

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I am not sure that it would be helpful to put something that specific in the Bill. There is a requirement to operate the information and support service. The commission will have to achieve and report on a whole raft of targets.

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However, we need to be careful about prescribing precisely how the information and support service will operate before it is established. It is absolutely key that it is a robust service and that it does its job, particularly as regards the most vulnerable parents. It will be tested on that. The annual reporting that is provided for in this legislation will clearly be one route by which we will all be able to judge whether the outcomes that we want are being achieved. If they are not, there is scope to change emphasis and to change resource if necessary. I hope that that has dealt with my noble friend’s query. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, looks as though he wishes to intervene.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, if I were to be allowed to précis the noble Lord’s argument, is he saying that the Bill shows no particular prejudice towards either system? That is extremely important.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, to be clear, there is an overriding obligation to maximise the number of effective child maintenance arrangements in place. That is the anchor of this legislation. We have argued that we believe that voluntary arrangements, where they are appropriate, are the best arrangements for people to enter into because research shows that they are more sustainable and can be more flexible. Indeed, inherent in them is the concept that the two parents will engage and there will be a dialogue. That is part of a wider backdrop that we should welcome. We want to encourage voluntary arrangements where they are appropriate. Where they are not appropriate, we want to help and support people into the statutory system. That is the thrust of this legislation. I had hoped that it was understood that that was the basis on which we had argued for this to date.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I do not want to pursue this because we are not in Committee, but it would have been very much easier if the Minister, rather than wrapping up his answer in so many words, had said either yes or no. But I leave the matter to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I conclude not by saying yes or no but by asking the noble Lord whether he is prepared to withdraw the amendment in the light of the discussion that we have had.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, I am encouraged by the discussion, but the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, is important. One thinks of established Section 6 cases, but new ones will arise. The point that she makes is absolutely crucial. How will the Minister’s heirs and successors, and the people who run CMEC, get to know and understand the full circumstances of some of these people in future? Perhaps he will reflect on that between now and Third Reading. I may be missing something—

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, there will be clear routes by which the information and support service can be engaged to make contact with people

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accessing the benefits system or to encourage them to make contact with it. That contact is not only a once in a lifetime contact when somebody goes on benefit. As the noble Lord will be aware, if the benefit is jobseeker’s allowance, there is ongoing engagement and interviews. That is part of the structure of that benefit. There is generally less engagement for income support claimants, but there is still a process whereby the claim is refreshed. There is a process of ongoing contact by Jobcentre Plus with benefit recipients and by HMRC with claimants for tax credits.

There is no easy or ready way for the information and support service to reach people who are not on benefits or claiming tax credits. That is no different from the current arrangements. At least under the new arrangements, with the obligation for there to be an information and support service, there will be much broader arrangements. I refer to all the good work that is going on between the DWP and the redesigned team working with the Department for Children, Schools and Families to build this broader network of support for families. One could build this network and infrastructure through children’s centres so that, when parents come into contact with other parents, other government agencies and local authorities, they can access information about child maintenance. That is a real advance on the current arrangements, as it is a route for reaching people who are not on benefit.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, the Minister is doing his best and I think that he has made some progress. There is less ground between us than when we started, which is progress. I will study the debate in Hansard. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff moved Amendment No. 3:

“(c) to promote among parents and prospective parents awareness of the responsibilities of parenthood.”
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